A Report From The Trenches Of Wizard World Chicago

Peter G. writes from Wizard World Chicago:

IMG_20140822_143927_031

What’s poppin’, people?  It’s your friend neighborhood manga-ka, Peter G., just back from Wizard World Chicago.  I just barely made it there – I had requested my press credentials about three months ago, and only got them three weeks ago.  I thought I wasn’t getting them and had cancelled the days off (weekend passes had sold out about two months before the show, and I wasn’t paying for the individual days), then had to scramble to get the days off from my job again.  (When I first requested my press credentials, the page told me I could track the progress of my request by clicking a link.  The link took me to the Wizard World Portland home page.  That is sooooooo Wizard.)  So let’s jump down in the trenches and see how this year went.

Floor of a Kind

Dear Wizard World,

This split floor layout thing isn’t working.

Sincerely,

Peter G and a bunch of pissed off vendors

One of my main complaints last year was the floor layout.  I mean, I’ve bitched about it for a while.  Last year was the initially underreported two floor layout.  The year before, you needed a sherpa and a portal gun just to find and get where you needed to go in the seemingly random layout.  When I saw the interactive map and how the convention was once again divided into two sections, I just about shit.

Actually getting on the floor, though, didn’t seem so bad.  This is probably the best floor layout they’ve done in ages.  The show is still split between two halls, this time with the ticket admission area separating the two.  I can actually see the logic in this, given that the weekend passes and Saturdays sold out – you can queue more people inside out of the sun and high humidity.  To the left in Hall A was pretty much the Wizard floor layout that I remember, comics and original pages and the Artist Alley, and it felt a lot less cramped in there, much more room to breathe.  Across the way in Hall F was entertainment memorabilia and the autograph area.  Things were grouped in a far more reasonable way.

The entertainment section actually heeded one of the main complaints people had from two years ago.  There’s this little alcove-like section past the doors that was largely ignored because the spacing in the doorway and its out of the way nature made people simply disregard it as they moved around.  This year, Wizard stuck the autographs there, since people were going to go there anyway.  As a result, the dealers and vendors had the high traffic areas all to themselves.

There was the promise of plenty of fringe benefits to the layout, as well.  The escalators would be subject to far fewer breakdowns.  And the Expoteria was open again, a more intimate and relaxing watering hole than the convention stands ringing the place.

IMG_20140822_143747_012

So, on paper, the odds looked good.  In execution, however, it was a clusterfuck.  People would get their admission bands and be directed to Hall F, where the celebrity signings were.  A lot of people didn’t know about the rest of the show just across the way.  Thursday was the worst in this regard – five of the separation panels along the wall of Artist Alley had been moved, and everyone sitting in the first few rows had a great view of all the attendees milling around, buying stuff, and looking across the way and wondering what was going on.  That is soooooo Wizard.

Wizard eventually opened up a path across the ticket area on Sunday, but by then, the damage had been done.  Some did well, making table or doing above and beyond, but most of the people I talked to saw nearly zero sales on Thursday and Friday, and the increase on Saturday and Sunday was not enough to put them in the black, with one dealer making less than half what he did the year before.  Vendors found themselves with a lot of stock that didn’t have time to move.  One person sold approximately five copies of their book the whole weekend.  One guy was doing commissions left and right in a desperate bid to make table.  Several people in Artist Alley broke camp and took off before the middle of the day on Sunday, and their neighbors told me they left because sales were so low.  The biggest complaint from vendors and artists was, once again, the prices – by the time people paid the $100 to get in the door and bought some of the autographs, they didn’t have much coin left.  A few in the Artist Alley told me that people would come over and say they wanted to buy something, but they spent all their money on the other side before they found out there was a whole other section there.

I do note that a few people in Artist Alley figured this was going to happen after last year and blew off a day or two rather than taking time off from their jobs and sitting there all weekend.  Audible sighs of relief.

Wizard had a tendency to bunch up similar groups of vendors in one area.  For example, craftmakers were lined up along a wall instead of being scattered around the Artist Alley.  The result was a bit of a turf war – because the people wandering over had limited funds left, the competition to pounce on the customers and get them to buy your wares first could get intense.  Several of them did well, but they had to work at it.

