It was nice to finish up a busy and exhausting year of cons (11 or 12) with one of the strong local shows that has been a hallmark of current comics/nerd culture. The NC Comicon was put together by the guys behind Ultimate Comics, a popular shop in Durham, NC. Organizers Alan Gill and Eric Hoover have put on the show three times before, most recently in a bunch of empty storefronts in a half abandoned mall. If that sounds like a gloomy metaphor for the comics industry of the past, the move to recently refurbished Durham Convention Center was a ringing sign of the current atmosphere. I don’t know how many people they were expecting, but the line was way out the door and down the street on Saturday as the fire marshal actually had to shut down the line several times.
In 2012 it’s been a familiar story. Every Monday I check my Google alerts and find stories from around the world about the weekend’s cons. The stories are usually upbeat, with costumes a local store and engaged fans. This time I got to see it first hand.
The venue itself was not huge, but really the right size—maybe the same size as the first New York show I went to many moons ago, but much more populated by a mix of people of all ages and sexes, and wearing all kinds of costumes. The guests were all comics people, but there was a very small, and I felt charming, showbiz element in the display of vehicles tricked up like the Batmobile, the Back to the Future DeLorean and the Mystery Mobile. It was additive and wholly appropriate. The NC State paper and blogger Mentor both have thorough write-ups, and I’d be hard pressed to add much. From the Technician:
Although some may think that comic books have a tendency to decrease social interaction, with the intimacy of comic book stores and with hyper-social comic book conventions, or “cons,” for many fans, the subculture that revolves around comic books is incredibly social. And with the growing popularity of comic book conventions such as NC Comicon that took place at the Durham Convention Center Saturday and Sunday, comic book fans are finding more opportunities to meet up and celebrate their love of comics and other aspects of pop culture.
With its fourth show in three years, NC Comicon showed the Triangle area that there are thousands of comic book fans thirsting for ways to celebrate their love for comics. Although final numbers have yet to be released, according to Jeremy Tarney, chief operations operator of Ultimate Comics and an organizer of NC Comicon, attendance is projected to break 3,000, the largest NCComicon ever.
And from Mentor:
The hallway of the convention center was full of men and women, boys and girls, people of all ages and nationalities. On Sunday they had the costume contest. There were so many fans in all sorts of amazing costumes just lined up to register for the event, never mind the crowd of people there to watch them, that the location of the event had to be moved out of the small panel room to the more spacious hallways. Convention goers were lined up along the wall like sardines with cameras snapping away as fans dressed as their favorite heroes or in costumes of their own design filed down the center of the hallway, posing for fans and photographers. One young woman wore a rather spectacular Iron Man costume. There was a terrific looking Shadow. A fun spirited “Carrie Kelly Robin”, a sexy Black Cat, an imposing Ghost Rider and an adorable little blond girl dressed as Thor. Not to mention Green Lanterns, a pretty cool Havoc a few lady Boba Fetts, classic Princess Leia, Stormtroopers, Jedi’s and other various Star Wars characters. They even had the classic Batmobile from the Adam West TV show, the Back to the Future Delorean and the “Mystery Machine” from Scooby Doo!
Not to favor one of the local schools over the other, there’s also a write up from the Duke school paper:
“I’ve been at the San Diego Comicon,” said Richard Wang, a freshman who attended the event on Sunday. “It was huge and awesome. This is smaller, but the quality is consistent.”
There’s a comprehensive photo gallery here but this one picture sums it up, a group shot of the costume contest entrants:
That’s a really wide range of interests and characters. I don’t know who won but I hope it was the great Katamari Damancy group.
I spent the show sitting behind the table chatting with folks. Even though it was crowded, and everyone agreed it needed to be bigger next year, the mood both days was tremendously upbeat. The number of people dressed up both days was really remarkable and included families, kids, boys…and girls. And yes, Tony Harris came up a few times. I don’t think he would have questioned the pink-haired teen Supergirl who was riffling through longboxes or the young woman in an Iron Man suit. There were a few Poison Ivy/Catwoman costumes but they were there to have fun, like everyone else.
