I felt a good deal of sadness as I left Rosemont after this year’s Wizard World Chicago, because, for the first time, I really don’t know when/if I’ll ever be back. I don’t know if I’ll ever stay at that same hotel, walk across that same shitty skywalk, park in that same parking garage, eat that same overpriced cheeseburger and fries, etc.
As an artist from southern Wisconsin with a limited travel budget, Chicago Comic Con has been my main convention for my entire professional life, since 2006. When I first started attending the show, it was the number two comic convention in the nation, and some would argue that it was really the number one comic convention, since San Diego hasn’t been focused on comics in many, many years. Now, it’s not even the number one comic convention in Chicago. People have been telling me for years I need to stop attending Wizard shows, because Wizard doesn’t know how to treat their artists. And for years I’ve told them, “When the con stops being good to me, I’ll be done with it.” That time may have finally come.
I’d like to state right now that my issues with this year’s show are exclusively with the ORGANIZERS. The FANS have been and continue to be fantastic to me. I’ve met a ton of great people over the years, and I appreciate each and every one of you more than my cold, beast-like exterior probably lets me express. The fact that I have any people who come to these shows and actively seek me out still barely seems real to me, but I sincerely thank each and every one of you for it.
While I tried to remain upbeat and enjoy the fan interactions, costumes, and anything else I could at this year’s show, the organizers of the show left a lot to be desired for the artists.
To start with, when I registered, I received no “welcome” email like I usually do. As time went on with no communication, I sent them a note just to make sure they had my correct email address. They did. I asked if we’d be getting the artist surveys like we normally do, asking us if we had any preference in table placement. I was assured that we would be receiving such a survey within 5 days. 12 days later, I received a notice that table placements had been finalized. No survey was ever sent. It upset me not just because I have friends who are also exhibitors that I only ever get to see at these shows, but because a simple promise was made and broken.
Then came the show itself. I arrived Thursday afternoon, a couple of hours before preview night began. To start with, no one seemed to know where the artists were supposed to sign in. I asked one person, who asked another, etc., and they finally figure out that we were signing in at a folding table off in one corner of the lobby. Apparently the artists didn’t even merit a booth. In years past, there were a half a dozen booths for artists and exhibitors to sign in at, this year we got one folding table with one person working it. So, I got in a line of about 50 people, and a half an hour later, finally got signed in. When I left the line, there must have been 80 or so people behind me.
Then I entered the hall containing artist’s alley and the celebrity autograph area. And that was all it contained. The “main hall,” containing the dealer room and programming, WAS ON A DIFFERENT FLOOR OF THE BUILDING. Our hall was downstairs, and was just the artists and “celebrities.” You went to the left, there was artist’s alley, you went to the right, you could meet Mini-Me, pro wrestlers, or some of the people from Smallville. One might note that the room was dark when I got there. An hour and a half before the show, and they had us setting up our displays in the dark. It took me into the show hours to get my table set because of the wait at the sign in and the fact that I was trying to do it all in the dark.
Remember how I said we weren’t given the option of requesting table placement, even though I was assured by a member of the Wizard staff that I would? I ended up sandwiched between an industrial art dealer and a smut peddler. The lady running the industrial art table was actually super nice, though the type of art she was selling was attracting con-goers who were unlikely to be interested in much of what I had to offer. The guy on the other side was literally selling badly drawn cartoon porn, so, again, not going to be drawing the type of customer interested in a well-written, well-drawn comic book featuring strong, positive female characters. They were the type of customers who thought badly drawn Peter Pan porking badly drawn Wendy was the coolest thing they’d ever seen. Sigh.
And actually my table placement was better than some. My good friend Chris Turner didn’t even get his table. He was in the program as being at table J29, and when I went to that table, the white lady sitting there was quite obviously not him. Turns out Wizard gave his table away and reassigned him, for reasons that remain a mystery (it’s not like his original table was prime real-estate. It was back in the boonies, a row and an aisle away from me).
Also, tax forms. For the first time ever, the artists are required to file paperwork with the state of Illinois. It’s not just that we’re now being required to pay taxes on our (in many cases, meager) sales, but how it was handled. Talking to Chris, he said to me, “I can’t believe they told us on such short notice. That email a couple days ago.” I was confused, because I’d gotten no such email. I got a letter about it and some paperwork in the welcome packet when I signed in at the show. That’s the level of organization going on here.
Chris also told me that they tried to hassle him at sign in, because he’d added an extra person to his table. Each table comes with two badges, and up to two extra people can be added for $50 each, double the price from last year. They wanted him to pay for the third person at his table, WHO HE’D ALREADY PAID FOR WHEN HE REGISTERED.
