Wizard World Inc.: A roving comic con looks to corner the geek market

Wizard World Inc.: A roving comic con looks to corner the geek market
Jon Gitchoff

Wizard World Inc.: A roving comic con looks to corner the geek market

At first glance, the Hulk seems to be someone to fear as he lumbers down the convention-center aisle — kelly green like the Wicked Witch of the West, heavy on his feet, fists as thick as paint cans. A transfixed child sees something deeper, though. Slipping quietly away from his mother, the seven-year-old boy tiptoes over to the green beast, who has dropped his backpack onto the floor so he can stretch out his arms a bit. The tyke watches for a moment before approaching his hero, unintimidated by the character's bulging muscles and tattered clothing. Noticing the boy, the Hulk grins broadly and extends one hand downward, high-fiving the dazzled kid.

Nearby, a man in a grubby duster jacket flicks playing cards at passersby, while a woman with flowing auburn hair — save for a shock of white near her bangs — contentedly rests her head on his shoulder. Even the guy serving hot dogs from a post across the convention-center floor can see that, just as they are in X-Men, Gambit and Rogue truly are in love, barely registering the constant flashes from cell-phone cameras in the crowd.

In the next aisle, a line snakes back and forth eight times until it reaches a table where actor and heartthrob Norman Reedus leans in to sign an autograph for a middle-aged woman. Though the sign out front says that there's a two-hour wait to reach the terminus, the fans in line don't mind; they're content to discuss The Walking Dead star's best moments until it's their turn with "Daryl Dixon."

These are John Macaluso's people — the nerds, the geeks, the moms, the kids, the cosplayers, the celebrities, the moviegoers, the TV-watchers and the comics junkies. As the CEO of Wizard World, a company focused on bringing comic-book-rooted pop culture to the masses, Macaluso is Santa Claus for today's crop of fanboys and fangirls, giving everyday devotees opportunities to meet — and sometimes to be — their favorite characters. It's a very different life from the one he led for two decades as an apparel entrepreneur.

"I tell you, I was just with someone yesterday, and I told them I'm having the absolute greatest time of my working career running this company," says the 57-year-old Macaluso.

Under Macaluso's watch for the past two years, Wizard World has more than doubled its number of traveling comic cons, expanded its cadre of A-list celebrity guests and has become one of the most talked-about productions in the comics and entertainment business.

And there's no signs of slowing down. It's a new era for the company, one that makes Macaluso proud, and one that will be on display this weekend at the America's Center in downtown St. Louis when Wizard World brings in stars from Star Trek, Batman and other pop-culture media for a three-day geekfest. Wizard World then moves to Minneapolis and more than ten other cities. Indeed, as a traveling regional convention, Wizard World particularly has upped its game by adding more shows in the Midwest and South, such as those in Louisville, Tulsa and Atlanta — the setting for the popular comic-book and TV series The Walking Dead.

Yet for all its growth in recent years, there are people who remember when Wizard World placed most of its emphasis on comic books. For some of those fans, the company has veered off course by chasing celebrities and attempting to be all things to a disparate number of pop-culture junkies. Just because someone is really into zombie films and wrestling heroes doesn't mean that they're also going to have an appreciation for early issue Marvel Comics, does it?

Macaluso argues otherwise. Broad appeal is the core of Wizard World's new strategy, and to Macaluso, there's more than enough room under his big top for all fans — no matter how general or obscure their interests. Besides, there is strength — and dollars — in numbers.

"'Nerd' is a good word today," Macaluso notes. "If you're not a nerd or a geek, you're on the outside now. It's the truth."

Today, one can wear a Batman or Star Wars shirt without taking flack for it, but that's a relatively new phenomenon. Comic books and related nerdy pursuits — video games, anime, strategy board games — used to be underground interests, something to be brought out only among very close, like-minded friends. Even vampires and zombies, which are so popular in literature and visual arts these days, were once relegated to horror movies and pulpy reads.

But over the past few decades, that attitude has slowly changed.

"Postmodernism is the reason why popular culture exists," says Rebecca Housel, a regular Wizard World speaker and author of a series of books about how X-Men, Twilight and other "geek lit" intersects with philosophy. "It started around 1950, and by the time we got to the '70s, we began to see things like civil rights and women's liberation evolve socially.

"And that's why pop culture began to emerge — because it wasn't just high and low culture anymore, it was popular," Housel continues. "It didn't matter if you were rich or poor; everybody that liked something should have access to it and would. By the time we got to the '90s, we began to see the social attitude begin to change where it didn't matter if you were a geek or a dude who likes to wear lipstick. We didn't care anymore. You're an individual. You have value."

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.

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.

"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.

Farace cherishes his direct relationship with his customers, most of whom are serious comics collectors or regular readers who visit every week. He says that participating in special events like conventions — which sometimes cater to mega dealers or one-and-done consumers — can disrupt that vital relationship.

"I've done three-day shows in St. Louis before. People come in from out of town and you do tend to make more money, but coming back, I've had regulars be mad. 'You went to a show and sold stuff at a discount?'" Farace says. "Now if I want to mark something down, I'll look at a regular customer and say, 'Well, give me this [dollar amount]' as opposed to having a sale for people who never come but one day a year."

