Wizard World Chicago 2008: Day One Report
After a full day on the floor at this year’s Wizard World Chicago (which is actually held well away from Chicago in Rosemont, IL), I can’t help but think the "Chicago" aspect of the show’s title isn’t the only element that’s a bit misleading. This weekend, it’s far more accurate to say that it’s "Avatar World" and Wizard is just living in it.
Avatar Press Editor-in-Chief William Christensen and the rest of his team bet big at this year’s show, and their gamble seems to be paying off. In addition to bringing the show’s Guest of Honor, author Warren Ellis, across the pond for one of his rare stateside appearances, the sheer volume of the publisher’s real estate in the show’s program, floor space and overall marketing is impressive, to say the least. Heck, you can play along with this game at home, folks — just download a copy of the convention guidebook and take a look through it. The "exclusives" section alone seems like it would be more aptly named "Avatar Press Exclusives… and some other stuff."
While the Avatar push is great for the publisher (and after speaking with Christensen and Avatar’s head of marketing, David Marks, the return on investment has been positive thus far), one can’t help but wonder about the behind-the-scenes story here. After speaking with a few contacts in and around the planning of the show, the picture painted by these conversations is one of a Wizard World organization that recognized Ellis’ presence as the best weapon against yet another poorly attended convention in the Wizard World circuit. The fan-favorite writer’s attendance was in discussion as of late last year, in fact, and the terms of his presence at the show involved significant coverage of Ellis’ Avatar projects by Wizard Magazine and various other editorial elements of Wizard Entertainment in the months prior to finalizing the deal. This weekend’s show, it seems, is being considered a test of the company’s "new" approach toward conventions — and there’s a lot riding on how well it does.
Even so, the biggest threat to the show might not have been Wizard Entertainment’s widely reported personnel, financial and general creative woes, but rather the widespread problems currently plaguing the airline industry, with many publishers, creators and guests reporting cancelled and/or significantly delayed flights to and from Chicago airports. One of our own ComicMix crew found himself bounced back and forth between cancelled flights for much of the day Thursday, thanks to the ol’ "your flight is cancelled, better luck next time" routine from United Airlines — but United wasn’t the only culprit. A large number of Wizard’s own convention staff were scattered among several different airlines due to overbooked, cancelled and massively delayed flights.
Attendance on the first day of the show was moderate at best, with a number of publishers and retailers telling me that they didn’t see much of a need for the show to be a three-day affair. Years ago, when the Chicago convention was the biggest show in the circuit, the traffic on Fridays was still better than the best days at other conventions — but few see much benefit to the meager Day One numbers these days.
Announcements and any sort of relevant news were hard to come by Friday, and it doesn’t look to get much better the rest of the weekend. Many of the publishers present at the show seem determined to save the meat of their upcoming project calendar for San Diego Comic-Con International next month, and only hand out a few scraps of news here at the Chicago show. (You can read our report on the "Mondo Marvel" and "Ultimate Universe" panels here on ComicMix, as well as yesterday’s edition of ComicMix Radio, and stay tuned for our podcast report from yesterday’s "DC Nation" panel later today.)
Friday evening’s "The Great Debate: Bendis vs. Johns" event veered off-plan a bit and changed at the last minute from a debate on "the most controversial topics in the industry" between Brian Bendis and Geoff Johns, the most prominent architects of the Marvel and DC universes, to a roundtable Marvel/DC creator Q&A,in which various creators discussed their affection for the other companies’ projects and occasionally took light-hearted jabs at one another. Bendis and Johns explained early on that the "vs." portion of the title wasn’t the way the event was originally billed to them, either, so they extended an invitation to various other creators exclusive to one company or the other to join them on the stage.
Some items of note from the event included:
- "Books should never be solicited until they are completely done." – Brian Bendis on the subject of lateness in the industry.
- When a fan asked the panelists what they thought of the opposing company’s current crossover events, Johns and Ethan Van Sciver both said they enjoyed Marvel’s Secret Invasion stories. Marvel’s creators stayed mum, however, and moved on to the next question without a mention of DC’s Final Crisis.
- When asked what they like about the other company’s universe, Johns said he liked characters such as Ghost Rider and Hulk, and tried to develop some of those characters’ traits in the characters he worked on with DC. "That’s why Black Adam is such a bad-ass," he laughed. Gail Simone added that Marvel’s characters seem more grounded, but "their female characters need a little jazzing up." On the other side of the table, Marvel’s creators all seemed to cite the ability to be more fantastic with stories set in the DC Universe, with Brian Reed complaining that sometimes he wished he could explain away problems in his stories the way he sees a lot of DC storylines handled, saying, "Sometimes I just want to say, ‘I don’t know, it’s time travel!’"
- The biggest area of disagreement between the publishers occurred when discussing the effect of big-screen projects involving characters from comics. While Bendis and several of the Marvel creators said that the recent slate of Marvel movies has been a boon to the industry, Johns and several DC creators stated that the effect of the films on direct market sales was negligible at best.
The night ended with a long and entertaining Q&A with Ellis in a packed auditorium that was not only open to the public, but also featured a pair of cash bars on either side of the room. Ellis read several chapters from his novel, Crooked Little Vein, then punctuated the Q&A with periodic sips of Jack Daniels and Red Bull.
On a personal note, one of the highlights from the show on my side was yesterday’s interview with Ellis, which will be available on ComicMix later this week. As part of my weekly webcomic interview series, I spoke with Ellis about FreakAngels, his excellent ongoing online comic hosted by Avatar Press.
Unfortunately, the last conversation I had before calling it a night involved the passing of creator Michael Turner, who has been a fixture at Wizard World conventions for quite a while now. I waited until this morning to write up a report on his death last night at age 37, as I had been hoping the news was nothing more than a miscommunication that would be corrected before I woke up today.
Check back here on ComicMix throughout the weekend for more reports from Wizard World Chicago.