If you stopped by Durham's Ultimate Comics in the days leading up to Halloween, you could pick up a coloring sheet that featured a mite-like superhero decapitating a bat-like one. To the uninitiated, it probably just looked like an unusually violent picture for children to color. But to local comics insiders who recognized the characters as Ultimite, the mascot of Ultimate Comics, and Acme Bat, the mascot of Greensboro's Acme Comics, it sent a sharper message.
Ultimate Comics runs the NC Comicon, which returns to the Durham Convention Center this weekend, Nov. 9–10. Acme Comics hosted its first Comic Book City Con (CBCC) in Greensboro two weekends ago. Was the coloring sheet a declaration of turf war against Acme, whose timing looked like an attempt to kneecap a larger, more established convention? Or was this comic book contretemps just a friendly rivalry?
It depends on whom you ask.
If Comic Book City Con represents a threat to NC Comicon, it comes at a sensitive time. After drawing 4,000 visitors last year to the Durham Convention Center and turning away even more, NC Comicon organizers Alan Gill and Eric Hoover ramped up their offerings for 2013. They reserved twice as much space in the convention center, partnered with the neighboring Carolina Theatre for the new ComiQuest Film Festival, doubled the number of panel events and booked a Friday night kickoff concert at the Armory.
NC Comicon is not expected to be profitable; it's intended to drive credibility for Ultimate Comics. "People who may have been semi-regular customers," Gill says, "come to the convention and get the gist that we're serious comic book guys without being serious," adding, "wocka wocka." But Tommy Lee Edwards, a renowned comics artist who was formerly an unofficial partner of NC Comicon, is now the official creative director, and Gill says that he feels pressure to make it worth Edwards' while.
On top of new business partners to pay and new space to fill, NC Comicon's guest list this year includes bigger names than ever before—not just indie up-and-comers and established mid-level creators, but legacy artists and writers whose names resound through comics and beyond. "A lot of that is due to Tommy's influence and connections," Hoover says. "He went to New York Comic Con as an artist and talked up NC Comicon a lot."
In short, NC Comicon has a lot on the line this year, which brings us back to that strikingly aggressive coloring sheet. Gill says the image was all in good fun, noting that it was commissioned from Chris Giarrusso, a friend of both shops who designed both mascots. But if the NC Comicon organizers felt that it was a lighthearted jab, the Comic Book City Con organizers felt otherwise.
"When Chris drew that back in August," says Acme manager and CBCC organizer Stephen Mayer, "I never thought it would see the light of day. If a kid in Greensboro, where Acme Bat has been published in comics that are handed out in schools, saw that, it would be like seeing something terrible happening to Santa Claus. The problem with the friendly rivalry idea is that we're not attacking back. I believe that's called bullying."
Playful or not, the image represents a conflict with real business consequences on both sides. The organizers of NC Comicon felt threatened by what they saw as CBCC's deliberate effort to undermine their attendance. Meanwhile, the organizers of CBCC felt threatened by the noncompete clauses NC Comicon issued to their guests and vendors after hearing about the new convention. But did the organizers of CBCC deliberately book closely in advance of NC Comicon or not?
According to Gill, who points out that NC Comicon is always in early to mid-November, he announced the 2013 dates last November. Mayer claims that CBCC also announced its dates last November and that the dates were selected solely for availability. "There are lots of shows all over the place now," Mayer says. "There was the Asheville Comic Expo, and the Winston-Salem Comic-Con was the week after that, and New York Comic Con was the second week of October." The 2013 date was chosen in celebration of Acme's 30th anniversary, which drew in illustrious guests such as Jonathan Hickman and Mark Waid, thanks to the shop's popular Acmecast podcast and its five Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award nominations.
CBCC coordinator Cody Ellis adds that they never saw themselves as being in competition with larger shows such as NC Comicon. "We were trying to bring a very personal experience to Comic City, USA," he says—referring to Greensboro's resolution that claimed the title to support Acme's large Free Comic Book Day events—"not upend anybody's attendance or guest list. We would have done it later if we could have, but two weeks after NC Comicon, you're getting into the holidays, a whole other set of headaches."
