That shift is one of the reasons Wizard World has been able to attract giant, diverse crowds to its ever-expanding roster of host cities, and it's something that helps feed its attendees' appetites for more than just comics.

"Will I see long-term customers because of Wizard World? Very, very few."

Conventions like Wizard World have their roots in '70s events that allowed a few hundred comic-book readers and collectors to interact directly with publishers, writers and artists. Over the years, more of these events popped up around the country, with the growing attendance requiring arena- and convention-center space instead of church basements and hotel ballrooms. To fill all that floor space, organizers brought in sponsors and a wider variety of pop-culture merchandise. In doing so, they also raised vendors' fees, which squeezed out the very writers and publishers the events originally celebrated. Eventually, conventions also began embracing Hollywood's comic-book film trend that kicked off with 1989's Batman and really took hold after 1998's Blade and 2000's X-Men.

Wizard World isn't alone in catering to a broader audience — many modern cons strive to emulate the long-running San Diego Comic-Con International, the granddaddy of conventions that combines pop culture with comics, fantasy and sci-fi elements. There, with attendees topping 130,000 for the four-day event, it's increasingly common for production companies to buy prime convention space and time slots to promote their latest films and television shows. Wizard World conventions haven't grown quite that large yet, but they're still aiming for those with broad interests.

Brian Spath screens his Web series Comic Geeks around the country at conventions like Wizard World.
Jon Gitchoff
Brian Spath screens his Web series Comic Geeks around the country at conventions like Wizard World.
Star Trek's William Shatner is one of many celebrities slated to appear at Wizard World St. Louis. John Macaluso stands at right.
Courtesy of Wizard World
Star Trek's William Shatner is one of many celebrities slated to appear at Wizard World St. Louis. John Macaluso stands at right.

"Wizard World really tries to cover all the ground in pop culture — comics, movies, television, wrestling," comments Brian Spath, operations supervisor for Cinema St. Louis and one of the writers/producers of Comic Geeks, a Web series about four friends who take different approaches to comics obsession.

Wait, wrestling?

Indeed, wrestler Randy Orton was a draw at last year's Wizard World in St. Louis. So, too, was martial artist and actor Jason David Frank. Oh, and also Henry Winkler, the Fonz from Happy Days. But despite the seemingly diverse interests among conventiongoers — are you here for The Walking Dead the comic or The Walking Dead the television show? Have you read Captain America back issues, or are you waiting for The Winter Soldier the movie to open? Do you want to snap Instagram selfies with the cast of Firefly, or did you spend a year constructing your Reaver costume? — there still seems to be a feeling of community.

"I think the biggest payoff is the same adage that most comic fans have endured since getting into it: It's not a solitary thing. There are similar folks out there, and it's not a shameful thing to broadcast nowadays," says Spath, who has been screening Comic Geeks at conventions around the country.

Local retailers get in on the act, too, seeing Wizard World as an opportunity to reach new audiences.

"It was great exposure for the store," Jon Scorfina, general manager of the University City comic-book shop Star Clipper, says of last year's Wizard World. "Of course you can go and buy comics at the convention, but its main focus is that it's an event and you can meet celebrities."

In 2013, Star Clipper held a variety of store events in the month leading up to Wizard World and then used the store's convention booth to reach new fans who may not have been its typical customers. Scorfina generalizes that large conventions like Wizard World attract three types of attendees: comics enthusiasts, who may be older males wanting sketches from their favorite comic-book artists; pop-culture enthusiasts, who like comics but are more excited about meeting the celebrities from TV and movies; and cosplayers, who actually become their favorite characters. And they all are welcome.

"Anything that promotes the culture of loving comics in St. Louis, Star Clipper is going to be behind," says Scorfina, whose store also sells a broad collection of toys and apparel. "If a giant comic convention is coming, we're going to promote that because that's what we love to do."

There's no lack of interest or merchandise for this type of con, especially with today's enthusiasm for movies, television shows and video games based on characters such as Spider-Man, Superman, the Avengers and more. These days, anyone can get a cleaned-up Hollywood version of Iron Man's back-story without ever reading Tony Stark's battle with alcoholism for themselves. But this casual interest in comic-book characters within the general pop-culture realm can mean that a Wizard World audience isn't necessarily the target for hardcore comics dealers or readers.

Mark Farace, owner of All American Collectibles/Mo's Comics in south St. Louis, turned down opportunities to be a vendor at last year's Wizard World, and he's taking a pass this year, too. Farace specializes in back-issue and highly collectible comics, such as Amazing Fantasy Vol. 1, No. 15 — the first appearance of Spider-Man in 1962 — and those aren't typically of interest to casual Wizard World-goers. He concedes that facetime at conventions can be important to the comics community, but "the big show," as he calls Wizard World and other large-scale events, isn't a priority for him.

"The big show in town last year was $1,000 for the weekend. My rent's $1,000 for a month. The math was easy," Farace says.

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