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Detroit’s Comic Con Nation: The vibrant community most people miss at the show

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Once again crowds poured into the Motor City Comic Con. Most wanted to see the famous actors and get their autograph, but if that’s all they did they missed quite a bit of the experience.  The show has its own community and a host of characters that rival those portrayed by the media guests.

DSC_0896With 26 years under its belt, Motor City Comic Con has a past, and with it a creative community of writers, artists, illustrators, crafters and those who follow their mediums has evolved.  The community, which is unique to the show, goes back to the days before economic necessities steered it more towards non-comic media.  Despite a shift in focus that community is as alive, just hidden from the newer masses.

Left over from the old days is Artist Alley.  Every comic show has one.  This is where the big names in comics sit and meet with each other and their fans and sign autographs. Sitting a few feet away from these masters of the medium are those trying to make a name for themselves.

Indie and small press comic creators, along with other assorted artists, are mixed in with the big names comic fans already know.  Many show up year in and year out, which has created a bond between them and those who came in with the purchase of a ticket.

Ken Wheaton

Ken Wheaton

Artist and inker Ken Wheaton has come to the show for years. He started with attempts to sell a self-published work and continued as he found more regular work for small press companies.  He lives in upstate New York and travels through Canada to get to the show.

Many of Wheaton’s relationships have been cultivated over the years.  Aside from the hospitality staff he speaks highly of and the fellow artists he looks forward to speaking to each year, there are his fans.  A small press artist (mainly an inker) is not the first person you would expect to have a following, but Wheaton has regulars.

In comic book production an inker outlines the drawing done by the penciller with a pen or brush so it can be reproduced. Text inking is usually handled by another specialist called a letterer. Color is added by a colorist.

During the show Wheaton struck up a very interesting conversation with a fan about fantasy painter Jeff Catherine Jones. Jones worked in the mid-1970s and was held in very high regard.  Wheaton and the fan appreciated Jones’ work.  As the conversation went on Wheaton discovered this man had been in rehab with Jones.  The fan sent Wheaton a DVD of a documentary on Jones called the “Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffrey Catherine Jones.”

Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers member Peggy Christie

Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers member Peggy Christie

The Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers is part of the Artistic Alley community and began coming to the Comic Con in 2007. Founded in Southfield, this group comes together to discuss and aid each other with their shared goals as horror writers. Most members are from metro Detroit.

The group has an eclectic style, with style and inspiration left up to the writers. The only rule is members must write horror. Each year they put out an anthology with a specific theme. The most recent is “Erie Tales Myths and Mayhem,” which retells our favorite fairy tales such as Puss in Boots, The Pied Piper and Little Red Riding Hood. Others come from far flung lands, like Japan, Eastern Europe and Norway. They were also selling older versions.

Starting last year Toyota joined this elite community.

For the second year the automaker sponsored the Motor City Comic Con and has a Spongebob Squarepants-themed car onsite.  This time it’s a Sienna minivan that blows bubbles. Its exterior resembled a mobile version of the Spongebob television character, while the interior captured the essence of his home – Bikini Bottom. The vehicle was created in honor of Nickelodeon’s Spongebob movie, which came out in February.

Toyota's Spongebob Square pants minivan

Toyota’s Spongebob Square pants minivan

At the annual Saturday night festivities, Toyota donated $5,000 to the “Heroes for Hope,” a non-profit that helps comic creators with severe illnesses, who are not able to afford care.

Curt McAllister, Toyota’s Midwest public relations manager for Toyota Motor Sales, is in his own words, an unapologetic fan boy. He has watched the show grow from its earlier incarnations to one of the biggest pop culture events in the area.

The Sienna is “a fun, G-rated display at the show for all ages,” he says. However, the real connection to the show came from a photo op with the minivan and Dave Aikens, an artist who has drawn Spongebob in several picture books, and Tom Kenney, the voice of Spongebob. Aikens’ connections he made as an artist for the character helped bring Kenney to the Comic Con.

Dave Aikens did the illustrations for this Spongebob book.

Dave Aikens did the illustrations for this Spongebob book.

This is not a new experience for Aikens. Along with one of his friends in the art world, he was even able to help bring one of his artistic idols and DC Comics legend Jose Garcia Lopez to the show both this year and last.  Lopez is best known for his gritty, realistic portrayals of Jonah Hex.

Other artistic communities in the area have taken notice and begun to intermingle with the comic show.  For the first year ever Motor City added a new section for guest crafters.

One of these crafters was Rebecca Goldberg of RNG Originals.  This was her second year selling her wire-wrapped jewelry and statues at the show.  More often found at craft shows and Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market, Goldberg thought her wire elf ears would be a good match for the show. She was very right. As she put it she, “crushed it … best show of my life.”

Rebecca Goldberg of RNG Originals

Rebecca Goldberg of RNG Originals

She did so well she told other sellers and makers about the show and has decided to open her doors to other comic shows. She already has plans to attend Wizard World Chicago.

Goldberg was first told about the opportunities by Jerry Shirts, a fellow seller at the Rust Belt. He sells exactly what the name would lead you to believe … shirts. This was his third year at the Comic Con but came to the show for years before that as a fan and saw the sales opportunity.  It has become a regular stop for his travelling sales.

While Jerry Shirts and Goldberg can still look around and see artisans from their other stomping grounds, some of the usual faces have had to bow out.  As the Comic Con has gained prosperity there have been some negative consequences that came with success.  Table prices have gone up causing some crafters to make the economic decision to not set up shop.

While the community goes back a way, there are new people who try to get in with no community support. One of these is comic creator and Ann Arbor native Dave Swatz.

Dave Swartz shows off his comic Atlas Origins No. 1

Dave Swartz shows off his comic Atlas Origins No. 1

Swatz is the creator of the comic Atlas, featuring a character created from Swartz’s own beliefs based on philosophy, ancient cultures and fringe science.  He created the character while working at a gym where he had quite a bit of free time to muse on such things.  The first issue premiered this year. Fans, who saw him last year, got a chance to pick up the preview issue, which sold out.  The direct approach provided by the show may be the best way to get the comic to people who will enjoy it.

Jwan Jordan is another guy newer to Artist Alley, but he certainly has an interesting origin.  Jones, a Flint native, moved to Hollywood with his family as a boy. His father, Ken, was a stuntman and comedian Red Foxx’s bodyguard.  After a mishap, which cost his father part of his toes, the family returned to Flint.  While in Hollywood, however, Jones got to get a firsthand look at Disney animation since is dad worked with Walt Disney Studios on a regular basis. That’s where he discovered his love for creating cartoons and comics.

Jwan Jordan

Jwan Jordan created the comic Affairs of the Mind

Back in Michigan Jones grew up and attended Mott Community College and the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.  What brought him to the show was his comic though.  Still inspired by Disney, as well as anime he had seen and enjoyed since those days in Hollywood, he created the comic series Affairs of the Mind.

It’s about a girl with a little gold halo who wants to make the world a better place, but always finds it more difficult than not.  This comic is personal project in more ways than one. It is a way for Jones to deal with the severe depression he has struggled with for most of his life.

Motor City Comic Con is more than a show and certainly more than a place for television and movie stars to gather. It has its own vibe … its own community … for anyone who cares enough to try and become a part of it.

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