Denver Comic Con is a phenomenon. In only two years, it has become one of the largest comic conventions in the country, and figuring out just how that came about can give us some in-depth insights into the wider growth of cons happening internationally, but particularly in the USA right now. Christina Angel, an English professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, is one of the con’s small band of visionary founding members (with Frank Romero, Bruce MacIntosh, Charlie La Greca, Michael Newman, and Illya Kowalchuk), and one of the lynch-pins that held the con together through its planning stages, astonishing first year, and even more overwhelming second year this past May. She spoke in very personal terms with The Beat about how exactly Denver Comic Con came to exist, and how it met its first year’s extreme challenges. An equal partner in Denver Comic Con is the charitable educational literacy program Comic Book Classroom, which has also experienced a meteoric rise in the Denver area, is part of Denver Comic Con itself, and a strong element in the drive toward comics as a positive impact in the community that has fueled programming at DCC. Illya Kowalchuk, Executive Director of Comic Book Classroom, also spoke with The Beat about the charity’s origins and how it functions to supply real-world need for youngsters through the medium of comics. Together Angel and Kowalchuk lay out the foundational steps that led them up to an explosion in growth for DCC and Comic Book Classroom in this exclusive interview.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What were the nuts and bolts necessary to start a local comic con? What kind of relationships are necessary on a local level to get started?
Christina Angel, Ph.D.: The funny thing is, at the time we started this, we had no idea about the nuts and bolts, so I’m answering this part in retrospect. Beyond knowing we needed people, vendors and a place to put them all, the rest was learned mostly on the fly. In order to start a local comic con, the most crucial thing to have is patience – what you don’t know takes time to learn and from my own experience, people will get excited about the prospect, but will take a sceptical approach to helping you, save the few “true believers” right out of the gate. The other learning experience is that comic cons are not like other conventions and you will have to educate even the most seasoned convention organizers, decorators and security teams about the unique qualities of such an event. You have to prove yourself to all of the people who think you’re nuts or out of your league or both, and that also takes time.
Relationships are key to getting started – get to know the people at the convention center, the visitor’s bureau, all of the comic book stores, and also to assemble your allies. At the same time, and this sounds like paranoia, it’s also important to not trust everyone you meet with your plans either; it’s a strange dance when you’re getting started because there will be people out there in your community who want to see you fail too for a host of reasons, and it can be difficult to see who’s who when you’re just getting started.
The actual nuts and bolts of putting on a show is planning, planning and more planning; I couldn’t even begin to list the tasks it takes to get there, but it needs a lot of people doing a lot of work for a long time in advance. Proper planning takes about 18 months and no matter how many plans are laid, there will be a million things you can’t foresee. I feel like I will be able to answer this question with far more wisdom five years from now.
HMS: What other cons have the DCC team taken as models or examples of good strategies for running an event of this size? What lessons in particular did you take away from observing other cons, bad or good?
CA: I’m hesitant to name names or express preferences but I will say that one of my “heroes” of the con world is Emerald City Comic Con. I have been to their show multiple times and it’s one of my favourites so far (bearing in mind I haven’t attended all of the large shows yet). What I love about ECCC is the way it’s laid out and organized – as an attendee there, it never feels overwhelmingly crowded even when it’s sold out. They have great guests and vendors, the lines move fast, and their volunteers are amazing. When I think about elements of our show, I always keep ECCC in mind as a guide.
I also don’t want to say that I have observed anything bad from other shows; I think we all do the best we can. Now that I have two cons under my belt (which is akin to still being in kindergarten in this biz), I can say that there are too many unpredictable factors in putting on a large-scale show for me to be critical of others. What I’ve picked up along the way, however, is a philosophy about how we treat our guests and attendees. We go the extra mile to make our guests feel special by providing them little perks like meeting them at the airport and hotel and having people whose sole responsibility is to make sure our guests’ needs are met. In every conversation we have in the planning process, we think about our attendees’ experience and how we can make it better, more exciting, for them.
HMS: What are the key elements necessary for a successful con, in your opinion? What goals were closest to your heart for DCC?
