WizardWorld Chicago ’07:

How They Made a World

WizardWorld Chicago 2007Father’s Day is a sacred date when fathers can suspend their tool belts on racks and kick up their feet. It is a celebration, and a thank you, for all the things our fathers do for us. While dads were receiving awkwardly wrapped gifts of red ties or feebly made ashtrays from dancing children, Mike Scigliano managed the floor of a WizardWorld convention. His newborn son sat at home while his dad was walking miles upon miles, circling the convention floor, missing out on watching his son crawl or getting to rest his now tired, pained feet.

Where most would be heartbroken from missing this, Mike is a mixture of discontent and satisfaction. His life during conventions is such that he rarely has time to be truly either of the two. If a vendor is unhappy, they run to Mike. If an artist needs an extra trash can or table, Mike is called on his headset, which is always attached, and he mends the situation. He is the fixer; a man relied upon to repair anything. He is Atlas with his back hunched while his shoulders burn from helping hold up this world. He balances his duties at the convention like a galactic plate spinner. And as much as he would love to be at home with his son, he knows he is needed here and loves every minute.

WizardWorld is a specific, almost mechanical world. Each member is like a helical gear, the teeth of each gear engaging another and working the world into motion. Like the inner workings of a clock, Mike and the other staff members are the imperceptible parts of Wizard. This does not lighten their stake in Wizard at all, quite the opposite. WizardWorld to them is family, something to be cherished and defended; after all they are sacrificing much of their own lives to put on this convention. This makes it particularly hard on them when unfounded, wicked things are written about them and the show they create.

These words written about the conventions, or Wizard itself never fall on deaf ears. Each staff member knows that they must press on in spite of anything written about them, and the sacrifices to put on these conventions are rewarded beyond a simple paycheck. They can find compensation in solace they find in each other, friendships bonded like army buddies who shared foxholes together. It is in this camaraderie that they do their best work. And each person may have a specific job title, with its own specific duties, each person is still responsible to step in and help at any time. I watched as Ed, C.F.O. of Wizard, helped with line security for the Dark Knight panel. He had to help straighten and control a line of 1200 people that wormed its way around the convention floor. At times you could tell it was a difficult job, Ed’s brow was damp with sweat and his throat was raw from yelling to stop running or to get the line in shape. But in the end, this is what they must do. Robert Felton, associate publisher, was not above picking up the detritus of attendees as I watched him pick up several bits of trash on the floor of the show, walking over to deposit them. Beyond all this work, the question remains as to what they are building.

What they are actually putting on here is an exhibition of comic books, movie and pop culture. It is an insulated world created for anyone to enjoy. Here, lives are shielded from all the news and grind of modern life. For a few days, each person gets to unshoulder the weight of their life and enjoy the spectacle that is WizardWorld. As you walk down the aisle, each is packed with comics, statues, glasses emblazoned with comic characters, and any other comic book minutia you might want. Sometimes they stock things you never realized you wanted until you’re staring at it. It is within these walls that all people seem happy. They smile as they stop near a large booth with booming music, a rainbow of colored lights and all types of swords on display. Their eyes grow big like a kid’s at Christmas. I wandered around trying to analyze what would go into putting on a show of this size.

More than wishful thinking and hope are required to put on a convention, especially this one. It requires a dedication I have never witnessed. I could see that on the face of every Wizard staff member on Premiere Night. Mixtures of nervous looks, laughs and deep wrinkled brows scatter over their faces. They continue to stare at the closed entrance doors. The line outside wrapped through a ballroom hallway, outside and down the block. People of all shapes and sizes were there, milling about in their small space in line. They spoke to one another, argued points and showed art they brought in hopes of catching some editor’s eye. This is the pressure that rests on each staff member’s shoulders; these people come in with their hopes and dreams and expect them to be fulfilled. People attend in hopes of making it big in the comic book world or finding a specific issue or item. If it were up to Wizard, everyone would walk out with their dreams fulfilled. Unfortunately, they are limited in what they can do. They can create the world, but the rest is up to the individual.

Creation Hits a Bump

Thursday night, 30 minutes before the doors open. A loud hum of laughter and talking stirs beyond the row of four steel, grey doors. The WizardWorld staff can be found in a lackadaisical huddle off near the show office. Anyone could tell by their solemn looks they are in deep, analyzing if they show can open or not. James Ross, show floor manager, stood near me. His walkie-talkie in hand, he looks a bit dismayed. It was the first time I had seen disappointment in his otherwise stoic face. James had bad news to deliver. The show would not open at 4pm.

