Exclusive Interview: The Rise of Denver Comic Con & Comic Book Classroom, Part 2 “Expansion”

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Denver Comic Con has made the record books for the fastest growing con in American history and is now one of the largest cons in the country after staging its second year. The con is closely affiliated with the educational charity Comic Book Classroom bringing school curriculum and after school programs to the Denver community, and CBC has also expanded rapidly to enormous impact on the young people of the Denver area. In the first installment of this interview with Christina Angel, a founding member (along with Bruce MacIntosh, Michael NewmanIllya Kowalchuk and  founders Frank Romero and Charlie La Greca,) of Denver Comic Con, and Illya Kowalchuk, Executive Director of Comic Book Classroom, they spoke about the challenges they faced just launching these events and stabilizing their dream to make comics a big part of Denver’s culture. They gave insights into the kind of strategies they developed that enabled DCC and CBC’s first year to be record-breaking, but in this second, final installment, Angel and Kowalchuk address the monumental “Noah’s flood” they encountered this year when both events met increasing demand well beyond expectations. It was thrilling for them but also a monster of a year to learn quickly how to grow and sustain their dreams. Here’s what they have to say about this game-changing year for their organizations.

Comic Book Classroom logo 450x507 Exclusive Interview: The Rise of Denver Comic Con & Comic Book Classroom, Part 2 ExpansionHMS: When Comic Book Classroom started expanding after its first year, what challenges did you face?

Illya Kowalchuk: A great example of this was our second year of piloting the curriculum!  Our goal was to triple our outreach and successfully run three programs.  We did not advertise at all, and we wound up with 14 classes and over 250 graduates!  All this happened from word of mouth.  So, we creatively scheduled when our teachers and reference libraries could be in different places over the course of each semester.  Another asset to this expansion was that several classroom teachers wanted to use our curriculum as part of their school day curriculum.  That way, all we needed to provide to make this happen was a copy of the curriculum and a reference library.

We look forward to expanding in this manner – providing curriculum and content as a free digital download for anyone who wants to use it!  This way, we aren’t limited by geography, numbers of volunteers, or libraries.

HMS: What kind of impact have you seen CBC make in kids’ lives so far in Denver? What kind of impact do you want to have in the future?

IK: One amazing story is from the work we did with a teacher named Elisa Cohen at West Generation Academy in Denver.  The students in her class live in difficult situations.  Many of them struggle to get to school safely.  In addition to providing her with our curriculum, with support from Illegal Pete’s, a local restaurant, CBC provided a class set of the graphic novel Yummy, which is written by G. Neri and illustrated by Randy Duburke.  This book is about a 12 year old Chicago gang member that accidentally shot and killed a girl in his neighbourhood.  He went into hiding and was eventually betrayed and killed by members of his gang.  Ms. Cohen used this book as a keystone for a unit where the students also read The Outsiders and Romeo and Juliet as a way of coming to understand the allure and consequences of gangs.  As a final project, the students worked in teams to create their own comics as part of a 64-page anthology that they debuted at their student lead panel at Denver Comic Con 2013.  The 14 year-old students were up on stage talking about how this study helped them see, with new eyes, how their lives were being shaped by the circumstances around them. These students wrote comics about drug abuse, domestic violence and divorce.  It was a powerful experience for everyone present.

HMS: How did CBC lead into Denver Comic Con? What part does it play now in the con?

IK: DCC is actually part of CBC.  DCC is a fundraiser and also serves as a vehicle for spreading CBC’s mission: CBC is a Colorado based nonprofit organization that provides free comic book based curriculum which improves literacy and art skills, increases student achievement, and develops personal awareness.  Local graduates are also offered a free one-day ticket for them and a caregiver to the con.  There, they are treated like guests of honor – given a chance to sit with comic artists and authors, sell sketches, and receive a special graduation package that includes a custom sketch pad, pencils, and a button.

Additionally, there is a large area (over 5000 square feet) on the convention floor, called the CBC Corral, where kids and families can come and engage in all sorts of kid and family friendly art projects, building stations, as well as an entire stage dedicated to kid oriented programming.  This was where Peter and Angie Mayhew as well as William Shatner read to the kids!  It is a magical place, for sure.

If that wasn’t enough, Friday at DCC was also billed as Education Day at Denver Comic Con.  We gave away over 100 single day tickets to educators who wanted to come and learn about how to develop their craft through the use of comics.  We hosted over 15 hours of programming on Friday alone that was geared toward supporting these education professionals.

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One of our main goals for this year’s convention was to make sure attendees left with an understanding that their ticket purchase was going to support this powerful program.  We shared an informational video during panel room intermissions, had information stations set up around the hall, and a special CBC booth in the corral where we were giving away copies of our newly published curriculum.  I was thrilled with how it went.  For example, over the last three years of piloting the curriculum we worked with 15 different educational organizations and graduated over 400 students.  In the three days at DCC, we gave out over 125 curricular sets to teachers who estimated they would teach it to over 4500 kids!  Now, of course that’s an estimate, but it was thrilling to see that kind of reception to this idea we’ve been nurturing for the past four years.

