Let’s just set the scene. This weekend’s ACE Comic Con in Glendale, Arizona took place at the Gila River Arena (where the Arizona Coyotes hockey team plays). The arena is part of a greater entertainment complex, a triumphant piece of mix-use development where chain restaurants, bars, and other distractions to empty wallets commingle. Across the street is the University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals play. It’s a fertile area for a comic con, with seemingly plenty of space to hold thousands of people all ready to meet their favorite creators, go to panels, and be witness to some of the magic that comics inspire.

Frankly, that’s not what happened during ACE Comic Con.

Guests waiting to enter Gila River Arena on Saturday morning.
Layout for the con.

Honestly, this was one of the weirdest comic conventions I’ve ever attended. It was also, sadly, one of the sparest; a vast wasteland of potential. For all the hype that was placed around “comics” part of the convention, it has to have been one of the great misnomers of the whole. Indeed, ACE felt like revolved around the bare minimum of what a comic-con should be in the eyes of fans. Sure, there were certain parts of fan culture that were checked off the list: tons of cosplay, tons of overpriced tchotchkes, and experts on hand to verify that your Stan Lee-signed copy of Fantastic Four is legit as well as slab your favorite Bob’s Burgers comic. But, if there was an ethos of this edition of the ACE Comic Con, however,  it would have to have been unfulfilled promises. Admittedly, I might be more cynical than the average comic-con goer, but there was much to grumble about during my weekend at ACE.

View from an exhibitor booth in the arena.

From the get-go, there were issues and oddities. One of the biggest issues, and this was something I heard from several exhibitors, was the layout of the booths. As the convention was held in a hockey arena, the majority of booths weren’t placed on the show floor, but on the concourses that occupied different levels of the space. And these concourses form a ring around the arena floor, so guests who attended the con were walking—literally—in circles. And it should be noted that it felt as if there was nothing to done to accommodate the artistic needs of the creators present. I saw several booths that were pretty much in dead spots lighting wise, making it difficult for them to produce sketches. Other seemed to be placed in corners where there is naturally light foot traffic. The other major design quirk was the placement of a large curtain (which I dubbed the “mechitza” – Hebrew for partition) that separated the show floor from the main stage. Aesthetically, it is just bizarre and stark: one side of the floor is for the major guests, the other side for the rest of us.

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What was odd to me was that there seemed to really be a lack of activity beyond the “panels” featuring the names that were so heavily advertised to bring people into the con in the first place. Here are two pictures, admittedly taken during some of the panels (you can see Chris Evans on the screen), but even so, there’s not a swirl of activity going on here.

Upper concourse – Note, Chris Evans on the monitor.
Same level, different night. This was before Spider-Man: Homecoming panel. Those are little kids dressed as Spider-Man on the monitor.

Of course, the lack of activity could have also been caused by the lines for photo-ops, which, from what I gathered, entailed an hour and a half wait.

Example of floor set-up. Main stage at left; show floor at right.

Certainly, as Heidi wrote in her analysis of ACE’s Long Island show, and the reason why the “Comics” part of the title of the convention is properly incorrect, is that the focus and main draw of the show is the big names brought in for VIP photo-ops. Whereas previous show was DC focused and featuring much of the Justice League cast, the Arizona edition was heavily focused on Marvel. Chris Evans, Tom Holland, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Hayley AtwellJon Bernthal, and of course, Stan Lee were the big draws to this con, with some of these faces plastered all over posters and promo materials around the arena. People from as far away as Tokyo, New York, and Mexico came to Arizona for the glorious ten seconds (and hundreds of dollars, presumably) it took to snap a photo with these celebs.

This latter point brings me to a really sad observation. For a convention that was built around the stars of Marvel, Stan Lee’s Saturday panel appearance with Todd McFarlane was not well attended. This picture was snapped during the interview itself. It’s not the greatest angle, but it does show the rows of people directly watching the main stage. 

Yes, this is the crowd for the Stan Lee panel.

