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April 3, 2012

Op-Ed: Taming the Wildcat: How to Wrangle a Comic Book Convention in Two Short Years

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This is the story of how a few informal conversations turned into a full-blown comic book convention in the unassuming town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It took the hard work and imagination of dozens of teachers, librarians, college administrators, business people, and professionals in the comic book industry, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of meetings. It will require two of us to bring you this tale: John Weaver, an English teacher at Williamsport Area High School, and John Shableski, who has worked at the distribution end of comics publishing for many years. In this article, we will each bring our own perspective and our own memories to the story. We’ll be as precise as we can with the dates, which is to say, not very. But we will do our best to bring you the most accurate version of the story as we can. (As a side note, the two Johns originally met because John S. was soccer coach for the son of John W. But they became fellow comic geeks and pals when their daughters became good friends. It’s possible that Wildcat Comic-Con would never have existed if two young girls hadn’t taken a liking to each other!)


 
February 2010
 
JW:      For quite a while, I had wanted to have a high school inservice about teaching graphic novels, so when John S., who had done professional developments before, agreed to do it, I persuaded my department head to sign off on the inservice, which occurred in February. John S. brought in Jimmy Gownley, of Amelia Rules fame, to present with him. Jimmy was great, because he completely altered the way I approached graphic novels in class. John also invited Joe, from our local comic book shop, to sit in. After I geeked out with Jimmy for a while, John S., Joe, and I chatted briefly about graphic novels in the classroom and what a great idea it would be to have students write, draw, and publish their own graphic novels at the high school.
 
JS:        The thing that struck me about the inservice was that the teachers were no different than the kids they teach. We had a third of the group who were really into the session and the middle third were becoming interested. The other third were sitting as far back as they could because they really didn’t want to be in the room. [Much to my embarrassment, John is absolutely right—JW] Nonetheless, I started to see some possibilities…I always do.
 
March 2010
 
JW:      Since it was Wednesday after school, I was buying my weekly load of comics when Joe said that when he was looking around at the cavernous hallways at the high school a couple weeks before, he thought it would be the perfect venue for a mini-comic-con. So we chatted for a while, and I told him that I would like to see comic book professionals work with students to create their own comics. We could bring in the English, art, business, and graphic communications (printing) departments, teaching students the whole comic industry from writing through marketing. Rick, the arts department head, loved the idea.
 
 
April–August 2010
 
JW:      John S. and I talked about the idea of Millionaire Comic-Con, named for Williamsport’s mascot, every time we met. With his characteristic enthusiasm, John taught me how to underwrite the costs of the convention by having vendors pay for space, charging admission, and so on. He loved the idea of comics professionals working with students. In the meantime, Joe and I discussed his connections in the industry, because he puts on several cons each year, and I began conversations with my department head and started to inquire about the rental of the high school. I found that if some of the convention was held during school hours for the benefit for students, the district could possibly waive the fee. The educational possibilities were really exciting.
 
JS:        The concept of a convention can be rather intimidating if you’ve never been involved in the development of one. There are a lot of ways to help get costs underwritten that can allow you to get a lot more done. The biggest element is with scheduling. So many things have to line up just right for you to land the right location at the right time of the year. There are over 400 comics conventions in North America and you are bound to find yourself competing with a lot of other shows and events.
 
 
Late Fall 2010
 
JW:      John S. emailed a local librarian friend of his, Prudence Cendoma, about the idea of creating a new kind of comic con. She forwarded the message to Lisette Ormsby, the director of the Madigan Library at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. In a short amount of time, the seed of an idea began to germinate.
 
JS:        I remember John W. saying that getting space at the high school was going to be a challenge, so I figured I’d shoot a note to a good friend at the college. The response from the director, Lisette Ormsbee, was almost immediate. In our first conversation she quickly ticked off a list of programs the school provided that had a direct connection to the comics world. They had also recently announced a four-year degree in video game development. It sounded very promising!
 
December 2010
 
JW:      John S. and I met Lisette and Joann Eichenlaub in a coffee shop one cold Friday afternoon to talk about comics and the possibility of a Penn College Comic-Con. Talking for about two hours, each of us brought our own expertise to the table. John S., being an expert in the publishing side of the business as well as developing graphic novel programming for book conventions, explained the nuts and bolts of such an event—bringing in vendors, making connections with the talent, and so on. Lisette and her staff wanted to learn from other librarians about developing their graphic novel collections. For my part, I talked about my desire to put on an event that would teach students the business of comics publishing from creation through publishing and distribution, as well as provide professional development for other teachers to bring comics into the classroom.
 
JS:        As the conversation continued, a theme for the convention began to take root. The goal was now to create the kind of programming where a fan, an artist, a teacher, or a publisher could benefit from the workshops. The way I saw it was that we could create something of a mash-up of comic con meets professional development meets TED Talks.
 
Winter–Spring 2011
 
JW:      John S. continued to talk with the librarians at Penn College, and he kept me informed of the discussions whenever we’d see each other. During this time, the president of the college gave approval for the project, and Lisette had her staff apply for a special grant, which helped launch the drive to create Wildcat via a series of comics nights programming and the purchase of new graphic novel titles for their collection. When the formal approval came through for the con, John S. suggested my name for the organizational committee, which would start rolling in the summer.
 
