Spring hasn't exactly sprung, but even though there's still a chill in the air and frost on the tree branches, it's never too early to kick off convention season. This year, pop-culture fans in Chicago were treated to something a little bit different - while Wizard World usually rolls into the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois sometime in August, a smaller Fan Fest was held in the same location on March 7-8. Fans who purchased either VIP or 4-Day tickets for the August show would receive free admission (which I guess is what makes it a fan fest) while regular ticket prices were just $15 per day or $25 for the weekend. The show featured luminaries such as comic legend Neal Adams, Growing Pains alumni Tracy Gold, Married With Children's David Faustino, WWE Diva Eva Marie, and everyone's favorite zombie killing redneck, Daryl Dixon of The Walking Dead, aka Norman Reedus.
But ... what exactly was a Fan Fest, other than a very affordably priced show (something that definitely appealed to an often cash-strapped geek dad)? While there were a number of purveyors of sequential art in attendance, the focus of the advertisements definitely seemed to be on the celebrity guests - a fact of life for many conventions these days, no matter how much diehard comic fans argue with it. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I arrived with a couple of friends and my four-year-old son in tow, and what I found may not be quite to everyone's liking; but I'm happy to report that I was definitely a fan of Wizard World's inaugural Fan Fest.
First of all, I have to applaud the price. In an era when one day admission to a convention can cost up to $60, I have a hard time justifying the price of the ticket to a show, let alone actually buying anything. Long gone are the days when I walked into a show with $300 in my pocket, ready to fill my backpack to the brim with hardcover collections, sketches and autographs. These days, I'm scouring boxes of loose action figures and $5 trade paperbacks so I can share the things I love with my kids and get the most bang for my buck. So a $15 ticket was definitely appreciated.
Furthermore, with the proliferation of blockbuster films based on comic books, it seems that it would behoove convention promoters to try to appeal more to folks who haven't spent their lives at the comic shop (or if you're my age or older, the local drugstore or 7-11) filling the gaps in their collections and panicking if they missed the latest installment of the four-color adventures they loved. If a die-hard like myself can't justify a steep ticket price, good luck convincing someone who only knows Captain America from the movies. That's a potential fan lost, but a low admission price gives those folks an opportunity to share what we all know is the greatest storytelling medium in existence.
But I digress. How was the show itself? Well, it was definitely a lot smaller than the Wizard World shows I've attended in the past like WW Chicago 2014, both in the number of dealers and the size of the floor. Walking at a fairly brisk pace (keep in mind, I was being led around by a four-year-old), I'm pretty sure we covered the majority of the convention floor in less than two hours before heading back to make purchases at a few select booths.
But with the smaller size came more maneuverability and more time to chat with cosplayers and vendors. My son got some extra time sitting in the front seat of the Batmobile while I talked to the owners because there wasn't much of a line to speak of. When one of those gentlemen with the life-size astromech droids came by, we got to take a good long look at this magnificent creation and while that's pretty awesome for a 38-year-old kid, I can tell you first hand that it's a life altering experience for a child under 5. And rather than feeling rushed or cramped by the size of the crowd, we actually got to have an experience - a moment, if you will. And that's something money can't buy.
Of course, the smaller size isn't without its drawbacks. While I was able to find more-or-less everything what I was looking for, I'm sure that wasn't the case for everyone who attended and the focus seemed to be less about back issues and more about that gigantic t-shirt place that always dominates every big convention I go to. I don't think I saw any sort of variation of Artists' Alley and that's definitely a big minus for me. I love small press and the more casual atmosphere would've been a great opportunity to talk to these folks and pick up a comic or sketch. There were places selling Girl Scout Cookies and sports memorabilia and even some folks offering a spinal adjustment. At times, the show felt less like a comic convention and more like a tourist destination.
Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing either. As I mentioned before, I think it's a smart move to focus on bringing in new fans, casual fans, fairweather fans, and broke old cheapskates like myself. So if that means dad looks at the Cubs memorabilia for his man cave while the kids rummage through the quarter bins, I'm all about it. Bringing in new readers and reintroducing lapsed fans to comics can't be bad, right?
And did I mention the single greatest idea to ever hit a comic book convention? Folks who live in the Chicago area are no doubt familiar with the Galloping Ghost Arcade, but for those of you who aren't in the know, I've included a link to their website. Long story short, it's open seven days a week, has over 446 arcade games and costs $15 for unlimited play. And they were at the show! I'm not sure how many games they brought, but it was at least 25 and they were all free to play. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fine folks at WrassleRoos, a company that makes underwear that looks like 1980's pro wrestler gear. They had a booth at the show and yes, it's every bit as awesome as it sounds. They were really nice folks who offer a great product as well as a great service to humanity and after nearly 20 full minutes of deliberation, I finally chose the orange "Macho Man" Randy Savage design, which I'm wearing as I write this. Probably a little more information than you wanted, but there it is.
In summation, it wasn't a perfect convention, but I was pretty pleased with my experience at Wizard World Chicago Fan Fest. It wasn't the biggest convention and it was lacking in glitz or glamour, but that's not really why I go to comic-book conventions. It was affordable and offered a smaller and more intimate experience for myself and my family and it was something I'd definitely recommend to folks with a similar mindset. I'm definitely looking forward to attending next year.