All of the commotion inside and out adds weight to their already loaded shoulders. Each of them knew that this year had to be a record breaking year. More so, this year had to be an answer to all the criticism they received in the past. Last year had become something of a legend. The truth of WizardWorld Chicago 2006 long vanished like eroded cave drawings, replaced by cheap gossip on comic book message boards.

To say that a lot is at stake would be a lie. At this year’s event, you could feel that everything was at stake. Wizard, as a company, seemed to take on a new position of putting on the show as if it were their last. No one at Wizard will say 2006 was a bad year; they do not like talking about past events. But, when it is mentioned they each pause slightly, their eyes drop a little – they are all equally disappointed by how people perceived the event. Robert Felton, in particular, knows that these critics do not even understand what they are trying to pull off here. He speaks of it with a reverence the same way a Catholic would of the Eucharist. This is Holy and Sacred territory, and like apostles they wish to spread this across the world, but they start instead putting on four shows a year across the country.

WizardWorlds are spaced a particular way across the country so most people have a chance to attend one. It is their explicit hope that they can spread over the country totally and also to spread over all available mediums. You can see this by examining their business model that includes several monthly publications as well as an in-depth, fancentric web site with breaking news and articles. “The only other analogue out there like us is Playboy or WWE,” Robert tells me as we walk along an aisle. The pressure does not falter him, rather he seems to enjoy it and flourish because of it. To a man like Robert Felton the trails and tribulations are puzzles, something to be figured out and understood; only then can something be understood. He is a hawkish man a little under 6′, with thick, straight brown hair. When he speaks it is intelligent and articulate – his speech mannerisms semi-resemble Dr. Cox from Scrubs, the theatrical emphasis on certain words. Besides being the equivalent of an intellectual razorblade he is also an inveterate perfectionist.

He is not the only one in the group. Each person I met described themselves as perfectionists. At some point I began to be wary of this, were they truly perfectionists or was this just a self-imposed description with no real anchor to reality?

Watching Felton arrange the walkie-talkies on Sunday night, it became obvious that this was an honest assessment. While most people, in a hurry, would have assembled the walkie-talkies in any manner that fit, Robert seemed uncomfortable having them in there in a way that was not ideal. He kept trying to match each walkie-talkie to its home, but several were missing backs which perplexed him further. Eventually other matters far out weighed the walkie-talkie situation. The scowl on his face said this was not easy for him to leave. When you are an associate publisher for the largest comic book magazine, I can imagine the need to have everything be perfect is tantamount to breathing.

But do no confuse their compulsive need for perfection with anger or cynicism. They have a certain effervescence that allows them to rise above petty squabbles, even when being berated by vendors. At one point I was mistaken as Wizard Management when a giant, blonde haired man walked up to me yelling about his booth. Apparently he felt that his booth was not big enough or “right” even though it was exactly what he had paid and signed up for. He explained to me that in situations like this the best thing Wizard could do was to give him his booth for free. He was not done. Wizard should also give him the booth next to his to keep him happy. They did not. The Wizard staff will bend over backwards for anyone, but, they do have to draw certain lines.

In dealing with him, regardless of his irate demeanor, they handled it with a handshake and a smile. The man eventually acquiescing that he would not receive anything for free for the imaginary offense. Mike seems resolved to the fact that you cannot make everyone happy in cases like that. They are people with their own inner monologue that directs them in a particular emotional direction. People like Blondie do it with anger, while others do it more affably.

I met two artists who had tables next to Marvel artist Arthur Sudyam; he did all the art for the Marvel Zombies comics that are beyond popular. At any given time, Arthur’s corner of the table had about 20 people in line for autographs. The line was such a blockade; you could not see the other artists that were next to Sudyam.

That night, one of the artists spoke to Mike about the traffic issue, which Mike fixed first thing in the morning. Mike later explained to me that he was more than happy to navigate the line away from the other artists so people could see them. I walked with Mike time and again around Artists’ Alley to make sure this issue was resolved and no one else had a similar problem. He seemed unsure that it was working until he saw it with his own eyes.

By the end of the day Mike was bone tired and in pain. His knee hurt a bit, but the blue knee brace he wore helped keep it in shape. Regardless of how tired they all were they did not yell. It was unusual to be in the company of them and not witness anyone get angry. I was prepared early on to see some emotional fireworks which never came to pass. After doing these events for so long and being so tight with one another, they have learned to moderate their annoyance and let it roll off.

