The Best Comic Convention You’ve Never Attended
(CNN) — This weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, there is a comic book convention. It’s called HeroesCon, and it’s unlike any modern con you’ve ever been to.
There are no massive halls filled with video game companies hawking their latest wares. There are no movie studios promoting the latest summer and fall releases. There aren’t any barely clad booth babes, and the volume of bandwagon cosplayers who don’t actually read the material they draw their costumes from is kept to a minimum – and what cosplayers you do find there are high-class, high quality actual real life comic book fans.
Oh, and just about every single artist, writer and editor in the comics industry will be there.
I first heard of HeroesCon in 1994, during Dragon*Con in Atlanta.
It was my senior year in high school, and I was told by an artist in artist alley that if I loved comics, I needed to see HeroesCon. My convention buddies, Mike and Jay, hopped in a car with me that summer and we made the four-hour trek to the con. Once we got there, I was in heaven. HeroesCon was everything it was promised to be.
“HeroesCon is like the comics industry’s family reunion,” says Dexter Vines, inker for Marvel comics and a fellow member of Studio Revolver in Atlanta. “Heroes is a perfect storm of comic book convention and hanging out with friends. Every pro I know goes every year. You have editors from Marvel and DC driving and flying down on their own dime just to hang out. No other show I know has that.”
A quick search on Twitter for #heroesCon finds hundreds of this year’s attendees counting down the minutes until the con starts, and several dozen who can’t make it this year lamenting that fact.
If comics is a family, and HeroesCon is the reunion, I guess that makes convention organizer Shelton Drum the dad. And who better to head up the task?
“I don’t play video games,” said Drum, who will insist that you call him Shelton when you meet him. “There’s no video game companies at my convention. I have nothing at all against them, I just don’t know and understand them. I don’t understand the movie or television business either, so I stay out of that. What I do know and love is comics, so I put all of my effort and attention into that.”
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of HeroesCon. Only one convention in America has been around longer in its original incarnation – San Diego ComicCon, which celebrates its 42nd year this year (Chicago ComicCon predates HeroesCon, but was sold to Wizard in 1997, so it can’t be considered its original incarnation). Unlike SDCC, which has grown to be the fandom event of choice for the video entertainment industry, HeroesCon is and always has been about comics and comics only.
When I asked Drum why he’s never branched out into other media the way most other conventions have, he simply stated, “I don’t love those other media the way I love comics. I don’t want to add anything I wouldn’t be good at promoting.”
Drum’s relationship with the local communities in Charlotte is part of the key to the success of HeroesCon, he said. “The local community embraces us. They welcome the con every year. We’re part of the fabric of Charlotte, North Carolina, now, and that’s great, because Charlotte is my home. I’ve been here 35 years. Charlotte gives to me and I try to give back.”
“I’ve never met anyone who loves every aspect of comics like Shelton,” said Cully Hamner, a character designer for DC’s New 52 and the artist on the comic books “RED”, “Blue Beetle.” Drum’s enthusiasm for the people who make, sell and buy comics is palpable, Hamner said. It helps set a mood of camaraderie and has earned Drum a bit of hero-worship of his own.
“Shelton Drum is the alter-ego of a superhero named HeroesCon,” Hamner said. “He strips off his civilian clothes for a weekend in June and performs a feat no other con can. That’s his superpower – bringing people together.”
Marvel and DC aren’t the only kinds of comic books celebrated at HeroesCon. Square in the middle of the con is a section reserved for independent artists, writers and voices in the comics industry. Known as “Indie Island,” it is strategic placement for a segment of the industry that doesn’t often get the chance to play center stage at a comic book convention.
“Young artists and upstarts have access to pros and fans in a way they don’t at other cons,” said Hamner, who has been working professionally in comics since 1990. “Indie Island is something special, and you won’t find it at any other con. There’s interesting and fresh things to see all over the place. I make a point to visit Indie Island every year. I get to breathe different air.”
Ed Piskor, whose artwork can be found in “American Splendor,” and “Wizzywig,” has been an attending artist in Indie Island since 2009. In that time, he said he fell in love with HeroesCon and it’s the only convention he must attend every year.
“I drive down from Pittsburgh with a pair of my favorite cartoonists, Jim Rugg, and Tom Scioli, and it’s eight hours both ways,” he said. “So many formative ideas and concepts are unearthed on the pilgrimage to Heroes. It’s almost religious.”
“At the big cons, I get lost in the shuffle,” says Indie Island artist Stephanie Buscema, illustrator of dozens of children’s books and comics and granddaughter of the legendary John Buscema. “At Heroes, however, I have a lot of interaction with the fans and with other artists. The attendees are there for comics and comics only, and that’s something special,” she said. “They share it with their kids, and it’s a very family-friendly atmosphere. It’s my favorite show to do.”
I didn’t get to go every year after my first trip to HeroesCon, but whenever I could, I made the journey to Charlotte.
Years later, when I started the “Art of Akira Exhibit,” I made a huge list of museums and conventions where I wanted to show my collection. HeroesCon was in the top of the list. After e-mailing every contact at every location on the list, Shelton was the first person to reply to me – that very day, in fact.
“I don’t know yet where we’ll fit it in, but something like that, we’ll make room for,” he wrote. He did, and it fit in perfectly. And the entire weekend, I felt like I was in good hands. Staff ensured I had everything I needed. Pros came by and visited the exhibit. I was welcomed with open arms.
HeroesCon is this weekend, June 22-24, at the Charlotte Convention Center. It’s $15 dollars per day, or $30 for the weekend. Kids 12 and under are free. If you’re a fan of comics and are anywhere remotely close to Charlotte this weekend, you need to be at HeroesCon. Hit me up on Twitter (@joethepeacock) if you make it.
By Joe Peacock – Special to CNN
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