Compare that crowd size to the audience that showed up the Spider-Man: Homecoming panel featuring Tom Holland, Laura Harrier, and Jacob Batalon. Quite a difference.

 

Crowd for the Spider-Man: Homecoming panel on the far-right of the picture.

While there was some talk during the con about the recent allegations made against Stan, it was never brought out into the open. The only major appearance from Stan that was canceled that may have been related to the recent allegations was his dropping the ceremonial hockey puck at the Coyotes game last Thursday before the panel.

There is a more meta-story here. Stan Lee is perhaps the biggest name in the comics industry ever, a name that even non-comics fans know about it. He’s been an ambassador for the industry for decades and the photo of his face was as big as, say, Tom Holland’s on the promotional materials. He’s a tentpole attraction. Yet, the notion that his panel interview with Todd McFarlane was so little-attended is worrisome. Attendees to these conventions usually come based the star power of the major guests. Yet, if even a luminary such as Stan Lee can’t pull in a packed crowd on a Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend, there may be more some more troubling here than meets the eye.

Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, and Chris Evans panel on Saturday.

On a related note, there were some significant cancellations. Karl Urban, who was supposed to appear on Sunday, became ill and did not make it to the con at all. But even more troubling for ACE was the same-day cancellation of Chris Evans also due to becoming “violently ill” as one ACE official said (he appeared on the Saturday “Winter Solider” panel, however). While Urban’s non-appearance must have been a shame for some of the guests, Evans’ cancellation was an even bigger problem. Every VIP package involved Evans in some capacity, which meant that the guests who spent large sums of money to receive a photo and signed item from Evans were now not able to. Naturally, refunds (and partial refunds) were announced. For ACE’s part, the quickness with which they accommodated guests was admirable, though there were definitely mixed reactions to the announcement.

Announcement for those who purchased the VIP option for Chris Evans. Note the misspelling of Sebastian Stan’s name.

For my part, as someone who appreciates the hard work and talent of comic creators, there was a noticeable lack of appreciation for them around the con. The haphazard placement of writers and artists was certainly one of my pet peeves. When the lines are already an hour and a half deep to take a picture with actors from the MCU, the oxygen for interacting with figures like Matt Hawkins of Top Cow, Billy Martin (who created a special Captain America for the Con), Colleen Doran, and others was maddening! Not to say it was entirely dead. There were plenty of people lining up to get merchandise signed by Adam Kubert and John Romita Jr. (who were both set up next to the escalator leading up to the actors/Stan Lee signing areas on the top concourse). All the same, it was certainly obvious that most of the creators were just placed wherever there was some room and with little regard to the logic of the placement.

On the other hand, there was some positive reaction, and I’d be remiss to not include it.

 

 

People waiting in line to meet Stan Lee (located behind the curtain).

While my observations might be seen as totally negative, please know that I’m coming from a place of detached skepticism. I wanted this to be a really cool show. And, for many, I think it was, which is nice. Indeed, the fact that was people waiting in line to walk away with a Stan Lee-signed trinket must have been exhilarating. I don’t want to take that feeling away from anyone, God forbid. Additionally,  one of the most positive aspects of the show I saw was just the amount of kids—girls especially—cosplaying as Spider-Man (and his variants), Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and… Deadpool (a little odd, but also pretty cool). I know that we write a lot in these digital pages about how the sales for comics are declining month-to-month, but the sheer number of little kids I saw engaged with physical comics during some of the time between panels is a positive sign. (There was a noticeable lack of Superman and Batman cosplay, but this could’ve just been because of the heavier Marvel emphasis on this show.)

Adam Kubert and John Romita Jr.

So, my takeaway from ACE Comic Con: it wasn’t great. I couldn’t even say it was good. And while I did hear some positive feedback from exhibitors, I also heard some quibbles about the lack of solid foot traffic and the attention placed on celebrities. While I didn’t attend for all three days of the Con (I skipped the WWE-focused day, which admittedly, I couldn’t care less about anyway), I did gather enough of a sense that this model is definitely aimed more at placing attention on a few big names at the expense of celebrating those who spend so many hours creating the physical media that we enjoy. Is this model bad, objectively? It is hard to say at this point so early in the life of the ACE brand. Nonetheless, it is troubling that someone of Stan Lee’s stature in pop culture struggles to bring in a crowd while film stars easily fill the seats.

