CINCINNATI - If you ask Kendall Swafford why he scheduled the debut of Cincinnati Comicon one weekend ahead of the fourth annual Cincinnati Comic Expo, Swafford will deflect the question.
“Not to split hairs, but they put their convention on one week after ours,” Swafford said, adding that his convention was first to formalize dates in 2013.
Andrew Satterfield, founder of the Expo, took a deep breath and let several seconds pass when asked whether he inferred something more deliberate.
“I mean, our event has always been in September, second or third week,” Satterfield said. “Definitely there is some confusion out there, but people are quickly becoming aware there’s two events. Our fans know where to find us.”
Both insist the regional fan base is strong enough to support back-to-back comics conventions.
They’ll test that theory this weekend and next. Comicon debuts in the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, in Covington and runs Sept. 6 through Sept. 8. Comic Expo is set to run Sept. 13 through Sept. 15 at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
“Cincinnati’s a very dynamic city, and I think Cincinnati can support multiple shows,” Satterfield said. “The trick is getting people through the door, getting them to want to come to your event, which means bringing them what they want. At the end of the day, we’re giving fans what they want.”
On the surface, it might appear the dueling conventions will split a niche audience. Aside from the cost of a ticket — both charge $20 for a single day and $30 to $35 for a weekend pass (VIP access is extra) — there’s also the investment of time to partake in all the browsing, buying, networking, costume comparisons, celebrity and superhero sightings and autograph gathering a comics convention offers.
Vendors and and other exhibitors have tougher choices, unlikely to spend consecutive weekends in one market with a full calendar and a national map to consider.
If national trends are any indication, Cincinnati Comicon and Expo can exist in harmony. Distributors sold $475 million in comics to North American comic shops in 2012, according to figures reported to Diamond Comic Distributors. That’s a 15 percent climb from the year before. Insiders attribute much of the resurgence, after a decline a decade before, to the superhero franchises reinvigorated by movie and television studios.
This patch of the country is already riddled with comic conventions.
Still, Cincinnati Comicon wouldn’t exist, Swafford said, if he and his colleagues didn’t take issue with the direction of Comic Expo. He cites “a difference in philosophy between the two shows.”
“Ours is really art-centric. We don’t have any celebrities or wrestlers or Power Rangers or ‘70s TV actors,” Swafford said. “We have stuck to kind of a throwback, old-school notion of comic book conventions, in that we’re sticking with comic creators and the comic art community.”
Swafford, who owns Up Up and Away Comics, in Cheviot, said he considers celebrity guests “a distraction” from the business of comics conventions.
“The celebrities might put butts in the seat and put money in organizers’ coffers, but people interested in the green Power Ranger aren’t necessarily spending money at my booth or coming to my store,” he said. “We have no ill will (toward Comic Expo), and if they want to have celebrity autograph shows, go there with God, but we decided that’s not the direction we wanted to go in.”
Satterfield said he’s listening to his audience.
“We bring in the celebrities because that’s what fans are telling us,” he said, citing annual surveys of Expo visitors. “They say more comics creators and a more diverse lineup of celebrities.”
Satterfield, who graduated La Salle High School and now works in finance, said he conceived and launched Comic Expo as a labor of love.
As a sixth-grader, he bought comics for his friends through mail-order catalogs. In the ‘90s, his father took him to his first comics convention. He still owns the commemorative book in which he collected autographs from every artist and writer he met. Several years later, he went to the vaunted New York Comic Con, where he met Todd MacFarlane and purchased things he couldn’t find in regional shows.
“When I was on the way back on the plane, I was Googling trying to find a Cincinnati convention, and I could never find anything,” Satterfield said. “I went around to all the comics stores, and a lot of response was ‘Cincinnati can’t have a convention, it’ll never work, you’ll never get all the stores together to participate.’ But I just got sick of traveling to conventions, and (I thought) if I keep waiting, it’ll never happen here.”
The Expo debuted in 2010 at Xavier University. Satterfield rented the Cintas Center out of his own pocket and attendance nearly doubled Satterfield’s goal of 1,000 people. The following year, he rented space for a day inside the Duke Energy Center. The festival drew more than 3,000 people from eight states and Canada.
One of the earliest sponsors and supporters was Swafford and his store. Over time, he says, he and several others involved in comics locally began sensing a tilt toward celebrities and not as much emphasis as they wanted to see on comics artists and writers.
Both conventions boast lineups of artists and other guests likely to inspire little more than shrugs from all but the most devoted comics followers. Satterfield is quick to itemize the Expo’s diversity including LEGO-building events and activities, drawing classes for kids, sci-fi speed dating, screenings through the Cincinnati Film Festival, a costume contest and a traveling costume play as part of a downtown Cincinnati walking tour.
Following his convictions, Swafford has focused Comicon on artists. The convention boasts more than 50 guest artists and 120 exhibiting artists.
For aspiring and emerging comic artists, conventions are prime opportunities to gain public traction and potentially to be seen by the largest publishing houses. Dozens of comics creators will show their wares in the artist alleys of Comicon and Expo.
“If you’re a budding writer or comic artist, conventions are the only way to present yourself to seasoned professionals,” said Matthew Swift, a colorist for Marvel Comics who grew up in Darke County near the Ohio-Indiana border. He now lives in Covington, Ky. Swift, scheduled to appear at Comicon, has worked as a colorist on the children's origin stories for Wolverine, Captain America and Iron Man, among others.
“It’s almost like any other type of business—a lot of the importance of what we do is the connections we make with each other,” he said. “The people who succeed are the ones who come back over and over again and show improvement. I can name dozens of people who came up as an 18-year-old with dozens of samples and get blown out, and then you’d see them five years later with a seven-page back story for their characters.”
Chris Charlton, of Cincinnati, is one such artist looking for a break. By day a systems administrator for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Charlton embodies the growing do-it-yourself ethos in the comics field. He has written and self-published four series of dark sci-fi suspense comics under his own label—Assailant Comics—hiring everyone from the artists and letterers to book binders, and distributes his creations from his own home.
Charlton attends conventions hoping to win a writing gig with a major publisher, which would help him attract a wider audience for his own work.
“I’m losing a ton of money on this,” said Charlton, who estimates laying out about $15,000 on his creations.
“I tried going to different conventions, to market it in different ways, and what it told me is there’s at least interest in the stories I’m writing,” he said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to the New York shows, to get in front of editors for the largest publishers. It’s all about making connections. It’s hard to do that from Cincinnati, but I do these shows to try to build my fan base and sell some books.”
Satterfield, the Expo’s founder, said it will be an enormous challenge for Comicon to reach Swafford’s measure of success—attendance between 12,000 to 15,000.
“You really do have to prove yourself—with vendors, with exhibitors, with fans,” Satterfield said. “It’s challenging just getting word out, getting comic creators to want to attend. When there’s a new show, a lot of people don’t want to take the risk of traveling three to four hours and having nobody show up.”
Each convention, insiders suggest, has its own personality.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have too much of this stuff—give us more and more and more,” Swift said. “Ultimately, comic book fans love these types of events because they get to be around people who understand them.
"Everyone there is their people,'' he said, "and they’re my people.”
Note: An earlier version of this story had incorrectly noted the proper name of Cincinnati Comicon.