At one point a young couple in costume came up to the table where I was sitting, and I did do a little quizzing. Although I had been tempted to ask some of the young women there about the “fake geek girl” thing, bringing it up would have been rude and judgmental. This particular couple included an attractive young woman in a complex costume. I asked if they went to many cons. The guy didn’t have much to say, but the young woman said she had only been to San Diego before. “I’ve been there 9 or 10 times. I don’t dress up there because I would get stopped and have my picture taken. Even though there’s so much TV and movie stuff I like going and talking to comics people and seeing what’s new.”
I know I’ve said this many times here before, but I think I will give this observation a name. We’ll call it the Comicon as Festival Phenomenon: when regular folks hear the word “comicon” they think of something like the circus or a carnival or a fair. It’s an event to plan for, a place to be entertained, a spectacle of approachable celebrities, and, as befits our socially engaged generation, a place to participate. NC Comicon demonstrated Comicon as Festival in no uncertain terms. The audience was informed and came expecting certain things…and they didn’t go away disappointed.
A few things helped with that education. Of course, HeroesCon a few hours away in Charlotte has nurtured a big comics-loving crowd for the whole region. I was told that Ultimate Comics, like most successful stores in the modern era, has built a strong customer base by putting on fun, memorable events—Free Comic Book Day included a band, and there was a big Halloween party. Comics shops replicate the Comicon atmosphere on a regular basis with events and signings, and create the audience for a bigger do like a comicon.
The Ultimate crew also did a great job of pr, with a cover story by Brian Howe in the local arts paper. It’s actually one of the smartest con previews I’ve read, and well wroth a read for its own sake.
Two years ago, Ultimate Comics consolidated into its current space on Highway 54, realizing that they had loyal customers who didn’t mind traveling to this bright, spacious, well-organized location. Everyone who walks through the door gets a friendly greeting and a follow-up to see what they’re looking for. The comics are bagged and boarded in alphabetized racks and long-boxes, and customers are welcome to pop them open. While the type of forbidding dungeon that Gill wandered into as a child still exists, he thinks it’s a dying breed.
“There’s a lot of old-school guys who got into collecting and opened stores,” he explained, “and it doesn’t matter if they make money because they’ve amassed these valuable collections and have been living in their mom’s basement for so long. That’s a stereotype for a reason, but those guys are literally dying off. Chapel Hill Comics”—a competitor on Franklin Street, where you can browse new comics while listening to experimental music on WXYC—”is also a very nice store, open and inviting. People opening shops now are younger, and they get that they have to be retail stores, not clubhouses.”
A few other notes: a wedding was taking place down the hall, which happened to be a traditional African wedding, with amazing headdresses for the ladies and dashikis for the men. In perhaps another sign of the growing awareness of the comicon thing, a lot of people wanted to take pictures of the wedding finery but a security guard didn’t allow it—I’m thinking the happy couple didn’t want their wedding party showing up in cosplay galleries, and it would be mad creepy to disrespect that.
As usual, I took some time to explore the environs. Durham is lovely town, and though there was no sign of Crash Davis, there were lots of gorgeous buildings in many styles. The styles seemed to stop about 1980, however. I was told that Durham had, like many towns that relied on manufacturing, experienced a big downturn around that time, and the encroaching Walmarts and malls (of which the area has many) had left downtown pretty much a ghost town for a few decades. It is starting to come back, with some restaurants and a lot of art galleries. I enjoyed a walk on a perfect fall day and was rewarded with stunning foliage and a few Brasilia-like vistas of mid century buildings that were sadly beginning to fall into disrepair. There were some surreal bits here and there — a local old-school coffee shop where then-Senator Obama had made a campaign stop in 2008, and a bakery emitting glorious smells of pie that was frustratingly closed.
I was told some parts of town get dangerous at night, but we spent a lovely evening at a nearby pub that had perfectly preserved hundred-year-old wood carvings and chocolate stout. Couldn’t ask for more than that.
So yeah, that was NC Comicon. I got to make some new friends, gather a bit of news (which will be in other posts) and see some old pals—listening to Bob Burden tell stories is always a convention treat—and get a big helping of banana pudding. I like this “comicon” thing.
Bob Burden with a Charlie Brown cosplayer in the background.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.