In five years, NC Comicon has grown from a small comic book show at a remote outlet mall to a large convention, replete with top artists, writers, celebrity guests, panels and costume contests. It attracted 6,500 attendees to the Durham Convention Center last year.
The expansion continues this year with an extra half-day of programming and a footprint that fills the entire venue, not to mention off-site events all weekend at the Durham Armory and the returning ComiQuest Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre.
And the marquee guests have a draw that goes beyond comics: Charlie Adlard has been the artist of The Walking Dead since issue No. 7, and Gerard Way has followed a career as lead singer for My Chemical Romance as the author of surreal superhero comic The Umbrella Academy.
But NC Comicon might have done the most growing behind the scenes, as its organizers have learned to see other area comics retailers as community rather than competition—partly because of the arrival of a more dangerous adversary, Wizard World.
The corporate convention chain made its North Carolina debut at the Raleigh Convention Center in March, four months after NC Comicon in November. The heavily promoted newcomer attracted large crowds with celebrities such as William Shatner.
In contrast to the comics-focused NC Comicon, Wizard World features fewer actual comic books than celebrity autographs and memorabilia, and its ticket prices are several times higher than NC Comicon's. Wizard World has been criticized—by Alan Gill, who owns Chapel Hill's Ultimate Comics and founded NC Comicon, among others—for its aggressive relationship with local conventions, pushing them out or sowing confusion.
"They call it Raleigh Comic Con, so people get it confused with us," Gill says. "Comics guys get it, but the other 85 percent of people don't."
Wizard World has bumped up against locally run North Carolina conventions before. The 2006 Wizard World Atlanta was booked the same weekend as HeroesCon, the Charlotte show run by the shop Heroes Aren't Hard to Find. A number of high-level creators, including Warren Ellis and J. Michael Straczynski, signed on as HeroesCon guests in protest. Wizard World moved the date of its Atlanta show away from HeroesCon, which enjoyed its largest attendance and highest profile in years as a result of the anti-Wizard World backlash.
Wizard World has a 2016 Raleigh show posted on its website, though the dates and details remain TBD. Gill speculates that this means Wizard World is moving in on NC Comicon's dates.
"You can't book the Raleigh Convention Center further out than a year," he explains. "One reason they might not have announced their dates is that they're waiting for that year window, which would put them closer to us. They haven't announced their Richmond convention yet, either, and VA Comicon is a week after us, so the Richmond promoter and I are keeping our eye on that."
Last year, Ultimate Comics handed out anti-Wizard World flyers. Now it is taking a wait-and-see approach. In fact, the jury is still out on the adverse affects of Wizard World. There are ways in which it might even help the local comics economy, by driving interest in the medium and uniting retailers against a technological development more threatening to their livelihood than any glitzy corporate interloper.