FAN EXPO Chicago* left me with two big questions:
- Objectively speaking, did the convention do what it set out to accomplish?
- Why was I left with a nagging feeling that the convention is a joyless money grab?
FAN EXPO HQ took control of all six Wizard World conventions (including Chicago) two years ago, and the rebranding went into place last year. The rebrand wasn’t exactly mainstream news, so you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Wizard World is no more (I had no idea until I spoke with the organizers a couple months ago). You’d also be forgiven for not knowing that FAN EXPO Chicago is simply Wizard World with enhancements.
Consistent with Wizard World, FAN EXPO Chicago is held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Going there always fills me with a sense of dread, mainly because of the awful event parking across the street and the aggravating slog down River Road to get there. Enter a “con-hack” that I embarrassingly never considered in my entire time living and attending events here: Parking at the CTA Park & Ride on River Road.
Credit to graphic novelists/writers/creators DJ Corchin and Dan Dougherty for the recommendation. I feel absolutely silly for never having done that before: $7, all-in. 10 minute walk. Easy in and out.
To start with my first question: Did FAN EXPO Chicago do what it set out to accomplish? Their website lists all the things one can experience at the con, but the first sentence zeroes in on the main agenda: “FAN EXPO Chicago is a place to celebrate all things pop culture. Get an autograph or a photo with your favorite guests then get the inside scoop about your favorite movies and TV shows at our celebrity panels!”
This is an event built around celebrity appearances and moments; autographs and selfies. Wizard World had been building up to this for years, but now it’s wildly up front: FAN EXPO Chicago is for people willing to pay (to my mind) obscene amounts of money for brief exchanges with celebrities of all levels. For example, Oscar-winning superstar Susan Sarandon was in the building. So was her “Rocky Horror” co-star Barry Bostwick. To compare:
|Susan Sarandon||Barry Bostwick|
|8×10 Autograph – $100 (bulkier items can add up to $40 per item)||Autograph – $40|
|Photo op – $125||Photo op – $60|
Celebrities from all corners of Hollywood were in the building, from A to Z-list. I understand why Randy Quaid might choose to come out for an event like this, but … Michael J. Fox?
In case you’re wondering about the cost difference between those two:
|Michael J. Fox||Randy Quaid|
|Autograph – $225-350, depending on item||Autograph – $100|
|Photo op – $225 (for an extra $150, they’ll throw in Christopher Lloyd)||Photo op – $120|
$100 for a Randy Quaid autograph? The bullshitter’s full.
The mission of the con, to allow us rubes access to a myriad of celebrities, was achieved. But I can’t help but feel that we rubes deserve something different. Perhaps I’m showing my age a bit, but monetizing close encounters with celebrities is a distinctly 21st century business model. Yes, I know that the celebrities deserve to have side hustles, but we’re at a point where the only way to interact with them at cons is to come prepared with a shitload of discretionary money.
The additional cost to truly enjoy oneself at FAN EXPO Chicago is beyond most people’s reach. It’s not exactly apples to apples, but it would be like going to Great America, paying for parking and admission, and then paying for each ride a la carte (or, more appropriately, each individual selfie with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.).
If I had committed to meeting some of my favorite celebs in attendance at this event, here’s what I would have paid:
|Kiefer Sutherland photo op||$125|
|Sam Raimi autograph||$90|
|Giancarlo Esposito table photo||$80|
|Henry Winkler photo op||$80|
|Lea Thompson premium autograph (“Howard the Duck” movie poster, obv)||$80|
$455 is an awful lot to spend on what would be five 1-2 minute encounters, and that’s before considering buying any collectibles, art, or comics (remember those?) at FAN EXPO Chicago.
Perhaps that’s an extreme example. And yes, it is possible for someone to visit FAN EXPO Chicago and not spend a dime. That said, visiting FAN EXPO Chicago would be a frustrating and hollow experience if you kept your wallet in your pants the entire time.
There are panels to attend, but they’re historically hit or miss. I waited for a while to hear Henry Winkler enthusiastically deliver a self-help speech that he’s undoubtedly given dozens (hundreds?) of times. He’s an effortlessly charming, talented man, but I felt like I was watching an overly polished corporate seminar. It didn’t add to my experience.
Regarding my second question: Why was I left with a nagging feeling that the convention is a joyless money grab?
I left the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center feeling conflicted about the FAN EXPO Chicago experience; I couldn’t quite put my finger on what didn’t connect for me.
Later in the day, it hit me: FAN EXPO Chicago felt like two separate, competing events.
The primary event is the celebrity/pop culture autograph/selfie-fest that eats up much of the oxygen in the room.
The other is the “classic” comic-con, whose components (comics, fantasy, sci-fi, cosplay) felt more like “boxes to check” than an actual reflection of community. And without that sense of community, the joy of going is lessened, if not removed.
Both celebrity experiences and comics culture have a place, but I feel like they no longer belong in the same place. At least not like this.
I asked one of the exhibitors in Artist Alley if she was getting those vibes. She said that the Artist Alley section, a highlight of any similarly-themed con, was piled into a smaller area this year to make room for the expanding celebrity presence. She went on to say that, as of Day 3, she wasn’t optimistic about seeing a return on her investment and time at the con.
I can confirm her perspective on space and location: Exhibitors seemed to be on top of each other, and it made walking through those aisles a lot less fun than usual.
Comics and comics culture are essentially riding coach on this flight. How else to explain legendary comics creators like Frank Miller and Chris Claremont tucked away in the most distant corner of the entire hall? I stumbled onto Claremont’s corner by accident. To be fair, there was an estimable line of people waiting for him to sign their VF/F copies of “Uncanny X-Men,” but he was so far from the entrance, organizers should have provided shuttle service to and from.
While comics and comics retail are what built the foundation for conventions like FAN EXPO Chicago, they may no longer be valid in the face of this new business model. Back issue vendors looked bored as attendees bee-lined past them to get to where the celebs were signing. Missing from my experience was the frenzy of attendees looking for buried treasure, talking about CGC grades or checking hand-scrawled lists for key issues needed to complete their runs.
If you’re a comic collector who likes to haggle, Sunday might be a great day to walk out with some key issues. I suspect vendors will be willing to deal.
Cosplay, an anticipated cornerstone of comics and comics-adjacent conventions, was underrepresented when I went on Saturday. Regardless, it was wonderful to see the Thing looking so cheery. Clobberin’ time? More like huggin’ time.
And it was fun to see Team Barbie come together:
I was too slow to ask cosplay R’as al Ghul for a pic, but I appreciated the effort. RIP Neal Adams.
Regarding comics’ dwindling importance at events like FAN EXPO Chicago, it’s telling that the big publishers don’t even bother to spring for a booth anymore. It’s a trend that’s been going on for years, but there was a time when DC and Marvel were highly visible and competitive at Chicago conventions.
One can only assume that FAN Expo is taking a bottom-line friendly cut of autograph/selfie purchases. And at the end of the day, revenues will continue to determine what these cons will look like in the future. Start saving your money for next year. You never know if the cast from “Babylon 5” will make an appearance.
*FAN EXPO Chicago organizers prefer that “Fan Expo” be written in all caps.