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NC Comicon puts comics first 

Eric Hoover (left) and Alan Gill at Ultimate Comics in Durham

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Eric Hoover (left) and Alan Gill at Ultimate Comics in Durham

Comic book conventions flourish worldwide, from tiny homegrown affairs to huge corporate spectacles.

San Diego Comic-Con International began as the former, in 1970, before growing into the latter. Now, when people generically refer to "Comic-Con," they're probably talking about San Diego. Over four days last July, the event drew more than 130,000 guests, only stopping because of a cap that was imposed in 2007 after skyrocketing attendance led to overcrowding. It sounds like a sign of health for comic books, a reservoir of mythology as uniquely American as jazz. The only problem is that at San Diego, actual comics can be hard to find.

The two granddaddies of superhero publishing, Marvel (home of Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers) and DC (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman), are now respectively owned by Disney and Warner Bros., which aggressively courted new platforms. The 21st-century boom in superhero movies, kicked off by Bryan Singer's X-Men, introduced a new generation to the characters, but not necessarily to the comics.

If you want to avoid the big-tent frenzy of San Diego, the other extreme often amounts to some folding tables in a dismal room where a few hard-core collectors cut deals. One notable exception is the young but fast-growing NC Comicon, which moves from its prior home in Morrisville to a new one in the Durham Convention Center on Nov. 17 and 18. Grassroots but ambitious, supported by the resources of a respected retailer, it focuses almost exclusively on comic books and the people who make them. There will be no waiting in line to get your picture taken with Lou Ferrigno—though you can have a photo taken in a replica Batmobile, or even get a ride if you win a raffle.

The roster of guest talent at NC Comicon features bigger names than you often find at independent conventions, and there will be plenty of reputable dealers for collectors. But there are also events for children, families and those for whom Batman is synonymous with director Christopher Nolan rather than creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. This accessibility goes against the stereotype of comic book collecting as a grubby, arcane pursuit, reflecting the changing nature of fandom and the values of Ultimate Comics, the Durham-based store whose staff created NC Comicon.

Eric Hoover, age 30, has worked at Ultimate Comics since graduating from UNC with a degree in anthropology. Now he's the head organizer of the NC Comicon. Alan Gill, 42, is his boss. But judging from their rapport, you might guess it was the other way around. In the Amante Gourmet Pizza near their Farrington Road store, the dynamic duo fell into complementary roles. Hoover was the straight man, serious and informative, while Gill inserted quips in the bantering style of Spider-Man.

As Hoover explained that he grew up on mainstream superhero comics (and still reads them) but now prefers offbeat titles from smaller imprints such as Dark Horse and IDW, Gill interjected drily, "At 30, you've finally outgrown Capwolf." He was referring to a famously daft '90s story line where Captain America became a werewolf. Hoover smiled and nodded agreeably, but added quietly, "I still love Capwolf."

Comic book fandom is something that takes root in childhood, imprinting vivid traces on the memory. "If there's going to be a future for comics," Hoover said frankly, "you have to get kids interested young—we're all into comics because we remember reading them as kids. The movies bring back nostalgic old fans, but you don't get a lot of people coming into comics for the first time as adults."

When Gill thinks back on a corn festival he visited with his father when he was young, what he remembers is the comic he read to stave off boredom, an issue of Marvel Two-in-One starring the Thing and the Living Mummy. Now Gill is a full-time single father cultivating two new fans: 12-year-old Patrick loves superheroes; 10-year-old Ashley loves Archie. They live on a piece of land where a hodgepodge of buildings—a garage, a greenhouse, a barn—serves as Ultimate Comics' improvised overstock warehouse.

Gill caught the comics bug as a child in Spain, where his military father was stationed. There was no American television on base, but there were comics, which remained his favorite entertainment when his family moved back stateside. Until the 1970s, there were no comic book shops—you bought them at newsstands and convenience stores. When Gill first discovered a specialty store in his hometown of Melbourne, Fla., his excitement quickly turned to disenchantment.

"It was the classic comic book store right out of The Simpsons," he said, revulsion rising in his voice. "The guy was fat and rude; the place was smelly and disgusting. He didn't pop his head up and say 'hi' or anything, and you just went through these disorganized comics."

After graduating high school in 1988, Gill enlisted in the Navy for four years and simultaneously took his first steps toward becoming a comic book retailer. The early '90s were a heady time in the industry, when a perfect storm of factors—chiefly, a power structure that strongly favored distributors and a massive influx of speculators, whom publishers obliged by printing enormous runs of gimmicky books—inflated a bubble that would disastrously pop by 1997, when Marvel filed for bankruptcy.

But at the time, everyone in comics was making money, and Gill put on several small conventions in Gainesville. "You didn't even need to try," he said. "Hand-flyering and a little classified ad in the paper, and you had 500 people show up."

