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War of the Geeks: Comic Con storms Minneapolis

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."

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."

 

That shift is one of the reasons Wizard World has been able to attract giant, diverse crowds to its ever-expanding roster of host cities, and it's something that helps feed its attendees' appetites for more than just comics.

Conventions like Wizard World have their roots in '70s events that allowed a few hundred comic-book readers and collectors to interact directly with publishers, writers, and artists. Over the years, more of these events popped up across the country, with the growing attendance requiring arena- and convention-center space instead of church basements and hotel ballrooms. To fill all that floor space, organizers brought in sponsors and a wider variety of pop-culture merchandise. In doing so, they also raised vendors' fees, which often squeezed out the very writers and publishers the events originally celebrated. Eventually, conventions also began embracing Hollywood's comic-book film trend that kicked off with 1989's Batman and really took hold after 1998's Blade and 2000's X-Men.

Wizard World isn't alone in catering to a broader audience — many modern cons strive to emulate the long-running San Diego Comic-Con International, the granddaddy of conventions that combines pop culture with comics, fantasy, and sci-fi elements. With attendees topping 130,000 for the four-day event, it's increasingly common for production companies to buy prime convention space and time slots to promote their latest films and television shows. Wizard World conventions haven't grown quite that large yet, but they're still aiming for those with broad interests.

"Wizard World really tries to cover all the ground in pop culture — comics, movies, television, wrestling," says Brian Spath, one of the writers/producers of Comic Geeks, a Web series about four friends who take different approaches to comics obsession.

Wait, wrestling? Indeed, wrestler Randy Orton was a draw during last year's Wizard World tour. So, too, was martial artist and actor Jason David Frank. Oh, and also Henry Winkler, the Fonz from Happy Days. But despite the seemingly diverse interests among attendees — are you here for The Walking Dead comic or The Walking Dead television show? — there still seems to be a feeling of community.

"I think the biggest payoff is the same adage that most comic fans have endured since getting into it: It's not a solitary thing," says Spath, who has been screening Comic Geeks at conventions around the country. "There are similar folks out there, and it's not a shameful thing to broadcast nowadays."

Local retailers get into the fun, too, seeing Wizard World as an opportunity to reach new audiences.

"We're looking to help the comic-book industry," Wizard World CEO Macaluso says. "We try and attract every local comic-book dealer to the shows."

But some comic book shops in the Twin Cities area are staying away from Wizard World out of solidarity with SpringCon, a long-established convention scheduled for May 17 and 18 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

"We usually do Wizard World [in other cities]," says Kevin Timm, owner of Captain Jack's Comics in Bloomington. "I don't know if I'd say we're protesting, but to show support for SpringCon, we're not doing the Wizard World one [in Minneapolis]."

Held each May by the Midwest Comic Book Association (with a companion convention in the fall), SpringCon is one of the largest events of its type in the Midwest. The con is celebrated by shops and fans alike because it spotlights regional comic book creators and retailers instead of national celebrities, and it also partners with organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Lupus Foundation of Minnesota, and the Emergency Foodshelf Network. MCBA co-director Nick Postiglione savors the region's enthusiasm for comics and the community that passion creates.

"I've been told that not only is our per capita production of working professionals higher than the norm out there, but our consumption also is much higher," Postiglione says of the Twin Cities area's love of creating and reading comics. "We're the Wisconsin of beer-drinking, but in comic books."

But Wizard World's first foray into the Minneapolis area happens May 2-4 — two weekends before SpringCon and during Free Comic Book Day, the foremost national holiday in the comics world that drives traffic to local stores through special giveaways and celebrations.

"Wizard World has now scheduled their con to take place just two weeks before the MCBA's SpringCon, plus it also happens to run right over Free Comic Book Day, the one major nationwide promotional event designed expressly to benefit comic book stores," says Andrew Troth, owner of Mind's Eye Comics in Eagan. "That's two dick moves in one, forcing fans to choose between the new con and the established con, and between going to Wizard World and attending FCBD at their favorite local store."

 

"The idea that they [Wizard World] planned it on our single holiday that we've worked for 12 years to build as a group tells you everything you need to know," adds Postiglione, who also is co-owner of Source Comics and Games, which has won a coveted Eisner Award in the "Spirit of Comics Retailer" category.

Interestingly, Postiglione says that about a year and a half ago — before Wizard World announced a Minneapolis event — a Wizard World representative asked him about acquiring MCBA's SpringCon. However, because SpringCon is run by volunteers, Postiglione says there was nothing to buy or sell.

"I said, 'When you guys come, give us fair warning and we can help you out. We'd be happy to promote your show,'" Postiglione says, laying out MCBA's "the more, the merrier" attitude toward cons that foster comic-book appreciation. "And then they landed right on top of us."

