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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Another Massive Comic Book Convention!

20100317_WizardCon1.jpg
Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.


If you live in or around Toronto, and have at any point in your life a) fantasized about Marina Sirtis from Star Trek: The Next Generation, b) engaged in a debate about who is the best Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, clearly), or c) rolled a die that has more than six sides, chances are you’ve been to Fan Expo. For over fifteen years, Fan Expo Canada has served as Toronto’s premier gathering of the nerds: a multigenre convention/exhibition/costumed carnival for anyone who’s more-than-a-little-bit interested in comic books, anime, science fiction, horror movies, video games, or Warhammer figurines. But there’s a new kid on the block.


Wizard Entertainment, the fan culture behemoth behind Wizard and Toyfare magazines, recently announced that they would be mounting a twelve-city tour, bringing miniaturized versions of their massive Wizard World Chicago convention to cities across North America, including a stopover in Toronto later this month. Setting up shop at the Direct Energy Centre on the weekend of March 26, the inaugural Wizard World Toronto Comic Con offers a chance for those who can’t wait until the Labour Day long weekend to struggle into their ill-fitting superhero tights, shop for comics, and snag autographs from Battlestar Galactica cast members.
In 2009, Wizard founder and CEO Gareb Shamus purchased the homegrown Paradise Toronto Comicon from Peter Dixon (who owns Paradise Comics on Yonge Street, north of Lawrence), rebranding the popular annual event under the Wizard banner. “One of the big cities that we have a lot of fans in is Toronto,” says Shamus. “It’s a great audience and we just wanted to be there.” And though retaining the “Comic Con” angle, and retaining Dixon for his expertise and savvy when it comes to local audiences, Wizard’s fest is a different beast altogether, bringing B-list actors (including Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson, and Sheena from Baywatch), sci-fi scribes, and former WWE superstars into the fold.
Considering the iron-clad lock Fan Expo (organized by corporate parent entity Hobbystar Marketing) has had over Toronto fandom, Wizard’s announcement has raised some issues. “People are hearing that there’s a big show in Toronto, and they’re not finding out the details,” explains Fan Expo co-coordinator James Armstrong. “There’s actually two shows. And we’ve been around the longest and are one of the biggest. But some people are not looking into the details too closely.” While both Armstrong and Shamus remain cheerfully diplomatic about the other’s presence on the local comic convention scene, Wizard’s move into town rattles some of the skeletons hiding in Hobbystar’s closet.

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Enterprise crew-members at Fan Expo 2009. Photo by Simon Chambers from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

One of the great misconceptions about fan culture, and especially these massive annual expos, is that they represent some grassroots ideology shared by comic readers, hardened sci-fi fans, and toy collectors operating just outside the mainstream of mass culture. While there’s plenty of charm in the idea that Fan Expo or Wizard World are just bloated flea markets of geeky excess for likeminded genre fans, it’s not really the case. In previous years, Fan Expo bigwigs drew criticism by local fan-run conventions for their concerted attempts to steamroll any fan-centric goings-on operating outside of the Hobbystar banner. Local comic shop owners accused Hobbystar of discouraging them from purchasing tables at rival conventions, under threat of losing their spot at Fan Expo, and, indeed, as Fan Expo’s presence has grown with each passing year, the visibility of smaller conventions like Anime North, Ad Astra, and Trekzac Festicon has diminished or disappeared. Some fans even petitioned Hobbystar to desist in what they said was predatory planning maneuvering, only to be met with a combination of indifference and (alleged) harassment.
Though Wizard is by no means some mom-and-pop startup, they stand to give Hobbystar a taste of their own medicine, especially considering their affiliation with Dixon’s bygone Paradise Comicon. In 2007, Paradise co-owner and organizer Kevin Boyd ditched Dixon and decamped to work for Hobbystar. The Direct Energy Centre, Wizard World Toronto’s venue, was also Paradise Con’s old stomping grounds. Given this rich pageantry of betrayals and buy-outs, Wizard’s new Toronto event is bound to conjure memories of more homespun, though no less impressive, fan conventions that seemed less tainted by the inflated admission prices and hundred-dollar autographs that you’d find at Fan Expo.
It’s a bit like DC Comics’ recent “Battle For The Cowl” plot-arc, which saw Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, and other Gotham City vigilantes scrambling to fill the utility-belt of the recently deceased Batman. Except, in this case, the powerplayers are skirmishing over the money of local comics fans. “The folks around here have only so much money to spend,” says Armstrong. “So you can only split it so many ways.”
Given that Shamus tactfully scheduled Wizard World Toronto in order to skirt direct competition with Fan Expo, and that both conventions are targeting a demographic predicated on disposable income (nobody really needs a 1:16 scale Wolverine figurine, after all), it may be overstating the case to suggest that the presence of two large-scale fan conventions will result in some corporate version of a Marvel vs. DC superhero slugfest. And considering Fan Expo’s stronghold in Toronto, Armstrong and Co. have no real reason to be shaking in their spandex booties just yet.
Given their high profile and connection with Paradise Comicon, Wizard World Toronto will give local fans more of what they want. And, at the end of the day, despite all the high admission prices, cutthroat competitor quashing, and corporate bullying, it’s all about the fans. Right?

