Friday, December 26, 2014

GRAND RAPIDS COMIC CON 2014





The second annual Grand Rapids Comic Con (GRCC) took place on November 21st-23rd, 2014, with a huge venue expansion.  From its inaugural event last year at the Home School Building in the city of Wyoming, it was moved to the more spacious DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids.  The move to a larger building was essential to the convention's continued growth and success.  As mentioned in my review of last year's show, the anticipated attendance for the 2013 show was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 people.  When more than 4,000 people showed up on the day of the convention (some as early as 6:00 a.m.), no one was more shocked than Owner/Co-Event Coordinator Mark Hodges.  Hours before the convention even started, Hodges was already thinking ahead to the next year and the changes that would need to be made.  More than a year of retooling and planning brought the second year's event to a venue that could better handle the long list of celebrities, publishers, comic artists, literary guests  and panelists that joined the show this year.

GRCC is part of a new generation of comic conventions dedicated to bringing comics, toys, panels and celebrities to regions that have been historically bereft of such events.  Long before the first year's convention was even in the planning stages, Coordinator Mark Hodges knew that the west side of Michigan needed an event to support its huge fan base.  For many fans living in areas like Grand Rapids,  the Motor City Comic Con was their only real choice for several years, and the exorbitant ticket and autograph prices often precluded many from attending that show.  

While anticipation was high, there was also a low running current of apprehension, which was understandable considering the move from a one day event to a much larger three day convention taking place in a major concert center.  However, Promoter Mark Hodges and his team never wavered for a moment, and brought together an event that was successful for fans and vendors alike.  Once again, Hodges' proactive thinking and planning was a significant factor in the event's success, and helped avoid many of the pitfalls often experienced by newer conventions. 


As part of the proliferation of new comic and pop culture conventions over the last few years, inevitably there are going to be some "bad apples" that crop up.  One recent example was the "Epic Con Ohio," which had the misfortune of having over 30 celebrities cancel their scheduled appearances because of not being paid.  Another example was the "Awesome Con Milwaukee," another three day event that was actually scheduled to take place during the same weekend as GRCC, but was cancelled shortly before the premiere of that show.  What made GRCC different, and what made them able to break out and bring such a successful show to the Western Michigan area?  There were many factors. 
Once again GRCC focused on a family-friendly atmosphere for its event, which included items such as the West Michigan Lego Train Club that featured three running trains in the middle of a huge town (made up entirely of Lego bricks, of course).  There were a wide variety of all-ages events, including the film fest, a science organization known as "The Geek Group," a high school robotics team, and a car show.  The vehicles included in the car show included the Speed Racer Mach 5, the 1966 Batmobile (which was borrowed from the Volo Auto Museum in Illinois), and even the modern Batman "Tumbler" vehicle from the more films.   

Gaming was also a huge area of interest at the GRCC, which included the Starship Horizons Bridge Simulator, an interactive experience in which fans could experience taking control of their own starship.  There was also open gaming available throughout the entire weekend, which was not just limited to video games, but also included board and card games as well.   


There were also plenty of celebrity guests for fans to meet and obtain autographs from, including Alaina Huffman from the TV series Smallville; Nichele Nichols from the classic series Star Trek; and Maile Flanagan, a.k.a. "Principal Perry" from the hit Disney XD series Lab Rats.  On the comic book side of things, the guest of honor was once again Allen Bellman, the legendary Golden Age artist of Marvel Comics' Captain America, Human Torch, and Young Allies.  However, there were a wide variety of comic creators from all time periods, including Bronze Age Creators Tony Isabella (Black Lightning) and Arvell Jones (Iron Man, Daredevil), as well as artists from the modern era, like Christopher Jones (Young Justice, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes).   

GRCC also featured a variety of panels and presentations that covered many subjects, which ranged from Doctor Who to drawing skills.  Once again I was honored to have the opportunity to do a panel presentation for parents that focused on helping them find "kid-friendly" comic book stores, and understanding the important links between comic books and literacy.

