Monday, August 15, 2005

Wizard World Chicago 2005, pt. 1

Pack together 56,000 of the dorkiest, neediest, splurge-craziest comic fans together in one convention center; add in several hundred pop-culture vendors, writers and artists, publishers and accessory companies; then throw in the jewel of Illinois Cook County Chicago and you have the recipe for the Wizard World 2005 comic con.

This was the main vortex of geekdom, The Place to fill your soul with figurines, collectible cards, anime and retro merchandise, posters, and comic books and it all happened on a hot August weekend in Rosemont, 15 miles west of the Windy Citys downtown.

I went there with a fraternity brother, Dennis Gugin, and his friends for Frederick, Mich. (a northern outpost, near Grayling and parts undiscovered) Nate and Jenny. They were the pros they had been every year since the turn of the current century and I was the rookie. My brain, they warned me, wasnt hardened enough to take it all in and not go catatonic. I was up to the challenge. After all, I had collected comics on-and-off for 14 years now. I knew These People.

Because of my intermittent interest in comics (though my love of all things Spider-Man was unflagging), I came to Wizard World wondering: what was going on in the world of comicdom? What were the trends? What was the "hot" book? Because in the hyped-up, commercial, instant-gratification world of comic books, things were always on the move, ever changing. There was no concrete in comics, only shifting mud that never truly hardened. How does the mortal mind comprehend a system that, from month to month, upends the Name of the Game and spoon-feeds the Next Big Thing down the throats of fan boys? Why do fans subject themselves to such abuses?

The answers, I thought, could be found here. At Geekfest 2005. Wizard World would become my world, for three straight days.

* * * *

The only way to properly travel to Chicago from Jackson is by rail. While Bush Jr. attempts to cut funding to this national treasure, I let my metaphorical middle finger fly by purchasing a one-way Amtrak ticket, the west-bound Wolverine line (Professor Xavier would be proud), and left the depot at 8:59 a.m., with stops in Albion, Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo on the way. Me and 72 other passengers in the middle car, enjoying the midwestern countryside together. The plan was to get off at Union Station, take the Blue Line El train west to Rosemont (past the LaSalle, Jackson, Monroe, Washington, Clark/Lake, Grand, Chicago, and Division stops along "the loop," then Belmont, the familiar Addison, and Harlem), and hoof it to the Hyatt where Gugin would wait in the lobby. All by 1 p.m. I was only a little late, and happened to catch Gugin as he was about to abandon his wait-for-Dave post. I checked into the room, received my official Wizard World badge, and headed into the Rosemont Convention Center.

The Hyatt - reminds me of the Renaissance Center in Detroit.

Gugin was right. My brain wasnt ready for this trip.

On the way in, on the Blue Line, I had noticed several comic geeks hitching the same ride as me. Theyre easy to spot. Button-up black shirt with bright flames on the side. Dyed hair. Pale skin. Pony tails. Superhero t-shirt. Indistinct physical features. Aversion to any communication with strangers. Few blondes. These are the signs.

And they were all playing pilgrim to the great Wizard, the comic fans monthly bible. Wizard the magazine started in the early 1990s, during the great Comic Boom (and eventual bust). The magazine specializes in the latest news, gossip, creator interviews, character analysis, and for the practical a comic price guide. Wonder how much your Green Lantern (vol. 1) 45 is worth? Check out the latest Wizard.

Since then, Wizard Entertainment developed into a magazine publisher whose publications handled the whole nerd world, from collectible card games to Japanese anime. Now they were in the convention biz. And they put on one helluva show.

My eyes grew wide with shock at the sheer spectacle. Marvel, DC, Image, Mattel all the heavy hitters greeted visitors first thing. It looked like something out of a demented Wizard of Oz scene. "Were-not-in-Kansas-anymore" Dorothy, dumbstruck by Technicolor, stepping out of her shabby prairie cabin. This was Clark Kents Munchkin Land.

The entrance to the convention. Cue awe-inspiring music.

In the middle of the convention stood the dealer booths, where comic book and pop culture shops from all over the country gathered to sell to Us, the Geeks. There were hundreds of them. And in back of them rested the Artist Gallery, a selection of relatively little-known pencilers and writers peddling their art.

Here's a typical booth - quality displayed, discount in boxes. The hunt begins...

Gugin had arrived the night before and checked out all the booths to sift the good from the unworthy. I hadnt prepared that thoroughly, and at times I didnt need to. Right when we walked in, at the DC Comics area, pencil-god Jim Lee (X-Men, WildCATS, and recently Batman and Superman) was signing autographs in between slices of thick Chicago pizza. You had to have a special, orange bracelet to enter the line, but Gugin and I hopped in when no one was looking. I whipped out the spare Uncanny X-Men and Batman comics, penciled by Lee, I brought with me, and seconds later had the signature recognized around the comic world. "This was too easy," I thought.

Jim Lee, signing my "Uncanny X-Men" and munching on pizza.

A few minutes later we popped into the signing line for Witchblade and Fathom artist Michael Turner, who enjoys the same babe-drawing reputation Jim Lee enjoyed many years ago. I noticed that the Aspen Comics booth, Turners own imprint, was selling variant covers of its comics. You bought the comic, had it signed by Turner, and supposedly walked away happy. "Comic companies used to just give their comics out years ago," Gugin said. Now they were charging a premium for varient cover, "Wizard World Exlusive" editions. Aspen Comics was making money off the fans in line on impulse, much like 7-11 stocks switchblade keychains near the checkout. No thinking. Just buying.