And I believe I mentioned briefly how the programming and dealer rooms were on a different floor of the building from the artists. Allow me to elaborate. In the main lobby, attendees of the show were corralled upstairs, and from what I heard from fans, it sounds like they were given no indication that there were, in fact, convention-related activities on the lower level. I can’t tell you how many people told me, “I didn’t even know you guys were down here.” There was no signage or anything in the lobby indicating that there were Comic Con-related activities happening in the hall downstairs. Many convention-goers were led to believe that the upper level was the entirety of the show.
There are, I feel, two types of artists that attend these shows. There are the J. Scott Campbells and the Greg Horns, guys who can sit down behind a table, stack some books or prints on it, and people will come by with stacks of money and say, “May I please give this to you?” Those guys are probably going to do alright, even with this kind of setup. Things might be a bit slower for them, but they’re the types of people that fans will actively seek out. The other type of artists are people like me who go to these shows because we need eyeballs on our stuff. We need people to come by and say, “Oh, that looks interesting.” That’s what we weren’t getting at this show. We got some of that, but not nearly as much as in years past.
As someone at a nearby table said to me, “The term ‘artist’s alley’ has never seemed so appropriate.”
I also heard some complaints about the cost of attending the show, though I can’t swear how much that influenced the buying habits of anyone. What I do know is that a ticket for Saturday cost $65 online or $70 at the gate. A weekend pass, 4 days, cost $75 just a few years ago. Some people theorized that may have cut into the number of casual buyers willing to drop a few bucks on an unknown artist or an unknown property.
Sunday morning, there was a feedback session with the organizers and the exhibitors. I didn’t attend myself (I have chronic medical problems and need plenty of rest, and I’m not skipping breakfast and getting to the show an hour and a half early just to deal with the people who’d already been disrespecting us all weekend), but I did hear feedback from several artists who did attend, and this was the highlight; Wizard wanted artists to register at this year’s show for next year’s to guarantee the same table rate for next year. They warned that rates might go up AGAIN (rates increased by 33% last year). Someone in the crowd pointed out that vendors were being offered a DISCOUNT for registering early, while the artists were being THREATENED with a rate increase for NOT registering early. It sounds like some kind of deal was worked out with a minor discount for early registrants, though not nearly what the vendors got. Wizard also said that, next year, they’ll be renting out the entire bottom floor of the convention center, so that all of the con doings will at least be on the same floor, but that doesn’t guarantee that there won’t still be the level of separation between dealers & vendors and the artists.
That seems to sum up the organizers’ views on the artists right there. Dealers and vendors are respected. B-list celebrities are respected. Artists are not. We’re overcharged, disregarded, shunted off into a corner, forced to wait in excessive lines and set up our displays in the dark, threatened with penalizations for leaving early the last day (a standard practice for many artists) but corralled out at closing time the other days, and threatened with penalizations for not registering early for next year.
My question would be, why would I want to lock in table space for next year for a show where I’m literally stuck in a dark corner, and where I just had my worst year, financially, in probably 5 or 6 years? Based on meager promises to do better next time, when I’ve seen how Wizard has kept its promises as of late?
Other than weak sales, I did enjoy this year’s show. As I’ve said, I met a lot of really nice people, and got to see some from years past that came back. I got to meet Jason David Frank, my favorite Power Ranger, and I’m a huge Power Ranger fan. Including JDF, I got my picture taken with 8 people in Power Ranger costumes, which was awesome. Power Rangers is one of those segments of the sci-fi/fantasy community that’s only now really starting to come into its own as fully represented at conventions like this. I sold a ton of my “The Greatest Ranger” print, thanks in no small part to JDF’s presence at the show, though also in part because Power Rangers is so underrepresented in the art community (it doesn’t hurt that, if I may be so bold, that print turned out looking really awesome). I had to run out TWICE and get more prints made up. That’s something I’ve never experienced at a show before. That print also helped save my ass, because, while it sold like gangbusters, overall sales were down on the rest of the merchandise. I also got to eat Giordano’s Pizza, which is almost reason enough in and of itself to consider going back again.
I also got to meet DMC (of “Run DMC”) backstage, which was insane, because no one even knew he was going to be there. Of course, did we not know he was going to be there because he was a last minute surprise, or because that’s how well the programming was organized? It might also be worth noting that we met him while waiting in line for the Jason David Frank photo op. The third line for that, because they kept moving the line from one staging area to the next, and that’s after having been told by 3 different Wizard employees to go to four different places for the photo op.
Now, I’m not saying I’ll never attend another Wizard show again. Maybe this year was a fluke, and next year they’ll have their stuff together. Maybe they’ll realize that, at a COMIC convention, the people who make the comics should be given some consideration. Maybe down the road, I’ll have increased my standing in the comics community to the point where I can be one of those guys who can just plop down at a table and people will flock to me, instead of me having to be constantly trying to shill myself to a crowd that doesn’t even know I’m down there.
So, no, I’m not saying I’ll never, ever, for definite sure not attend a Wizard show ever again. But I will have to think long and hard about it. And that’s too bad, because I will miss the show and the city that were once so good to me.