Of course no comic book convention would be complete without a variety of vendors, which GRCC had no shortage of.  New comics, back issues from all eras, action figures, statues, graphic novels, manga, and even superhero glass coasters for hosting your next party were all available for purchase at the convention.  Artists Alley had a vast array of talent doing sketches, taking commissions and selling prints.  Just a small sampling of the artists included Jay Brant of "Heads-Up Studios," Andy Budnick, Matt Feazell and Matt Maldonado. 

One of the compliments I've heard from many people about GRCC is that the staff actually listens to the fans' suggestions and requests.  One of the most commonly heard suggestions?  Many fans requested a move to an even larger building than the DeltaPlex, and the GRCC listened!  Recently the announcement was made that next year's convention will be moved to its biggest venue yet: the DeVos Place Convention Center, which features a 162,000 square foot exhibit hall, a 40,000 square foot ballroom, and a theatre area that can seat up to 2,400 people.  Once again Mark Hodge's proactive thinking and his uncanny ability to anticipate the needs of his customers hold the promise of yet another great convention next year.  The third annual Grand Rapids Comic Con will be held October 16th-18th, 2015.  Hope to see YOU at next year's show!


 



Friday, November 29, 2013

What Lurks in the Longbox? #48 - Hello, Again

Hello, Again 
Top Shelf Productions
$10.00, B&W, 156 pgs.
Writer: Max Estes
Artist: Max Estes



I recently took advantage of Top Shelf Production's annual $3 clearance sale, which features a great selection of graphic novels and trade paperbacks normally priced at $10-$20, and reduces all selected titles to either $3 or $1.  Top Shelf's annual event both reduces excess inventory, while also raising funds for the following year's new releases.  Although most of the books included in the sale are not recent releases, there is some incredible reading material available, so it's always worth a look. 

One of the books that caught my eye this year was Hello, Again, by cartoonist and children's author Max Estes.  Normally cover priced at $10, this "mini-size" (in dimension, but not page count) graphic novel was available for just a buck, so I eagerly added it to my shopping cart. 

William, a building superintendent, is not living the most joyful existence.  Each day he deals with endless complaints from the tenants in his apartment complex, avoids contact with his parents, and maintains a guilt-filled affair with his best friend's fiancĂ©e.  It's obvious, however, that there is something else much darker on William's mind that is keeping a permanent cloud over his existence.  Without going too far into spoiler territory, an incident during William's childhood comes back to haunt him in a very strange manner.  William is given a second chance to make restitution and get his life back on track, but the decision to do so will come with a cost.

While Hello, Again has a definite "I Know What You Did Last Summer" vibe (with a middle-aged protagonist rather than a group of teenagers), it's by no means a horror based story, focusing more on its emotional core with some dark humor thrown in for good measure.     

You could read this graphic novel in about ten minutes, but I wouldn't recommend it.  Although Estes' style may appear to have a simple approach from first glance, there are some powerful emotions at play here, and the book is best enjoyed when read slowly.  This is a story about two people whose lives were destroyed by one bad decision, but one may still have a chance of redemption.   

I'll be reviewing more of my purchases from the Top Shelf clearance sale in the near future.   

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Lurks in the Longbox? #47: Happy Thanksgiving from Garfield!

Garfield #19
KaBOOM Studios
$3.99, color, 28 pgs.
Writers: Mark Evanier, Scott Nickel
Artists: Andy Hirsch, Gary Barker, David Degrand
 
 

There is plenty to be thankful as we enter the holiday season, including the wide variety of all-ages comics that are available, which was one of the focal points of my recent presentation at the Grand Rapids Comic Con in October.  Garfield is very high on that list. 

Garfield is one of the best all-ages comics currently being published, but it often gets pushed aside in the wake of KaBOOM's more popular titles," like Adventure Time and Regular Show, or other licensed properties, like IDW's My Little Pony series.

The monthly adventures of Garfield, Odie and long suffering owner Jon Arbuckle are helmed by the creative team of Writer Mark Evanier (who was also a primary contributor to The Garfield Show, the animated series from the France 3 network) and Artist Andy Hirsch.  However, the series also benefits from the contributions of Creator Jim Davis and collaborator Gary Barker, especially on the great covers of each issue. 