Meeting the Group

I met up with Drew Seldin the Wednesday before Premiere Night. It was with some wryness that I sat in the lobby of his hotel waiting to meet him. The lobby was a slick affair full of men and women in suits standing around like guardians of capitalism. I felt sick in my stomach that one of them could be Drew. Never having met anyone from Wizard I did not know what to expect. Perhaps they all wore Armani suits and spoke in managerial terms like: spearhead, paradigm and synergy. Luckily Drew would soundly shatter all my assumptions.

I watched as a man pointed and waved from a descending glass elevator. He looked better suited for baseball games at Yankee Stadium than P.R., wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans. He is an every man, a man that looks like your older brother or an absent uncle you haven’t seen in years. Within minutes of meeting him I felt better about following Wizard around the show.

He grabbed some breakfast before we went to the convention — pop tart and orange juice. This is food that is emblematic of how they live at the show: on the go. There is an economy of time at these conventions. They must broker their time sparingly between meeting people, dealing with issues, eating and complaining. Like eating, if they must complain, it’s done on the run, and both are done rarely at all.

On Saturday, I march with Mike as he pops a few cheese cubes in his mouth. He moves with Tasmanian Devil speed around the floor, me shuffling fast behind him, attempting to keep up. His function as one of the sales managers for Wizard translates here to something of a mayor. He walks and shakes hands, trades stories and overall insures that everyone is happy: be it attendant, exhibitor or professional. People offer him gifts as he talks to them. These items are a gesture of friendship, never asking for anything in return. He is offered comics, swords and other miscellanea which he takes knowing that it would be rude to refuse.

He is the heart of Wizard. When he talks with someone, regardless of who it is, he makes them feel like the most important person. He gives his full, undivided attention, a rare thing given the amount of time he does not have. Why do it then?

Because each person there is an integral part of making WizardWorld what it is; without them, there would be no convention. He would have no job. With the appeal that each year needs to be more gigantic than the last, they take no one for granted.

But, each Wizard staff member needs to make this a spectacle to be remembered. They put this on not just for money or fans, but for their family as well. This is their creation, and any slurs said about it are slurs against them, against who they are, because they put their whole soul into making this show a success. It is harder on them than anyone when something goes wrong.

Satellites

Building a world like this is never easy. Nobody knows this better than James Ross. We talked about the creation process of this convention walking among the palettes, people and noise. The convention hall looked like a warehouse with palettes stocked 7′ high everywhere, and forklifts roamed about as their engines roared loudly. Carpenters and other teamsters worked rapidly putting sites together. James did not look dismayed when I said I was nervous for him. He explains that after 10 years in the business he doesn’t get nervous. He has “total faith in these people that it will be ready when they need to open, but if it doesn’t open exactly on time, that is ok.” You can tell his stoic resolve is necessary in situations like this, situations most would describe with words like “rock” and “hard place.”

James walks around what will be the aisles with his head high and his face serene. He is sweating a little but that’s more from the humid heat wave that invaded Chicago earlier. It has brought with it the threat of rain. He tells me they have umbrellas and a contingency plan just in case. They will have the attendees wind around like a snake under the large, sheltered circle driveway in front. He thinks the rain clouds will pass and the sun will remain.

Faith is something he has a large stock in though. It does seem an odd thing for a floor manager to have. After all, I have witnessed a lot of managers that believe more in micro-managing than actual managing. James knows that the people we see milling about understand their function and will do it to the best of their abilities. Of course this is not a Utopia, and sometimes the people you work with pose complications. James is always willing to work past that to keep things running as smoothly as possible. But there are times when life is more the complication than people themselves.

Mike had a call from a retailer that had an appointment to unload on Wednesday. The retailer called that morning to inform that two family members had just died and he would not be making the show. The man did not care if he lost his deposit he was so overcome with grief. Mike informed him that his deposit would be reimbursed and to spend this time with his family. Later on, Mike awarded another retailer the man’s spot for free since the floor would be opening soon. Instead of complaining or trying to make a dollar, they took a tragic situation and made it a successful one for someone else. As integral as Mike, James or Drew is Wizard relies on its staff to keep it going.

WizardWorld is put together by more than its staff. It’s a cast of satellite professionals that make this event the spectacle it is. The promotion teams at the show work particularly hard to create the booths and keep them running. I met one of the promotion teams that were building on Wednesday. They were in charge of the Bioshock booth which everyone at Wizard was labeling as a “really cool thing once you see it.” Rob Baricevic and I walked to the infant booth, it was a large 20 x 20 flooring that several men in black shirts were laying black and white tiling on. A large, tan, spiky haired man opened his arms and yelled “What’s going on?” to Rob. He is Michael D’Alessio, and he owns and runs the company Promo Guys. They are a large public relations company that excels at guerilla marketing and other non-traditional approaches to promoting. I had some one on one time with him to find out why they were so special compared to other P.R. companies.

