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April 29, 2014

CR Guest Editorial: Bart Beaty On Calgary Comics Expo, Regional Conventions And Attendance Figures


By Bart Beaty

I mouthed off the other day on FaceBook. Having read this week a number of comments on the comics internet about Salt Lake City's Comic Con and their claims to nearly 100,000 attendees, I got a bit irritated. If you read Tom's piece here, he is, as he almost always is, fair and generous. He notes that "some people" have "openly questioned" the SLC number, while he also notes that it's a good number and shows that there's room for growth. Completely fair, and not the type of article that got under my skin.

According to this chart in this PW article by Heidi MacDonald, of the 15 best-attended comics events last year about a third are so off the beaten path that they get very little press coverage in the comics community.

These regional cons -- Denver, Calgary -- may outdraw other more visible cons in Charlotte or Toronto or New York by a huge margin, but for the most part they do it with little attention paid to them. There are lots of reasons for that: publishers don't release new works at them; they don't make major announcements; they don't bring in once-in-a-lifetime international guests; they don't take place a subway ride away from the great concentration of comics bloggers and commentators. But they are a huge organizing structure of contemporary comics fandom, and it seems that we are missing some of that.

Look at this picture:


That is downtown Calgary, Alberta on midday on a Friday yesterday for the opening of Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo. Calgary is the third largest city in Canada, and also the wealthiest. In 2006 it hosted the first CCEE, and about 3000 people came. It grew steadily over the next few years, and became monumental in 2012. That year it became the first con anywhere to reunite the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation in one location. Fans flew in from all over the planet for the opportunity to spend hundreds of dollars to get their picture taken with the entire cast. That year I spoke on a number of panels, and when I arrived with my wife and son on the Saturday, we could not get in to my panel, as the 250,000 square foot convention centre was overpopulated. I think most people thought they couldn't duplicate that one-of-a-kind feeling again, but attendance rose in 2013 as they added more floor space by moving to an adjacent building (the event is held at Stampede Park, which hosts our annual rodeo -- it's a vast space). This year they added even more space, occupying at least five different buildings. For the first time in several years I was too busy to volunteer to organize any talks or panels, so I bought tickets for my family and could only get a Friday pass. It was still a madhouse.

The logistics of CCEE have been criticized each of the past three years (and possibly before that). 2012 was traumatic for some people. I know that if I had flown from Australia to meet Patrick Stewart and had a ten minute window and then couldn't get on the floor in my Starfleet uniform because the venue had been oversold by volunteers I would likely have lost my mind. To the con's credit, they took steps to address these problems. This year they moved ticketing to the rodeo grandstand (you had to trade your ticket for a wrist badge) which is a good idea for crowd control, but a bad idea when you're a guest with an eight year old dressed as Thor who has to walk more than a mile from the parking lot to the grandstand and then back to the event. It is even more of a failure if your volunteers can't remember the word "grandstand" and keep saying "one of the buildings that way" and it is even more of a failure when, like today, it is snowing (that's life in a mountain town in late April...)

That said, to be fair, CCEE has improved immensely since 2012's disasters. Photo sessions were moved to a separate building; autograph areas were moved into a back room (and, this year, into an additional building -- if you want to meet Sigourney Weaver ($150 -- no pictures!) -- you leave the convention centre for an entirely different part of the Stampede grounds. These are huge improvements, but they also mean that there are areas that look abandoned. In this picture you'd think we were at a con with poor attendance, but we're actually in front of an autograph area where the celebrity isn't coming until today. That's one of the reasons I was dubious of initial reports that SLC didn't look crowded -- it seemed to me that a well-planned regional con, with its emphasis on movie and tv stars -- is always going to have areas that don't look crowded.


Trust me, it was crowded. I have been to San Diego. I have been to TCAF. I have been to Angouleme on a Saturday. This show was immensely more crowded than TCAF or Angouleme. It was no San Diego. The regional con becomes a magnet for people for hundreds, or even thousands, of miles. I spoke yesterday to students of mine who had friends coming in from at least four provinces. I'm speaking at Denver's Comic Con next month, and I'm sure it brings in people from as many states. With San Diego selling out almost instantly (when Big Bang Theory does an episode about trying to buy passes online, you know your ticketing issues have become a big deal), it makes sense that regional cons will begin to attract crowds that are on par with where SDCC was a decade ago.

One thing that I can say about the regional con that is different from San Diego (or Angouleme) is that everyone loves it. I have never heard my local event badmouthed in a serious way (well, those Australian TNG fans were pretty upset). Even with the logistical problems, my students love this event. The exam for my comics class took place, partially, overlapping with the opening of preview night and my students arrived to the exam in costume. Some left early to take the train to the event -- sacrificing their grade to be there. I see a crowd that is overwhelmingly family oriented. A huge percentage of the crowd is children (my group was five professors, three children under the age of ten), and a huge percentage is female, and a huge percentage is in costume. They queue to meet the cast of Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, and The Hobbit. They attend panels on costume design, and drawing skills run by the local Art College. They shop for toys, comics, and original art.

What is most striking about the event is how mainstream the whole thing is. The students in my comics class -- overwhelmingly between the ages of 17 and 22 -- do not regard comics fandom as a subculture. In a world where everyone they know goes to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, comics are not seen as geeky or nerdy, but as normal as any kind of fandom. I often note that I've been to car shows at the same convention centre that holds CCEE and it has only a fraction of that crowd. When you're more mainstream than cars, that's an important part of the city's self-image.

Here's the mayor of Canada's third largest city, Naheed Nenshi, taking a selfie while dressed as the eleventh Dr. Who. That's what a regional con means to a city.



image/chart and photos copyrighted to their owners and supplied by Dr. Beaty; that Thor is Sebastian Beaty

posted 12:05 pm PST | Permalink

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