Comicpalooza 2017 Review: Growing Pains Abound, But Still A Solid Showing from Space City
As someone who moved to Houston during my college years, there are many things about the Space City that I love. The cutting edge medical research in the Texas Medical Center, the restaurants manned by award-winning chefs, NASA, and the endless array of activities at any given moment. As a major geek, one of my favorite things has always been Houston’s biggest comic convention, Comicpalooza. Since I began going in 2014, I have seen the convention grow steadily due to its commitment to promoting all fandoms and bringing unique programming to the attendees. They have previously brought in five Doctors from Doctor Who, the entire case of Marvel’s Agents of Shield, an Aliens reunion, and a variety of big name movie and TV stars.
Last year, the City of Houston purchased 51% ownership of Comicpalooza with the intent to further expand the convention into a major attraction for nerds and geeks alike. Comicpalooza 2016 still boasted a lot of the big name guests, but issues in planning and execution took away from the fun. This year, the city really stepped up its game, creating a con that was much better organized, but I feel like it lost some of its former spark. Many con goers were underwhelmed by the guest selection, and some out-of-place exhibit hall sponsors and vendors had us confused. It seems to me that if the City of Houston takes the time to understand what the fans truly want (either through consultation with previous owners or others who are familiar with comic conventions), Comicpalooza 2018 has the potential to blow everyone out of the water!
Panels: There was quite a variety of both celebrity and fan driven panels, but scheduling became an issue (Grade: B+)
One of the things that drew me to Comicpalooza the first year I attended was the vast offerings of fan-driven panels. While celebrity Q&As are an obvious draw, its choice to give the fans a chance both lead and interact in discussions about topics that interested them. With its own Literary Track, Comicpalooza brings in authors from a variety of genres to talk about their books, writing, publishing, and fan meet-and-greets. NASA scientists bring their brand of science-meets-science-fiction to the convention, providing public education in an entertaining way. Comic writers and artists offer attendees sessions on drawing, planning, and creating in their media.
Comicpalooza 2017 maintained this precedent with a strong listing of panels this year, but they were not as well attended as previous years. There were a couple of factors involved, starting with the lack of public promotion this year for their literary guests and panels. Authors Jim Butcher and Lev Grossman were both present at the convention, but I was hard pressed to find anything about them in the radio commercials and advertisements that were put out locally. During the convention, the panels often started before the exhibit hall floor was open each day, which meant many of the day’s con goers chose to shop rather than check out the programming. There were also some grumbles I overheard about some of the moderators being too talkative and not giving the guests enough time to answer questions from the fans.
Volunteers & Staff: Very friendly and helpful, but not always the most well-informed (Grade: A-)
Overall, what was overheard during conversations between attendees included compliments of the volunteers that participated in the convention. They were easily identifiable by the orange or blue shirts they were wearing, and all the ones I encountered personally were polite and respectful. For the photo ops, autographs, and most of the big panels, the volunteers were a wealth of information for anyone with a question.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of hiccups that I personally dealt with as a literary panelist for Comicpalooza. On day one of the convention, I had an early morning fan roundtable for YA fantasy that was identified on both the schedule and the map as being at “round table.” I asked four separate volunteers to help me find the location, but none could do so. It took reaching out to the coordinator of the literary track before I discovered its location. While this is more of an issue of planning, the volunteers should have been made aware of the general locations of everything.
As I attended this year’s con also to provide press for Hello Nerdeek, I interacted both before and during the convention with the PR liaisons for Comicpalooza. Katie Jernigan and Allison Wright of Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations were extremely helpful as resources for me when I had any questions. Vijay Kale, who oversaw the literary track, made sure that all the panelists under his purview were cared for and had everything they needed.
Venue, Accommodations & Transportation: As with many places throughout downtown Houston, parking costs a premium and public transportation hard to navigate, but there are many hotels within walking distance (Grade: B)
Comicpalooza 2017 was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had recently been renovated in preparation for Super Bowl 2017 earlier this year. Among the improvements was a beautiful Avenida Houston public space directly in front of the center, an expanded front entry, and 18 nearby restaurants of varying price ranges. Directly beyond the Avenida is Discovery Green, a public park that plays host to art installations and food trucks along with a playground for families. The convention center itself is gigantic, with three floors upon which the con was able to spread out, but it also meant traversing a long distance at times between panels.
Being downtown, there were many hotels that attendees could stay at, including the Hilton Americas Houston, which has a sky bridge directly into the convention center, and the Marriott Marquis Houston, with its Texas-shaped lazy river. Several of the hotels did offer special Comicpalooza packages and rates for those seeking to stay with them.
