Comicpalooza 2011: 27-29 May 2011 – Houston, TX

Houston’s Comicpalooza convention started back in 2008 as an event meant to coincide with the release of Iron Man. It was a tiny thing held in the lobby of Houston’s Alamo Drafthouse theater, featuring a few local comic book artists and one big name, celebrated writer/artist and Houston resident Terry Moore. In four short years the convention has expanded exponentially in both size and focus. It now bills itself as Texas’ largest pop-culture and comic book convention, and this year’s event took up nearly the entire third floor of downtown Houston’s massive George R. Brown Convention Center.

I arrived relatively late in the evening on the convention’s first day, Friday, after the dealer and artists’ area had closed. The first panel I attended was a comic book trivia contest that had about twenty participants. The rules were simple: every time a person answered a question correctly, they’d receive a point, and the person with the most points at the end would receive a $200 shopping spree at the hosts’ dealer booth the next day. Despite the relatively light attendance, the hour was lively and full of comic book minutiae that was largely too obscure for me to ever have a chance in the competition. After that it was off to the “world premiere” of the movie Killer Schoolgirls from Outer Space. Yes, it was bad. Any movie that opens with Ron Jeremy (in a non-pornographic role) playing an intergalactic overlord is bound to be bad. For all the awful acting and cheesy dialogue, though, it was not nearly as awful as it could’ve been. The direction and cinematography were actually decent for a low-budget, ’50s-throwback sci-fi horror movie. Even so, I had to leave after the first 30 minutes so as not to miss the big event of the evening, Evil Dead: The Musical.

Evil Dead: The Musical has been around for a few years now, enjoying successful stage productions in Toronto and New York, but its combination of gore and goofiness perhaps prevented it from ever breaking through to Broadway. San Jacinto College, a Houston-area community college, staged the play back in early April and Comicpalooza invited them to perform it at the convention. Of course, Comicpalooza (or maybe the convention center itself) had some caveats. Namely, the all-important “splatter zone”, where audience members traditionally get covered in all sorts of fake blood and other goop was a no-go for the night. So the bloody scenes all substituted a deep red confetti-like substance, and it worked surprisingly well. Not so successful were the largely improvised sets. Apparently most of the sets from the college production were too bulky to be moved the 20 miles downtown for the convention, so things like rolling costume racks full of clothes filled in for the walls of the cabin.

Even with these limitations, though, the cast put on a very entertaining show. They were clearly having fun in their roles and sang the catchy rock musical songs with gusto. The plot of the musical largely follows the story of the first two Evil Dead movies but emphasizes the campy elements, and occasionally tacks on lines (and the final scene) from Army of Darkness for cheap audience “pop” moments. The show started off sparsely attended but had gained dozens more appreciative attendees by the time it wrapped up shortly after 11:00pm. And while Comicpalooza continued on until 2:00am on Friday night, I had little interest in sticking around to watch local face-painted metal band The Hectic play their set. I did appreciate the convention’s willingness to invite a metal band (not to mention a group of nerdcore rappers who were scheduled to perform on Sunday) to a pop-culture convention.

The convention continued on Saturday morning with a panel on sci-fi and horror blogging from a pair of bloggers, Brian Shirley and former Entertainment Weekly writer Marc Bernardin. Although attendance at this panel was weak (there were maybe eight of us in the audience), the wide-ranging discussion was very interesting. Topics ranged from the do’s and do-not’s of blogging to the prospects of digital comic distribution to the state of the comics industry in general, and specifically Marvel and DC. After that I caught a little bit of a Muggle Quidditch match between teams from Sam Houston State University and Texas A&M. As a sport, the game translates pretty well to a land-based environment and it looked to be both fun and exhausting. However, the players’ insistence on running around with small broomsticks between their legs transforms the game from a pretty intense sport into one of the nerdiest things I have ever seen. Lose the broomsticks and Quidditch has the makings of a grass-roots success, along the lines of the roller derby revival.