CA: I’m actually not sure how to begin answering this question because I think the term “successful con” is relative. For example, we’ve learned that if you build it, they will come (in overwhelming numbers at that) but I don’t measure success in just how many people were there. I measure success in the experiences of our attendees and guests. What is necessary to make that happen is to put their needs ahead of our own and to spend a little extra to make them feel welcome; in addition to that, the elements for success are practically without number as they change all the time. As a con-goer, what makes me think the con I’m attending is a success is whether or not I feel welcomed in a space, how and where I have access to vendors and celebs, how informed the staff of the show are when I have a question, and how the con manages the flow of people. I could therefore enumerate the million different things we do to try to achieve such things, but I’ll suffice to say that putting your guests and attendees first is the key to that success. We can’t always fully succeed in doing that the way we intend, but it’s always our goal.
What is closest to my heart for DCC is that we’re family friendly and dedicated to the cause of increasing literacy and arts education for children; nothing warms my heart more than seeing thousands of families with kids at the show. In line with the kind of community we want to create, it seems only natural that all should be welcome, including the kiddos. We have rules for everyone who participates to that end, as well, and this is important to me personally. We have to raise the next generation right, after all.
Hannah Means-Shannon: How did Comic Book Classroom start? What were the practical steps necessary to set it in motion?
Illya Kowalchuk: CBC began when Frank Romero suggested that DCC be a way to give back to the community that we’ve grown up in and come to love. He proposed that DCC be the main revenue stream for a comic-book based literacy and arts education program. In order to make this happen, the team invited Chris and me to come on board. Both Chris and I had already been teaching our students about comics—both as a medium to understand and analyze as well as a tool for personal expression for years. It was a natural fit to extend these experiences to other local schools and community organizations. We designed a basic curriculum that would work in a number of situations, found some volunteer teachers and interested schools, assembled the necessary libraries of comics, and let ‘er rip! Over the next three years, we revised the curriculum countless times and finally published our finished product, Storytelling Through Comics, at DCC 2013!
HMS: How does an average CBC session at a school run? What kind of activities are included?
IK: The typical session is 6-12 classes long. The first part is a media study about comic books. In this part, students are taught the basic elements of comic books and how they are different from other forms of literature. In the second part of the curriculum, students are asked to brainstorm problems they see in their world, choose one of these to address, and write a short comic that deals with this problem. This final comic needs to have an introduction, main events, climax, and resolution, at a minimum.
One sample activity is a vocabulary scavenger hunt. After the students have learned about terms like “word balloon,” “close up,” and “emanata,” they are given sticky notes and a comic. When they find each of the vocab terms in the comic, they are responsible for flagging and labelling it with a sticky note. In another activity, students are shown an episode of “Super Hero Squad.” Afterward, we reverse outline the episode, searching for the introduction, main events, climax, and conclusion. This is used to teach the students about how to outline and plan their comics.
HMS: How have you rounded up instructors for the program? Do you have any advice on comic-educational program recruitment and spreading the word?
IK: In order to find instructors, we have recruited at local colleges’ teacher training departments, put messages out on the DCC and CBC social media sites, and used word of mouth. From the get go, we never did something if we weren’t able to do it right. So in a few unfortunate instances, we had to tell after school programs that we couldn’t manage a program at their site. While we expect to continually provide programming in local schools, it is our hope that more and more classroom teachers will want to make CBC curriculum a part of their daily curriculum – again, easier outreach, more kids affected by comics! Win-win!
We have also included some reference material for interested teachers, administrators, and parents in our curriculum. If they need “ammunition” to convince others that our curriculum is a good idea, it should be in there!
HMS: Angel and Kowalchuk’s accounts support the role of personal vision and cautious optimism in bringing totally new society-serving events into fruition, but the detailed observations they provide here also clearly illustrate just how complicated forming support networks can be to make sure big plans get a big response. Their success in guiding Denver Comic Con and Comic Book Classroom through their first year of existence is a real testimony to the human spirit and the power of comics to change lives as well as inspire people to give back to their communities through the arts. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this exclusive interview on The Beat, about the extreme challenges they faced during their period of rapid expansion, and where they stand now, poised to lay out a future course for DCC and Comic Book Classroom.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.