Wizard World Chicago 2014: You Can Go Home Again

Chad Derdowski returns to Wizard World after a long hiatus... but is there any magic left?
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Once upon a time, I couldn’t have imagined missing a Wizard World event in Chicago.  Even though I lived in Michigan, and more often than not, found myself taking the affordable, but not exactly enjoyable Mega Bus in order to make the long journey to the Windy City, it was always worth it.  Greeted by old friends, aged whiskey, and the promise of scads of sequential art, the idea of missing this grand event was as impossible to imagine as a blockbuster film featuring Rocket Raccoon.

But “once upon a time” was a long time ago, in what often feels like a galaxy far, far away.  It was a time which, like the original Star Wars film, has been retconned with a new subtitle: "Episode IV: Before I Had Kids."  But in truth, it wasn’t simply the financial burden created by my offspring that kept me away from Wizard World for the over half a decade.  Sure, I was no longer able to peruse the dealer booths for a few hours and walk away with the entire run of Preacher in trade paperback form (and still have more than enough spare change to pick up Transmetropolitan while I was at it), but there was something else.  In the exciting and ever-changing world of comic-book culture, Wizard World felt stagnant. 

Those gigantic Batman and Superman banners which hung from the ceiling above the DC booth were amazing the first time I went.  But the second?  The third?  When the astonishing becomes commonplace, you know there’s something wrong.  It wasn’t that Wizard World was less magical; it was simply exactly as magical as it had been the year before and the year before that.  So when I had to skip a Wizard World one year (having spent my last dime attending San Diego Comic Con that summer), it was hard to say I was upset about it.  And when one thing led to another and I missed another year…and another…well, “missed” isn’t exactly the right word.  In truth, I didn’t miss it at all.

Fast forward to now (or rewind to this past weekend, depending on your perspective) and I’m no longer living in the Mitten State, but now reside in Illinois, about an hour’s drive from the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center where Wizard World is held.  Being a longtime writer for Cinema Sentries, I found myself in possession of a weekend pass which offered the opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds and once again attend a Wizard World convention.  Like Luke Skywalker returning to Tattooine in order to save his friends from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt, I steeled myself and prepared for the worst.  Would I be able to recapture the magic of those early days, when I had taken my first step into much larger world?  Or would I have to witness the confusing-yet-stimulating sight of my sister in a metal bikini, hanging out with a giant worm smoking a hookah?   Metaphorically speaking, of course.

As it turns out, 2014 marked my triumphant return to Wizard World Chicago.  Not just because I’ve always got theme music playing in my mind wherever I go, or even because it was the first time in what feels like forever that I was able to walk around a crowded area filled with fragile and expensive items and not have to worry about whether or not my children were going to break something.  No, this year was triumphant because Wizard World was, in a word, AWESOME.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you - I wrote that in all caps.  That was for effect, and hopefully the effect you got from it was that I had a really spectacular time at the show and not that I’m one of those jerks who just writes in caps all the time, because I swear to you, I am NOT.  I am, however, one of those jerks who writes in run-on sentences all the time, filled with tons of commas, but how can I help it when I’m THIS EXCITED?!?!

While I was unable to utilize the full extent of my weekend pass, I still felt like I made the most out of the convention.  I had every intention of attending both Saturday and Sunday, but my daughter got sick Friday night and since I couldn’t bring her with me, I was somewhat less enthusiastic about making the hour drive again on Sunday.  Especially since Wizard World seemed to have tripled in size since the last time I attended, despite the lack of gigantic Batman and Superman banners and … wait, was there even a DC or Marvel booth?  Were there any major publishers there? 

