Part Two: Fall Cons, Past & Present
If comic book fandom didn’t originate in Detroit, the city sure helped it take root, as devoted comic book fans like Jerry Bails and Shel Dorf put together the Detroit Triple Fan Fair in 1965. This event gave area fans an official venue to congregate and actually meet various comic professionals, and was the foundation for not only future DTFFs but also other conventions nationwide. Today, most every medium or large city in the country is the site for a comic book or comics-related con.
In metro Detroit, one of the big players in the convention circuit is Michael Goldman’sSouthfield-based Motor City Conventions, who have been putting on the Motor City Comic Con in these parts for more than twenty years. That first MCCC, like most comic conventions, started off smaller than it is today, debuting at the Dearborn Civic Center before its yearly growth necessitated moving to the larger Novi Expo Center in 1994, and then the Rock Financial Showcase when the Expo Center closed in 2006. The three-day show has typically been held in the spring and in recent years has taken place in Mid-May. Word-of-mouth estimates for attendance for the most recent show are around 20,000 – 25,000. While the show has its share of comic book retailers who exhibit there, the show is more widely regarded as a pop-culture show, with a large number of dealers who sell toys, video, and other non-comic book items. And the show’s eclectic mix of B & C-list movie and TV actors and Playboy models has defined its character as much as anything else.
Through 2006, Motor City Conventions had also put together a smaller scale, two-day show in the fall. But these shows were often sparsely attended, and it wasn’t uncommon to see media guests like Lou Ferrigno or Peter Mayhew have long, awkward periods with little or no traffic in the vicinity of their tables. Retailers fared only slightly better, if that. “It was always OK,” according to retailer Ben Davis, owner of Big Ben’s Comix Oasis in Allen Park, MI, and a regular exhibitor at past MCCCs. “It wasn’t horrible, and it wasn’t great. (But) when the venue changed (to Rock Financial), it was not economically feasible.”
Some creators who exhibited didn’t even do that well. “I didn’t do very well at all,” admitted IdiotHead.com’s Adam Talley, self-publisher of Pleasant Life and Anna Pocalypse, who last exhibited at the fall show in 2003. “I was back in the corner, where all of the media guests were getting the attention. I was also next to a fetish-type model / singer, and people were just skipping over my table and going right to her.”
And others were downright unhappy. “The fall show failed,” said former MCCC coordinator Jeff Serling regarding the final fall show. Serling worked for Motor City Conventions at the time but did not coordinate that particular show. Serling cited cost overruns associated with bringing media guests to the show, but also added that these shows had done well in the past, when media guests were not focused on as heavily. “They were more comic book-driven than media-driven. The comic book show works in the fall; the media shows don’t.”
Wonderworld Comics’ Dennis Barger Jr also had the same thought, and acted on it in June when he announced a brand new comics-centered convention entitled Detroit FanFare, scheduled for October 30 & 31 at the Dearborn Hyatt Regency. The show is billed as “truly creator-friendly, focusing on comics and the people who make them” and “a celebration of comics, community, and Detroit.” And being on Halloween weekend, the show will also include a zombie walk, as well as a blood drive sponsored by the American Red Cross.
The similarity of the show’s name to the old DTFF is not a coincidence. But after a four year absence, why reintroduce the idea of a fall show now? “The show started in its infancy about two years ago,” Barger explained. “We saw that the (other) local show was getting further away from comics. And talking to my customer base as well as other fans at the show, we realized that the shows we have are getting too far into pop culture / media stuff, and less into the comic book area. (So) I started researching the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, which was the culmination of the fans wanting to start something special, (but the concept) kind of blossomed over the last 45 years into what has become these big media shows. I wanted to get back to the roots.”
“Fans were also disappointed that everything was starting to get spread out at these other conventions,” Barger continued.” There was no longer one single convention hotel, because they exceeded the capacity. So let’s get back to a hotel show; just comics only, and start there.”
Ironically, the venue of the new show was made possible by the move of another pop-culture convention, the anime-themed Youmacon, from Dearborn to the Renaissance Center downtown, Barger noted, adding, “As the (non-comics) media started taking over San Diego Comic-Con, Shel Dorf was looking at it and saying ‘this is so far away from what I envisioned the show being’, and he left, because there was too much media getting infused into this thing that was supposed to be about comics.” So once the venue was secured, Barger immediately decided to make the event center around comics and not other pop-culture aspects, and wanted to keep a local flavor that would give a nod to the area’s importance to the genesis of comics fandom.
Likewise, the date of the show was dictated by Youmacon’s vacancy from the Hyatt, and not the fact that it was Halloween weekend. “We’re not going to do this show on Halloween weekend ever again,” Barger insisted. But that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t embrace the idea of a Halloween-themed show for its initial outing. “If we’re going to (have the show) on Halloween, let’s start looking at all the avenues. (So) we came up with the idea of the zombie walk, because right now (Image Comics’) The Walking Dead is one of the most popular comic books. It’s an event to kick off the show. And at any comic book convention, one of the more popular aspects has been people dressing up in costumes, and it doesn’t get any easier than to dress up in a costume than on Halloween.”
Barger went on to talk about what Halloween offerings the show would have for kids. “A lot of churches and city halls are putting on safe Halloween events; why can’t we? The one thing we all agree on is that we need to get these kids in early (on comics). So kids are going to be able to wear their costumes and go trick-or-treating up to artists and dealers, and they’re going to get candy, comic books, and all kinds of cool free stuff.”
So with all of the ready tie-ins that Halloween can provide, why not have future shows on the same weekend? “A lot of the artists and writers are parents,” Barger responded. “They all have kids who want to go out trick-or-treating. But in the future we’ll probably (schedule) maybe two weeks before or two weeks after. We’re still going to tie into the concept; we’re just not going to do it on Halloween weekend. By eliminating that for 2011, we can have an even bigger guest list than what we have this year.”
And it wouldn’t be Halloween without shedding a little blood, and show attendees can do exactly that. Any attendee who donates blood to the American Red Cross at the show will be able to walk away with a selection of comics or trade paperbacks donated by retailers, distributors, and publishers.
According the show’s website, dozens of comic book creators are scheduled to appear, with the special guest of honor being none other than The Man himself, Stan Lee. Other guests include Billy Tucci, James O’Barr, and Tony Isabella. And in keeping with the Detroit connection, plenty of guests from Motown are also scheduled, including Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, and Greg Theakston; all attendees of the old DTFF. Show admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children, but fans have the opportunity to attend for free if they make a purchase at a participating comic book shop and ask for a voucher good for free admission by October 20.
Can a comics-centered show be expected to do any better in an area with a troubled economy than the old MCCC show did? Next week, some local retailers and creators weigh in on that issue, especially now that MCCC is planning to relaunch its fall show three weeks after DTFF.