The convention Chicago needs

By Luke Wilusz

The show floor teemed with costumed heroes and villains alike. A spandex-clad Green Lantern posed for a photo with his yellow-costumed arch-nemeses in the Sinestro Corps. Laughing Jedi in flowing brown robes strolled past Darth Vaders of various shapes and sizes on their quest for autographs, as comic fans arrived by the thousands to meet their favorite artists and writers at the inaugural Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, colloquially referred to by fans, attendees and organizers as C2E2.

The convention played host to some of the biggest names in the comic book industry, including top artists, writers and editors from major publishers such as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Top Cow. In addition, there was also an artists’ alley comprising nearly 350 artists, ranging from comic legends like Alex Ross and Adam Hughes to local and independent up-and-comers. The convention was held at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, from April 16-18.

Joe Gentile, publisher and editor-in-chief at local publishing house Moonstone Books, was glad to see a convention of this caliber come to Chicago and offer some competition to suburban Rosemont’s Wizard World, which was previously the only major comic convention in the area.

“For many years, we have needed an alternative,” Gentile said. “It’s really nice, because actually this has injected a lot of new blood into the hobby. I mean, Wizard World was not succeeding at that. It became kind of a smaller show each year.” Gentile noted that none of the major publishers—Marvel, DC or Dark Horse—went to Wizard World last year, and he saw that as a major drawback. He said C2E2 succeeded in exposing Moonstone to a wider audience and generating new interest in their books, largely because of the crowds attracted by the major publishers’ presence.

“This show has people from all over the place who have never seen us before, and that’s why you go to these shows,” Gentile said. “You expose your product to new people, new customers. Because Marvel and DC are here, it brings people from all over the place.”

Gentile, a Columbia College television production alumnus, started Moonstone about 15 years ago. The publisher focuses on books featuring classic, golden-age characters—Zorro, the Phantom and Green Hornet—in new stories for a contemporary audience.

Local Illustrator DanDougherty, best known for his “Beardo” comic strip in the suburban Southtown-Star newspaper and his work on the ongoing zombie western comic series “Rotten,” said he thought for years, that Chicago needed a convention like C2E2.

“The thing that’s huge is that it’s actually in the city,” Dougherty said. “I think it represents Chicago a lot better to have it in the city [as opposed to a convention in Rosemont].”

Dougherty said conventions are essential to independent like himself because they provide artists an opportunity to market their work and meet new fans. While he liked the large scale of the convention with the significant presence from major publishers, he said ideally he would love to see a convention highlighting Chicago’s local comic scene.

“I think Chicago actually needs a con that focuses on Chicago talent,” Dougherty said. “There’s a lot of untapped resources here. People sometimes don’t immediately think of Chicago as a comic book city, but there’s so much to see and explore. If you go to Graham Crackers or you go to Quimby’s or whatever, any place you go, they’re teeming with comics and comic talent.”

Lance Curran, warehouse manager for Chicago-based T-shirt company Threadless, agreed with Dougherty’s sentiment. He said Chicago was under-appreciated in the comic community, and C2E2 was a step in the right direction toward recognizing the city’s wide variety of successful comic professionals that live and work in the area.

“You’ve got Jill Thompson [artist for Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’], who lives in Chicago,” Curran said. “Her husband is Brian Azarello, one of the best writers [in the business], and he lives in Chicago. You’ve got [renowned cover artist] Alex Ross. You’ve got a bunch of big-name people here in Chicago, and I think we need to represent the artists here and the community involved.”

The highlight of Threadless’ booth at C2E2 was the announcement of their new line of comic-themed T-shirts. The line will include an original comic story playing out across four shirts. Professional comic artists Thompson, Art Baltazar, Cliff Chiang and Tony Moore will each contribute artwork for the shirts.

Eric Thornton, who worked at the Chicago Comics booth on the show floor, also praised the convention for what it brought to Chicago, but offered some criticism as well.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “There are definitely some things I can see that need improvement, but that’s to be expected for any first show.”

He noted an apparent lack of organization in terms of publicizing the convention’s events.

“I think one of the things that this [show] is lacking, to a certain extent, is a [public announcement] system,” Thornton said. “Nobody’s really making announcements. There’s no kind of man behind the curtain telling people where to go and where’s what. If you didn’t read the program, you’re not going to know what’s going on.”

While he was glad to see a major convention in the city, Thornton said he thought it could have been a much larger event if it was advertised more effectively.

“I think Chicago definitely needs a convention like this,” he said. “The problem is, I don’t think Chicago knows, even right now, still, that it needs a convention like this. I think there are a lot of people in Chicago proper that would have loved to have come here, but I just don’t know if they knew about it.”

Lance Fensterman is the vice president of the pop culture division of Reed Exhibitions, the company that organized C2E2. While Reed has been in the trade show business for longer than Fensterman could recall, he said they first delved into pop culture conventions five years ago when they started the New York Comic Con.

He said the idea for C2E2 came from large publishers like Marvel and DC, who told Reed they wanted a large-scale convention in the heart of downtown Chicago. While he said Reed plans to expand future events to encompass wider areas of entertainment, such as movies and video games, the goal for the first C2E2 was to build a strong base around the comic book community.

“I think we were successful in building a very robust, comic-centric show with a little bit of anime and a little bit of general entertainment sprinkled in,” Fensterman said. “We definitely captured the attention of the hard-core comic fan, which is where we wanted to start.”

He said conventions are essential to the comic book industry because they offer creators a chance to interact intimately with their fans.

“They literally will sit there and sign or draw pictures and chat with the fans while the fans tell them what they liked and didn’t like about what they’re working on,” Fensterman said. “That’s just very rare … where you literally can sit down and converse one-on-one with the person whose work you really enjoy. I think that affects the creative process, and it affects the ability of the artists to create something that resonates with their fans.”