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The week in Con Wars


Well, it’s been a busy week in the ongoing (choose one):

a) war between Reed Exhibitions and Wizard/Gareb Shamus

b) “flaming Viking Death Ship” for Wizard/Gareb Shamus

And some kind of roundup post seemed warranted. While we’ve been on semi-vacation, Sean T. Collins and Rich Johnston did the heavy lifting of finding posts and messages now deleted. But a few lagniappes, as it were, remain to, perhaps, garnish the story.

If you’re sick of all this already, then pass by, unmolested. If you have a strong stomach and a few minutes…click on the more link.

Before going on, disclaimer-ville: The Beat is hosted on a website owned by a sister company of Reed Exhibitions, and I was a paid consultant for New York Comic-Con in its first year.

That said, Sean T. Collins is a former Wizard employee, and Rich Johnston’s trip to the Big Apple Con was paid for by Wizard, meaning that no one here is even remotely unbiased. Given all that, I’m going to do my best to round up the week’s developments.

As all you accident watchers are probably aware, the kerfuffle got kicked into high gear when it was announced that (as you can see from the above email received Friday) Gareb Shamus announced that next year’s Big Apple Con would be held the same weekend as the long announced New York Comic-Con. Shamus purchased the Big Apple earlier this spring–previously it was owned by dealer Michael Carbonaro. In prior years, The Big Apple presented three or four dealer-centered shows with a big show, known as “The National” around the middle of November every year. With a regular roster of comics guests, and a rotating cast of celebrity/wrestling/former Playmate guests, The Big Apple was basically a slightly expanded dealer show with celebrity guests of the kind that New York has been hosting for forty years or so.

With the Shamus purchase, the Big Apple took a baseball-sized dose of steroids, swelling into a mega line-up of nerdlebrities, old wrestlers, sports stars, reality TV stars and former Enterprise captains. By itself, it certainly offered a lot of entertainment value to those who want to meet the heroes of their youth. However, the news of choosing the same dates basically baffled and amazed onlookers and attendees alike.

It certainly didn’t go down that well with Reed VP Lance Fensterman, who runs Reed’s family of pop culture shows and BookExpo America. He was interviewed at Comic Book Resources:

“I think it’s great. It’ll be wonderful for the industry to look at these two events side by side and compare them without any spin, without any inflated numbers from Wizard – just look at them and honestly compare and ask the question, ‘Which show is better serving to grow the industry? Which is better serving the exhibitors? Which is better serving the fans and guest?’ We’ve kind of been sitting on the sidelines with having a change in dates and waiting 18 months since the last New York Comic Con, and it’s been tough sitting around waiting to do stuff. We’re ready to go, and I really welcome the direct comparison.”

and The Comics Reporter, where Fensterman spoke of alleged questionable tactics being used behind the scenes:

FENSTERMAN: I don’t think there is any question when someone puts a similar named event, in the same city as the market leader on the same weekend, they are counting on drafting off our success and confusion as part of there business model. To me that’s without question. We are aware of guest issues and exhibitor issues that are not what we would consider “above board” on the part of other events and we’ve chosen not to take action because, frankly, we believe we have a better business model because we consistently put the industry, the exhibitors, the fans and the guests first. That’s a headache we don’t need, we’d rather focus on our customers and growing this industry.

Chicago resident Todd Allen chimed in with a brief history of the Chicago rivalry and voiced his opinion about the competing shows — Chicago Comic-Con (formerly Wizard World Chicago) and Reed’s C2E2:

Shamus and his Wizard World show are not as popular in Chicago as some would have you believe. I’ve personally spoken with multiple publishers, dealers and attendees who were fed up with how that convention had declined since Wizard acquired it. A lot of the problem came with Wizard constantly scheduling show too close to the San Deigo show, seemingly under the delusion that if people were going to choose between the shows, they’d choose Wizard. No, given the choice of one show, creators, publishers, retailers and fans chose San Diego. Reed came to Chicago because of demand for new and better run show.

These links show one of the clear advantages that Reed has in this battle — Fensterman is accessible to the press, has his own blog, and, in short, gets his own message out.