Speaking of which, the highlight of Saturday for me was an officially sanctioned Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) roller derby match between Houston’s all-star travel team, the HaRD Knocks, and the Harrisburg, PA-based Nuclear Knockouts. The revival of roller derby as a competitive women’s sport has really caught on over the past few years, and there are official WFTDA-sanctioned teams and leagues in hundreds of cities around the world. Derby is an amateur sport and mostly a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Because of this the quality level of the teams varies wildly from town to town, often depending on the size of the city and how long a team has been established. This was on full display during the match, as Houston’s long-running team overwhelmed Harrisburg by a score of 303-59. The hundreds of curious attendees who crowded around the track got to see the HaRD Knocks put on a clinic, as girls with nicknames like Beverly Kills and Brand-Aid skated circles around Harrisburg players like Asuka the Ouch and Trixie Twelve Gauge. The lopsided score led to most of the crowd dispersing around halftime, but most were happy to see the home team get the win.

Other events on Saturday included a special announcement from Edward James Olmos, his son Michael Olmos, and longtime comic book writer Bob Layton. This was hyped by the convention as a special press event with a big surprise. Instead it was a mild surprise, but the hype managed to get hundreds of people into the big ballroom to check it out. The announcement: Olmos will be the star of a movie called Mettle, being scripted by Layton and Michael Olmos. It will be an original superhero film featuring Olmos as a hero who went into forced retirement when a battle went badly for him 20 years ago and stripped him of his powers. He’s been dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ever since, but a new threat will cause him to reassess his life and get back in the game. It sounds like a good premise, but they’re a long, long way from production at this point.

Sean Maher, known mostly for his work as Firefly‘s Simon Tam, held court for an hour-long Q&A session where fans mostly asked awkward or boring questions about a show he worked on years ago. Questions that he’s probably heard a hundred times before. But Maher has perhaps been the least visible Firefly alum in the ensuing years, so he’s probably grateful for the opportunity to feel like a big star. He did reveal that he has a supporting role in NBC’s fall series The Playboy Club as the husband of one of the Club’s bunnies, so he’s got that going for him, at least. After Maher in the main ballroom was the High School of the Dead voice actor panel. This anime series has been building buzz since the original version first hit Japanese televisions (and of course, the subtitled internet). And with the North American release coming out at the end of June, distributor Sentai Filmworks was looking to raise awareness of the series. Sadly, though, the panel discussion was much like many other anime voice actor panels. It featured a lot of giggling and laughing, some minor discussion of the series, and a lot of too-inside talk about the recording booth. Oh, and the always-disappointing revelation that several of the actors don’t really take the time to figure out the characters they’re playing, instead just relying on the director to provide context for a scene before they record their lines.

A swing through the Comicpalooza Artists’ Alley and Dealer Room quickly revealed some design flaws in the setup. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to make everyone snake through the Artist area first to get to the Dealer area, but in practice it was a huge annoyance. It’s nice to spotlight various artists, and the convention had a good mix of well-known comic book people and lesser-known independent artists in the Alley. But the switchback setup slowed foot traffic to a crawl and made it a pain to get to the more wide-open Dealer area. On my way out of the convention, I stopped to watch a bit of Doomsday Wrestling. This comedic professional wrestling troupe has become something of a Houston institution, and I could see why. The wrestlers have old-school ’80s wrestling-type characters, from a middle-aged woman named Hot Flash to a stereotypical New York Jew called the Kosher Killer. There’s even a dude who calls himself the Russian Bear and shamelessly steals ’80s wrestler Nikolai Volkoff’s evil Soviet wrestler shtick. They put on their show in a tiny, tiny ring (It can’t be more than 8 feet on a side), and have a great time doing it.

Comicpalooza really stepped up this year and expanded the variety of events on their schedule to include a little of everything. This should serve them well as they continue to grow. Attendance on Friday seemed pretty sparse, but the Saturday crowd was much larger. Their move from the middle of March to Memorial Day weekend seems to be good positioning on their part, and with a little luck, they’ll be able to stick to that weekend and become a Texas tradition. They’ve got a long way to go to catch up to huge, established conventions like Atlanta’s Dragon Con or Comic Con International in San Diego. But they seem to be building themselves in the right way.