JS:        I think the best way to put it is that John was conscripted. Once the project was formalized, we had to find an available date on the calendar. When you are dealing with a college school year, there are so many elements to consider (spring break, midterms, annual open house), finding two consecutive days that didn’t interfere with all other campus operations was only the smallest of challenges. Next we had to block every available presentation room, classroom, and bathroom we could imagine we’d need. But that wouldn’t be possible until September. So, we began building the con without really knowing how much room we were going to use.
 
June 2011
 
JW:      The week after my school year ended, Lisette invited me and a group of high school librarians to lunch where we would discuss graphic novels and high school connections to what was now being called Wildcat Comic-Con (named for the Penn College mascot). A new idea that Lisette and her librarians proposed at that luncheon was a series of comics nights during Wednesday evenings in the autumn, which would build excitement for the con. They called it ComiXnite, and while I don’t have a specific memory of the discussion, I must have said, “Sure, I’d love to” a bunch of times, because by the end of the meal, I was signed up for the first ComiXnite with John S., as well as two nights about zombies. Readers of GraphicNovelReporter may remember a production of Dr. Faustus that I directed that included the living dead as demons, so my zombie sessions didn’t surprise me.
 
JS:        I don’t remember the month of June….
 
Summer 2011
 
JW:      Comic-Con planning began in earnest, as John S. and I attended regular organizational meetings at the Penn College library. Listening to John talk about the business end of conventions was both inspiring—as he rifles off idea after idea for sponsorships, talent acquisition, hotel reservations, vendor space, and all the other elements of a successful con—and quite honestly a little frightening. I had little to offer at these meetings and felt rather out of my depth, until the words “pedagogy” and “professional development” reared their heads. I was one of the ones tapped to propose ideas for sessions and arranging professional development credits that high school teachers would need to be attracted to the convention. (Later in the planning process, a Penn College administrator came forward and explained that the school already had a procedure for taking care of professional development credit, so that was one item off my plate.)
 
JS:        I’d begun contacting some really great friends across different disciplines: librarians, inkers, educators, academics, authors—just to get the foundation started. The premise I shared was that we would be developing the con we had always dreamed possible. Even with the most basic outline of the plan almost everyone said, “Sure, I’m in!” One of the goals I had in mind for the programming was to bring in “local talent” and blend them with the nationally recognized experts. The benefit to this shared spotlight approach is that it helps to grow the field of resources. The more people we share the stage with the faster the market expands. Now we have local educators, librarians, creators, college and high school students sharing their expertise alongside the national experts.
 
Fall 2011
 
JW:      My participation in meetings became much spottier after school began, since many of the Wildcat meetings were scheduled during high school hours. However, I attended the meeting where the Wildcat Comic-Con website was rolled out, and the tech guys did a beautifully artistic job creating wildcatcomiccon.pct.edu, including a caped and masked flying cat.
 
John S. and I kick off ComiXnite at Penn College on Wednesday nights. Over two months, we, along with a few other comics folks, led crowds of about thirty students ranging from middle school to college, in various topics from comics to manga to zombies. The students and the presenters all had a great time over those two months. One of the highlights for me was meeting Dave Sims, a professor at Penn College. Dave began teaching graphic novels over twenty years ago, and if he wasn’t the first one to teach Watchmen, he was certainly in the vanguard. He is also a zombiephile like me, and we are presenting a zombie panel at Wildcat Comic-Con together.
 
JS:        We finally locked down virtually all of the open spaces and classrooms on campus, but there were still a lot of moving parts: finding vendors to help support the con would become interesting. As it turns out, we were introducing a new concept to more than a few people. In addition, we were also working to get the local media involved in the development of the overall message to the region.
 
January–February 2012
 
JW:      These months have been spent with the presenters at the con emailing each other furiously and beginning to firm up our panels. John S. has run himself ragged trying to finalize the presentations, and one of his bigger coups was to secure Walter Koenig, a.k.a. Chekov of Star Trek fame, to appear at Wildcat. But for my money, nothing is cooler about the con than the unique mix of fan-oriented programming with professional development for teachers and librarians. All of the comics professionals, among them David Small, Dean Haspiel, Joan Hilty, Frank Beddor, Tracy White, Josh Neufeld, and MK Reed, have agreed to work with high school and college students to teach them how to make a career out of comics. This was the very idea that I had hoped for when Joe and I first talked about a high school comic-con.
 
JS:        As we get ready for the opening ceremonies on Friday, April 13, I keep reminding myself how much the steering committee has accomplished. A year ago, they had only a vague sense of what a comic con means and now they have pulled out all the stops to produce this two-day event. Now, thanks to the team at the college, we have nearly 80 hours of programming and an incredible lineup of speakers that includes an Oscar-winner, an Emmy-winner, a National Book Award finalist and more than 50 cartoonists, animators, special effects creators, academics, librarians, authors and educators coming together for the Wildcat Comic Con. Yes, we will likely collapse in a heap of freakish plasma when this thing is done, but it’s all worth it. Seriously, it is.