Michael prides himself on destroying the barricade between client and company. While a lot of companies have a hands-off approach to marketing, he likes to meet his clients face to face and learn everything about the product before he promotes. This includes extensive research into all available resources about the product. Essentially, they become experts about what they promote. He is not the only rags to riches story at WizardWorld.

While walking through the aisles of the convention, you can tell that some retailers have it harder than others. Some look sallow and gnarled like an old oak tree, rooted to their seats, waiting for a sale. Not far away there is a subtle, stylish booth with two men dressed in impeccable suits. They look like business men ready to sell you stocks and bonds or attend a night club opening. This is Metropolis Comics.

Behind a large, U-shaped desk are shelves of comics in clear, hard plastic shells. You might not realize in passing, but this booth alone holds over a million dollars in comics. One display is bright colored comics from the 20s to 80s featuring the debut of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and other iconic characters. Metropolis Comics’ owner Vinnie Zurzolo explained to me that his store only deals in vintage comics, which are priced between a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Vinnie is a busy man. As we sit and talk he seems primed, ready to jump up and close deals. He is a guy you can tell upon shaking hands that time is money for him. Vinnie is a comic book entrepreneur. Besides running Metropolis Comics, he runs a site that allows buyers and sellers of vintage comics to meet and buy / sell their comics. In each transaction, Vinnie acts as the broker between the parties. It’s awe-inspiring to see how far this man has come from selling comic books outside brokerage houses on Wall Street to having in his possession several copies of Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman, to sell.

His is a story that I heard time and again from people at Wizard. These men and women that begin with meager means, and through sheer tenaciousness and hope, soon skyrocket to success. Vinnie began his comic book empire with $600 and the hope he could be selling the comic books he has loved throughout his life. Since then, he has become co-owner of Metropolis Comics and runs a weekly comic book webcast as well as his eBay style comics’ website. He is an exemplar that anyone can succeed in this world, and he probably enjoys knowing this.

Return to the Bump

Premiere Night is five minutes to open. A retailer still has boxes scattered over the fresh laid carpet. The staff is nervous and disappointed. They had worked hard, from morning till night, to get the show open on time. Each of their knees ached and backs hurt from walking and lifting. Even if the show did not open exactly on time, they knew it was worth it. Today, and the rest of the weekend, they had accomplished something they can be proud.

They stood in a circle near the show office, Robert using his hands in exaggerated sign language-esque movements to convey a point I could not hear. Most stood listening with raised eyebrows as James stood ready to launch off and fix the issue. Instead of penalizing the rogue retailer, they decided on delaying the opening fifteen minutes. The errant booth would be allowed to put up their stock quickly. If anything can be said about Wizard in this case, it’s that they give a fair chance to each retailer. But, by this time Thursday, I knew this is how they think. The retailer booths had been pondered and plotted over until each had a position as fair as the next. Each aisle with its row of booths had the same plusses and minuses as the next. No one, not even Graham Crackers who had a record 19 booths, had an unfair advantage.

Mike showed me late one afternoon the map and notes that go with how the convention is laid out. He tells about the process; it reminds me a lot of the care and precision of building a ship in a bottle. It takes hours of discussion, notes and finally writing with clarity and meticulousness the names in the small quarter-of-an-inch boxes. Beyond that, you have to set up the well known artists in slots that allow lines to grow and not impede other professionals or break fire codes. The creation process of WizardWorld is not slapped together a week before it begins. Rather, preparation for this weekend starts as soon as the convention ends. They will email, meet and chat about how to top the past WizardWorld. This planning and creating will not stop until the show next premieres.

Homogeneity

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the convention is that all those happy smiles do not belong to fan boys or just teenagers. It’s a about as diverse a group as you can get at such a specialized convention. It appears more as a populist nightclub with anyone allowed in. The only requirement is you have a good time. Such a mixture of diversity could lead to worse results.

That is the boon and bust of Wizard though; there is no homogenous foreground to it. The convention, like Wizard itself, is not comprised of legions of teenage fan boys huffing Albutarol between arguing who would win in a fight: Superman or Batman.