Comments

  • http://undefined David Simmons

    Just the record, Anime North has seen its attendance increase every year since it was founded in 1997, with 14,800 people coming last year, We are by far the largest completely volunteer-run fan convention in Canada. Our health is certainly not diminishing due to competition from Fan Expo.
    David Simmons
    Anime North Registration

  • rek

    Don’t forget about Toronto Comics Art Festival! You won’t find anyone dressed up as Captain Star Trek, but you will find great indie/small press/that-sort-of-thing artists and titles.

  • http://undefined TO con-goer

    Never heard of Trekzac, but Animie North and Ad Astra are far from disappearing. What I find it suprising is that Polaris wasn’t even mentioned (used to be called Toronto Trek) and they’ve been around for 24 years! http://www.tcon.ca/

  • http://undefined Matthew

    Nothing makes me exciting for a COMIC Con like seeing a bunch of z-list “celebrity” featured guests listed before the comic creator guests.
    Still though, once you scroll down it’s a pretty great looking list of comic creators, who might be too mainstream to ever get invited to a TCAF.

  • http://undefined Kevin Boyd

    Now I don’t have any beefs with Gareb or Steven Shamus, or with Peter Katz or any of the Wizard folk. I wish them all the best next weekend. That event bears little to no resemblance to my old show and I personally wish they hadn’t come in to reopen old feuds here in the community or to give journalists the opportunities to revive the old con war story. If they pull this show off, then good for them.
    As for the past, I spent long years working for free on the for-profit Paradise show (as I was never paid for any of my work on those shows despite a bunch of false promises). Doing that made me sick, exhausted and nearly broke. I tried very hard to make it the equivalent of popular American comic book-centric shows like HeroesCon, the Emerald City Comic Con and the Baltimore Comicon. People seemed to like it.
    I think for a while we were succeeding in doing that, but it was clear by 2006-2007 that the show was moving backwards and was just not financially viable for all of the work involved – at least it was not for me – five years of charity work helping Peter Dixon build an “expertise” that could eventually be handed over to an American company was enough.
    In the end, I felt like I had failed miserably at my job and had nothing to show for it. I literally walked away and alienated people I once considered friends in the process, some of whom still spit and curse when my name comes up. It also allowed them to scapegoat me for a year, that didn’t work out very well. That was my thanks for five years at Paradise – to be called a traitor and have people write articles saying I ditched Dixon to decamp and work for Hobbystar. It’s a very unusual experience to see your friends become your enemies because you won’t martyr yourself for them.
    And you know what happened after I left? Two+ years of peace and quiet. The Stop Hobbystar movement died long before I left Paradise because Hobbystar listened and made changes. The complaints against Hobbystar’s comic book shows got fewer and farther apart. For two years we’ve been trying to rebuild a fractional comics community. We have a long way to go yet. We aren’t concerned about our fiefdoms but about concentrating on the quality of the events that we put on for the fans… Fan Expo 2010 is going to blow people’s socks off.
    I also fully support and promote real fan and community events here in town like the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Anime North, Ad Astra and Polaris. These are events with history and a place here.

  • http://undefined emmafromto

    sorry to interrupt nerd talk with different nerd talk, but…Best Show!

  • http://undefined Christine

    Personally, I avoid EXTREMELY LARGE conventions like Fan Expo. I’ve attended it once (2007), and found it lacking in all of the things that make smaller, more focused conventions like Anime North great. I felt that it was too eclectic for me to really enjoy, with one of it’s major focuses (Horror) being something I don’t care for at all. As far as I could tell, Fan Expo seemed for the most part, a large DEALER’S Room…
    Things I look for in conventions: Viewings, Artist’s Alley (non-professional artists manga, bookmarks, buttons, crafts, posters, paintings, fan-art), Special Events (like concerts, kendo demonstrations, etc.), Panels(whether by voice actors, industry professionals, or rising webcomic artists).

  • http://undefined Yay

    I find this article to be very interesting. After reading the posting from Kevin Boyd my sympathies are with him, and I hope that one day mended bridges can be repaired. Throughout this article (and others that I’ve taken part of in the past) I am not impressed on how most reporters view shows that don’t come from corporate branding that they are just “small independent almost seemingly insignificant events. ” I find all shows/events just as important as any other gigs that may run throughout the year, and all of their energies towards the goals are just as important as shows that may carry the weight of large corporate events. Just for the sake of argument let’s take a very quick look at what makes an independent show different from a corporate show and from my opinion it runs something like this: An independent show is a group of people or coalition of entities from independent sources, allow it to be from a group of friends or something along those lines and their soul goal is to better the fan base community, and they and the show/event just gives back where energy is needed and to move forward in a very positive matter that everybody can both play and grow from. On that topic; “Can an independent show ever become a corporate show?” In my opinion, the answer is no because it still independent, but however if the independent show sell themselves out to a corporate entity something like along the lines of Fox entertainment, Microsoft, Sony entertainment, blockbuster and other large branding corporations of the kind and just for the sake of arguments lets just say the next Polaris convention was brought to you by the people at Paramount Studios, then in my opinion the new Paramount/Polaris event is now a corporate show, and there is nothing wrong with that because business is just business. Now let’s take a quick look at what makes a corporate show a corporate event. A corporate show is an event that’s ran by a single large corporate conglomerate (and I am not talking about some guy who likes to sell autographs to fan goers) and their sole purpose is just to create profits for without a care for the local fan base community or an other charities. That to me is truly a corporate gig, that is just serving the corporate branding name and nothing more, and to me that is horrible into itself
    So I say. On live the independent scene, and may the corporations never get their meat hooks into what the independent shows have built and brought to us over the years.