For those who were local, myself included, we were stuck with parking near the convention center. While Comicpalooza partners with Parking Panda to provide guaranteed parking spots, as well as parking a the Toyota Tundra garage (typically used for basketball games and concerts), theatre district parking, and a variety of privately managed lots and metered spaces. The average cost of parking was between $10-$20 dollars per day.
Those attendees who did not want to pay for parking had the option to Uber to and from the convention, as well as the Metrorail that runs from The Medical Center to Downtown, or the bus systems that run around town (not advised in my opinion unless you want to spend up to 2 hours to get somewhere).
Show Floor: Lots of space and a variety of vendors and artists, but also some rather odd product placements and rentals (Grade: B+)
While last year Comicpalooza frustrated vendors because of the large distance placed between the sales booths and the autograph and photo op areas, the floor plan this year was more spread out. The artists’ alley was near the main entrance, and the vast empty space that was there last year in the middle of the hall was filled in with additional booths and seating for the food court. The product selection was typical of most cons, with many booths selling T-shirts, knick-knacks, photographs, and homemade items. There was even sword sparring and laser tag areas, as well as a maker’s space for those interested in STEM. A big hit with many of the attendees was the Saint Arnold’s booth, where they served alcoholic beverages for those thirsty for something other than soda. However, some attendees observed the random appearance of booths selling vacuum cleaners, those annoyingly popular fidget spinners, and even a religious group passing out flyers about their church. Given that these have little to do with the spirit of the con, better screening could be used to avoid con goers feeling accosted while trying to shop.
Celebrity Guests, Photo Ops & Autographs: Unlike previous years, the guest list did not reflect as much of the current interest, especially when it came to bigger names (Grade: B-)
Similar to other conventions (that are not SDCC or NYCC), Comicpalooza offers fans the chance to get autographs and photo ops with their favorite movie and TV actors. While regular single-day and three-day passes are available for the general public, additional special packages could be purchased (ie Marvel Agents of Shield in 2014) that would include, at minimum, autographs and sometimes photo ops. While the convention continued this, cancelations by a couple of bigger names like Charlie Cox and Paul Wesley the week of the convention resulted in refunds for both their individual and group photos and autographs. This is, of course, not the fault of the convention, and their quick handling of the situation was admirable.
However, one area that did not live up to prior years was the selection of celebrity guests. As I mentioned before, in previous years Comicpalooza made strong efforts to bring in full casts of cult TV shows and movies as the main draw. They would also bring in a range of actors currently popular in media to balance out the fandoms. For 2017, the City of Houston’s biggest name (and the one most heavily promoted) was Chuck Norris. While Mr. Norris has had a long and respected career, he has been mostly out of the limelight as of late. The remaining celebrity guests mostly came out of Netflix shows such as Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, but rather than bringing in as many cast members as they could, only 1-2 actors in each were invited.
Compare that to another local comic convention, Alamo City Con in San Antonio, who is currently boasting the likes of Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 as well as Star Trek’s Karl Urban, LOTR and The Strain’s Sean Astin, Arrow’s Katrina Law, Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid and Peter Mayhew, and DC/Marvel/Dark Horse famed writer Frank Miller among others. Their voice actors include Disney/Pixar fav John Ratzenberger, and a mini-Cheers reunion with Kirstie Alley and George Wendt.
Comicpalooza’s formula from years before is what made the convention so successful in drawing a bigger crowd every year. I think it would be a very wise decision to return to this approach for Comicpalooza 2018, or risk being eclipsed by Fan Expo Dallas or Alamo City Con in the future.
As someone who attended this convention for the past 4 years and watched the hand-off from Startling Events, LLC to the City of Houston, I have some reservations. While scheduling the event over Mother’s Day weekend – rather than the traditional Memorial Day weekend – likely was the biggest factor in the decreased attendance this year, it’s not the only one. The lack of cohesive guest selection and only partial understanding of what fans want both also contributed to the lackluster reception this year, especially from return attendees like me who were hoping for a continuation of the path that Comicpalooza was on before. However, as I mentioned before, this year’s convention definitely improved significantly in its organization, staff and volunteers, and exhibit hall. As long as the city takes lessons from the success of previous years, next year’s Comicpalooza could be something very special.
May 12-14. 2017
Newly renovated George R. Brown Convention Center
Several restaurants attached to or nearby convention center for alternate food options
Friendly, helpful staff and volunteers
Many downtown hotels within walking distance
Many panel offerings from both guests and fans
Well-organized photo op and autograph line control
Gaming area offered previews and free play
Parking, parking, parking
Panel scheduling not always well-thought out
Holding it on Mother’s Day weekend decreased attendance
No exclusive footage or news
Choice of celebrity guests was a bit lacking and unfocused
Sponsors and non-convention related vendors given space on exhibit hall
Mobile app had glitches that caused crashing during use
No press line and minimal press interview opportunities