Garfield also utilizes a comic book tradition that dates back several decades: the holiday themed comic book.  This issue celebrates Thanksgiving with a heart-filled story in which Garfield uncharacteristically sets aside his primary holiday mission (to eat as much as possible, of course) to bring back a piece of his owner's childhood.  Jon no longer has the holiday spirit due to the overcommercialization of the local Thanksgiving parade, caused by the CEO of the big box retailer that runs the parade.  Despite his bumbling errors, Garfield succeeds in showing Jon that some holiday traditions are still out there to enjoy. 

Just in case things are getting too sappy at this point, the creative team of Scott Nickel and David Degrand continue the ongoing tales of Garfield's battles against food-oriented monsters.  This time, it's a gang of zombie meatballs, along with their leader, the Bride of the Calzone Creature! 

Degrand knocks it out of the park with his "old school" approach to drawing the cast.  There are times where Garfield almost appears to be too lazy to even run from the monsters, which makes the story even funnier, and readers will enjoy the unique solution Garfield devises to defeat the creatures.  Whether the confrontations with these monsters are actually taking place in the "real" Garfield universe, or if they are just nightmarish images in Garfield's dreams caused by overindulgence in his favorite Italian dishes is up to the reader to decide.

Additional features in this issue include Garfield's tips for Thanksgiving and some classic Sunday strips featuring one of the staples of the comic strip: the headless talking turkey.  I'm looking forward to seeing the upcoming Christmas and New Year's themed issues of this continuously enjoyable and entertaining comic book series. 


This iconic Norman Rockwell image has been a popular one in comics through the decades.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Lurks in the Longbox? #46: Scooby-Doo Team-Up!

Scooby-Doo! Team-Up #1
DC Comics
$2.99, color, 28 pgs.
Writer: Sholly Fisch
Artist: Dario Brizuela



I believe I have watched the Scooby-Doo Meets Batman DVD well over 100 times, and it may actually be closer to 200 viewings.  This DVD was my son's absolute favorite movie when he was between the ages of three and five, and he would watch it...again and again and again.  For a period of time, I started to believe that he would never watch another cartoon again.  The DVD collects two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which aired from 1972-1974, and was a bizarre team-up series that paired Mystery, Inc. with everyone from The Harlem Globetrotters to Don Knotts to The Adams Family.  The two episodes featured on this DVD were "The Caped Crusader Caper" and "The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair."  Both episodes featured Mystery, Inc. teaming up with the Dynamic Duo against the combined villainy of the Joker and the Penguin. 

Almost 40 years later, Scooby and the gang have reunited with the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, this time to track down the genetic hybrid creature known as Man-Bat.  However, the search is complicated when the crime fighters discover there may be more than one strange "bat creature" prowling around the local mall.  Just as they did decades ago, the two teams successfully combine their efforts to solve the mystery and save the day, despite the usual bumbling efforts on the parts of Scooby and Shaggy.

Sholly Fisch is no stranger to all-ages comics, with a huge list of kids' titles under his writing belt, including Super Friends, Cartoon Network Block Party, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and his newest assignment, the comic book adaptation of DC Nation's new animated series Teen Titans Go! (currently airing on Cartoon Network).  Now he's bringing together two of the biggest animated properties in a series that will also feature Man-Bat, Ace the Bat Hound, The Scarecrow and more characters (not revealed yet) that will team up with the mystery solvers in future issues.

In addition to the main story, this first issue also includes the usual "DC Nation" extra features, including profiles/bios on Plastic Man and Adam Strange, and news about other upcoming all-ages comic books from DC Comics. 

