Denver Comic Con is one year old. When it opened in 2012, the con directors hoped for a total of 12,000 attending to make the grand effort worthwhile, but might have been content with less. Instead, they clocked in at roughly 26,000, leaving plenty of room for astonishment and a critique of exactly what had gone right. This opening figure made history for comicon openings. In initial numbers, this still stands as the largest number for a first con ever recorded. But to give you a little insight into what substructure supported what seemed like such instantaneous success, one of the strongest factors was, and continues to be, the charity organization Comic Book Classroom.
This non-profit funds free after-school programs in the Denver area to instruct kids in reading, writing, and comic art and also provides them with free comics. When Comic Book Classroom began to grow rapidly with increasing demand from local schools, founding a comic con, a feature lacking from the region, seemed like the best way to raise funds, and a portion of the proceeds from DCC continues to go to the program. Panel talks and discussions, as well as a wide variety of featured activities for kids at the con also stem from the program. Raising funds for Comic Book Classroom through DCC in 2012 was immensely successful, allowing the program to expand. That was then.
This year, DCC knew that things were going to get bigger, and learned from the challenges of larger than expected numbers last year by expanding the con floor size and number of events. From 26,000 last year, the organizers began to realize as con weekend approached that they were expecting 40,000 or more. They were prepared for this, but still surprised by such a jump. The nearest big con in the region is in Kansas City, after all, and it seems that will a little encouragement, comics culture is prepared to come out of the woodwork and rally to such a big social event. Contingency plans were also in place. Though Stan Lee was originally scheduled as their major “gold pass” draw at DCC 2013, when he cancelled a couple of weeks before the con (due to filming a cameo, not due to illness), the con organizers went straight to William Shatner, explaining the situation to his agent. Remarkably, Shatner went out of his way to make time to appear at short notice at the con based on his reaction to hearing about Comic Book Classroom and its immense service to the Denver community.
The first day of DCC, a Friday, was set to open at 3PM in the Colorado Convention Center, a truly massive complex serving the state, and featuring immense swaths of glasswork to make use of the natural light in the region. Pick up for passes started at 1PM (and though there had been early pick-up times scheduled, there had been some postponements necessary). Lines to pick up passes were negligible, and everything inside the massive space seemed to be humming along nicely. In fact, the space at the Convention Center on three and a half levels is so vast , that it’s almost a challenge to decide on how best to use it to greatest effect. Set on the edge of the accessible city center full of restaurants and amenities, nearby hotels offered special rates for the con, and in the case of the nearest hotel, free wifi and con t-shirt clad staff. When I returned at 3PM for the floor’s opening, I saw from a block away an alarming crowd snaking through several rows and down the city street. It was past 3 and I wondered what the back up could be letting people onto the floor. Only when I approached more closely did I realize that none of the people in line were wearing lanyards. In fact, this was the line for pass pick-ups, nothing more. On top of that, it moved fairly quickly and facebook posts from the Con gave attendees advice about how to shorten their wait-time.
For those who had already picked up their passes, all entries were open with no lines anywhere, and several different access points to the upper level and floor. Based on my initial impressions of accessing DCC 2013, I would offer only one point of concern. Despite the very large floor area, designed with several key features in a highly original way, all access was blocked except through one narrow bank of doors. Accompanied this narrow area, which lay at the end of a fairly narrow walkway, were metal turnstiles, letting in no more than three guests abreast at a time. On Friday afternoon, it was fine, and moved briskly, but by Friday evening when the con began to see much larger traffic, it was becoming a noticeable slow-down. It will be enlightening to see if this set up is altered on Saturday, most likely the biggest day of the con, or if it continues to be manageable under greater numbers. One of the reasons for this narrow entry point is almost certainly increased security in the wake of the Aurora shootings in Denver, in response to which staff carefully checked all bags carried onto the con floor before admittance. If that is the main reason for the narrow approach and turnstiles (through which one must also exit with the same strictures), then it’s a fair price to pay for safety.
The layout of DCC 2013 is highly original, with the large Comic Book Classroom area set aside for children’s activities and events near the entry point, and the vendor area and publishers area flanking the entrance, giving way toward the far end of the hall to a large “Artists Valley” that’s roughly 2/3 or more the size of the vendor’s section. This is nearly equal to the proportions set out by heavily comics-friendly cons like Baltimore and a greater emphasis on art than the bigger cons usually provide. But while regional cons, as they expand, may seem to become highly similar to one another, losing their identities over time, Denver still has a very strong local accent, and this seems to take the form of highly engaged geek culture in terms of artistry.
A prevailing sci-fi tone has marked the con floor so far, and it’s expressed through remarkable inventiveness from intricate lego models to special effects sets for photo ops featuring Star Wars costumes and perambulating R2D2s. There were also a wide variety of handicrafts available with scifi and geek themes from Doctor Who to Manga, and even the well-represented cosplay veered toward sci-fi themes but displayed plenty of home-made ingenuity.
All of this suggested that in Colorado, fans like to be engaged with pop culture directly, and take a hands-on approach rather than settling for mass-produced products or rental costumes. It confirms what the success of DCC so far has suggested: they take their pop culture seriously in Denver. This bodes well for the future of DCC. It remains to be seen whether big numbers the rest of the weekend will place greater stress on the structure of DCC, but for a con that has sprung up from 0 to 40,000 in one year, they are allowed a few growing pains and certainly deserve plenty of applause.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.