Wizard and Shamus, however, aren’t talking to the press, having turned down several requests from this site, CBR, and Newsarama to respond to allegations and explain their side of things. They DO send out a lot of press releases, though, both via a general Wizard convention account and through PR person April Wiggins. Recent messages talked about the success of the Big Apple Con and promoted the upcoming Anaheim and Toronto Comic-Cons. Some of the information in these press releases has become quickly outdated, something we’ll get back to in a moment, but Wizard seems to be guarding its public message fiercely, and when a Wizard freelancer did speak out, the message was quickly scrubbed.

On Wednesday, Johnston posted a now-removed entry about Wizard freelancer Mark Allen Haverty’s defending Wizard’s actions on the Wizard Universe message board (WUMB). In that post, Haverty mentioned the incident of the Reed employees being removed from the Big Apple con and their promoting the Reed show at a rival con as disrespectful, and generally saying that the town was big enough for two shows, and fans would chose.

(Aside: As far as the “not promoting rival shows” thing goes, Colleen Doran posted about how Big Apple emplolyees had approached her at NYCC :

I remember the first time I was approached by someone from Big Apple. J. Michael Straczynski was doing a signing at my booth.

This guy comes up to me with a flier and a business card and says – I kid you not – “It’s finally happened. You finally made it. We’ve never asked you before, but now that you’re working with big names like J Michael Straczynski, we can finally invite you to be a guest at the Big Apple Comic Con!”

And I’m thinking, who the hell is this wiggler?

Setting aside the all kinds of wrong in that, it’s pretty much a given that if you walk into one comics convention you’ll find flyers for other shows on the giveaway table, and, to cite just one example, San Diego Comic-Con employees are often seen at NYCC and vice versa. It’s kind of the gentleman’s agreement of comics — in fact in the past, NYCC and Michael Carbonaro, worked together to AVOID scheduling conflicts and so on.)

As Johnston had originally reported, Haverty’s post met with some skepticism by WUMB posters. Haverty’s post and the responses were removed from the WUMB board; later on Johnston’s post was removed from Bleeding Cool, as noticed by Bleeding Cool posters; as this is written, Johnston has not responded publicly to enquiries regarding the post’s removal in the thread, but he’s at the MCM Expo this weekend.

Some of what was removed from Haverty’s post is archived at Panels on Pages, a news site/message board consisting of many past and present Wizard employees, readers and message board posters. I’m not going to run down everything written, but for those who are really interested, you can read through the whole Con Wars thread in the link.

Johnston later posted an entry called Con Wars: Wizard Vs Reed – Where Did It Begin? which singled out a a party thrown at Chicago Comics during this year’s CCC as the “the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that started The Great War.”

This interpretation of events (which is probably as close to Wizard’s side of things as we’ll get) drew a response from Chicago Comics manager Eric Thornton:

Let me state on record a few things. The party was going to happen if Reed and C2E2 existed or not, and most likely very close to the form it ended up in. The entire point of the party was, in actuality, to get people out of Rosemont for the evening. Chicago is an amazing town with a myriad of restaurants and show venues, but, every year, creators and fans and professionals alike are more or less “stuck” in Rosemont, a suburb with very very little to offer anybody. We wanted people to have a reason, an excuse, to get out into the city and have some fun beyond the four walls of the Stephenson Center.

and from Scott Kurtz, whose tweets disparaging Wizard and Shamus have been widely quoted:

I’ve only attended the Wizard World Texas show and both times I attended as an exhibitor and the one time I attended as a con-goer I was treated like utter shit by the staffers. I was charged way too much for booth space, and basically was bullied by the people running the show.

In the matter of guests at Anaheim, there was also some controversy this week. Only hours after the Big Apple Con ended, PR for the Anaheim show hit media inboxes, stating:

The convention is still a few months away and several comic book superstars are already heading to the Anaheim Comic Con! Leading the way are Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, the blockbuster creative team behind Marvel’s SPIDER-WOMAN! Additionally, Bernie Wrightson (SWAMP THING), Tim Bradstreet (THE PUNISHER), Steve Niles (30 DAYS OF NIGHT), Charlie Huston (MOON KNIGHT), Phil Jimenez (ASTONISHING X-MEN), Simon Bisley (JUDGE DREDD), Glenn Fabry (PREACHER) and Tom Jane (BAD PLANET) are already confirmed for the show, with dozens of other comic creators to be announced!

