War of the Geeks: Comic Con storms Minneapolis

Wizard World reinterprets the “comic con” and brings it to the masses, but Twin Cities retailers aren’t going down without a superhero-sized fight

War of the Geeks: Comic Con storms Minneapolis
Jon Gitchoff

At first glance, the Hulk seems to be someone to fear as he lumbers down the convention-center aisle — kelly green like the Wicked Witch of the West, heavy on his feet, fists as thick as paint cans. A transfixed child sees something deeper, though. Slipping quietly away from his mother, the seven-year-old boy tiptoes over to the green beast, who has dropped his backpack onto the floor so he can stretch out his arms a bit. The tyke watches for a moment before approaching his hero, unintimidated by the character's bulging muscles and tattered clothing. Noticing the boy, the Hulk grins broadly and extends one hand downward, high-fiving the dazzled kid.

Nearby, a man in a grubby duster jacket flicks playing cards at passersby, while a woman with flowing auburn hair — save for a shock of white near her bangs — contentedly rests her head on his shoulder. Even the guy serving hot dogs from a post across the floor can see that — much as they are in the comic book X-Men — this Gambit and Rogue truly are in love, barely registering the constant flashes from cell-phone cameras in the crowd.

In the next aisle, a line snakes back and forth eight times until it reaches a table where actor and heartthrob Norman Reedus leans in to sign an autograph for a middle-aged woman. Though the sign out front says that there's a two-hour wait to reach the terminus, the fans in line don't mind; they're content to discuss The Walking Dead star's best moments until it's their turn with "Daryl Dixon."

Kevin Timm, owner of Captain Jack’s Comics in Bloomington
Tony Nelson
Kevin Timm, owner of Captain Jack’s Comics in Bloomington

These are John Macaluso's people — the nerds, the geeks, the moms, the kids, the cosplayers, the celebrities, the moviegoers, the TV-watchers, and the comics junkies. As the CEO of Wizard World, a company focused on bringing comic-book pop culture to the masses, Macaluso is Santa Claus for today's crop of fanboys and fangirls, giving everyday devotees opportunities to meet — and sometimes to be — their favorite characters. It's a very different life from the one he led for two decades as an apparel entrepreneur.

"I tell you, I was just with someone yesterday, and I told them I'm having the absolute greatest time of my working career running this company," says the 57-year-old Macaluso.

Under Macaluso's watch for the past two years, Wizard World has more than doubled its number of traveling comic cons, expanded its cadre of A-list celebrity guests, and become one of the most talked-about productions in the comics and entertainment business.

And there are no signs of slowing down. It's a new era for the traveling-convention company, one that makes Macaluso proud, and one that will make its Twin Cities debut this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center when Wizard World brings in stars from Star Trek, Firefly, and other pop-culture media for a three-day geekfest. Indeed, as a nomadic regional convention, Wizard World particularly has upped its game by adding more shows in the Midwest and South, such as those in Louisville, Tulsa, and Atlanta — the setting for the popular comic-book and TV series The Walking Dead.

Yet for all its growth in recent years, there are people who remember when Wizard World placed most of its emphasis on comic books. For some of those fans, the company has veered off course by chasing celebrities and attempting to be all things to a disparate number of pop-culture junkies. Just because someone is really into zombie films and WWE wrestling doesn't mean that they're also going to have an appreciation for early-issue Marvel Comics.

Macaluso argues otherwise. Broad appeal is the core of Wizard World's new strategy, and to Macaluso, there's more than enough room under his big top for all fans — no matter how general or obscure their interests. Besides, there is strength — and dollars — in numbers.

"'Nerd' is a good word today," Macaluso notes. "If you're not a nerd or a geek, you're on the outside now. It's the truth."

TODAY, ONE CAN WEAR a Batman or Star Wars shirt without taking flack for it, but that's a relatively new phenomenon. Comic books and related nerdy pursuits — video games, anime, strategy board games — used to be underground interests, something to be brought out of the closet only among trusted friends.

But over the past few decades, that attitude has slowly changed.

"Postmodernism is the reason why popular culture exists," says Rebecca Housel, a regular Wizard World speaker and author of a series of books about how X-Men, Twilight, and other "geek lit" intersects with philosophy. "It started around 1950, and by the time we got to the '70s, we began to see things like civil rights and women's liberation evolve socially.

"And that's why pop culture began to emerge — because it wasn't just high and low culture anymore, it was popular," Housel continues. "It didn't matter if you were rich or poor; everybody that liked something should have access to it and would. By the time we got to the '90s, we began to see the social attitude begin to change where it didn't matter if you were a geek or a dude who likes to wear lipstick. We didn't care anymore. You're an individual. You have value."

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