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.
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?