But by Thursday, Bendis, Maleev, and Jimenez were not to be found listed as guests on the ACC website, and as reported by Sean T. Collins, Bendis tweeted he wouldn’t be a guest at Anaheim, and wrote on his message board:

you can figure it out.

mike cotton and those guys are good guys. there’s just stuff going on behind the scenes i don’t want to be part of. when those things stop, i’ll do more cons.

And that’s where things stand right now, as far as I can tell. I inadvertently added to some of the confusion by having a post of links go up earlier this week that I meant to expand into something like this post, and by taking it down after some people had linked to it, causimg more confusion.

In addition, sometime Beat contributor Steve Bunche posted his account of the Big Apple Con here, something I didn’t know was going to happen. Although it’s a very entertaining piece of writing, (and can be read in its entirety here) I felt that posting a fan’s view of the show here on The Beat sent a confusing message, given the things that I planned to write here, and took it down.

(Okay I guess now I’m going to editorialize, so hold on to your hats.)

If you read Bunche’s account of the Big Apple it’s clear that he had a great time, meeting old stars and doing other fannish things. It’s one of the most positive accounts of the show I’ve read online. But it makes the way things stand all the sadder. Because, while those aren’t the kind of activities I like spending the weekend doing, they are fun for some fans. If the powers that be at Wizard were content to just build their own business, they would be fine.

But Bunche’s opinion of the show was the minority of those I heard. Dealers and artists had poor to middling shows — most people spent their money on celebrity autographs; at $40 a pop, that didn’t leave much discretionary income.

Ironically, after I wrote my last Big Apple roundup, I got more criticism for not burying the show than for anything negative I said about Wizard, despite what many see as my obvious bias. I think a lot of people were expecting some kind of gruesome train wreck with severed limbs and wailing children. I don’t think it was that — Wizard shows have always been professionally run and staffed, even when they were put on by magazine staffers doing double duty.

But The Big Apple was, at best, joyless. I’ve been writing a lot this year about “The Fantasy Economy” and in all the comics shows I’ve been to have been high energy, optimistic events full of the joy of creativity and comics as an artform and as a growing umbrella for all kinds of nerd-friendly entertainment and events. Given that we’re living in an economy of empty storefronts, foreclosures, and unemployment, comics have been a welcome respite from grim worries. The sole exception to this upbeat atmosphere of shows I attended this year was Wizard World Philly, where the mood was grim, gray, and rubbery, like banquet hall chicken.

When Wizard first took over the Chicago Comic-Con in the ’90s, and started Wizard Worlds in Philly and Long Beach, they were, believe it or not, up-to-date conventions that featured a wide range of guests and amenities. I loved going to Philly, for reasons often mentioned here — close proximity to New York, a good Bar Con, good local facilities.

But gradually, over the years, the formula got stale. San Diego — which the Wizard empire once tried to challenge by scheduling the Chicago show closer and closer — got bigger and bigger, and even with its first year problems, New York Comic-Con offered a convention model that included all the vibrant influences that were informing the comics industry – manga, book publishers growing nerd culture in TV and animation. For whatever reason, Wizard’s shows stayed pretty much the same.

The attempt to challenge San Diego ended up miserably. When going to San Diego got more and more expensive and exhausting most people just took a pass on Rosemont — I haven’t been there since 2005 and don’t feel like I’ve missed a thing. Most people I’ve talked to feel the same way, and the absence of major publishers at most of Wizard’s show this year should speak volumes to anyone who is listening. The “postponement/cancellation” of the Los Angeles and Texas shows even as Wizard Magazine was shedding staffers and freelancers shows how unstable the business had become.

On Wizard’s message board there’s an almost painful reminder that some of the staffers, anyway, knew things needed to be updated. There’s a thread from early 2008 called from WIZARD STAFFER NEEDS HELP, Help me create better conventions! started by Joe Yanarella.

To all, I’ve got a new job (http://wizarduniverse.invisionzone.com/index.php?showtopic=19557&st=0&gopid=542290&#entry542290) and in that capacity, I’m going to be heading up our conventions department. I want to take the same approach that I’ve always taken to content and that is passionate and aggressive. I’d like to improve our guest list. I’d like to improve our programming. I’d like to create more of a carnival atmosphere on the show floor. I’d like it to be a quarterly celebration of comics that fans in that area of the country can come out and participate in with like-minded individuals. We’re going to try lots of new ideas. We’re going to make lots of mistakes smile.gif But they’ll be aggressive mistakes as we continue to evolve our show model forward.

