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