Thoughts on Wizard World Austin Comic Con

Michael O. Varhola

Following is a report I compiled last year after attending Austin Comic Con and which I am reposting at this point in anticipation of attending it again a couple of weeks from now ...

Having attended Austin Comic Con on October 26-28 for the first time, I walked away from the event with some profoundly mixed feelings, most of them rooted in the way it was run. It bears mentioning that I had a great time at the convention and that my time there was very productive. It also bears mentioning, however, that I spent most of my time with people associated with other Texas conventions and that a good deal of the business I conducted involved arrangements for them. 

A large part of my ambivalence toward the convention has to do with it being a nationally-run Wizard World event that does not have roots in the area where it is being run and does not have an approachable management team. To the average con-goer, this probably makes very little difference, but to anyone needing to do more than just buy a ticket and wander around it can be problematic and make it seem rather poorly run (e.g., in the way that Gen Con has come to feel increasingly poorly run to anyone exhibiting or running events at it). 

This hit me even before the event when the pertinent person at the convention denied Skirmisher Publishing and its affiliated d-Infinity magazine media access to the convention! Since the mid-1990s, long before it was incorporated and began producing its own publications, Skirmisher Online Gaming Magazine was reporting on conventions and other game-related activities. Today, we directly reach some 35,000 readers through our various subscriber and fan lists, and have tens of thousands of other people reading our online features. If we are not media, who is?

This impression of an indifferently-run event, where everyone on the ground was "just following orders," carried on throughout the con from there. While there were plenty of clerks, guards, handlers, and other assorted minions with various assigned tasks, there was a woeful shortage of anyone actually empowered to make decisions or do more than operate within the narrow parameters allowed them. Any attempts to go beyond these limitations met with fearful protests of impotence and references to shadowy, unreachable personages located literally thousands of miles away. 

Speaking simply as an attendee, there were still a number of issues with Austin Comic Con. The most significant, I think, is that fans are drawn into an event like this by the promise of contact with their favorite celebrities. Suffice it to say, however, that at an event like this far more effort gets put into keeping the fans away from the celebrities than in facilitating any contact with them. 

"There is no intimacy here," the owner of one Texas convention said to me, and we both agreed that there was no leeway for anything exceptional or unpredictable to happen at Austin Comic Con, only the limited and homogenized experience permitted by its organizers. 

This attitude of cold detachment was, perhaps, exemplified more so than anyone by Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, who forwent shaking hands in favor of rubbing elbows and refused to give even a few quotes to industry media upon request. (Considering his level of popularity, I was surprised at just how odd Wheaton was, and really felt I was in the presence of someone destined to be a Howard Hughes-style neurotic; look for him to be wearing Kleenex boxes as shoes at upcoming conventions ...). Why anyone would pay money to interact in this way is beyond me, and even friends of mine enamored of Wheaton have been unable to actually explain his allure to me. 

At the other end of the spectrum, however, and a saving grace for me, was actor Craig Parker (Spartacus: VengeanceLegend of the Seeker), who was about as friendly, warm, and engaging with his fans as he could be. A defining moment for him at the convention, I believe, is when I saw him helping out kids by stamping their little convention passports and telling them how great their costumes looked. No effete elbow-rubbing or lies about being prohibited from speaking to the media from him (and, apropos of that, be sure to check out reporter John Kadolph's lively interview with Parker!). 

There is more I could say about the way this convention was run but it is all of a type with what I have already noted here. A staffer from yet another Texas convention summed it up best when she described this deliberately sterile event as "the Walmart of conventions." 

All things considered, I will very likely return to Austin Comic Con next year, and walk the floor, chat with artists and authors, and meet with the organizers for locally-run cons where Skirmisher Publishing and my other activities have a place. But, based on what I experienced at the convention this year, I have no reason to think that I will be encouraging my readers to attend, exhibiting, or otherwise increasing my presence at the convention. There are just too many other venues that are so much more worthy of my time, resources, and effort.