The fact is that a majority of Wizard people come from a non comic book background. Most found a home at Wizard through serendipitous means than fan nepotism. For example, Drew comes from one of the most seemingly diverse backgrounds: Television production. He has worked on a variety of shows like “Martha Stewart”, before, during and after her prison sentence. He worked on “The John Walsh Show” when the Amber Alert was passed into law. The show had a direct hand in constructing the alert. He told me once that Wizard was a nice change from television, since “television shows think they are curing cancer.” Meaning they take themselves too seriously, where an office like Wizard has a more laid back, family-centric approach. Even with such a friendly atmosphere things are not always perfect.

Coming off a rough year in 2006, Wizard was ready for a change. The company opted to continue finding people that were, while not of comic book backgrounds, still excellent fits for the job. This has made a spectacular difference. When speaking to “Dora the Explorer” and Zombies artist Dave Aikens, he said that “this (2007) show was so much better than 2006.” He was almost giddy at the fact that Artists’ Alley had grown and resolved any spacing issues it might have had. The responsibility of this falls on Mike who speaks with wide eyed determinism and pride on how the alley has grown and will continue to grow.

Mike Scigliano explained to me that, next year, Artists’ Alley would expand by at least 50 more booths. This is a soft number and has potential to grow depending on the space that they incorporate next year. Right now, Artists’ Alley already stands at a staggering 350+ people. The new expansion will put the number at around 400. Artists’ Alley is a proud accomplishment for everyone at Wizard. They are one of the last conventions to not only have an artist’s alley, but to grow it every year.

Each alleyway is special; just ask Mike and James who went to great pains to make each lane a bit thematic. For instance, this was the first year where one complete alleyway was women creators which caused a lot of buzz and traffic into it. But, without Artists’ Alley, WizardWorld Chicago would not have had that communal feel that is important to it. These little features are the brain children of Mike, James, Drew and Robert. This is not to say the others do not help. Of course they do. Everyone plays an integral part, be it wise-acre Bart, who compelled me to snap pictures of him that portrayed him as a dictator. I think his main job at Wizard is to keep people on their toes and laughing.

The Last Day

At the end of Sunday, the attendees marched slowly to the exit, none of them ready to leave. The Wizard staff sat in the show office taking quick bites of fruit and cubed cheeses. They made jokes at Rob Baricevic’s expense, he being a sort of Waldo at WizardWorld. If you could find him, I am sure they would reward you.

Around noon the staff began to trickle away. They removed their stowed suitcases from the show floor and headed via cabs to the airport, soon to be home. Some, like Maria Capello, Director of Marketing Services, were peppy about their return. She is a woman that smiles and jokes a lot, the usual regimen of a Wizard employee. Once the caffeine and Advil ran out, they all seemed a bit slack in the shoulders from the week. The tension was relieved and the sun had begun to set outside the Rosemont Convention Center.

Where most would wrench their hands in pain and dread doing this again, they smiled a bit brighter, walked as if some secret purpose had been fulfilled. Each was ready to return home to the open arms of husbands and wives, children and friends, and ultimately, their own bed. Exhaustion feels its sweetest in one’s own bed, and I think they would each attest to this. The revelation loomed over each that as soon as this convention closed, there was little time until the next one began in Texas. But it is an almost sadistic epiphany, for while it will be hard on them putting up another convention in a few months, they cannot wait. Each day passing like molasses, the will wait until they leave for Texas and put on another show.

Finally the doors closed and the world was dismantled. Carpet ripped up and arches torn down. I walked around the floor snapping pictures. I walk past two men shoving comics in long boxes. The smell of old paper and dust is large in these areas, almost claustrophobic. I find Mike, Drew and Candy Frangione (online marketing coordinator) at a table in a corner by a giant steel dock door. They are handing out parking passes to vendors; Candy asking each vendor to show a smile before they get a pass with each complying.

We sit and talk, but are mostly quiet. Droopy eyelids and yawns say that we are all overrun with tiredness. Finally, as Drew leaves for his room, I stand and shake hands and leave myself. I walk to the show floor and find Robert and James and thank them for their time. I learned something not just about these people, but about people in general and what they are capable of, that all companies are not soulless zombies that consume everything in sight. Some, like Wizard, are filled with the best people you could hope to work with and know.

These are all the parts of WizardWorld that most do not see. They are the billowing behind the grand curtain, the inner workings of gears, and the engineers that form a world for everyone to enjoy. It is with a sad heart and full head that I walk along the skyway. My shoes squeak and echo lonely in the halls. I take a final pic of the sun setting over the skyway. From there, I too, go home.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at errantghost.tumblr.com.

See more, including free online content, on .

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