Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Wizard World Atlanta 2014

I had a busy and awesome weekend.

I knew that I would be attending Wizard World Atlanta on Saturday. I didn’t attend the show a couple of years ago, but I didn’t hear anything good about it. This year’s production looked a little more interesting and appeared to be put together more professionally. As a member of the media I was intrigued by the idea of attending a big media convention and reporting on the differences between it and my beloved fan cons. It would be an opportunity to provide the Phantomaniacs with an engrossing article about the success (or lack thereof) of Wizard’s transition from influential publishing entity to traveling media convention.
Also, Karen Gillan was going to be there.

Everything was set for a day at Wizard World on Saturday – my dry cleaning was done, my masks were washed, and I had preordered my photo op with Karen Gillan.

Actually, I need to address that since it was part of the experience.

I have never preordered something like that before. Dragon Con offers it, but since getting my picture taken with celebrities is generally a foolish and expensive thing I tend to leave it to fate as to whether or not it happens. Also, my Dragon Con schedule is super hectic. I might not even be able to show up for that 2:15 on Saturday photo shoot with Lloyd Kaufman.

Wizard has a page set up for each of the con locations’ photo ops. All of the Atlanta Guests were on one page. It was pretty convenient except for the disclaimer to “See Photo Op Schedule for Times”. This was not a link to the actual photo op schedule, just a sentence floating there at the top of the page with no indication as to where said schedule was located. It took me a while of poking around the site to find it and I thought that was pretty ridiculous.

Eventually I was able to discover that Ms. Gillan’s photo shoot was at 1 PM on Saturday, which was as close to perfect as I could have wanted. Not too early and not too late. I bought my ticket with no difficulties, so good for Wizard for making that portion of the process so easy.

Okay, so I was good to go on Thursday night when I received a message from WrestlingWithPopCulture.com’s very own Jonathan Williams. He wanted to know if I’d like to go to The Walking Dead Escape Saturday night as media to do a story on it.

Of course I wanted to do that. And not just for the journalistic value – I thought there was a good chance I’d get to act like an idiot in front of large numbers of people and there’s very little that motivates me more than that.

We had the option of being Survivors, Walkers, or Spectators. 
 
Walkers would get made up as zombies and dispersed throughout the attraction to stumble around and menace the Survivors. This didn’t appeal to me because I didn’t want to just stand around in one area and I don’t particularly care for having anything other than form-fitting lycra on my face.

Spectators would stand along the path or sit in the arena seats and watch. This did not appeal to me because I am not a giant pussy.

Survivors would set out upon the path and do their best to avoid the Walkers. In my mind this would involve running, jumping, crawling, and all sorts of other physical activities that I am by no means equipped to perform but that I will not shy away from in the face of possibly getting a good post. And the aforementioned idiot thing.

I told Jonathan I wanted to be a Survivor and made arrangements to pick him up Saturday morning and head down to the Phillips Arena/CNN Center/Georgia Dome/World Congress Center are for our big day of adventure and dorkery. I’m sure there’s an actual name for that massive area of venues, but I have no idea what it is.

I managed to wake up at 8:30 on Saturday – something I do not normally do. I loaded my gear into the car and headed to Atlanta’s own Stardust Adult Novelty store to pick up Jonathan and Professor Morté. I ended up having a very exciting conversation there about sponsorship for something that I can’t discuss just yet. It’s very exciting and I normally hate it when people do teases like this, but I want to wait until the stars have successfully aligned before I announce anything. Actually, there should be several huge announcements coming soon.

If you’re going to go down to the area I mentioned above, I have to recommend the Red Deck Parking Garage. It’s ten bucks – which is ten bucks more than I normally want to pay for parking – but it’s clean, easy to find and navigate, and central to all of the stuff. It’s also not a bad place to change clothes if you happen to be attending a convention in full costume and then running in a zombie race thing later the same day.

Check-in at Wizard World was not a problem at all. The ticket area was virtually empty and I was able to walk right up and get my wristband. From there we proceeded into the actual con area, which was fairly well thought-out and organized.

Everything was in the same massive room, similar to how Heroes Con (the most user-friendly con I attend) operates. The artists and dealers are at the front of the room closest to the entrance and the guests are at the far end. This is good because it means you have to make your way through the folks that have paid good money to have tables at the con and are hoping to bring home some bacon. There was even thought put into which dealers were put where, as you wouldn’t find two sellers with similar wares too close to one another. I was very impressed with this aspect of the con.

The artists’ area was very open and accessible; to me it felt like a featured and important area. It was immediately to the right upon entry and the only thing drawing attention away from it was the gigantic X-Men: Days of Future Past tent that Norton Antivirus was sponsoring. Aside from not liking the movie, it took nothing more than a glance inside at the exciting cardboard standups to convince me that I didn’t need to give that thing any attention.

After wandering around for a bit I realized that Wizard World was pretty much just like any other con. It was mostly the same dealers selling all the same stuff. Later on I would amend this conclusion, but for the time being it actually served me well because I realized it would probably be a good idea to go and check out the photo op situation. I knew it was scheduled for 1 PM, but I didn’t know anything about lines or procedure or anything else. I mean, it’s not like Karen Gillan is a well-known and popular actress. I doubted there would be more than a few other people wanting pictures with her. Ahem.