Lots of people dealing in comics, either as creators or sellers, felt that the layout of the halls was intentional on Wizard’s part.  A lot of comic shows have pretty much given up on comics, focusing on the spin-off media that brings in general fans and more money.  Comics are an afterthought (I’m looking at you, SDCC).  This comes from people who go to a lot of different shows, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Bottom line:  a LOT of people are saying they are not coming to Wizard World next year.

Among my complaints (you knew I’d have a couple) would be that the Artist Alley felt small.  Not cramped, but it didn’t feel like there were as many available tables as the year before.  If Wizard put in more tables for space they already rented and knocked the price down, they’d probably get more.

If I can make a suggestion, Wizard, you might want to do what C2E2 does and put a listing outside the Artist Alley showing who is there and their table location so people aren’t fishing out their gear or programs just to look up a quick name that they blanko’ed on.  Just putting that out there.

Oh, and one convention floor.  With the celebrity signings towards the back since peopleare going to see them anyway and will see how much the floor has to offer.  Just sayin’.

CIMG0465

Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Wallets

There is an unfortunate trend at the con this year, and it’s two-tier pricing.

You would occasionally see two-tier pricing depending on certain things.  For example, when the amazing George Lowe last came to Wizard, he signed for $20, but if it was something you already owned, it was $10.  But this year, there were several people doing two-tier pricing for autographs, and the dividing line was what you could flip on eBay.  An 8X10 or smaller got one price, but anything else was considered a premium item and got socked with a 50% or more mark-up.

Missing in Action

It was one of the strangest “Now you see him, now you don’t” things of the convention.  When Wizard started putting together the guest list, they announced they had snagged David Hasselhoff, who you might remember from the Spongebob Squarepants movie.  Okay, okay, he’s known for Knight Rider, Baywatch, and maintaining the exact same haircut for the past forty years.  His appearance was given a major push.  Then, he canceled due to scheduling conflicts.  I was hoping he’d turn up because, since Wizard is after the pop culture crowd, they might have tried to bring in William Daniel, the voice of KITT on Knight Rider and an autograph I REALLY wanted.  But no.

Hound Comics has been at WWC every year for the past few years, and they didn’t turn up.  Franchesco!, a great artist and swell guy, wasn’t there either.  He turned up at Zenescope’s booth during C2E2, and I saw him roaming the floor, but no Artist Alley table.

I didn’t see the battalion of masseuses there.  My feet and back would have loved to run into them again.

Wizard also has tried to hype up video gamer culture.  The last few years, they’ve had a whole section set aside with home game systems and old school arcade games.  If it was there this year, I couldn’t find it.

CIMG0466

“Courage”, He Said, and Pointed Toward the Land

Making a return to Wizard World was Paul Sizer.  Sizer is a great artist, a fantastic storyteller, and a boss DJ.  His work includes Little White Mouse and BPM.

Part of what makes Sizer so awesome is his willingness to experiment instead of staying confined to the traditional distribution paradigms.  He was one of the earliest people pushing to sell your graphic novels to libraries and schools because they were constantly looking for stuff and they were largely ignored.  Now, that is pretty much covered, so Sizer is looking for his next land to venture through.

Talking with him, he’s very excited about the possibilities of digital.  He knows the sales figures for the Big 2, and sees the field as being ripe for indies to get some recognition in.  I asked him what he thought would work, and he said something different – Marvel and DC are brands, and when people want capes, that’s where they go.  He feels the best chance of success is to off things a bit different, with their own identity.
Good luck, Mister Sizer.  If anyone can make it, you can.

Early Engagement

There might be significantly fewer people in the Artist Alley next year.

Talking with a couple of people yielded the info that, on Sunday, Wizard will ask if people want an Artist Alley table for the next year, usually offering a discount for the early sign-up.  This year, tables were $400, but if you reserved your table on the last Sunday of the con last year, they knocked $80 off the price, so you only paid $320.  20% discount, and given how much you have to sell to break even, every little bit helped.