So much talent, so little man. Mike Turner signing my "Fathom" comic.

I noticed a trend right off: comic fans and dealers bringing stacks of comics â€" 30 to 50 books deep, some multiple copies of the same issue â€" to get signed by the creators. In the Jim Lee line, I looked down at my two comics. I knew what these bastards were doing. They were making the creator work for them. They would get the comics signed, then take them back to their booth (or worse, post them on eBay) and demand a premium price. I knew I wasn’t the be-all-end-all comic fan, but I knew shysterism when I saw it.

It's this trend that bought me my first friend on the convention. Later, as we were boarding the elevator in the hotel, one nerd with a dolly full of comic boxes wheeled his winnings in.

"I just had Frank Miller sign 22 of my comics!" he bragged.

"Oh, you're one of those..." I said.

"Well, some were for my friends in Texas," he said.

"Yeah. I tell people that, too...son of a bitch..."

I stepped off the elevator, Gugin following. "Looks like you earned a new buddy already," Gugin said. Indeed I had. If this was the nature of the beast, I needed a cape and heat vision. Friends I can live with. Crass commercialists like that cowboy asshole made me, as a fan, angry. We talked with several other fans in the various autograph lines, and they shared our view.

After I got my first autographs, the rest of Friday was spent walking around, taking it all in. Stormtroopers? They were there. As were Superman, Nightwing, and Charlie fresh out of his chocolate factory. I even met a steroid-junkie Batman. He has his Robin, unfortunately. There were even a few porn stars, one beauty selling her Cinemax-rated photos to horny virgins. She stood to make a fortune, which would no doubt help her pay for her masters degree. Several of the fans walking around didn't even try hard enough. Many just looked like freaks, like the painted half-naked lunatic at a January Green Bay football game, wanting any extra attention. They wouldn't find it here. They were competing with super heroes.

Nightwing (formerly Robin) and a version of Batgirl/woman/whatever.

The convention closed at 6:00 p.m., with the Wizard Fan Awards taking place right after. We hung around to watch Marvel sweep the damn thing, taking best heroine (Kitty Pryde), hero (Wolverine), moment of the year (Colussus returning), writer/artist (the Astonishing X-Men crew), on-going series (Astonishing X-Men - and well-deserved), and best publisher. Kevin Smith ("Mallrats," "Clerks," "Dogma") made a surprise appearance with his potty mouth.

"I used to think closing a good comic was satisfying," Smith said. "Now, nothing feels better than coming on some chick's back...except coming in her ass."

Wonderful. Great stuff.

* * * *

You can't visit Chicago - even when you're there just for Geekfest 2005 - and not go downtown to explore.

It took some prompting ("Trust me guys, I've been here before. I comfortable using the El.") and even some whining ("I'm starving - it's 8 p.m. and I haven't eaten since breakfast!"), but we boarded the Blue Line and headed downtown.

Me and Gugin riding the blue line. Rock and or roll.

Some homeless African American pointed us in the direction of the Hard Rock Cafe. It was against my better instincts, eating at an eatery recognized in every big city around the world, but I was starving. And Nate was getting grumpy. We were all Hungry. Inside, I ordered a grilled tuna steak mahi mahi sandwich, and called our fraternity alumnus Kevin Stone. We went across the street to the "Rock 'n' Roll" McDonalds, so Jenny could say she had been there, and then headed home.

Gugin waiting for the El home. He's our own superhero.

Leave it to me to meet interesting people: Guy with a keyboard, guitar case, and some other instrument standing in the subway door.

"Do you play all those instruments?" I ask.

"On a good night."

"Neat-o." I smile.

"Do you play?" he asks in return.

"Yeah, guitar and a little piano." The end. The conversation closes.

The only other noteworthy Chicagoan was the fine lady walking in front of us down Clark Street. She was black, with high, tight stonewashed jeans. And a butt that looked like a cresting humpback whale. Moby Butt.

"Like a stonewashed gift from God," Nate commented afterward.

Gugin and I took the lead behind the lady. Gugin looked down and gave out an audible "Pow!" I had to clasp my mouth close so I didn't bust up laughing right there. The nice lady's gentleman friend looked back, finding none of this funny. Maybe he had never walked behind her to see what we saw.

* * * *

When we got back to the hotel, I read a few comics. But mostly I spent the time, until about 2 a.m., planning for the next day. There were artists and writers to see, seminars to attend, and Comics to Buy. Yessir, I had my bearings down - after the initial fan-boy shock wore off - and had a list of must-haves ready to go.

* * * *

I did pick up some good deals, and found that a lot of vendors featured $1 and fifty-cent boxes full of nearly new comics. "Do you have a list of comics you're looking for?" Gugin asked me earlier. "No, my list is up here," I said, pointing to my brain. It was a lie. I had no idea what I was looking for. I was in search of The Deal, like most of the other pasties here. What could I get that fit my collection for relatively cheap? I couldn't blow my cash wad the first day; that much I knew. There were far too many comics and far too many peddlers to snatch up the first back issue that came along. Discipline. Measured progress. Predatory haggling. These were foreign to the comic collector's brain, but strategically necessary on a mind-fuck like this.

The expo was safe, thanks to these Stormtroopers. At ease, fellas.

But I needed sleep. Because there's nothing worse than a head full of half-naked super heroines than a head devoid of sleep. I'd need my strength.

Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

:: to be continued ::

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