I’m going to go ahead and give Wizard all the props in the world for how they handled the photo op process. I had to print up my ticket – which was kind of irritating when most places can scan codes from cell phone screens – but everything else was a well-organized breeze. I went to the clearly labeled and centrally located ticket table and exchanged my ticket for a card:
I then got in the clearly labeled line and waited. Right before 1 PM the friendly staff – and every single member of Wizard’s event staff was exceptionally nice and well-informed – started corralling us into shape. At precisely 1 the line started moving through the tent where Ms. Gillan was waiting for me. Um… everybody.

The line moved amazingly fast. Before I knew it I was up front chatting with the staff and then inside, gazing upon the visage of Ms. Gillan as she posed with the folks in front of me.
She’s probably one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever seen. Fortunately for me I didn’t have any kind of anxiety attack or nerd seize-up and was able to walk on up and ask her if we could do the pose I wanted to do. She said, “Of course!”, assumed the pose, and told me I looked fantastic as I was whisked out the door. Er, tent flap.

Now, I’m sure Ms. Gillan tells everybody in any sort of costume that they look fantastic, as ti’s the polite thing for a celebrity to do in such a situation. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t detect a little twinkle of sincerity in her big, gorgeous eyes as she said it.

I mean, of course I looked fantastic:
I was able to pick up my photograph later on. It was obviously rather easy to find.
After the photo op I hooked back up with Jonathan and we made our way around the parts of the con that I had not yet seen, which was most of it. 
 
The most interesting exhibitor there was this company that was doing full-body scans in order to produce little statues of con-goers. Obviously this was pertinent to my interests. They were actually referring to them as action figures, but these were unarticulated and were basically miniatures and small statues. The sizes range from too tiny for detail to around eight inches and the prices were slightly less than what I would have expected – fifty bucks for the tiniest one and I think about one-fifty for the largest. They looked pretty good and captured a lot of detail. Certainly not at the level of a mass retail or collector line, but still pretty darn good. There were four people in line to get scanned in front of me and the guy said it took a couple of minutes for a scan so I hopped in line, ready to drop fifty bucks on a tiny Phantom Troublemaker figurine.

Fifteen minutes later there were still three people in front of me and that fourth was experiencing some sort of difficulty with his scan. I decided I didn’t want to waste any more of my day standing in a line and told Jonathan we should probably just keep moving. We were expected to check in at The Walking Dead Escape at 5 PM and I didn’t want this action figure thing to be the only other experience I had at Wizard World.

One of the things I experienced was an unusually high number of people asking for pictures and an unusually high number of people that recognized me. I think the former was due to the low number of folks in costumes and the latter was due to the low number of folks in general. There was just a better chance of running into friends.

Speaking of friends, we made a stop at the Zenoscope Comics table (podcast coming soon, right Jen? – RIGHT?) to make sure the world-famous Rock N’ Role Models weren’t; being too sexy for public consumption. But even surrounded by images of the half-naked, well-endowed ladies of Zenescope Lord Johnny Danger and Mister Matt Sex Sells, Esq. were radiating a blinding, raw sexuality that stunned all those that walked past. I basked in that machismo for as long as I could stand it and reluctantly moved on to other pursuits.

I located Billy’s Toys and unlocked what is probably one of the greatest achievements of my career to date – I convinced Billy, the greatest toy mind I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, to take a picture with me:
He insisted I ask his wife how hard it was to get a picture of him and she said that she barely had any pictures. She also told him that the one with me had better not be the last one she got. Billy had one of the more interesting setups at Wizard World, as he had a bunch of vintage toys alongside a few more recent releases. Most of the other toy dealers there had the same ol’, same ol’ – similar selections of currently available action figures. Stuff you could get online and buy from Amazon, likely for less than what these guys were asking.

There were a couple of other exceptions. There’s a guy named Joe that’s at most of the local cons and always has a great selection of toys from the last twenty years. I’m always glad to see him and he is currently looking for a Wun-Dar for me, so that’s great. One of the others had one of my toy holy grails. An item that I have been wanting since I was a child. There aren’t very many things from the GI Joe or Star Wars lines that I wanted and didn’t have. I wouldn’t say that my parents spoiled me, but those two lines were very accessible for me. And there was one iconic vehicle that somehow or other always managed to elude me. 
 
From its first release from Kenner in 1983 to the more recent, post-2000 repainted Hasbro re-releases, the Imperial Shuttlecraft has been a tough find. I think I missed out as a kid because it came out at the tail end of the Star Wars toys and I was well into GI Joe at that point. My dad – being military – was easily convinced to buy Joe toys and Star Wars was sort of left behind. I never saw the 2002 release or the 2006 Target Exclusive, which is what the gentleman at Wizard World had high atop his grid cubicle.