This year, Wizard sent out its message.  Tables for next year are presently $400.

Sign up the last Sunday for next year, and what will it cost you?  $375.  $25 off.  Beer money.  And don’t forget, that puts a hold charge on your credit card.

Yeah…not a lot of takers.  And I get a funny feeling tables will be $450 next year.

CIMG0467

Jarvis Functionality Disabled

One of the side effects of everything was I got to try the Boingo Hotspot wifi!

And it’s completely made of fail.

I was keeping tabs on the WWC guest list, and eventually came across a name – Eugene Jarvis.  I sat there going, Where do I know that name from?  Then it hit me – Jarvis is the creator of Defender, one of the greatest video games of all time (curiously, I could never get the hang of Defender because the control scheme flummoxed me.  But for his subsequent game Robotron 2084, I was Hell on wheels).  I anxiously dug out my boxed copies of Defender and Defender II for the Atari 2600, Defender on the 5200, and Defender for the GameCube to get them signed.

(I do note the irony here.  Matt Smith autograph?  Whatever.  Eugene Jarvis?  WHEN DO I GET THERE?!?)

It was Friday when I brought the stuff (nothing really big happens on Thursday, and Jarvis does have a company to run, so I figured, if he skipped any day, it would be that one).  Wizard actually printed program books this year (the last few years, it’s just been a map that was seemingly printed on a monochrome ledger-sized printer).  I eagerly searched it to find Mister Jarvis.

No mention.

I searched the entire thing from stem to stern.  Zilch.  The information booth couldn’t find him, either.

I decided to cheat.  When I got my press credentials, I met Jerry Milani at the booth.  He’s one of Wizard’s two contacts for PR.  Figuring if anyone would know, it would be the guy who helps set up interviews.

I signed up for and paid for the Boingo Hotspot wifi (yes, getting those sigs meant that much to me) and approached Milani.  He broke out his cell phone, and the two of us started searching and examining every inch of the WWC site and map like we were tracking Wil Smith in Enemy Of The State.  We searched for Mister Jarvis, his company Raw Thrills, Play Mechanics, I even went further back on his resume (he was the first programmer in residence at DePaul University).  Neither of us could find anything.  I even contacted Raw Thrills itself, and they said he wasn’t there.

Heartbroken, I realized I still had a day to play with the Internet service I bought, and decided to try it out.  My experience was frustrating.  Setting up Boingo was slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter.  It said it would take a few moments to create my account.  It was taking a while, so I started watching a video off my hard drive.  It took twelve minutes because the signal kept freezing up.  Packet loss was the least of my problems, though.  I had signed up while I was in the Expoteria.  If I logged in while in the Expoteria, I could travel throughout the floor and get the signal.  But, if I attempted to log in somewhere served by a different antenna, I got a handshanke, but it hung my browser.

The kicker is, this is not a tough problem for Boingo to fix.  Hell, I know a guy who could do it, and he’s stoned half the time!  (No, it’s not me, the only drug I’m doing right now is Tylenol.)

I will say, however, that, once you connected correctly, it was faster and more reliable than McCormick Place’s free wifi service.  Whether or not that makes it worth $10 a day, I leave for you to decide.

CIMG0469

Ice Ice Baby

The Bruce, The Man Himself, Bruce Campbell, is one of the biggest draws WW has.  He has partnered with them to start his own horror movie fest (more on this in a minute).  He’s always busy, there’s always a crush of fans, trying to say anything to him is a Herculean feat.

In the memorabilia section of the floor was a booth with people who help run his horror fest.  Figuring they would have contact with him, I decided to employ them to help with a message.  On the Classic Game Room show, Mark Bussler, the producer and host, took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and among the three names he called out was The Bruce.

I went up, talked with them, and asked, You are in constant contact with The Bruce, right?

“Oh, yeah!”

Is The Bruce aware that he has been called out for the Ice Bucket Challenge?