Scooby-Doo Team Up! is a welcome addition to DC's line-up of kids' titles, and the first issue of this series is about as perfect as a comic book gets.  There's adventure, humor, a fun team-up between old friends, bright vibrant art by Dario Brizuela, and Sholly Fisch's wonderful dialogue that will entertain both younger and older readers alike.  Those older fans will remember watching The New Scooby-Doo Movies, not on a DVD or on the internet, but on their parents' old 19 inch Zenith TV on a Saturday morning.  It doesn't get much better than this.
 

Writer Sholly Fisch throws in some inside references to "The New Scooby-Doo Movies."


Saturday, November 9, 2013

What Lurks in the Longbox? #45: X Marks The Naught!

The Mysterious Strangers #5
Oni Press
$3.99, Color, 28 pgs.
Writer: Chris Roberson
Artist: Scott Kowalchuk, Dan Jackson


 

Writer Mark Waid once described The Mysterious Strangers (formerly just "The Strangers") as a "beautiful harmony of Jonny Quest, The Doom Patrol and Secret Agent."  Set in the Cold War era, The Strangers is a team comprised of four people with special powers and abilities who deal with unusual and bizarre situations that threaten the world.  The team's primary mission, as explained in the first issue of the series, is very simple: "Protecting the planet from the strange." 

Each issue may remind readers of classic television shows from the 1960's.  There are even opening credits and a closing sequence that is reminiscent of shows from that era, such as The Avengers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. 

The new story arc starting in this issue will probably bring to mind another classic television program: The X-Files.  All the familiar elements are present: The small town sheriff, the military presence, the lone diner, and of course the small town citizens with very big imaginations. 

When several people inexplicably vanish in the small town of Marfa, Texas, The Strangers take a break from filming a television show to investigate the unexplainable disappearances.  When the body of one of the missing townspeople is found, but aged by almost 80 years, the mystery starts generating more questions than answers.  Much like the weekly adventures of Mulder and Scully, the issue ends with a great cliffhanger.

Writer Chris Roberson also begins to explain the origins of The Strangers, and reveals just how far back in time this "mysterious" group goes.  As their leader Absalom Quince reveals, the organization goes all the way back to the Elizabethan era, when The Strangers were a group of travelling actors that took time away from their performances to confront otherworldly and paranormal threats.

One of the best aspects of this book is the unusual format.  Each story arc only lasts two issues, which means this title ranks high on the "new reader friendly" scale.  A new storyline starts every other issue, which means a higher likelihood that new customers will be encouraged to try out this book. 

In case this issue is your first, here's some great news: The first collected edition is on the way early next year.  The Mysterious Strangers: Strange Ways is scheduled for release on January 29th, 2014. 



Wednesday, October 30, 2013

GRAND RAPIDS COMIC CON 2013

The first Grand Rapids Comic Con was held on Saturday, October 12th, 2013, at the Home School Building in Wyoming, Michigan.  Although the event officially began at 10:00 a.m., there were some great incentives for fans to arrive for the "early bird" starting time of 9:00 a.m., including free exclusive comics and movie posters.  The convention featured a wide variety of vendors, guests artists, presentations/panels, kids' activities and small press publishers.  Promoter Mark Hodges spent the better part of the last two years creating and developing this event, and the outcome definitely showed the results of his hard work.

The inaugural event featured several guests, including Chris Yambar, Simpsons' writer and artist; Robert Pope, artist for several comics based on Cartoon Network shows including Scooby-Doo, Johnny Bravo, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold; Arvell Jones, Bronze Age Marvel artist of Iron Man, Daredevil and Avengers; and Allen Bellman, legendary Golden Age artist from the early days of Marvel comics such as Captain America, Human Torch, and Young Allies


Bongo Comics' Chris Yambar, one of the many guest artists at the GRCC.

The convention also featured multiple seminar rooms with panels as diverse as how to break into the comics industry; to digital coloring and working copyrighted characters; to my own presentation: "Shopping For Your Kids in a Comic Book Shop."  In addition, there was a gaming room, costume contest, special art exhibit, and even a film festival.  Needless to say, there were a lot of activities for attendees to choose from at this first-time show.