It's not uncommon for larger conventions to acquire local events, especially in regions with proven industry passion or in cities that might be hungry for more star power. Over the years, Wizard World has purchased conventions with large but stagnant fan bases in New York, Chicago, and Columbus, Ohio, turning them into mega-events. Postiglione knows that's the nature of the business, and he's not particularly worried about attendance for SpringCon (he's predicting record numbers and says that SpringCon attendees are more comic book-focused than those at the more celebrity-oriented Wizard World). But he's not happy with Wizard World's scheduling.

"Our dates had been published far and wide when they did it," Postiglione says. "These people that are involved with the MCBA work so hard. And that's the part... well, to tell you the truth, it just pisses me off."

Wizard World denies deliberately scheduling against SpringCon or trying to usurp Free Comic Book Day.

"Wizard World schedules its events based on the available dates on a convention center's calendar and how that fits into the rest of our schedule," says Jerry Milani, PR director for Wizard World.

Postiglione isn't buying it, though.

"It was just like, 'Really, guys?'" Postiglione says. "And then they tell us, 'Well, it was the only weekend we had.' One of my best friends is a traffic manager at the Convention Center, and he says that is absolutely not true. And I'm like, 'Okay, now I know what we're dealing with.'"

THE BAD BLOOD BOILED to the surface in 2001 — a decade before John Macaluso jumped into the Wizard World driver's seat. Frank Miller, creator of the acclaimed Sin City series, was delivering the keynote speech at the Harvey Awards, a major awards program for those in the comic-book industry. As a prop, Miller held in his hand a copy of Wizard magazine, the publication that inspired the Wizard World trade shows.

"Even though this monthly vulgarity reinforces all the prejudice people hold about comics, they cry to all the world that we're as cheap and stupid and trashy as they think we are, and we sponsor this assault," Miller said as he ripped apart an issue of the magazine onstage. "We pay for the goddamn privilege. But really, when will we finally get around to flushing this thing, this load of crap, once and for all?"

Miller concluded his speech by tossing the torn magazine into a trash can, to thunderous applause.

The target of Miller's rage, Gareb Shamus, is no longer with Wizard World. But without him, hundreds of thousands of geeks in the heartland may never have experienced a large-scale comic con. In 1991, Shamus, then a recent college grad, founded Wizard: The Guide to Comics, a monthly magazine that gave readers story-arc speculation, humor columns, comic-book reviews, a price guide, and an inside line to some of the industry's best personalities.

Back then it was difficult for comic-book readers to find easy-to-read information about upcoming issues or emerging writers and artists. Readers prized Wizard's top-ten lists and its commentary on collectibles. Moreover, because the magazine used a fun style of writing and design, it stood out from dry resources like Comics Buyer's Guide.

"You weren't a comic-book retailer if you didn't carry Wizard. In fact, the magazine was popular enough to be on some customers' pull lists, just like comic books were," says Neil Sobleski, a longtime comic-book collector in Dayton, Ohio. "One of the cool things Wizard did was to share photos of artists and writers, which you didn't see before."

 

Successfully satisfying a public hunger, Shamus spread his publication empire to several other geek-oriented monthlies before turning his attention to events — specifically consumer conventions. Operating as Wizard Entertainment, Shamus's team bought Chicago Comicon in 1997, expanding the scope and boosting attendance from 5,000 to 25,000 the following year (the Chicago con continues to be one of the most popular of its size in the country).

"It was the first Wizard show, and we've done it consecutively every year since then," says Milani, Wizard World's PR director.

Wizard Entertainment continued pushing comics into the mainstream through publications and conventions, and things were good. Until they weren't.

After Miller's outburst at the Harvey Awards, fans perceived a shift in Wizard's quality and mission during the 2000s. Some comics collectors speculated that the publication was playing favorites with its lists and inflating the purported monetary value of certain titles. In addition, observers saw Wizard Entertainment as something of a bully, scheduling its conventions directly against those already established in some cities. By the end of the decade, Wizard was on fewer newsstands, and the Shamus era of Wizard Entertainment began drawing to a close. In 2011, the print publications suddenly ceased production, quickly followed by the dissolution of the digital version of Wizard magazine.

"What hurts the most about all of this... is that it didn't have to happen," former Wizard news editor Brett White was quoted as saying in the wake of the magazine's closure. "Wizard as a name, as a thing, it's something that has always existed to me. I started collecting hardcore in 1993, and Wizard was there for it. And when you look at all the great people that have worked there, it really should have always been at the absolute top of its game. Wizard in 2011 should be as popular as Wired in print and Comic Book Resources and Newsarama online."

By the close of 2011, Shamus, who declined to comment for this story, was out as CEO. A few months later, John Macaluso was in, billed as the man who would help bring Wizard World back to life.

MACALUSO IS AN oatmeal man. The Wizard World CEO has been traveling quite frequently for this year's lineup of conventions — he attends every event — and he needs some hearty sustenance to keep him going as he shares his story and gears up for another event.

The down-home breakfast fits Macaluso's style. He's a businessman. A finance whiz. A practical guy known for solving problems. But Macaluso's background doesn't exactly scream "geek."