"If that was the only weekend they could get," Hoover said, "we would be like, 'That sucks but we get it.'" Gill says he wouldn't have taken it personally if he hadn't heard about it secondhand. "When we look at our dates," he says, "we're looking at other cons all over the East Coast. When we came into conflict with the Virginia Comic Con, I called them up and said, 'I'm sorry we're in competition, but I have no choice on the dates.'"
Just as NC Comicon's organizers felt slighted by what they perceived as CBCC's lack of communication, the opposite was now true for CBCC.
"It's really unfortunate," Mayer says, "the negative narrative that has come up around this. We just had an incredible weekend with 1,600 guests, and have not been publicizing anything about the noncompete to keep things positive. We found out about it when people who were booked at our show started applying to NC Comicon and getting denied, and some of them canceled to go to NC Comicon instead. It hurt us [financially] when we had to refund deposits, but in the end, I think we had a better and more creative show because of it, and I think they will too."
"I just didn't want customers to show up at my show two weeks later and see the exact same people," Gill says, insisting that he wishes the new convention well. "That was just us protecting our business interests in this convention we have a lot of money in. It's not like there couldn't have been a March show, or even a month out. But two weeks is just too close."
To top it all off, there is yet another comics event this weekend, this one in Durham and happening concurrently with NC Comicon. The first Durham Indie Comics Expo, or DICE, takes place at Supergraphic on Nov. 9. DICE focuses exclusively on indie, self-publishing and local creators.
"The idea of having it the same weekend as the very well-organized and friendly NC Comicon," says DICE organizer Rob Clough, "is for Durham to fully reflect comics culture for a weekend. Our hope is that comics fans with broad tastes will find time to attend both shows. It's not at all an ideological stance against mainstream comics, and certainly not against the NC Comicon."
All in all, that seems wise—what would Ultimite look like mauling a pair of dice? The bright side in all of this is that the crossed wires of comics dealers in an increasingly crowded market result in a bounteous, if controversy-tinged, month for North Carolina comics fans.
This year, the Carolina handles the convention's ticket sales and serves as its main entrance while screening comics-related films such as Superman II, The Crow and the original Batman movie. Individual tickets will be sold to the general public, while vouchers will be issued to Comicon attendees. "They've done a lot for us," Hoover says of the Carolina. "In return, they're getting an influx of potential customers who might not usually think about arthouses."
The idea was planted at last year's convention when Jim Carl, senior director of the Carolina Theatre, led a popular panel discussion on how to host a film festival. "We already have a huge crowd that comes to our Escapism, Nevermore and three Retro series," Carl says of the Carolina's curated genre film offerings.
"But there's so much crossover between them and Comicon fans. The idea was to show mainstream films that are highly recognizable while giving a shot to no-budget or lesser-known B-films—for instance, we're showing the last surviving 35mm print of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century."
To further root the film festival in comics, creators such as Bob Burden, whose comics were adapted into Mystery Men, will introduce films of their work.
The guest of honor is Neal Adams, who virtually created the visual language of modern superhero comics with his illustrative realism and radical panel designs in the '70s. Among other guests, Dan Jurgens wrote one of the most notorious comic stories of all time, the death of Superman, in 1992 (short version: Supes got better). And Gail Simone, one of the best-selling female writers in comics, is renowned for her public advocacy against gender disparity in comics creators and exploitative treatment of female characters. "You couldn't understand how powerful she is," Hoover says, "until DC tried to take her off Batgirl and the entire Internet melted down."
In the past, NC Comicon distinguished itself from larger competitors by eschewing the movie and television features that purists complain are taking the comics out of comics conventions. Until recently, Gill complained right along with them.
"Last year," he says with a laugh, "it was, 'You'll never see Patrick Stewart here.'"
He's changed his tune: "I can't wait to have Patrick Stewart here now!" (This is hypothetical—Jean-Luc Picard will not be on site.) "But once we lined up the Carolina deal, it started making more sense."
This article appeared in print with the headline "War of the Comic Cons."