Chicago Comic-Con 2011 Recap

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The developing trend for many comics conventions is a shift towards celebrities, autographs, and photo ops, and away from, well…comics. This certainly seems to be the case at the Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con. The major publishers no longer have booths and the majority of the panels are now Q & A sessions with actors and media personalities. It’s a disheartening trend for what used to be Chicago’s biggest celebration of sequential art. However, it still offers a good time for fans, if they’re in the right mind set.

To compensate for the comics industry’s dwindling presence, the 2011 Chicago Comic-Con pulled out the big guns in terms of celebrity guests. Major names this year included Patrick Stewart, Christopher Lloyd, Pam Grier, Tia Carrere, LeVar Burton, Vivica A. Fox, Bruce Campbell, Felicia Day, and a cavalcade of Buffy alums including James Marsters, Charisma Carpenter, Nicholas Brendon, Julie Benz, Mercedes McNab, and Clare Kramer. Last year’s focus on pricey autographs and photos and strict enforcement by the stars’ PR agencies was cause for concern. However, this year, the celebrity aisles at Chicago Comic-Con had a surprisingly casual feel. Many photo ops were only $10 and fans were allowed to walk up and have a chat with stars even if they had no intention of purchasing anything. Some stars even bent the rules to take photos without prior approval from their agencies.

While panel programming was not as extensive as in past years, it still had a number of notable high points. Writers and artists such as Michael Golden, Gregg Hurwitz, Michael Harvey, and Paul Jenkins were on hand to offer their wisdom and advice to aspiring comics creators and storytellers. Felicia Day and her Guild co-star, Jeff Lewis, provided one of the more entertaining panels. Day offered suggestions for Web content producers, while Lewis repeatedly tried to pitch a spinoff series for his character Vork involving girls, booze, and Lakers games. Artist Ethan Van Sciver also once again shared his piano skills and wit through a series of satirical songs at his panel.

The biggest downside to these panels was that some were relocated to the upper level of the Donald E. Stephenson Convention Center due to the presence of another event on-site. The second floor proved to have rather narrow, winding hallways and staff volunteers were not able to wrangle the various lines of waiting fans particularly well. There was confusion over which lines were for which hall and people with VIP tickets had to fight their way through the crowd to take advantage of their perks. If the upper level is to be used in future years, this is something Wizard will need to organize more effectively.

A big hit of the con was a performance of the original play, Musical of the Living Dead, which played to a packed house. I was unable to secure a seat but I plan on tracking them down at their theatre space, the Charnel House.

The living dead were, in fact, out in full force at the con. Saturday was Zombie Day and the “walkers” could be seen shambling about the show floor, participating in a parade, and at a special screening of The Evil Dead. Check out two of my favorites, zombie Arisia and zombie Supergirl (complete with kryptonite spike through the chest) in Broken Frontier’s photo gallery.

Wandering through Artist Alley and the surrounding booths, I was able to chat with a few comics creators and get a preview of their upcoming projects. Freddie Williams II discussed the Captain Atom series he is working on with J.T. Krul for the DC relaunch. Williams said that this version has been given free rein to draw from “more sci-fi and esoteric elements” than previous incarnations of the character. This will hopefully make their series more than just a superhero book. In a similar vein, Brian Azzarello discussed his plans for the relaunched Wonder Woman, claiming that in his mind the opening story is more of a horror comic than a superhero one.

Azzarello also spoke of his upcoming project, Spaceman, which he says was inspired by “a conversation in a bar” with a bioengineering professor. While discussing the impossibility of manned space travel to Mars, the pair began speculating on what factors could make it possible. One such idea was to genetically engineer astronauts with higher bone density. The moral and scientific implications of this proved to be the kernel that inspired Azzarello’s story. He reunites with Eduardo Risso and the entire 100 Bullets team, who he says “almost have a single ego” between them, as they all remain focused on the story at all times.

Michael Golden spoke about becoming the new cover artist on Spawn. This has proved to be an interesting challenge, as he has never worked on a property like this before. However, he has a good working relationship with Todd McFarlane, who has always been very enthusiastically collaborative in their back-and-forth exchanges. Golden also discussed his storytelling panel at the con, an adaptation of a class he teaches at many schools and venues around the world. He’s been thrilled by the positive response and the very intelligent and insightful questions that aspiring comics creators ask him.

While scaled back and more focused on Hollywood than in past years, the Chicago Comic-Con still provides a fun experience for fans. If one is of a mind to wander the show floor, casually chatting with creators and celebrities or scouring the quarter bins for buried comics treasure, the slightly more laid-back feel is quite enjoyable. If fans are seeking more activities and more thorough coverage of the comics industry, however, this con may not be quite what they’re looking for. Now that C2E2 is providing stiff competition, it is interesting to watch the two conventions diverge and begin to form their own identities and overall tone.

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