Yanarella was let go by Wizard about a year later, but not before having conversations with several industry figures, myself included, saying that they were trying to freshen up their convention model and answer of the complaints that had been growing for years.

A lot happened since that post, and perhaps the model has been freshened, if adding more and more Suicide Girls, old wrestlers and bands that haven’t had a hit in 15 years counts. A couple of videos have been making the rounds that kind of sum things up. One shows Gareb Shamus’s brother Stephen partying down with Naughty By Nature, the rap band that hasn’t put out an album since 2002, who headlined the Friday night VIP party.

Stephen Shamus is an object of some derision for former Wizard staffers, I’m told, and this video caused some hilarity among that faction.

A second video has been less seen:

Towards the end of the day Saturday, girls dressed as Batgirl and Robin did a pole dance on a small trailer being driven around the show floor. It might not have been quite as revealing as the underpantsless Suicide Girl who prowled the floor on Friday, but it was still not quite the image of comics that one usually sees presented in 2009, especially by a company that promotes themselves as a family option:

As fans lined up to have comic books signed by their artistic creators, families streamed into the show.

“We don’t want children to be exposed to an adults-only environment, with sex and violence,” said Shamus, standing by a table where real-looking weapons – synthetic air pistols, machine-guns and a sniper rifle – were sold to anyone over 18 for as little $45.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, to say the least.

Are Con Wars over or just heating up? Sadly, it may be the latter. We’ve certainly heard about a lot more off the record stuff. There are lawsuits, there are aggressive targeting of vendors, there are people taking stands public and private. It’s hard to get people to go on the record about these things, because the comics industry is traditionally a small one, and nobody wants an ugly public family squabble. People just want to get on with running their businesses — in a tough economic environment, everyone has enough to deal with without unnecessary drama.

In the end, Reed’s shows will go on, and, if I guess correctly, will continue to enjoy the support of most of the comics and publishing industries. C2E2 offers the kind of well-rounded, full coverage expo that the public has come to associate with the term “Comic-Con” in a market that hasn’t had that kind of show ever. Todd Allen was correct in saying that publishers and exhibitors have been asking for a better, modern show in Chicago, and it’s a huge, lively market that should respond to that concept. Wizard’s shift to a more media-focused show work for a different audience, but in a head to head competition, publishers and exhibitors are already choosing to go with a more rounded show.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes it would end right now, if only for the sake of the remaining Wizard employees. I have friends at Wizard, and it’s a brutal market for people in the media business right now. I have no wish for any more people anywhere to lose their jobs, and its not their fault they are being put in this position.

Con Wars is sad. No one wins, and some permanent distaste is being farmed where none should ever have been. Hopefully before long the grown-ups will take over. The image below isn’t how anyone wants this all to end.

  1. Reading Colleen’s comments reminded me of one of the first Wizturd Philly shows in the mid 90’s. The convention booklet had the guests rated as “A” List, “B” List, etc…down to “D” List in small print. We found out later that the printer mistakenly left in Sham-Us’s guest-grading, and many of the “C” & “D” Listers wre none too pleased to see how they really ranked with Wizturd.

    But then, considering how they’ve always strong-armed creators to appear at their “shows” by telling them they won’t do articles of their work, or put them in their top 10, or numerous other tactics they’ve used, this whole convention-war thing doesn’t seem out of the ordinary where anything with Sham-Us is concerned. Just Standard Operating Procedure.

    I just hope nobody goes up for an extra plate of free food while Papa Sham-Us is guarding. The disresect that was shown to the late Carrie Nodell at a Wiz-Turd show is par for the course for thise deemed “Not ‘A’ List.”


    Why anyone would support these shows, is amazing to me.

  2. I need to clarify, on BleedingCool’s now-yanked thread, it was pointed out to me that I was mistaken for the Philly Wiztrud Convention Program snafu. Seems Wiz was only helping sponsor the show, and the actual promoter had left the “A” “B” floor sections on the program, and they were mistakenly taken for creator grades by many of the people attending the show. He even said that many of the creators added the “grade” to their badges.

