Superheroes will probably descend. Jay most definitely won’t be silent. And it would be a very bad idea for William Shatner to tell anyone to get a life.
When the Wizard World Comic Con comes to Madison beginning on Friday, an event that has its roots in comic books and science fiction will bring a panoply of pop culture to the Alliant Energy Center. TV’s “The Walking Dead” has a big presence, but so do cultural touchstones that don’t have a ton to do with comics or sci-fi.
Among the celebrities making appearances for autographs and photo opps are Shatner, most famous as Capt. James T. Kirk on “Star Trek.” He’ll be joined by Bruce Campbell (“Army of Darkness” and “Evil Dead,” among others), Kristin Bauer (“True Blood”), Ian Somerhalder (“The Vampire Diaries”), Emily Kinney (“The Walking Dead”), Billy Dee Williams (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and many other performers as well as artists and writers.
But it’s not just those with horror or sci-fi connections. Jason Mewes, best known as the chatty Jay in “Clerks” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (which have comic book store connections) will be there. So will George Wendt (“Cheers”) and the Bella Twins of WWE.
“It’s no longer a comic book convention, it’s really an entertainment convention,” said Wizard World Inc. CEO John Macaluso. “It’s a pop culture event.”
It’s also an event that is growing. Wizard World hosted six Comic Con events in 2012. The company hosted 16 last year and Madison is one of the additional cities bringing the total to 24 this year.
For the mix of genres at the event, they have one thing in common — dedicated fans. The TV shows have their tribes, as do comic book and movie characters, and superheroes. Artists and writers have their fans, too.
“Fan conventions are wonderful because you have the joy of walking in the door and seeing your people,” said Ashley Hinck, a Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison and a serious “Harry Potter” fan. “There’s a great sense of joy and belonging.”
Hinck, who plans to attend the Madison Comic Con event, studies fan culture and is writing her dissertation on fandom and civic action.
Even beyond Wizard World’s expansion, fan conventions have grown. The convention that is considered the mecca of these kinds of events, in San Diego, had a humble start in 1970 when 300 people showed up. Last year, there were 130,000.
Another organization, ReedPOP, hosts an event called the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) that has drawn 50,000 people in recent years. The Chicago market is strong, as there was also a Chicago Wizard World Comic Con last year and there will be again in August.
Josh Crawley, manager of Westfield Comics’ East Side location, was at the Chicago Comic Con and said it was so crowded at times he could feel the crush of people behind him.
“I turned around to say something and it was John Schneider,” Crawley said of the actor best known for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” “I’m glad I didn’t say anything before I turned around.”
Schneider also played Superman’s father on TV’s “Smallville.” Superheroes are part of the draw at the events and help illustrate the comic book roots of the convention, but not always in the ways people think.
“People come into the store and assume we’re a superhero store,” Crawley said. “We have superhero stuff but not everything in comics is a superhero.”
A big example of that is the huge success of the cable TV series “The Walking Dead.” It began as a comic book series in 2003 and was adapted for TV by AMC beginning in 2010. The show’s season premiere in October drew 17.3 million viewers and outdrew the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” game for the 18-49 demographic. Another favorite of the Comic Con audience, FX’s “American Horror Story,” outdrew the baseball playoffs.
“So many things have changed it’s hard to pin it down,” Crawley said. “So many things that were once on the periphery are so much bigger.”
That includes what was once derisively referred to as “geek culture” or “nerd culture,” terms that are now embraced. While Shatner, in a famous 1986 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, told “Star Trek” convention fans to “get a life,” those fans and their interests now make up a huge part of popular culture.
“It’s more in the mainstream now and it doesn’t turn out to be that different from something like football,” Hinck said. “You’re so dedicated, you have your favorites, you’re ridiculously excited every time you go to a game or a convention.”
People have always been interested in popular culture, Hinck said, whether it was dime novels or baseball. The difference is technology — how it has brought people together and allowed information to be shared.
“Certainly fan culture existed before, but it took a lot of work,” she said. “ ‘Star Trek’ culture existed years ago, but it was hard work. Unless you could find fanzines or go to a convention, you were kind of isolated.”
While the Internet has been around for 20-some years, Hinck said, a recent difference is social media connecting people but, more importantly, mainstream media and culture recognizing fan communities.
“Fandom has become a powerful cultural force,” she said.
It’s a force that will continue to grow. This month, Wizard World will debut a new digital streaming channel, CONtv, that will be available online, on mobile devices and connected TV services such as Apple TV or Xbox. Beyond having the rights to series in the Comic Con genres, the channel will include original programming such as a horror-competition reality show called “Fight of the Living Dead.” A quiz show, “Last Fan Standing,” will be filmed at Comic Con events.
The game changer for conventions, Macaluso said, came in 2002. Angelina Jolie, already an Oscar-winner, arrived via helicopter to the San Diego Comic-Con to promote the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” movies.
“That changed everything for comic cons,” Macaluso said. “The perception of stars at the comic cons has changed in the last four to five years. It’s no longer what some people would consider the bottom of the barrel. Bill Shatner told me, ‘I do this to stay relevant.’ ”
The chance to meet the stars comes with a price. Autographs range from $30 to $80, photo ops range from $45 to $80. Some convention-goers don’t even opt for that, preferring the panels or the chance to show off their costumes.
Hinck said she thinks the Comic Con event will do well here, in a market that also includes WisCon, an annual feminist science fiction convention. A smaller comic book event, Mighty Con, will be held at Madison Turners on March 29.
“Madison has a great fan culture,” she said. “I have no doubt people will come out for it in droves.”