Despite Farace's reservations, Macaluso says he wants Wizard World to be a positive force for local shops.

"We're looking to help the comic-book industry," Macaluso says. "We try and attract every local comic-book dealer to the shows."

"I'm sure my Neal Adams [award-winning artist for Superman, Green Arrow and Batman] books are going to be hot because he's coming to town," Farace admits. "But will I see long-term customers because of it? Very, very few."

The bad blood boiled to the surface in 2001 — a decade before John Macaluso jumped into the Wizard World driver's seat. Frank Miller, creator of the acclaimed Sin City series, was delivering the keynote speech at the Harvey Awards, a major awards program for those in the comic-book industry. As a prop, Miller held in his hand a copy of Wizard magazine, the publication that eventually led to the Wizard World trade shows.

"Even though this monthly vulgarity reinforces all the prejudice people hold about comics, they cry to all the world that we're as cheap and stupid and trashy as they think we are, and we sponsor this assault," Miller said as he ripped apart an issue of the magazine onstage. "We pay for the goddamn privilege. But really, when will we finally get around to flushing this thing, this load of crap, once and for all?"

Miller concluded his speech by tossing the torn magazine into a trash can, to thunderous applause.

The target of Miller's rage, Gareb Shamus, is no longer with Wizard World. But without him, hundreds of thousands of geeks in the heartland may never have experienced a large-scale comic con. In 1991, Shamus, then a recent college grad, founded Wizard: The Guide to Comics, a monthly magazine that gave readers story-arc speculation, humor columns, comic-book reviews, a price guide and an inside line to some of the industry's best personalities.

Back then it was difficult for comic-book readers to find easy-to-read information about upcoming issues or ascending writers and artists. Thus, readers prized Wizard's top-ten lists and its commentary on collectibles. Moreover, because the magazine used a fun style of writing and design, it stood out from dry resources like Comics Buyer's Guide.

"You weren't a comic-book retailer if you didn't carry Wizard. In fact, the magazine was popular enough to be on some customers' pull lists, just like comic books were," says Neil Sobleski, a long-time comic-book collector and conventiongoer in Dayton, Ohio, who is considering opening his own comics shop. "One of the cool things Wizard did was to share photos of artists and writers, which you didn't see before."

Successfully filling a public hunger, Shamus spread his publication empire to several monthlies before turning his attention to events — specifically consumer conventions. Operating as Wizard Entertainment, Shamus' team in 1997 bought Chicago Comicon, expanding the scope and boosting attendance from 5,000 to 25,000 the following year (the Chicago con continues to be one of the most popular of its size in the country).

"It was the first Wizard show, and we've done it consecutively every year since then," says Jerry Milani, the public-relations director for Wizard World.

Wizard Entertainment continued pushing comics into the mainstream through publications and conventions, and things were good. Until they weren't.

After Miller's outburst at the Harvey Awards, fans perceived a shift in Wizard's quality and mission during the 2000s. Some comics collectors speculated that the publication was playing favorites with its lists and inflating the value of certain titles. In addition, some people saw Wizard Entertainment as somewhat of a bully, scheduling its conventions directly against those already established in some cities. By the end of the decade, Wizard was on fewer newsstands, and the Shamus era of Wizard Entertainment began drawing to a close. In 2011, the print publications suddenly ceased production, quickly followed by the dissolution of the digital version of Wizard magazine.

"What hurts the most about all of this...is that it didn't have to happen," former Wizard news editor Brett White was quoted as saying in the wake of the magazine's closure. "Wizard as a name, as a thing, it's something that has always existed to me. I started collecting hardcore in 1993, and Wizard was there for it. And when you look at all the great people that have worked there, it really should have always been at the absolute top of its game. Wizard in 2011 should be as popular as Wired in print and Comic Book Resources and Newsarama online."

By the close of 2011, Shamus, who declined to comment for this story, was out as CEO. A few months later, John Macaluso was in, billed as the man who would help bring Wizard World back to life.

Macaluso is an oatmeal man. The Wizard World CEO has been traveling quite frequently for this year's lineup of conventions — he attends every event — and he needs some hearty sustenance to keep him going.

The down-home breakfast fits Macaluso's style. He's a businessman. A finance whiz. A practical guy known for solving problems. But Macaluso's background doesn't exactly scream "geek."

In 1987 he founded California Concepts, a women's apparel manufacturer that produced private labels and serviced upscale specialty chains, which he ran until he sold the company in 2007. Macaluso also has been involved in real estate development and other entrepreneurial endeavors — undertakings that he says all translate to his position at Wizard World.

"I was a garment manufacturer selling to every major chain in the country — Walmart, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Sears. And for the most part, you had to look at a cost sheet and make sure that a garment that cost $6 didn't sell for $5," Macaluso says. "It's all the same business principles."

After Macaluso retired, he invested in Wizard World on the advice of a friend and eventually became a member of its board of directors after enjoying an experience at a convention in New Orleans. That wasn't his only incentive to become active with the company, though.

"My wife and kids basically said, 'We're really glad you're retired, but you're driving us crazy. Go find a job,'" Macaluso laughs.