After leaving the Navy, Gill worked for frozen yogurt chain TCBY and was transferred to its location in Durham's Homestead Market Shopping Center. He wound up buying the franchise but changed course in 2002, when a space of about 600 square feet opened up next door. Gill slapped some paint on the walls and moved in his collection, and Ultimate Comics was hastily born. It was the only comic book shop in Durham, and Sam Raimi's box-office smash Spider-Man was driving new interest in comics. The next year, Gill opened a second location in Chapel Hill—selling off his TCBY—and then a third at Northgate Mall, which later moved to Ninth Street.

Two years ago, Ultimate Comics consolidated into its current space on Highway 54, realizing that they had loyal customers who didn't mind traveling to this bright, spacious, well-organized location. Everyone who walks through the door gets a friendly greeting and a follow-up to see what they're looking for. The comics are bagged and boarded in alphabetized racks and long-boxes, and customers are welcome to pop them open. While the type of forbidding dungeon that Gill wandered into as a child still exists, he thinks it's a dying breed.

"There's a lot of old-school guys who got into collecting and opened stores," he explained, "and it doesn't matter if they make money because they've amassed these valuable collections and have been living in their mom's basement for so long. That's a stereotype for a reason, but those guys are literally dying off. Chapel Hill Comics"—a competitor on Franklin Street, where you can browse new comics while listening to experimental music on WXYC—"is also a very nice store, open and inviting. People opening shops now are younger, and they get that they have to be retail stores, not clubhouses."

The first NC Comicon was in March of 2010. It was a one-day show in the Morrisville Outlet Mall, which had a handful of stores, a food court and a lot of empty rental space—an affordable if not dynamic place to try running a local convention in an area that had none of substance. Gill threw the first one together in a month—now, it's a year-round process—tapping local dealers and creators. Hoover, who collects original art for himself and the store, dug into his contacts. They were surprised to draw about 1,000 guests. Two more NC Comicons happened at the Morrisville Outlet Mall, but the phrase "mall show" inevitably conjured grim images.

Gill and Hoover hope that moving to the Durham Convention Center this year will better represent the ambitions of their convention. There will be discussion panels on working in comics and portfolio reviews for aspiring creators. There will be a costume contest and art contests for kids, teens and adults. There will be film screenings in cross-promotion with the Carolina Theatre next door. And most importantly, there will be around 40 writers and artists from Marvel, DC and indie books, including stars such as Frank Cho, Bernard Chang and Hellboy artist Duncan Fegredo.

Some of the big names attached to the convention owe to the involvement of Tommy Lee Edwards, a 39-year-old illustrator who lives in Pittsboro. Edwards experienced the boom-and-bust of the '90s firsthand as a successful artist. His career exemplifies the narrative arc of comics over the last couple decades, where the economic travails of the giant publishing houses caused a revolution in creator-owned comics. When Marvel filed for bankruptcy, Edwards saw a year's worth of work vanish overnight. He swore off work-for-hire and started making independent comics such as Turf while funneling his art into more lucrative channels—notably, he was the concept artist for The Book of Eli.

Edwards likes to keep a low profile in comic shops. He didn't let on who he was when he started visiting Ultimate Comics. But Gill overheard Edwards' children knowledgably discussing the industry and started asking questions. Now Edwards works so closely with Ultimate Comics, creating incentive covers and posters, that he's called an unofficial partner. "Especially when I started doing creator-owned stuff," he said, "it's so good to have that retailer connection. I used to hand my stuff over and publishers just ran with it. Having a connection to my local shop, I can grasp and care about the process so much more."

Edwards' stature in the industry draws in otherwise unattainable gets, such as the U.K.-based Fegredo. Conventions are an important source of income for comics artists, who can sell sketches, original art and prints. But since anyone can throw a convention, it's important to know who's reputable. Edwards believes that NC Comicon is the kind of intimate, creator-focused convention that artists and writers love, and his endorsement helps them believe it too.

"The first year I went to San Diego was 1992, as a fan," Edwards said. "Right out in front were all the creators. But every year, it got harder to find them, and now they're in the back by the toilets unless they spend money to have a better spot. I have a studio with Bernard Chang and a few other guys, and we have to spend over $3,000 to have a booth at San Diego, then sell sketchbooks to make our money back. It's a necessary evil, but none of us enjoy the big conventions."

NC Comicon is not a moneymaker for Ultimate Comics; it drives new interest in the medium and new customers into the store. To its proprietors, the biggest draw is the chance to get meaningful face time with their favorite creators. "We actually like comics," Gill said, "we like these people. When you have a media guest, you walk up, pay them 50 dollars to sign something and walk away. With a comics artist or writer, especially at a show our size, you can have a conversation, get to know them. They're not charging you for their time."

You won't be collecting the signatures of all the captains from Star Trek or seeing any Twilight panels at NC Comicon, but as for what could happen, who knows? As Hoover explained how they carefully managed the convention's budget, Gill chimed in: "But we still overspend. I'll get drunk and be like, 'Let's take all the guests to the strip club!'"

"True story," Hoover murmured.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Four-color heroes."

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