With her dark purple dress, corn whisk broom and a bright red bow in her hair, 16-year-old Jessi Garvin felt the satisfaction she looks for when dressing up, or cosplaying, for a convention. She was exactly who she wanted to be Saturday.
Jessi, of Janesville, who was dressed as Kiki from the popular anime movie “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” was one of many cosplayers — a contraction of costume play — at the Wizard World Comic Con at the Alliant Energy Center. At the convention, fans of comic books, video games and other aspects of pop culture found a place of camaraderie and let their inner geek shine as they walked aisles of booths in the Exhibition Hall.
But Jessi said comic conventions aren’t just for the geeks and the nerds. Conventions have become a place for lovers of all areas of pop culture.
“I feel like a lot of people think of conventions like, ‘Oh it’s just a bunch of freaks,’ ” she said. “It’s not just for people that are nerds. There’s a lot of stuff like ‘The Walking Dead’ that everybody likes.”
Comic culture has seen a steady rise in the last two decades with dozens of blockbusters hitting theaters year after year. From the Dark Knight trilogy based on DC Comics’ Batman to the series of intertwining movies based on Marvel Comics characters, there has been no shortage of comic book stories garnering mainstream popularity.
For many attending such conventions, the highlight is the featured guest, who is like a real-life superhero. Many of the beloved, long-standing series are the brainchild of Stan Lee, 94, whose question-and-answer session at Wizard World packed hundreds of people into a hot exhibition hall.
Lee is one of the creators of iconic heroes and groups such as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men. Even if you prefer superhero movies to books, you may still recognize Lee: He’s made more than 100 cameo appearances in movies and television shows.
Those cameos are the secret to Marvel Studios’ success on the big screen, Lee said.
“You know I do a cameo in every movie,” Lee said. “Whenever there’s a new Marvel movie out, they say ‘Oh boy! We’ve got to go see Stan’s latest cameo.’ ”
Lee drew laughs as he delivered one-line answers to questions from the crowded ballroom. One fan asked what inspired him to write comic books.
“Greed,” Lee said, although he followed it with a more serious answer. “I always wanted to be a writer.”
Lee’s prolific characters and momentous career inspired many illustrators and writers today, including Madison artist Jeff Butler, who remembers the time when comic books were marketed solely to kids. He said Lee changed that.
“We all want heroes, I suppose, and the cheap literature sort of provided this pantheon of characters that were all bigger than life and very colorful,” Butler said. “Stan (Lee) took it a step further and made them human. They have all these powers, yet they have all the foibles and responsibilities of regular people.”
If it were up to his publisher, Lee said, many of the characters the world has come to know and love wouldn’t exist. Lee wanted to find characters within the stories he wrote. The publisher wanted fight scenes.
But Lee was able to draw people to characters like Spider-Man with their relatability — these super-powered humans were just like us, except for the super powers. When Spider-Man’s mask wasn’t on, he was just Peter Parker, an average kid in high school with his own personal problems to solve.
A career in comics
Butler grew up admiring these superheroes and their creators. He was able to parlay that passion for comic books into a career. His projects include Capital Comics’ “Badger” series from the 1980s, a reboot of “The Green Hornet” and character designs for video games like “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.” Now he works as an instructor at Madison Area Technical College in the graphic design program.
“The key aspect is the storytelling,” Butler said. “The drawing is — I don’t want to say subordinate (but) in many ways the story is the thing. No matter how pretty the pictures are, if those pictures don’t tell a cohesive story that’s easy to read from page to page and makes visual sense, you don’t really have a comic book.”
Nick Choles, who spoke on a panel Saturday with Butler, also grew up loving comics, but in the 1990s he made a shift to concept design for video games. He now works at Human Head Studios in Madison and is working on the highly anticipated sequel to the 17-year-old “Rune.”
As comic fans pass by and admire his work, Choles said he feels like he’s done his job as an artist. He’s created a connection with fans through his art.
“You’re a professional so you’re constantly looking at (your work) with a critical eye, but eventually there are those moments when you step back and, like, ‘Oh wow. I did that,’ ” Choles said.