In 1987 he founded California Concepts, a women's apparel manufacturer that produced private labels and serviced upscale specialty chains, which he ran until he sold the company in 2007. Macaluso also has been involved in real estate development and other entrepreneurial endeavors — undertakings that he says benefit his position at Wizard World.

"I was a garment manufacturer selling to every major chain in the country — Walmart, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Sears. And for the most part, you had to look at a cost sheet and make sure that a garment that cost $6 didn't sell for $5," Macaluso says. "It's all the same business principles."

After Macaluso retired, he invested in Wizard World on the advice of a friend and eventually became a member of its board of directors after enjoying an experience at a convention in New Orleans. That wasn't his only incentive to become active with the company, though.

"My wife and kids basically said, 'We're really glad you're retired, but you're driving us crazy. Go find a job,'" Macaluso laughs.

Since Macaluso took the helm in March 2012, Wizard World has bumped its annual number of comic cons from seven cities in 2012 to 16 in 2014 and increased its full-time staff to 23 people. Macaluso has also greatly increased the company's overall revenue. In 2012, Wizard World earned just $6.7 million in operating revenue. Last year, that figure eclipsed $11 million. In 2012, the company eked out just $197,809 in operating income. Last year it netted $343,506. Sure, no one is going to confuse Wizard World with the next Apple; the company operates out of a nondescript walk-up in Southern California, and its thinly traded stock sells for well below a dollar. But it's progress.

So what was it that had put Wizard World in such a precarious monetary position for years?

"Just like anything else — spending too much, not selling enough tickets," Macaluso says. "But we've come up with a really great formula, a really great marketing strategy, that helps us sell more tickets."

Under Macaluso's leadership, Wizard World has been researching even more cities for expansion in 2015. He has also ensured that the convention's growing fan base will have appealing entertainment options, with the company spending between $400,000 for a smaller comic con up to $1.5 million for events in its biggest cities.

 

"We try and bring in a great celebrity lineup — top-notch artists and writers, award-winners, a large variety of exhibitors," Macaluso says. "We've put a lot of time and effort into the panels and the Q&A sessions. And we work very hard on logistics so a fan doesn't have to stand in line for 3.5 hours to get into a show."

Housel, the author who studies the intersection of geek culture and philosophy, agrees that Wizard World puts a lot into its event-planning process.

"I think [The Lord of the Rings and The Goonies actor] Sean Astin said it best: 'Wizard World is a well-oiled machine,'" Housel says. "They have consistency and hire really good people — not just good at their jobs, but these people also are incredibly nice. I consider them my second family when I'm on the road."

Even the celebrity guests commend Wizard World's new practices.

"They're pretty much the Cadillac of conventions," says Bruce Campbell, a veteran of cult films like The Evil Dead series and a longtime convention guest. "They research the venues, they research who's had a convention in that area, and they research every guest to make sure they haven't been overexposed."

Campbell is right, says actor James Hong, a Minneapolis native and renowned actor in films like Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, and Kung Fu Panda.

"One of the interesting things I've found is Wizard World is expanding into cities that aren't necessarily just the big coastal cities. They're going all over the U.S., especially in the middle," Hong says. "And of course I'm thrilled to go because it is my hometown. I'm honored to be there."

SUPER MARIO TRUDGES through the piles of white stuff, the bottoms of his blue overalls becoming wet as they drag on the sidewalk. Mario's thick red hat repels some of the snow, but it's a wash when the wind flips the cap from his head.

Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones is next, shivering in her cerulean cap-sleeved frock and hugging her three stuffed dragons for warmth. She's followed by a Walking Dead zombie, who leaves a bloody trail in his wake. Star Wars' Chewbacca, covered head to toe in shaggy fur, appears the least bothered by the St. Louis cold.

Inside, Marvel Comics god Stan Lee is holding court in a meeting room, autographing the arm of a man who will later turn the signature into a tattoo. Eisner Award-winning artist Neal Adams is snacking on nachos between sketching for fans. Cosplayers dressed like Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley compare stickers obtained from one of the vendor booths. The aisles are packed with attendees, photo ops, and brightly colored merchandise.

Adron Buske, co-creator of the supernatural comic-book series Loop & Hoodie and fantasy comic Good Intentions, can remember it all clearly. "We were blown away by the Sunday showing during that huge snowstorm," he says. "We made more money that day than on either Friday or Saturday — and we had debated even showing up!"

Wizard World is hoping for the same response here in the Twin Cities, with William Shatner of Star Trek, Michael Rooker of The Walking Dead, and Matt Smith and Karen Gillan of Doctor Who all scheduled to greet fans at the Minneapolis Convention Center. And taking it all in will be Macaluso, who hopes to keep the geek love blossoming.

"Ultimately, if it wasn't for the fans, we'd have no business, no show," he says. "To see how excited they get, to see them shake in front of a celebrity, to see them sweat and cry, it's terrific. When it all comes down to it — and I really mean this — we want to make the fans happy and give them a great show. Our company will do well if we do that."


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