The comic dealers were in full force in the vendors hall, but there was a large variety of merchandise besides comics that made the show even more fun, including action figures, movie posters, custom made cell phone charms, art prints, leather goods, non-sport cards, laptop bags and ipad/tablet covers.  Of course, the single most unique item available in the vendors hall may have been the SpongeBob Squarepants padded toilet seat!


These custom-made vinyl figures were created by Mike Brandes, the owner of MB Custom Toys.

Promoter Mark Hodges made a promise to keep the convention a family-friendly event, and he delivered on all counts.  Giant Transformers, a fully operating life-size R2D2 droid, a photo-op with Speed Racer's "Mach 5" car, and even a Nintendo gaming room where attendees could try out new games and console systems provided lots of fun for both parents and children alike.  Several of the panel presentations were also intended for families.  Chef Tommy Fitzgerald demonstrated "How to Make Scooby Snacks," which showed kids how to make healthy choices with snacks, as well as some culinary skills that kids could use without assistance from their parents.  Randy Zimmerman, the publisher of the monthly Flint Comix newspaper, led a drawing seminar in which he showed fans how to draw some of the kids' favorite characters, such as Spongebob Squarepants.

These gigantic Transformers were one of the great attractions for the kids.

One of the unique aspects of the Grand Rapids Comic Con was that it attempted to educate as well as entertain.  A great example would be the "Vending Room Economics 101" article that was placed on the convention website months before the event took place.  This article contained practical and helpful tips on teaching children how to budget for a convention and make good purchasing decisions, such as walking through the entire vending hall once before spending any money.  This technique is one I have used myself at conventions for many years, and it always helps to prevent compulsive purchases before I get the chance to compare vendor pricing!


Vintage bubble gum machines were one of the many unique items available for purchase at the GRCC.

As for comic books themselves, the following books were among those in high demand at the show: Deadpool, Transformers, Batgirl, Uncanny X-Men, and, to no one's surprise, The Walking Dead

It's safe to say that the first Grand Rapids Comic Con delivered on all levels.  However, there was something else that made this first show a phenomenon that shocked everyone who attended, including the convention staff and promoter himself. 

The attendance.

If you had asked for an estimate just a couple weeks before the event took place, you may have heard an expectation of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people to walk in the door.  It's always a difficult estimate for any convention promoter to make with so many factors to consider, such as location, date, and competing local events happening at the same time.  Plus, the New York Comic Con was being held on the same weekend.  With approximately 130,000 people in attendance, this event is now about equal in attendance with Comic-Con International in San Diego.  There seems to be no limit to what a recent article on the Comic Book Resources website referred to as "the seemingly exponential growth of convention attendance."

Shortly before the weekend of the show, there were definite signs that attendance might be better than expected, and just a few days before the event, the staff began preparing for a possible line starting early in the morning.  A cool lineup of freebies awaited customers that came for the early bird admission at 9:00 a.m. (actual starting time was 10:00 a.m.).  Expectations were high, but still realistic, given that this was a first-time event.

Approximately 7,000 people showed up.

Motor City Con?  Wizard World?  No, it's only a small sample of the massive line waiting to get into the GRCC!


The picture above doesn't do it justice.  In terms of "local shows," I have never seen anything like this, especially for a first year show.  The small/medium one-day shows in Michigan typically get anywhere from 250-600 people.  Granted, the Grand Rapids Comic Con did a tremendous job in promoting and advertising the show.  Mark Hodges literally spent almost every single weekend during the months leading up to the show attending other conventions and fan events, distributing thousands of postcards at those events.  There is no question that this area of Western Michigan can, and will support a comic convention like this one.  Interestingly enough, within a few days after the convention, several other shows started aggressively promoting their event, seemingly riding the coattails of the GRCC's success.  Whether any of these events can produce the same or similar results remains to be seen, but the GRCC certainly seems to have opened the door to many promoters that were hesitant about starting a new convention or expo in this section of Michigan. 