Nope, I’m pretty sure I didn’t see any.  What I did see though, was a veritable sea of dealers.  A cornucopia of booths and a myriad of like minded individuals offering savings on everything from trade paperbacks to action figures to exclusive items they’d picked up in San Diego earlier this summer.  I didn’t see any grumbling fans waiting in long lines to get a signature on the stack of variant covers tucked under their arms, but engaged in plenty of great conversations with a number of folks who sold me $5 trades or a handful of loose DC Comics figures to give to my kids.  I even had a lengthy discussion about whether a hot dog or a slice of pizza would be more filling with a woman who I presume was a high-ranking member of Starfleet.  I’m not sure what she ended up going with, but I’m happy to report that the pizza was more than enough to satiate my Galactus-like hunger and motivate me to make it through the rest of the day.

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After spending a considerable amount of time perusing Rubbermaid containers full of G.I. Joe figures and spending more money than I cared to admit to my wife the next day, I made my way over to the other side of the convention hall to take part in the time-honored tradition of observing old movie and television stars and taking note of the fact that yes, the passage of time affects them in much the same fashion as it does the rest of us.

Lo and behold, there were hardly any old stars at all.  As a matter of fact, the celebrities in attendance were not only young, vibrant, and relevant, they were the type who would keep you safe in a zombie apocalypse (or at least a Marvel Zombie apocalypse, anyway).  I saw nearly the entire cast of The Walking Dead and pretty much the entire crew of the NCC-1701-D! Though I was a fair distance away, I saw Norman Reedus take the time to greet each of his fans (many of them female) with a smile, a handshake. and. more often than not, a hug.  I wondered what the hell I’d even say to John Carpenter anyway.  I noticed that Patrick Stewart is probably immortal and silently thanked him for making bald sexy all those years ago and allowing a chrome dome like myself to be at least a little bit cooler.  And I cursed the fact that Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, wasn’t at her booth (not that I would’ve had the guts to talk to her anyway). 

At the end of the day, I walked out of Wizard World Chicago with a sack full of toys and a few random books.  With the exception of the Marvel Treasury edition of the 2001: A Space Odyssey adaptation (by none other than Jack Kirby) that I’d picked up for a measly $2, everything I’d purchased was for my kids.  I felt like I’d been to the biggest and most amazing flea market that had ever existed - the Wrestlemania of flea markets, if you will.  Only this flea market was actually clean and pretty much everybody there had all (or most of) their teeth and everything they sold was just for me.  And it’s not like I was really looking in their mouths anyway. 

I was there for an entire day and while I saw more comics than anyone had a right to see, I didn’t even come close to seeing it all.  I barely got to peruse Artists’ Alley and certainly skipped over a few booths once my money had run out.  I got to meet one of my favorite artists in the form of Mike Zeck and I didn’t get sick from the con food.  I could’ve easily spent another day and a whole lot more cash, if given the opportunity.  I was amazed at the size and scope of the event and even though I don’t go to conventions to collect autographs, I was more than pleased with the guest list. 

If there was one complaint to be had (and of course, there has to be), it would be price.  While a four-day pass ($94.95) was quite affordable, the expense of a one-day ticket (Thursday - $40.00; Friday and Sunday - $50.00; Saturday - $60.00) was downright insulting.  I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of running a convention, but it seems to me that by offering a lower price for a one-day ticket, the convention might attract people who were new to the world of comic books and create new fans who would come back year after year (most likely with their children) and spend more and more of their money.  It seems that Wizard World has instead chosen to cater to the die-hard fans at the risk of excluding potential new fans.  And even as an old and not-so-die-hard fan, I know that if not for the press pass I received, I surely would not have been able to justify the cost of a ticket, much less the purchases I made while there.

But at the end of the day, Wizard World Chicago was still a pretty amazing event.  Whether you were looking for big ticket items, affordable old broken toys, or anything in-between, you could find it there.  Famous folks and up-and-coming creators shared the floor with fantastic costumes and enthusiastic fans.  I’m happy to say that after all these years, I can spit in Thomas Wolfe’s eye and say that you can, in fact, go home again.  Metaphorically, of course; I’d never spit in Thomas Wolfe’s eye.  I don’t even know who he is. 

Homemade Transformers.JPG

At any rate, I was happy to find that Wizard World was still full of magic and a good time was had by all.

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