For a town that already hosts the Brewgrass Festival, The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands and The Asheville Gun Show, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a niche that’s not already been represented in this eclectic community. Not so fast! Asheville, meet Fanaticon, the area’s first comic book convention.
On May 15, superheroes, zombies, Star Wars characters, and a bunch of talented artists and writers will take over Pack Place in what promises to be one of the most entertaining additions to our ever-growing slate of events for enthusiasts.
Fanaticon is the brainchild of three local comic book fans: Chance Whitmire, Michael McMurtrey, and Jordy Williams. “It really all started with comic book geeks sitting around saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a convention in Asheville?” Whitmire, who moved to Asheville from Los Angeles just two years ago, had frequently attended conventions in other cities and speculated that Asheville had what it takes to get one off the ground, too. “There’s a really strong comic book fan community with really friendly and supportive people here,” he says.
Centered largely around Pastimes in Weaverville, the area’s oldest comic book store, and Comic Envy, the new kid on the block, Asheville’s comic book community spread the word, and over 60 artists and exhibitors have signed on for the one-day event.
In recent years, comic book conventions have become big business. The granddaddy of them all — San Diego’s Comic Con — draws over 120,000 people to its hometown for the four-day event, making it the city’s biggest annual convention. While Whitmire hopes Fanaticon will become an Asheville institution, for the inaugural show, the plan is to start small and introduce the uninitiated to the world of comic book conferences on an approachable scale. Limiting the event to a single day and avoiding concurrent panel discussions and events will give participants an opportunity to see and do a lot without feeling like they’re missing something, he says. They can browse exhibitor booths packed with comic books, collectibles and action figures, meet comic book artists, watch a documentary, see a live performance by Asheville Community Theater, and mingle with the likes of Spiderman and Darth Vader.
But if you’re not into space creatures or the undead, don’t let that stop you from attending. Appalachian State Associate Professor of English and comic book expert Craig Fischer says that while most people assume that superheroes dominate the comic book world, autobiography (think Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor or Art Spiegelman’s Maus) is actually the predominant genre in comic books.
In the past decade or so, comic books and the industry that’s grown up around them have reached well beyond the cult following they’ve long enjoyed. Hollywood literally can’t wait for the next comic book heroes to emerge — they’re buying film rights to stories that haven’t even been published yet. And the influence of comic books is being felt in literature, not just for kids, but for adults as well. “Some of the most interesting creative developments happening in any medium today are happening in comic books,” says Fischer. The comic book format — essentially, any story told one panel after another, and typically serialized — lends itself to powerful, distilled expression and the heightened impact of words combined with visuals. But then again, a lot of fans are just in it for the fun.
“When you’re talking about comic books as high art and a guy in a furry costume walks by, it kind of undercuts your point,” says Fischer, who frequently presents at comic book conventions. Still, he says, he hopes comic books are never taken too seriously.
No fear of that at Fanaticon. There’s a costume parade, and costume clubs from Asheville and Charlotte will participate. There’s a Star Wars club, a zombie club (who knew?) and a group called the Browncoats (devotees of a cancelled show called Firefly) who use their convention appearances to raise money to combat domestic violence. “Geeks have big hearts,” says Whitmire.
Fanaticon’s special guest is Marvel Comics artist Butch Guice, a former Ashevillian who’s currently inking Marvel’s Captain America series. “He’s working at the very highest level of the comic book industry,” says Whitmire. But Fanaticon is also a chance for aspiring comic book writers and artists to learn how they can get into the business. Local writer Jake Bible, who will speak on the Self-Publishing 101 panel, says that the comic book genre’s close-knit community makes it possible to move from amateur to pro with a cult following in record time. When he started publishing his post-apocalyptic zombie novel Dead Mech in serial podcast form last summer, Bible was hoping to eventually attract the attention of print publishers, but was surprised how quickly his podcasts caught on (he’s now had 20,000 downloads). You could say that comic book fans have an appetite for new content that’s as strong as a zombie’s craving for human brains.