I didn’t even have to show them the video.  It seems several people tweeted it to The Bruce (and apparently Bussler wasn’t the only one to do it).  And the only reason he hasn’t done it yet is because he just got to Chicago and doesn’t have a bucket, but he’s working on it.

I am very anxious to see who he calls out.  Although there is flexibility, one of the ostensible rules is, when you are challenged, you have 24 hours to complete the act.  As The Bruce had his autograph table right next to Ted Raimi, I would have loved to have seen The Bruce call out Raimi at the signing on Saturday, putting Raimi in a position to have to complete the challenge on the show floor.  (They go back, you know they screw with each other when they get the chance.)

CIMG0471

Roam If You Want To

Zenescope wanted to make sure their fans saw as many of the people who worked on their books as possible.  If you stopped by their booth and gave them your convention program, they would mark every table on the Artist Alley map where there was a creator that worked on their books, so you wouldn’t miss anyone.

The Road Didn’t Go Ever On and On

One of the nifty little things I picked up was a book by M.C. Joudrey called Charleswood Road – Stories.  Published through At Bay Press and out of Canada, it’s a collection of short fiction pieces and poems that play with perception or blast right through it.  Lots of good stuff in here, I highly recommend it.

Cosplay Confidential

According to my highly unscientific survey, the most popular cosplay of the con was Captain America, with both men and women wearing variations of the costume.  And bonus points to the guy who made and Iron Armor suit with a Cap motiff.  On Friday, he was there with a guy in a regular Iron Man suit and a War Machine, and they were total hits.

(Side note:  I have a blank Iron Man #1 that I drew my characters, Rhapsody and Melody from Sound Waves, on.  They are both sporting Iron Armor but without the helmets on so you can see who they are.  Rhapsody is holding the helmet and saying to Melody, “It even plays MP3′s!”, both as a musical joke and a reference to Red Vs. Blue.  One of the Iron Armor suits was actually playing AC/DC music as he walked around the floor.  All I could think was, “It even plays MP3′s!”)

There were quite a few Ariel cosplayers and one Sailor Venus, so I was happy.  Frozen cosplayers were distinctly less.  There seemed to be more of an emphasis on non-traditional cosplay, as several from classic projects were there, including Kiki’s Delivery Service.

CIMG0472

A Howl in the Dark

As I mentioned above, The Bruce is partnering with Wizard World to make his own horror movie film fest, usually running at the same time as Wizard World.  This was the first year.

On the one hand, I think this is a perfect idea.  But there’s something about it that worries me.  Longtime scenesters know of Flashback Weekend, a horror movie convention held in Rosemont.  It usually operates on the exact same weekend as Wizard World, which was great, because I could hit both cons and the weekend would be a win (always had more fun at Flashback).

This year, Flashback was the first weekend of the month, moving completely out of the way of Wizard World.  I was wondering why.  Now I know.

I just worry because Flashback is such a great show, and given Wizard’s history of trying to bully competing shows into oblivion, I really want it to survive.  Admittedly, the horror fest is much more limited in scope than Flashback, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

Still Alive

The elevators for the main parking deck for the Rosemont Convention Center have a ring of color changing LED lights around the top of the cars, like the Easter egg rave elevator in Crysis 2.  They also have an odd tendency on random occasions to lurch as they are going up or down.  Usually, everyone is too busy enjoying the pretty color-changing lights to really notice.

I recently got a new cell phone.  The text notification tone was standard, and I wanted something more me.  So I changed it to GLaDOS from Portal.

So there’s a bunch of us in the elevator.  It does a lurch.  At that moment, I received a text message.  So the mood in the elevator got very surreal when the elevator lurched and GLaDOS announced, “Stand by…for an important announcement….”

A quick look around the elevator showed that the other passengers had just had their daily allotment of OMGWTF.  One of them asked, with a tone of nervous uncertainty, “Was that the elevator?”

I pulled out my phone and said, No, I just got a text.

Everyone started laughing and joking that the elevator would open and, instead of the parking deck, we’d see a testing chamber.  Everyone relaxed.  But I’d just spooked an elevator full of people without even trying.