As soon as I saw the big, metal grid encasing this dealer the Shuttlecraft caught my eye. The box is enormous and beautiful – all Vintage-style graphics. I just stood there and stared at it for a while. I had never even seen one in person. The price tag on it was high – more than I could comfortably spend. But this was one of the very few items that had been taunting me for years. I spoke with the gentleman about it and he said that he might be willing to negotiate. I told him I’d probably be back. I, of course, was. I made him an offer, he counter-offered, and I was the proud owner of an Imperial Shuttle. I’ll be reviewing it soon. It will be one of the more emotionally charged reviews I have done.

Side Note: This all actually happened on Sunday when Phantom Troublemaker was not, technically, at Wizard World. I was having a family day. But this felt like the right place for the Imperial Shuttle tale in the recap. On that same day we also bought Lil’ Troublemaker a bunch of LEGO minifigs and I got a great deal on NECA’s videogame RoboCop, which looks way cooler than I expected and will be reviewed soon, as well. Though with considerably less conflicting emotion than the Imperial Shuttle.

We wandered around long enough to get a feel for what was at the con – which I will summarize at the end – and went to grab some grub at Taco Mac. Thanks to my recent health prognosis I am eating much differently than I used to and stuck to a chicken/rice/beans meal. Which leads me to highly recommend Taco Mac’s chicken burrito plate. It was awesome. The black beans were super spicy in a pleasant way, the rice was just okay, and the burrito itself was outstanding. It was a huge affair packed with seasoned chicken and covered in queso that I should have requested they leave off. But I cleaned my plate. I wasn’t expecting much, as I haven’t generally had very positive food experiences at Taco Mac, but this thing was great. Two thumbs up.

Side Note: The next day I ended up eating there again with the family. I wanted the burrito, but decided to try something different. I ordered the buffalo chicken sandwich and was thoroughly disappointed. It should have been called the “Pile of Feta Sandwich”. What a lousy piece of shit that was.

After lunch me and Jonathan headed back over to the World Congress Center, hoping to catch the end of Big Show’s panel. It’s not something I would have done on my own, but Jonathan wanted to and I had already fulfilled my Gillan-centric agenda for the day. I ended up being very glad we went. We only missed the first few minutes and Big Show was fantastic. He has a very dry, subtle sense of humor. The panel turned out to be a Q&A. 
Normally I wouldn’t wipe my ass with a fan Q&A, but these folks had really good questions. One even inspired me to ask my own question.

I was the last in line. When I got to the front I thanked Show for being there and he asked me if I was the Purple People Eater. I told him I was Phantom Troublemaker and he said he couldn’t hear me. I repeated it and he said for a second time that he didn’t hear. I thought for sure he was setting me up, and he might have been because once he finally got the “Troublemaker” part he said Phantom Troublemaker was what he was in a movie theater after eating too much popcorn. Once the laughter subsided I related my experience of watching The Giant’s (Big Show’s name in WCW) return from Kevin Nash’s botched jackknife powerbomb. The audience groaned here for some reason. I don’t know the real story behind all of that, I just knew that it was the first time as an adult that I got utterly caught up in the action and story of a pro wrestling show and completely forgot what I knew about the business. It was one of those magic moments for me. I asked Big Show if he still ever had those moments.

He said that he did and went on to talk about when the fans latched onto somebody or popped really big for a specific event. He talked for several minutes and laid out a very solid close for the Q&A based on my question. It was some neat and inspired storytelling on his part. Inspired by me, the Purple People Eater.

Of course, this also led to Marko Polo, Johnny Danger, and Matt Sells marching around me and chanting, “POPCORN FART! POPCORN FART!” later on, but that’s okay. I’ll be introducing those guys with a live mic again someday.

Wizard World was charging too much for everything. The tickets were too pricey, the photo ops and autographs were too high (I’ll address that further in a moment), and even the Wizard merch was overpriced. But in the end I had a great time there. What I experienced was an organized show free of inconveniences or unpleasantness. I feel like everything was thoroughly planned and professionally handled and quite frankly I couldn’t be more impressed.

Was it the biggest con? No. Was it the most fun? No. Did it do anything I haven’t seen before? No. But what it did do was provide a slick, homogenized dork experience that made for a great weekend. If they would provide or partner up with somebody who could provide some evening events I could see this being a worthy 3-day con. As it is it’s a fun media event that costs about a third more than it should.

As far as the prices for photos and autographs, I guess the guests set those prices. That’s how it is elsewhere. But they all seemed just a tad high. If I had gotten Karen Gillan to autograph the picture I got it would have been an additional sixty bucks. There wasn’t even a combo deal for that. That seems unreasonable and I didn’t do it. And there was a weird scaling where guests were just asking too much. One in particular seemed to have an overinflated opinion of themselves. Of course, noting the total lack of a line at their table all weekend, I’m going to hope they reassess their worth and do better next time. If the price had been right I definitely would have gotten a picture with this person. But they were not even close to being within ten dollars of Karen Gillan.

If I were rating Wizard World I’d have to go with a strong 4 out of 5. It didn’t blow my mind, but everything went so smoothly and I had a fantastic time both days I was there. I’ll be back next year, hopefully as part of the show. And I won’t charge anything for pictures.

Probably.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for the latest installment of my Previews… uh… preview. And then check back in on Thursday for my recap of The Walking Dead Escape!

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