The long lines leading all the way through the parking lot (and beyond) continued non-stop until around 3:30 p.m., when convention staffers began requesting that people leaving the convention would also leave their wrist bands behind, so that more people could be allowed into the building.  Local police and security personnel were on hand the entire day, and they did a great job of keeping the situation under control.  Unfortunately, the totally unexpected turnout resulted in nearly 3,000 people not making it into the convention itself, because of local capacity ordinances.  However, the GRCC team already has plans to move next year's event into The DeltaPlex, a huge arena and conference center which hosts almost every kind of event, from concerts and sporting events, to construction expos, to the annual "Bru Fest" for the Children's Leukemia Foundation. 



The vendor hall was packed non-stop all day, with the Hulk keeping a close eye out for any shoplifters.

Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments made by Hodges and his team was the fantastic level of communication they kept with the fans on their Facebook page: answering questions, addressing concerns and making announcements on a timely basis.  For many conventions, questions are often left unanswered, complaints are ignored, and fans are even blocked from the page as a "solution" when the convention organizers don't want to deal with the issue (which is truly a clear example of "cutting off the nose to spite one's face").  Despite the huge amount of feedback and questions on the show's page, the GRCC Team did their best to address everyone's concerns and to take suggestions and constructive criticism seriously.  Kudos to Mark Hodges and his team for hitting a home run in an area that many, if not most, convention promoters fall short of. 

In summary, the first Grand Rapids Comic Con was a fun and family-friendly event that exceeded all expectations in attendance, guests, activities, and the variety of vendors and merchandise.  Next year's event will be held on November 21st, 22nd and 23rd, at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, and we fully plan to be there!

Even the parking lot had things to check out, including Heads Up Studios "Iron Van"!



Friday, October 18, 2013

What Lurks in the Longbox? #44 - Omega Paradox, A Fool's Errand

Omega Paradox Volume 1: A Fool's Errand
Apropos of Nothing Publishing
$15.00, Color, 132 pgs.
Writer, Letterer: Ian Ng
Artist: Mark Sparacio 
Colorist, Letterer: Abe Melendez





It's been a long time in coming.  After years of tirelessly attending conventions, using social media to endlessly promote his creator-owned series, and struggling with the unique challenges of distribution, Mark Sparacio has released the official trade paperback collecting the four part Omega Paradox saga!

Featuring completely remastered colors by digital painter Abe Melendez, this series represents some of Sparacio's best work yet, which is saying a lot, considering his past work for publishers like Marvel, DC, Moonstone, and Heroic, along with countless cover illustrations for publications like Comics Buyer's Guide magazine and The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide

Back when I interviewed the creative team in November of 2011, Series Writer Ian Ng revealed how the idea for Omega Paradox came into existence back in 2009:  "Mark [Sparacio] started the whole process with a painting and a name. Over the course of four hours at the San Diego con in 2009, we basically went back and forth at his booth. He was painting, and I took notes. When the dust settled, we had our core five-man team, Valerius, and the Eye of Ancev."

Mark Sparacio and his creative team of Ian Ng and Abraham Melendez Rivera have created a fascinating universe of colorful, interesting characters that, while dedicated to their ongoing mission, also question the agenda of the enigmatic leader that has set them on their task.  While on a dangerous quest to protect the mystical "Eye of Ancev" from the evil forces that would use the artifact for their own selfish ends, the team must do their best to get along with each other, as best as any family in the far reaches of space can do.  Just to complicate things further, one of these characters may actually hold the key to keeping the entire universe in one piece.  That's a big responsibility for any alien family, especially a family that can't seem to stop fighting long enough to make progress with their mission.

Besides a wraparound cover featuring all new artwork, this collection also includes the special "zero" preview issue along with all four issues of the original series.  Additional extras include biographies of all the team members and supporting cast, and a "behind the scenes" step-by-step tour of the creative process: from the thumbnails to the photoshoots to the painted cover.

Whether you have read the entire series, or are new to the Omega Paradox universe, this upgraded trade edition will prove that Sparacio, Ng and Rivera have unleashed one of the sharpest creator-owned science fiction series in years.  With an illustrator that studied for several years under Will Eisner himself, the quality of this series speaks for itself.