Believe it or not, there was a time when comic books weren’t cool.
Younger readers may be puzzled by this, but back in the day comic books, science fiction and superheroes were decidedly lame. They were the arcane currency of the nerd, the geek, the spaz.
These days, of course, comic book culture represents a major driving force in the entertainment industry. Film franchises based on Spider-Man, Batman and The Avengers rule the box office, and TV shows with comic book themes have a huge and loyal fan base. Even formerly modest comic book conventions like San Diego’s Comic-Con have become huge Hollywood marketing events.
This weekend the Durham Convention Center will host a return to old-school traditions with NC Comicon 2012, a two-day celebration and gathering of the tribes. Now in its third year, the annual event has moved into the roomier convention center venue for the first time, and it’s a return to basics for comics lovers, said organizer Eric Hoover.
“In the last several years, a lot of bigger shows have either been sold or gone under,” said Hoover, coordinator with Durham’s Ultimate Comics shop, which puts on the annual event.
“There has been a big move toward smaller regional cons, and we feel like we’re part of that movement. The idea is to get away from big media spectacles like San Diego, which are really more about films and video games now than they are about comic books.”
This weekend’s event will feature plenty of attractions for the serious comic book fan. More than 80 exhibitors will be occupying booths – artists, collectibles dealers, regional retailers and small press publishers – along with local friendlies such as the Durham Performing Arts Center and Durham-based online gaming magazine The Escapist.
Special guests at this year’s convention include more than a dozen well-known comic artists, writers and graphic novelists including Frank Cho, Duncan Fegrado and Tommy Lee Edwards. Several panel discussion events are planned, with topics such as “Comics for Kids,” “Self Publishing & Indy Comics” and the intriguing “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.” Mark your calendars.
You’ll also find traditional convention events such as an art contest on Saturday, a costume contest on Sunday and a tournament competition with the miniatures games HeroClix.
This year, the convention will host several events in conjunction with the Carolina Theatre, adjacent to the convention center in downtown Durham. The Carolina will host a special edition of the monthly Retrofantasma film series on Friday night – a double feature bill of David Lynch’s 1984 cult classic “Dune” and Disney’s 1979 sci-fi film “The Black Hole.” Carolina Theatre film director Jim Carl will also lead a special event on Saturday about the challenges of curating the 35-mm Retrofantasma series. (For a full schedule, visit nccomicon.com).
On Saturday night, the Carolina will host the touring stage production “The Intergalactic Nemesis,” a “live-action graphic novel” that combines elements of radio drama with hand-drawn comic book images projected onto a giant backdrop screen. The production has already toured extensively in the U.S. and been featured on NPR and Conan O’Brien’s late-night show.
“Basically what we do is take our original graphic novel and bring it to life onstage,” said creator Jason Neulander, who originated the project with a small theater company in Austin, Texas. “We take artwork from the book and project it panel by panel, without the word balloons. Three actors voice all the characters, our Foley artist creates the sound effects, and it’s scored by a keyboardist – all live in front of the audience.”
Neulander said Saturday’s show is the production’s final planned event for 2012, and that the company is looking forward to playing for a dedicated comic book audience.
“We haven’t done anything quite like this, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Neulander said. “I know comic conventions can be kind of a sensory overload, and I’m really hoping people will still be standing at the end of the day and come check out our show.”
Hoover and his colleagues at Ultimate Comics built their convention the old-fashioned way, by making friends and connections at other regional events. In 2010, they staged the first edition of the convention as a one-day show at a Morrisville outlet mall, inviting exhibitors, dealers and artists they’d met over the years in the close-knit comics community.
“We literally put the first show together in three and a half weeks, and we had more than 1,000 people show up,” Hoover said. “That got us thinking about what we could do if we put in a little more effort. We were very familiar with cons and how they work, and there wasn’t really much going on in this area.”
Hoover said the convention should be greatly improved by moving into the larger convention center space this year.
“It will all be consolidated into one area, which helps keep things together and running smoothly,” he said.
Since the show has earned a good reputation regionally, the Ultimate Comics crew has found it easier to book special industry guests and artists. “Those guys are great – they’re really tuned into their fans and they like having the opportunity to go out and promote their work,” Hoover said.
Exhibitors bring unique contributions to the party, too. Hoover said the zombie panel, for instance, is produced by a Wilmington production company that recently released a DVD on the topic. “It’s about surviving in a zombie apocalypse,” Hoover said. “They were interested in doing a panel, and we were happy to set them up.”