Comic Conventions Come to Town
The business of fantasy fun has gone mainstream in the Triangle.
By Corbie Hill
Between presiding over two North Carolina Comicons annually and owning three Ultimate Comics shops—four if you count the secret/not-secret Morrisville warehouse location—Alan Gill’s influence threads through North Carolina nerd culture like adamantium through Wolverine’s bones. Appropriately, when NC Comicon Raleigh hits the Raleigh Convention Center on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, it signals the de facto kickoff of the Oak City’s increasingly busy con season.
NC Comicon boasts impact, visibility, and a history of impressive guests such as legendary rapper Daryl “DMC” McDaniels and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, yet Gill explains that the con remains a labor of love for himself and his team.
“No one in my organization is getting rich. They are doing it for the passion, because they love the show, and most of them take very serious financial hits to be able to put the show on,” Gill says. “No matter how big people think we are, we’re still the local guys.”
In increasing numbers, local guys and gals are flocking to the comic conventions and, in recent years, the fan culture has become really diverse. Even when he opened his first store 15 years ago, Gill was surprised by the diversity. “You might have a preconceived notion of what your customer is, and it was completely shattered. There are way more women readers coming into comics now…Maybe it was the comic book stores themselves that needed to change. At least with Ultimate Comics we have done a good job on doing that.”
How he creates that diversity is quite simple: He hires his customers. “It was something I never even thought about. It was something that just happened, because I hire my customers.” And he adds, “The publishers are printing stuff that is more diverse, which is awesome.”
Even with three brick-and-mortar stores, surviving in the age of Amazon and digital commerce can take near superhuman powers, or perhaps it’s more about knowing how to play the powers that be. “While Amazon certainly is our competition for some things, we utilize Amazon just like we use eBay and our own website,” Gill explains. “How that all balances out, I don’t know. We would probably be doing better if Amazon didn’t exist, but that’s like a fairy tale. The one good thing about Amazon is when people go there to purchase things, if it’s something that mass-market Amazon doesn’t stock, then that’s an opportunity for a small business.”
It also bodes well for comic book stores that readers inherently prefer to hold the book. Unlike books that are entirely prose, comics present as a very visual story. “If you want that physical copy, you probably want to go in and look at it before you buy it. If you buy a comic online, you can’t check it for the condition or flip through it. Comic book stores definitely still have a place because of how comic book readers think,” Gill says.
The growing popularity of movies like Into the Spider-Verse or Aquaman also helps to promote interest in comic books and conventions like NC Comicon. “There are lots of good comic book stores in North Carolina, whether it’s Fight or Flight in Raleigh (those guys are really good) or Ssalefish Comics in Greensboro,” Gill says. NC Comicon has found its niche among the many conventions that serve various fandoms, and Gill highlights others of note: “There’s Animazement, which has been around forever, and a couple of video game conventions. Playthrough Convention is a video game convention that hits the weeks after the Raleigh Comicon in March. Of course, the 800-pound gorilla is Supercon. They are a big chain convention, just like Wizard World. That level we can’t compete with, so we don’t try to. They tout themselves as a pop culture festival with a big emphasis on meet and greets and photo ops, which we try not to get into.
We bring creators.” Ultimate Comics also helps host a charity event, Comics for a Cure 5K, created by one of its customers, Neil Ellis, and held on Free Comic Book Day (this year on May 4th). Gill says they assist with the event, but it’s Ellis’ baby and he picks a different charity each year to support. In addition to hosting the event, Ultimate Comics allows race participants the first opportunity to go through the line for the free comic book table.
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