Because, why not pinball?!

What this means for the pop culture industry at large—and the comics industry specifically—is ambiguous at best, detrimental at worst.

Waiting in line for the next line.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I went to all three days of the con. I didn’t do any photo ops or autographs, but my friend did quite a bit of them. I sat in on the Stan Lee, punisher, and Spider-Man panels. This is the first ACE comic con here, so obviously it’s a learning experience for them.

    That photo you have up there about the lack of crowd for the Stan Lee panel is incorrect, I know that because the main floor is empty. The floor was definitely full when Stan Lee took the stage.

    I went to Phoenix Comic con the past two years and I go for the comics and the artists. I felt very underwhelmed with the vendors that offered comics. Most of the vendors were focused on funko pops/toys. I found so many comics at ACE and the comic vendors that were there were high quality. On top of that, the fact that so many people were more concerned about the photo ops and signings it meant I had time to just hang out at the vendor stands and talk with the owners. They ended up giving me some good deals and even teach me some cool stuff.

    So I have to say I had a great time and came home with some awesome comics and even chatted with Romita for a bit (he is super cool by the way). If ACE has to get big name actors to show up for photos and autographs to sell tickets in order to afford renting out large arenas so I can have the opportunities to meet some awesome people and snag some great comics, then I support the idea.

  2. Hi Eric. You may be right RE the Stan Lee thing, I don’t know. I was up on the second concourse trying to find a spot to live tweet the panel (security was kinda hassling me to move somewhere else). I snapped a pic around that time. And looking at the footage from the ACE live stream, the crowd still looks mighty thin. But you were on the floor, so you vantage was probably different.

    Here’s the livestream: https://www.facebook.com/ACEcomiccon/videos/1566096000112447/

  3. I went to the con all day Saturday, Sunday and part of Monday. I just attended, I did not volunteer and I do not work for Ace comic con. I didn’t decide to finally go to the con until the Tuesday before it began. Also, I am not a volunteer or worker for Phoenix Fan Fest or Square Egg Entertainment and I do not belong to Blue Ribbon Army (which is important since Fan Fest, Square Egg and BRA are very tightly intertwined groups who like there monopoly on comic cons in the phoenix area, and have been known to badmouth other cons who tried to come to phoenix, but that is another story). I am a comic book fan and I like to go for the comics. With all that said, I strongly feel that this article is misleading.

    First off, I wouldn’t judge the interest in the Stan Lee panel just on the crowd in front of the screen. I know people who had autograph signings shortly after the panel, so they planned ahead and were first in line for the signing, (the line being the nosebleed seats in the top section of the stadium) and they were able to watch it on the top level seats while they waited. I was busy getting comic books signed on the main concourse and wasn’t paying attention to the time or the announcements, and didn’t get to the stage in time for the panel, since I was on the opposite end of the arena. However, the panel was being shown on the jumbotron and the audio was fairly clear, so instead of walking to the stage, I just sat in the seats and watched the panel (like many others sitting nearby me). Other than the panels, the celebrities were either in photo ops on the floor (but you couldn’t see them at all since they were in the photo op room (or area just off the floor under the seats… I have no clue what this is called). If they were not there, then they were on the top floor signing autographs. So the black curtains were not separating the creators from the celebrities. The heavy black curtains have a sound dampening effect. So you can actually talk to the artists and creators on the main concourse without having to shout over the panel being broadcasted on the jumbotrons.

