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Clash of the Comic Cons

Wizard World and the new C2E2 battle it out for the hearts and minds of local comics fans.

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For nearly 35 years Chicago has had only one major annual comics convention—Chicago Comic Con, also known as Wizard World since it was taken over by New York-based Wizard Entertainment in 1997. That's about to change.

Wizard's domination is being challenged by a mighty foe rising from the east. Reed Exhibitions, a division of European information titan Reed Elsevier, is holding its own convention, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, aka C2E2, this weekend at McCormick Place. It's but one battleground in a war the two powers are waging across the country—an epic struggle that some observers see as a contest between the forces of good and, well, not so good. Aficionados and dealers I've talked with suggest that this is a fight over the very nature of a comic-book convention, triggered by the encroachment of a broader nerd culture that embraces pro wrestlers and TV kitsch to the detriment of the art form the purists love. Or maybe it's just business as usual, with an entrenched operator under attack from a powerful upstart.

While Reed is a newcomer to comic book conventions, having staged its first in New York four years ago, it's also "the world's leading organiser of trade and consumer events," with 2,500 employees in 35 offices around the globe, according to its Web site. Reed has been running the American Booksellers Association's BookExpo America since 1992, and has put together a comics-centric lineup for Chicago that features 175 panels and screenings, 200 exhibitors, and a roster of 250 artists, including big industry talents such as locally based stars Alex Ross and Chris Ware.

Trouble was already in the air last August at Rosemont's Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, where dealers and visitors to the Wizard event found major comic book publishers Marvel and DC conspicuously absent. The buzz was that the big guys had dumped Wizard for C2E2—and sure enough, they'll be on hand with their artists and swag this weekend.

Then there was the C2E2 party hosted by the Chicago Comics store in Lakeview on the Saturday of Comic Con weekend. The Chicago Comics folks promoted it with flyers they handed out at Rosemont, even though they weren't exhibiting there. Featuring a devil tending a barbecue, the flyers advised conventioneers to "Get the 'F' Out of Rosemont." Chicago Comics owner Eric Kirsammer maintains that was merely his way of inviting out of towners to escape the tarmac-and-tollway suburb and see the real Chicago, but C2E2 producers bearing gifts and prizes were prominent among Chicago Comics's guests.

The Rosemont convention's origins go back to 1972, when local dealer Nancy Warner launched a collectibles and comics expo, which she called Nostalgia '72, Chicago Comic Con. By 1976, when she had a contract to hold the fourth annual show at the Playboy Towers (now the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel at Walton and Michigan), she was looking for someone to take it over. One of the people she contacted was Joe Sarno, a dealer whose last store was Comic Kingdom at 5941 W. Irving Park. As Sarno told it in an account on his Web site, he recruited several partners, including Larry Charet, who'd been running his own shop, Larry's Comic Book Store, since he'd returned from Vietnam four years earlier. No money was involved in the transfer of ownership, and they didn't even bother to buy Warner's mailing list.

Sarno died last month, but Charet told me more of the story. The first year they took it over, the convention attracted about 1,500 people, he recalls. The space at the Playboy Towers was relatively small and expensive, so in 1977 they moved Comic Con to the Pick-Congress (now the Congress Plaza, at Congress and Michigan), where it was held every year through 1983. Then, in 1984, attracted by easier access for dealers and plentiful parking, they moved it to Rosemont—first to the Ramada O'Hare and finally, in 1993, when comic-book collecting was riding a speculative bubble, to the 840,000-square-foot convention center, where Charet says they attracted between 20,000 and 30,000 people. But the bubble popped, and in '97, strapped for cash and unable to pay their convention-center expenses, they sold Chicago Comic Con to Wizard, owned by Gareb Shamus, who'd started his comics-industry empire with Wizard magazine in 1991.

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