Monday, September 21, 2009

Looking Back at Windy City Comic Convention 2009

I had the opportunity to visit the 2nd Annual Windy City Comic Convention in Chicago, IL on Saturday and, I must say, I was impressed by the entire operation. For being a smaller convention, I was not expecting it to be so professionally run, feature such a great line up of creators and programming nor to be so crammed with rabid comic fans and other assorted geeks.



One of the few downsides of attending smaller comic book conventions, as opposed to monstrous cons like Wizard World Chicago, is that they tend to have a much less impressive array of talent to entice would-be con goers. You can always expect to see a few local “name” creators, but the vast majority of small-convention guests tend to be self-publishers and hopeless dreamers. This is one area that Windy City Con is heads-and-tails above conventions of similar size. The guests covered a wide range of the industry. The guest list included a great mix of industry veterans, established names, cutting edge creators, up-and-comers, critical indie darlings, and emerging talent. The guest list was smaller than what you’d find at Wizard World Chicago but featured a much stronger crop of talent.


Nearly the entire convention floor was creator booths, giving the room the feel of an uninhibited artist’s alley. Only two publishers had booths (Moonstone and Top Shelf), there were only a handful of local dealers, and absolutely no non-comics programming, which made for a very relaxed atmosphere that fostered more interaction between creators and con-goers. The creators seemed just as interested in getting to know their fan base as their fans were in meeting their favourite writers and artists.


Unlike the misleadingly named Wizard World Chicago (which actually takes place in the suburb of Rosemont, IL), Windy City Con took place in the city-proper at the Center on Hallstead, a new facility located just a few blocks away from Wrigley Field.

The center was in great shape, is easily accessible by public transportation, and is surrounded by a wide range of excellent eateries and other non-comic related sites to see. Plus, there are two 7-Eleven stores within a block, so if you are a Slurpee addict like me, then you are set. Of course, given that the building is connected to a Whole Foods and the convention had catered-in food on the roof garden just off the convention hall, you wouldn’t even need to leave the building to get some grub if you didn't want to.


Given that there were no major publishers to give presentations, small conventions like this one often struggle with or avoid programming all together. Once again, Windy City Con is ahead of the curve here. They held six panels including a sketch jam for the Hero Initiative, creator-focused panels by Skottie Young and Richard Starkings, and a seminar on webcomics. Plus, to kick things off, there was a pre-party at Challengers Comics and, to keep the fun alive, a post-party at a local pub.


I really have to hand it to the folks responsible for this convention. The entire event appeared to go off without a hitch, thanks in no small part to the yellow-clad army of “Henchman” volunteers. They were quick to get anything creators needed or to answer any questions that the fans had. They did such a great job that I actually witnessed one volunteer feeding the parking meter for an artist too-immersed in a sketch to break away from his table. It’s that type of dedication that made the convention such a success.



It is my understanding that the turnout of fans for the 2008 Windy City Con doubled their initial predictions and that this year the number of con-goers would triple that of last year. While it is great to see so many rabid nerds and geeks supporting such a well-put together show, the actual convention floor could not support the number of people there. The lines weren’t very long for any creators, mostly because there wasn’t enough room for one to form. The aisles between tables quickly became cramped and the entire convention floor became difficult to navigate at times.

To make things worse, the low ticket-cost and proximity to other tourist attractions meant that there were a lot of con-goers that seemed to have little knowledge of comics and almost no respect for the efforts of the creators - they were simply there to get free swag and comics they clearly weren’t going to read signed.


As I mentioned previously, nearly the entire convention floor was creator booths, with only a handful of comic book shops from Chicago-land having mini-storefronts. Due to the large number of con-goers and the limited space to fit them in, navigating the shop booths was often difficult.

Of course, once you could squeeze in, you may have been disappointed to find that nearly every shop was shilling the same recent variant covers and 50% off trades. There were some $1 boxes, but pickings were slim, especially if you were looking for anything specific. If you were looking to buy action figures or statues, you were almost completely out of luck. Plus, with less competition, sellers were less likely to haggle and the prices were considerably higher than the dense marketplace of a larger convention.


By mid-afternoon, unless you were a big name, you were probably bored. The lack of maneuverability on the floor and the large number of casual/non-fans meant that a lot of on-the-cusp-of-greatness creators and self-publishers were left in the dust. Skottie Young and Tony Moore almost always had crowds at their tables while the impressively talented but less well-known Andy Kuhn could’ve taken a nap between visitors.


Obtaining sketches at conventions is getting to be an incredibly popular trend…and an incredibly lucrative business on eBay. This is a major reason why it seems like the cost of a sketch at a convention is going up.  Gone are the days of cheap, quick head sketches as they have been replaced with higher priced (and more detailed) mini-commissions.

Some creators did really well with this plan, quickly filling up a queue of sketches for the day, but, for the most part, the most sketching was done by the few artists willing to do a free sketch (and most of those sketches were only requested because they were free, even if the fan had no idea who the artist was).

The vast majority of artists that were charging $30-$50 per sketch found their tables being avoided by fans who weren’t willing or couldn’t afford to shill out the cash. It makes you wonder if charging $10 for a less detailed sketch would’ve made their booths a bit more popular.

Even the artists who were getting work at $30+ a sketch could’ve benefited from lowering their prices to meet the silent demands of the crowd. After all, isn’t it better to do six $10 sketches in the time it would take you to do one $40 sketch? You’d make a lot more money and you’d make a lot more fans happy.

Verdict: Great Show. Other than the costs vs. output for sketches issue, almost all of the problems Windy City Con faced can be attributed to them massively outgrowing their current convention space.

That’s not exactly a bad problem to have. The huge crowds made things a bit cramped at times, but, more importantly, it speaks to all of the things that the convention is doing right.

I personally had a wonderful time chatting it up with creators, bonding with my fellow-con goers, checking out new books, and snagging a few gorgeous sketches. If you can make it out to Chicago for the show next year, I highly recommend it - I know I’ll be there!

(I’d like to offer a special thanks to Mike Norton, Steve Bryant, Tim Seeley, and the Elephantmen cew in particular for making the convention such a memorable experience!)

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Matt Ampersand said...

Wow, that Rocket Raccoon sketch is awesome! How much did it set you back?

Ryan Schrodt said...

$15. It was one Chris did for his daily sketch blog ( rather than one he did at the show. I wanted to comission something a bit larger, but had to tighten my budget a bit to pick up the Essex County Hardcover and cover travel costs.

btnash said...

Hey, great write up. I've been hearing about this con for months now as a regular listener of Around Comics (the guys there organised the show), and was bummed that I couldn't make it. Being on the other side of the world should have warned me not to get my hopes up though...

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