    The photos that you have for the start of the Avengers and Spiderman Panels are very misleading. First, the photos are not taken on the main concourse where comic creators were located. These pictures were taken on the top floor where the autographs were taking place. There were a few booths up there for vendors (JSA, Zia Records, ShieldLabs, places to buy comic books, etc.) but the creators were on the first floor main concourse. Also, the pictures were in the 230 section. in the corner of once of the pictures, you see an autograph sign starting with ‘Jac’ and the rest is out of frame. Based on who was scheduled to be there, I am guessing this was the signing area for Jacob Batalon from Spiderman. If I remember correctly, the autograph areas were grouped by movies, so the Spiderman signings were all in this area. It completely makes sense that this area has few people in it during the Spiderman panel, because why be in this area since none of the actors were here. Also, I do not think there were any signings going on during the avengers panel, since that was meant to be the first thing to be the big kick off event for the con. Also, the Avengers panel was 30 minutes long. and the Spiderman panel was an hour to close Sunday night.

    Also, don’t put down the pinball machines. They were brought in by Jesse James Comics. At the risk of sounding old, it was nice to see kids playing with these, instead of staring at their phones.

    There were a good mix of comic creators, writers and artist at the con. Now, the arena is a smaller venue compared to a convention center, but it seemed to me that there was a higher proportion of comic people at ACE then there was at phoenix comic con last year. Also, they were on the main level, which, after security, is the first place you see. It would have been nice to have a listing of the table numbers, and who was sitting where, and I hope ACE will incorporate that into their next comic con. The mix of the comic people was skewed towards Marvel, which makes sense, since this was their ‘Marvel’ con and the New York con was more ‘DC’. This doesn’t matter too much, since a lot of the comic people have worked on both sides of the fence so to speak. However, there was a good mix of comics represented out side of the Marvel and DC realm, which was awesome. There was Robert Kirkman, who created The Walking Dead, Todd Macfarlane who created Spawn (who also did a panel), and Matt Hawkins, who signed my Eden’s Fall for me and gave me two freebie comics (Warframe and Think Tank). All from Image. Marat Mychaels was there and I was able to get a copy of his Do you Pooh variant, which I think was made for this con, and I was able to get it signed. There was Colleen Doran, who has done art for Marvel and Image, in addition to book art for Neil Gaiman and the art for the Stan Lee Autobiography. Afua Richardson was there and I was able to get my Black Panther World of Wakanda signed, and it was amazing to meet her and chat, since there are not a lot of women, and fewer women of color represented in the industry. And she is an amazing artist. She also did a panel with Romita Jr, about the evolution of Black Panther, and I want to go back and re-read the series. It was awesome that there was a kids comic con section and Alex Simmons was there for signings. Tone Rodriguez was there and I was able to get some Simpsons Comics signed. He even shared some of the little jokes and hidden things he put in the background in the panels, which was interesting to learn about.

    There were many more comic creators there that I could go on and on about, but I will not. It was so nice to see so many and I did miss a few creators tables the first couple of times around the circle. Some of this was due to there being a crowd around their table and deciding to just come around later. And some of this was not knowing what some people looked like, and I was depending on signs that were sometimes blocked by other con goers. Which is why I think for the next con that a list of people and tier table numbers will help to solve this.

    I agree with you on the subject of funko pops.They were there, but they were not everywhere. There are some funko pops I like and collect, but when there are more pops than comics at a con, it drives me crazy. That did not happen here.

    Now, I also did have a Chris Evans auto that I was unable to redeem, but I completely understand. It was not the cons fault, and not Chris Evans’ fault either, since illness happens. Towards the end of the con on Sunday, I was talking to a guy who I later found out was the head guy for the company running the photo ops. He said he has worked with Chris before, and if it was any other actor, he might question how sick they actually were, but that Chris is a workhorse, and if he ended up cancelling then he must be really ill.

    All in all, are there things that Ace can improve on in the future… of course. However, please try to do better in your assessment, because we were either at two different cons, or you just weren’t paying attention.

  4. A few notes to add to this…

    In their original press about the ACE shows, they emphasized that people could watch from all over the con on the jumbotron. However, the big actor panels was when people did congregate in the stage end of the arena. But for any of the main stage panels with comics creators, the crowd was pretty sparse. As for the second stage, I never did actually find it and apparently walked right by it at one point based on a picture I saw).

