VINNIE BARTILUCCI: ComicFest from the inside
In the early 90’s I had made a fair to middling name for myself in comics fandom. I was a regular on the CompuServe forums, was running a comics APA of my own, THWACK!, and had started submitting to CAPA-Alpha. I had started writing articles for Wizard magazine, which is how I made friends with Pat O’Neill, their first Editor-in-Chief.
One night Pat contacted me to tell me that Gareb Shamus (Wizard‘s owner) was looking to do a comics con, and wondered if I was interested in running it. Well, he was close to being right — it was a friend of Gareb’s, David Greenhill, who had made a fortune in the sports card industry, and was looking to move to comics. Not as a speculator (there were soon to be plenty of them) but as the promoter of a comics show.
David’s idea was to bring a lot of the "business" of the card industry to comics. His ideas were good – too many comics shops were (and still are) run as if they were hobbies, and most comics shows didn’t make any attempt to market to the general public. He planned to change that. He planned to hire a major PR firm to push the show, get the publishers to invest in the show both financially and with publicity, a lot of big ideas. He just didn’t know how to actually run a show.
Well neither did I, but I wasn’t tellin’ him that…
I knew enough about running SF cons to be far enough ahead of him that I convinced him that I could handle the job. I was made Show Manager, and hit the ground running. He realized that research was a good idea, and I convinced him that the best first step to take was to actually go to the San Diego Con to see how the biggest comics con in the industry did things. And a few days later, we were on our way to San Diego.
We took notes furiously, all the time not telling anyone what we were planning. I had told people we were doing some comics-related business, and pretty soon the hot rumor was that David was starting his own comics company. Come the fall when we officially announced ComicFest, we surprised everyone.
While David’s plans all dealt with the business and publicity side of the show, I was in charge of literally everything else. I designed the floor plan, got Tom Luth to design the logo, wrote all the copy for the ads and program booklet, and was the primary contact for most of the pros. At the show, I had at least one dealer tell me he assumed there was no David Greenhill, and that I was doing everything.
This was far from the truth. David was the boardroom man, the negotiator with the publishers. At the card shows, the publishers paid big money for their booths, and spent a lot of money on promotion. At comics shows (with SD as the notable exception) the publishers got their tables for free, and didn’t pay for much of anything. It was an uphill battle to convince these publishers that it would be a good return on investment to work with this new, unproven show. But considering we got all the majors there, we did a good job.
One thing that David didn’t know from Adam was the whole Artist’s Alley thing. So I got to spend a lot of time on the phone with endless big names in comics, entreating them to come to the show. I got a postcard from Alex Toth which I still have (see below) and actually got to spend some time on the phone with Steve Ditko, because David’s business advisor Stan was a good enough talker that he actually convinced me that I was good enough to get Ditko to come to the show. I wasn’t.
I squeezed a page of the artists’ names into the program, complete with a sketch by José Garcia-Lopez of my mascot and totem, Norbert, as a fan collecting autographs. Now, the floor plan of the show was supposed to have had letters in the Artists’ Alley area to mark the area so you could find your favorite artist. And the artists’ names all had a letter next to them, so you would know that Joe Penciller was in area A, while Mike Tracer was in area B. Well, the letters by the artists’ names made it, but the letters on the floor plan didn’t. So as far as anyone knew, the artists had all been classified A though E with no seeming rhyme or reason. By the end of the con, the artists had all added their Letter Code to their name tags, like Brave New World’s Alpha through Delta castes.
Another thing David wasn’t aware we had to do was programming. I explained that they have panels at the shows, where the writers would talk about what was coming up, stuff like that. So I got to do that as well. I whipped up a schedule, got the list of panels the big boys wanted to do, and got Elayne and Steve to run them for me. Easy.
Then Todd McFarlane started getting pissy at Peter David.
I had the slapfight of the century dropped in my lap. Imagine Vince McMahon getting a call from Hulk Hogan, asking if Vince would mind if he fought Sylvester Stallone at the next pay-per-view. I hastily shuffled around the panels, that soon-to-be classic panel on the effect Computer Bulletin Boards would have on the comics industry was pushed off into the ultraviolet (just as well, it was never going to be more than a passing fad anyway…) and Friday afternoon we hosted the Altercation To Cause Perspiration, moderated by George Perez.
I didn’t get to see more than five minutes of it. Ah, the travails of office…
The show was a massive success for all concerned. We actually out-drew San Diego once you counted up all the multi-day memberships and all, and the publishers were all gobsmacked at what we had achieved.
We were well accepted by the industry — Capital, Heroes World and Diamond allowed us to push the show at their trade shows, and Gary Colabuono of the Chicago Comicon welcomed us with open arms at his show. About the only person in the industry to treat us as a threat was Fred Greenberg of Great Eastern Conventions. I had been a long-time guest at his shows, running panels for him on the BBS services like CompuServe, but when he learned I was running ComicFest, he banned me from his shows. We all tried to attend his big NY show, and Fred met us at the door and had us ejected. It was on that day that David decided to do a show in NYC, to take out Fred.
Alas, the stress of the show was too much for David, and he lost the zeal for the business after the show. My wife had gotten a job at the short-lived Defiant in the interim, at which she actually met Steve Ditko, which nicely trumped my phone conversation with him, thank you very much. I was actually offered a job by Gary Colabuono to be his Director of Marketing, but as it would have required a move to Chicago, I had to pass. (Just as well, I understand he sold his comics stores just a year later.) I eventually went back to computer programming, and when my company moved to the Lehigh Valley shortly before 9/11, I went with it. (I was just pulling into the office in Bethlehem PA after a commute from the Bronx when my wife called, saying "Are you glad you’re not in the city today…")
I’m at a different computer company now, and have gotten back into comics fandom in earnest after a several-year financially-based hiatus. I’m doing most of my pontificating on the Newsarama website, and while the lion’s share of my posts are about the comics themselves, I still spend a lot of time trying to get people to treat the industry as exactly that — an industry. With the proper marketing and publicity, comics can take their rightful place next to other forms of literature in this country, and ComicFest was one thing I tried to do to help that along.
Just last February I went to the NY Comic Con, a show put on by an outside company, a show that really took the things learned from other industry trade shows and expos and applying them to the comics industry, with spectacular results. I like to think I was some small part of that finally happening.