Each year, my buddy Glenn gets all of us Comic Widows staff into Wizard World Philly. The WW organization has been kind enough to extend us press passes every year, and this year was no exception (thanks, Jerry!). I’ll be in Philly this Saturday and Sunday.
I’d like to tell you I’m looking forward to it. But I’m not sure I’d be lying.
I remember the first Wizard World convention very well. It was a happening, a big comics convention in a region starved by years without big cons. Philly is a big comics town, but after the bust of the comics market in the mid-90s, there were hardly any comics conventions anywhere other than San Diego and Chicago. That first year, Marvel and DC showed up. Marvel didn’t have much of a booth presence, but all the big names from Marvel were there. I met Bill Jemas there, and he was explaining to his staff the intricacies of some Marvel collectible card game. He was so excited over this that I could see why there was so much buzz over what was then known as NuMarvel.
There was a ton of energy at that show. Lots of young, hungry creators going to the Wizard World classes and trying to break out. Artist Alley was packed. There were a lot of dealers and comic publishers. The show was a huge hit, and I believe the success of that show was one of the early indicators of the big comics boom of the last decade. Had that show flopped, maybe we never would have gotten the now-titanic New York Comic Con and all of the other cons that seem to run every week during the summer.
But Wizard World hasn’t continued to have the same type of success over the past decade. Its flagship publication, Wizard, has suffered a big dropoff in circulation (in fact, last month, it fell behind sister publication Toyfare in sales). The convention side of the business has made some dumb moves, trying to buy up as many other conventions as it can while not focusing on the core successes of the existing conventions. In particular, its handling of the Philly con has been nothing short of disastrous.
A few years ago, Wizard World tried to muscle out a competing convention, Charlotte’s Heroes Con, by running Philly on the same weekend. WW figured that most of the comics community would attend the Philly show, but the exact opposite happened. Heroes Con has long maintained an excellent reputation with comics creators and publishers, and most of them chose to stay loyal to Heroes Con while abandoning Philly. Last year, most of the big names chose to appear at Charlotte instead of Philadelphia. It seemed that only talent local to PA, NY, and NJ stayed at Philly, while the rest of the comics universe went to Charlotte.
Even though Philly now runs the weekend after Charlotte, the damage seems to have been done. For the first time in show history, there is no official Marvel or DC presence at Philly. In fact, the biggest comics company exhibiting at Philly might be the comics retailer Mile High Comics. The biggest publisher might be the relatively small Avatar Press (although they publish book by big-name writers Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis). The panel programming reflects this change; instead of big displays by comics publishers, the panels are now largely interviews with B-level sci-fi TV stars. I have nothing against actors like Bruce Campbell and Patrick Stewart, but when they are the biggest stars at a comics show, you have to wonder if the show has lost its aim. There are a few comics-focused panels, with well-known artists such as J. G. Jones and Ethan Van Sciver giving instructional talks, but these were always a smaller part of the comics programming. Now, they make up just about all of the comics programming.
Last year, there were many whispers on the con floor that attendance was down, and that Philly might not even have a show this year. Well, there will be a Philly show, but it really won’t be a comics show, not like it was in years past. It’s a shame, because Philly really is a great comics town. I’m hoping that this is a great show, and that we won’t see a repeat of the comic con drought of the 90s. But if this is the sort of show we’re going to get, I worry that the situation will only get worse.