    I attended just Saturday with a $55 General admission ticket (which with fees cost me $80). That allowed me to watch from the upper level on the stage end and if you tried to go into the lower level directly off the concourse, you were turned away by the ushers.

    There were vendors on the main concourse that had absolutely no lighting at all over their booth, which definitely made it hard to look at their merchandise. On the arena floor, the lines for the photo ops ran out into the vendors area, making it hard to move around.

    They definitely should have had a better way to find out where specific vendors/creators were located. The booth numbers had no correlation to the arena section numbers. I only knew the booth numbers for some of the creators because they had posted them on social media. There was no onsite list that I saw.

    The layout made for a lot of walking and stair climbing. At least on Saturday, the escalators to the upper level concourse were up only, so to get back down you had to go down the outside stairs or wait for the elevator. If you had mobility issues or a stroller, it was not easy to get around.

    There were a lot of people excited to see the celebs and comics creators. I talked with one 54 year old woman who was primarily there to see Stan Lee. She was planning to have him autograph her arm and then get it tattooed. The Glendale mayor posted some pictures including one with him and Colleen Doran, who signed an Amazing Spider-Man comic. Artists did appear to be busy. Adam Kubert and John Romita, Jr. always had a line and Coleen indicated she had gotten a lot of commissions to do.

    Overall, it was pretty much what I expected after reading about the Long Island event. it was definitely overpriced compared to other local comic cons which have a lot more programming and a much more navigable layout. I know there were a lot of locals that balked at the general admission price.

    I did talk to an Ace staffer (not a local volunteer) and they do not yet have any other events scheduled. I don’t know if they can make this an annual event here since they are pretty dependent on having a group of high profile actor guests. There’s only so many of those to go around. Although I’m sure there would be interest in a do-over for Chris Evans.

  5. Julie, thanks or the detailed report. I didn’t know that Robert Kirkman, was there? You’re the first person who mentioned him. It sounds like you had a good time.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. I think both AJ and myself are honest and open about preferring a more “well rounded” comic con experience, but I know people do like more celebrity oriented shows, and I don’t mean to discount that.

  6. This is also the first time I’ve heard of Robert Kirkman being there. I didn’t hear anything about this while at the show. I saw Todd’s interview with Stan (which in all honestly I thought was inane, but that’s another story). I saw Afua Richardson and wished I could’ve said hi to introduce myself (she was either busy chatting fans or off on a panel discussion). I chatted with Matt and spent a good deal of time at the Top Cow table, which was in a weird locale within the arena.

    To be sure, I didn’t write this piece to ruin anyone’s day. I’m really happy that people who went had a great time. But I also tried to put myself in the shoes of a regular convention goer who bought a regular ticket without all the frills. In their case, what did they have? Lots of random stuff and a con floor that could be traversed in an hour, tops. (And way overpriced food.)

    All I can say is that I reported what I saw and wrote what I internalized from my observations. From my perspective, I saw a lot of things that I thought could contribute to a subpar experience. I chatted with some creators who were doing well with their commissions, and some who say that the celebrity panels interrupted their sales. But on the other hand, I saw many people smiling, so happy that they had the chance meet the stars of their favorite movies or to meet with the people who created their favorite storyline. So, who am I to judge every individual experience? For instance, there was a kid who was absolutely floored to ask Stan Lee a question. I bet it was the ultimate thrill for him. No way in hell am I going to discount his experience just because I thought the whole thing looked chintzy, ya know? So, to each’s own. Maybe next year, ACE will have gotten their act together and will leave me completely speechless. Ya never know….

  7. Unfortunately the timing of ops is what hurt the panels. Anyone in Tom Hollands VIP group was likely held hostage in the photo op area and missed Stan Lee on stage because of that. I know that’s what happened to us. Stan was on at 2, and Toms ops were at 1amd 1:30 I believe but they all ran very late. We were in the 1:30 group and didn’t get through till about 2:45. I was SO sad to miss Stan. By comparison, the Spider-Man panel was at the very end of the day Sunday when most ops were done with so more people were able to attend.

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