When the first comic book conventions were established in the 1960s, they were simple and direct affairs: Comic book lovers gathered to buy, sell and trade their comics. In those days, comic books were still a niche cultural concern at best, and regional conventions were a kind of underground distribution model for serious readers and collectors.
In recent years, of course, comic book culture has ascended to dizzying heights, annexing big chunks of Hollywood and powering ginormous comic book conventions like San Diego’s Comic-Con International.
NC Comicon, taking place this weekend in and around the Durham Convention Center, is a decidedly old-school comic book convention. Now in its sixth year, Comicon largely eschews the trappings of the modern pop culture expo and keeps its focus on comic books – and the people who love them.
This year’s event will feature more than 200 exhibitors – including publishers, retailers, dealers and dozens of writers and illustrators in the Artists’ Alley section. The show is expanding this year as well, with events in the Durham Armory space and the 21c Museum Hotel downtown.
NC Comicon director Alan Gill – also the owner of Ultimate Comics stores in Chapel Hill and Raleigh – says he expects around 8,000 attendees this year, up from about 6,500 last year. A big part of the draw will be this year’s high-profile industry guests, on hand to sign autographs and discuss comic art in various panels throughout the weekend.
Among this years headliners is comic book artist Charlie Adlard, primary illustrator for “The Walking Dead,” the hugely popular comic series that inspired the blockbuster TV franchise.
“This is his only U.S. convention appearance this year,” Gill said. “People are coming from all over to see him. It’s a big deal.”
Also attending NC Comicon this year: Gerard Way, who isn’t just a rock star in the world of comics. He’s an actual rock star.
“He’s the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, but he writes comics,” Gill said. “And that’s why we’re bringing him here – that’s our focus. You know, he’s got 1.5 million followers on Twitter, but we’re bringing him here as a comic book creator.”
In its six-year history, NC Comicon has earned a reputation for attracting relatively big comic book names to what is a relatively small regional convention. Gill credits Tommy Lee Edwards, industry veteran and NC ComiCon creative director, for bringing in special guests like Adlard and Way.
“Honestly, we could have broken these guys into two separate years and it would still be awesome,” Gill says.
Comic books are the draw
In the spirit of old-school conventions, NC Comicon also draws dealers and retailers from throughout the region, creating a kind of comic book superstore for three days.
One of those retailers is Bret Parks, whose Winston-Salem store Ssalefish Comics & Toys, just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Parks has been setting up shop at NC Comicon since 2011 and estimates he attends around 20 conventions a year, from New York to Orlando.
Unlike larger touring comic conventions, which really function more like pop culture theme parks, Parks says NC Comicon draws a core audience of serious comic book people.
“I’m not being sarcastic at all when I say that the reason that I continue to set up there is that people come to buy comic books there,” Parks said. “Collectors come and readers come. There are conventions where people just come to dress up and meet celebrities and don’t even consider buying comic books.”
In addition to the usual array of panels, parties and contests, this year’s show will add a couple of intriguing new special events. On Saturday night, the Guardians of the Gala Cosplay Ball will feature live DJs, vintage arcade games from Baxter’s Barcade in Chapel Hill, and a dance-off contest with a $200 prize.
RTP-based game company Red Storm will also feature a live, playable demo of its new Tom Clancy game, “The Division,” scheduled for release next year. While the title has been previewed at industry events, Gill said the NC Comicon demo will give regular gamers a chance to actually play the game.
Keeping things small and local has its benefits. For instance, working out the details with Red Storm, based in Cary, didn’t require any high-powered negotiations, Gill said:
“A lot of those guys come into the comics store.”
What: NC Comicon
Where: Durham Convention Center, 301 W. Morgan St., Durham
Cost: $40/3-day pass; $30/Saturday; $20/Sunday