    So I apologize for that bit of mis-remembering/being wrong.

    But still, they way Wizturd has treated people (especially small-press) at their shows, and the fact they don’t promote “comics” in any way, makes me wonder why anyone in the industry would support their shows, let alone their “magazine.”

  3. “as this is written, Johnston has not responded to enquiries regarding the post’s removal, but he’s at the MCM Expo this weekend.”

    That’s not true at all. Three people have asked me and I’ve responded to each. Mark asked me and I complied. Heidi, if you emailed me, I didn;t get the mail.

  4. “Heidi, if you emailed me, I didn;t get the mail.”

    Interesting. Not the first time I have seen someone say they “didn’t get” an email. I can’t prove Johnston did get the email, of course, but it sure seems strange that a guy with hundreds of contacts wouldn’t receive one from one of the top names in comics commentary. Or wouldn’t have a separate email account for certain name people.

    And Rich’s claim that what Heidi said wasn’t true isn’t a valid comment. The statement indicated that Johnston hadn’t responded to Heidi’s (The Beat) inquiry at the time of the writing, not Johnston had never responded to any inquiry at any time.

  5. Actually I was referring to the THREAD, where people had asked Rich why the post was removed, not to any inquiry I had made. I emended the post to clarify, although the use of the word “enquiries” should have indicated I meant the thread. But, I wasn’t totally clear about that, My bad.

  6. Rich, I think people are looking for more of an explanation as to why you were asked to take it down by Mark. Probably should have tacked on a “and Mark’s reason are his own to share or not share” or something to that effect, to stave off further pressing.

  7. The panty-less Suicide Girl is, I guess, an individual acting on her own impulses, so that’s kinda hard to fault someone else for. But the Batman & Robin pole-dancing…WTF??? DC should be suing the stuffing out of someone over that for compromising their IPs. Was it sponsored by Wizard or an exhibitor?

    If you like pole dancing, cool, but why would someone need the extra titilation of pole dancers dressed like children’s characters in a non-ironic fashion? That’s what I don’t understand.

  8. Does this mean that the Suicide Girl wasn’t wearing pants? How could you tell she was pantyless??

    Did the Suicide Girls have a booth? Or are we making a general comparison?

  9. Rich,

    The Suicide Girl was in a micro skirt. And she bent over once to often for the news not to spread like wildfire around the show. There is a photo of the ‘situation’, but don’t have a link. And frankly a search for ‘suicide girl pantiless’ will probably find you plenty of photos, just not the one from the show.

  10. Wizard’s decision to get out of the website game is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting developments of this whole debacle. It seems to me as if they may be positioning themselves to sell. To that end, all of this controvery DOES serve to get them a little extra caché. You can’t deny that Gareb and Wizard are being talked about more as a result of all of this than they have been in years, most likely.

  11. Heroes and Supercon have just amenably solved an unforseen date conflict for their shows next year, as reported at CBR. Baltimore will move to August to stay out from under NYCC’s (oh, and Wizard’s) feet.

    A little cooperation can make sure that everybody has equal chance to win. There’s not a thing that Gareb has done that suggests any desire to do anything but roll over everyone else. Only when he loses spectacularly (like against Heroes) does he pledge fealty and fraternity to the other shows. It’s a damn shame.

    If we were talking about the general public, then yes, there’s more than enough room for more than one company. But we’re talking about the relatively small comics industry, where any attempt to split the market and make them choose results in less sales for both choices. Not enough fans can choose “both” in such situations.

    I think the true irony will be that based on past performance, NYCC will sell out before the show, and Wizard will get most of its audience from people who can’t get into NYCC, so they’ll go to “the other show”. If wizard is cool with that, they should live and be well.

    I make a prediction-Wizard will not sell Thursday-only tickets to its show; it will be like a “preview night” affair, only available with a weekend pass. Mark my words.

  12. P.S., a tip of the hat to Glenn Barbis Jr for amending his memories of what he thought was a Wizard show in Philly in 93. I ran (but blessedly did not pay for) that show, and while I’m ever pleased to know people remember the show fondly, I’m ever embarassed and apalled that the “grade” thing is still misremembered.

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