  • http://undefined Kevin Boyd

    Thanks Rcehoppe, it’s really fine. I moved on, except when someone decides to write pointless con war articles.
    In Toronto we have many great fan run events. San Diego Comic Con is, in fact, run in a manner very much like Anime North in that it, too, is a not-for-profit event for fans.
    Comic book conventions are of two distinct types with very different approaches.
    There’s “comic cons” which are shows that focus on comic books, and there are “Comic-Cons”, which are something else entirely – comics are there, but part of a hodge-podge of pop cultural stuff.
    Personally, I do prefer “comic cons” that keep the attention on comics. That’s what I tried to do with Paradise and that’s why I do three smaller comic book centric shows with Hobbystar and that’s the approach I take to comics at Fan Expo — Tiz and I worry about comics, and other people worry about Sci-Fi, Horror, et al. for me, the other stuff is a distraction and if we don’t have a good solid comic show in the hodge-podge of other genres then I know the fans of comics like myself will walk away disappointed and just wait for the smaller comic-centric shows.
    Now at the “Comic-Con” level there are two types of companies outside of San Diego — there’s companies that run on just doing shows (like Reed and Hobbystar) and there are companies that do shows and other things (like Wizard and their magazines and other ventures). I’m too close to it to make any judgement calls, but working with Hobbystar is definitely not like working with a faceless corporation — it’s basically a team mentality where we each have our areas of expertise.
    Christine, I’m sorry you didn’t like the Fan Expo Artist Alley experience in 2007. Tiziano and I (the other comics coordinator) and I have been working with the administrators at Hobbystar to make the artist alley and guest area a more cohesive area and a better experience for all — attendees and creators alike. I think the overall reaction from both has been quite positive. We have to manage hundreds of creator guests and artist alley exhibitors at the Fan Expo event but overall I think we’ve been doing okay with it, especially last year (2009). Shoot me an email at kevin@hobbystar if you want to give me some specific examples of problems you have had so that I can see if we’ve addressed it and if not make improvements for the better.
    Thanks,
    Kevin

  • http://undefined Kevin Boyd

    Sorry, my email is kevin@hobbystar.com

  • http://undefined Matthew

    Chump steam-roller!

  • http://undefined redeem147

    I’ve attended most of the cons and shows mentioned. I enjoy attending. I’m going to the very much alive Ad Astra next month. Last year Paradise’s show was on the same weekend as Polaris, and I hope that doesn’t happen again with any of them.
    I’ll be at the Wizard World event next weekend. And Fan Expo next summer.

  • http://undefined redeem147

    Anime North is small?
    Fan Expo used to me more of a dealer’s room, but now they have lots of guest talks and panels so I enjoy it far more.

  • http://undefined redeem147

    And of course I meant ‘be’ more.

  • http://undefined kasarr

    ROTFLMAO… ok boys, can we put the penis’s away now, nobody cares how far you can pee.
    The fact is, he with the best guests, gets the most fans. It doesn’t matter how many 100′s of guests you bring in if nobody wants to see them.
    And don’t forget, you’re talking about “for profit cons” here, not ‘volunteer run’. Comparing the 2 is like comparing “Hurt Locker” to “Avatar”… oops, maybe shoulda stuck to the apples/oranges comparison.
    Good luck to all of you, at the end of the day, it’s the fans who will decide which of you will be successful or not.

  • http://undefined Solex

    Fan Expo is still crud, and then some: I’d rather go to Anime North and Polaris than waste my time at a place because it has a ton of guests. Compared to Anime North, Ad Astra, and Polaris Fan Expo comes up short.

    ROTFLMAO… ok boys, can we put the penis’s away now, nobody cares how far you can pee.
    The fact is, he with the best guests, gets the most fans. It doesn’t matter how many 100′s of guests you bring in if nobody wants to see them.
    And don’t forget, you’re talking about “for profit cons” here, not ‘volunteer run’. Comparing the 2 is like comparing “Hurt Locker” to “Avatar”… oops, maybe shoulda stuck to the apples/oranges comparison.
    Good luck to all of you, at the end of the day, it’s the fans who will decide which of you will be successful or not.

    Spoken like a true know-nothing who neglects quality for quantity.