Since Macaluso took the helm in March 2012, Wizard World has bumped its annual number of comic cons from seven cities in 2012 to sixteen in 2014 and increased its full-time staff to 23 people. Macaluso has also greatly increased the company's overall revenue. In 2012, Wizard World earned just $6.7 million in operating revenue. Last year that same figure eclipsed $11 million. In 2012 the company eked out just $197,809 in operating income. Last year it netted $343,506. Sure, no one is going to confuse Wizard World with the next Apple; the company operates out of a nondescript walk-up in Southern California, and its thinly traded stock sells for well below a dollar. Still, it's progress.

"For a company this size, probably the best measure of health is what we call the book value of equity, and that has increased from a deficit to a positive amount over the year," says Mike Alderson, chairman of Saint Louis University's finance department. "And the company's liabilities declined and its assets grew. In many respects, the most important thing that can happen for a small company is that it accumulates assets and then doesn't burden itself with excessive liabilities."

So what was it that had put Wizard World in such a precarious position for years?

"Just like anything else — spending too much, not selling enough tickets," Macaluso says. "But we've come up with a really great formula, a really great marketing strategy, that helps us sell more tickets."

Under Macaluso's leadership, Wizard World has been researching even more cities for expansion in 2015. He has also ensured that the convention's growing fan base will have appealing entertainment options, with the company spending between $400,000 for a smaller comic con and up to $1.5 million for its events in its biggest cities.

"We try and bring in a great celebrity lineup — topnotch artists and writers, award-winners, a large variety of exhibitors," Macaluso says. "We've put a lot of time and effort into the panels and the Q&A sessions. And we work very hard on logistics so a fan doesn't have to stand in line for 3.5 hours to get into a show."

Housel, the author who studies the intersection of geek culture and philosophy, agrees that Wizard World puts a lot into its event-planning process.

"I think [The Lord of the Rings and The Goonies actor] Sean Astin said it best: 'Wizard World is a well-oiled machine,'" Housel says. "They have consistency and hire really good people — not just good at their jobs, but these people also are incredibly nice. I consider them my second family when I'm on the road."

Even the celebrity guests commend Wizard World's new practices.

"They're pretty much the Cadillac of conventions," says Bruce Campbell, a veteran of cult films like The Evil Dead series and a long-time convention guest who is scheduled to appear at the St. Louis event. "They research the venues, they research who's had a convention in that area, and they research every guest to make sure they haven't been overexposed."

William Shatner, star of the original Star Trek television series, agrees.

"Wizard World is turning out to be the best company to put on these conventions," beams Shatner. "They're the best organized."

After a series of pleasant days, the late-spring blizzard arrived out of nowhere last March.

On Washington Avenue, Super Mario trudges through the piles of white stuff, the bottoms of his blue overalls becoming wet as they drag on the sidewalk. Mario's thick red hat repels some of the snow, but it's a wash when the wind flips the chapeau from his head.

Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones is next, shivering in her cerulean cap-sleeved frock and hugging her three stuffed dragons for warmth. She's followed by a Walking Dead zombie, who's leaving a bloody trail in the snow. Star Wars' Chewbacca, covered head to toe in shaggy fur, appears the least bothered by the cold.

The next day, the National Weather Service will declare that St. Louis had endured a record-breaking snowfall on March 24, 2013, its sixth greatest since records began in 1891. But those 12.7 inches of snow made no difference to the crowd heading to the Gateway City's first Wizard World convention at the America's Center.

Inside, Marvel Comics god Stan Lee is holding court in a meeting room, autographing the arm of a man who will later turn the signature into a tattoo. Eisner Award-winning artist Neal Adams is snacking on nachos between sketching for fans. Cosplayers dressed like Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley compare stickers obtained from one of the vendor booths. The aisles are packed with attendees, photo ops and brightly colored merchandise.

Adron Buske, co-creator of the supernatural comic-book series Loop & Hoodie and fantasy comic Good Intentions, can remember it all clearly. "We were blown away by the Sunday showing during that huge snowstorm," he says. "We made more money that day than on either Friday or Saturday — and we had debated even showing up!"

"It was such a great day at the con," adds Wendy Buske, Adron's wife and co-creator and marketing director for Nerd for a Living, which helps the geek-inclined find fulfilling, potential career paths in comics, gaming, anime, film, TV, publishing and more. "It means Wizard World got confirmation that it needs to keep coming to this city. There was nothing like this here before, and people wanted it badly."

All said, tens of thousands of people attended the 2013 convention, surpassing Wizard World's expectations. And this weekend the Buskes and Wizard World are expecting even bigger crowds and more attractions with Adam West of the '60s Batman series, Eliza Dushku of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Matt Smith of Doctor Who all scheduled to greet fans at the America's Center. And taking it all in will be Macaluso, who hopes to keep the geek love blossoming.

"Ultimately, if it wasn't for the fans, we'd have no business, no show," he says. "To see how excited they get, to see them shake in front of a celebrity, to see them sweat and cry, it's terrific. When it all comes down to it — and I really mean this — we want to make the fans happy and give them a great show. Our company will do well if we do that."

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