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HMS: How has Denver Comic Con’s initial year differed from this immensely successful year? What are the on the ground challenges of growing so fast and meeting fan demand?

Christina Angel, Ph.D.: Actually, I’m still reeling from the success of the first year and this year had to be a dream. It’s important that I say we didn’t plan this to go the way it has. I mean, we did, but not for many years from now. The first year, we thought we’d start small, in a ballroom, with a few thousand people; once it became obvious that we were going to be much larger than that, we were prepared at the time of the 2012 con for 12-15,000 attendees. I have to say that even that number blew us away and when our final weekend number came in at 27,700 we were simply stunned (and thrilled and a little frightened). We’re grateful that so many people came out to the show and believed in what we were doing with Comic Book Classroom.

Hot on the heels of that success, we launched into the 2013 show with every intention of – again – growing slowly but that simply didn’t happen. Over the planning process, we more than doubled everything from space to vendors to guests to panels. We planned on a major turnout and got even more than we bargained for. It was like being prepared for a heavy rainstorm and getting Noah’s flood. No matter how high we set our sights, the city of Denver keeps upping the ante on us, and we know now we have to plan to meet that demand. When anyone asks me how many people are coming next year, I’m going to say “a million.” Preparing for anything less than that at this point seems silly.

The challenge of growing so fast is that in some ways we were prepared and some ways not; based on the first year’s success, we assumed a great deal of growth but that has its own challenges: everything costs more, we need more people, more space, more everything and because we’re a non-profit run entirely by volunteers, time is also against us because we all have other jobs too. We were absolutely prepared for a sell-out show but I’m guessing 10,000 more people than that showed up. There’s also the lack of precedence for us: in doing a show this big that none of us have ever done before, we can only plan on paper – it’s impossible to envision something that’s never before happened. So one of the major challenges is just not knowing what to expect when we lack the experience of a show this large. Having said all of that, I think we’re a team of intelligent, organized and amazing people who aren’t afraid to jump and assume the net will appear and that’s important to meeting those challenges, both the ones we planned for and the ones we didn’t and couldn’t foresee. We did a good job of taking our hits and then fixing them, but in most ways, what we planned “on paper” was overwhelmingly successful, two years running now, and I feel extremely proud of that.

996727 615511831801583 533746426 n 450x300 Exclusive Interview: The Rise of Denver Comic Con & Comic Book Classroom, Part 2 ExpansionHMS: What do you think that establishing a con in Denver has done for the city and for fans so far?

I’d like to think we’re helping to promote Denver for the great city it is, but I think for the fans it’s creating a supportive community that also does positive things with its success. We started this because we wanted to make a difference in kids’ and teachers’ lives and the con is our vehicle for that. Those communities have been there in fan groups and smaller cons, which are an integral part of Denver, but the large comic con gives us a time and place to all come together around this belief, and it’s something special to leave an insular space to realize that there are tens of thousands of “friends” out there you never knew about. I feel that way even as an organizer of the event; I’m amazed that so many like-minded folks are out there and that they all care so much about this “little” project we started.

HMS: What are your favorite moments from DCC so far?

CA:

  • Shatner reading Where the Wild Things Are in the kids’ corral at the 2013 con; it’s one of my favourite books and seeing it shared in this way made my heart smile.
  • When I stood above the con floor for the first time in 2012 and realized what we had started; it was one of those magical moments when I knew something big was on the horizon; similarly, I got choked up standing above the con floor this year on Saturday afternoon when it was packed – I wondered how in the world I had gotten there.
  • At the appreciation party this year, one of my students, who had volunteered her time and energy to nearly every minute of the con, said “Dr. Angel, I want to be you when I grow up,” which was both a little embarrassing but also the biggest compliment.
  • Seeing the kids’ corral packed with kids meeting comics guests and doing projects and just having a ball.
  • Having a hug at the end of a hard day from Eddie McClintock, who hugged me even though I was sweaty.
  • Getting to meet and talk with people (both famous and not) who appreciate and contribute to what we’re doing that I would otherwise have never spoken to.

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HMS: What kind of toll does running a con like DCC take on the personal lives of the show runners? How has this massive project affected your life and role in the community?

CA: I’d be lying if I said any of this was easy, but it is tremendously rewarding and satisfying work. It’s stressful for us all and takes a real toll on our relationships, jobs and sanity for a couple of months a year. Post-con, we suffer from Con PTSD, and that isn’t a joke (but the part where I petition to have it included in the DSM-V is). There’s so much build-up and planning and the stress of money hemorrhage and constant phone calls and emails and text messages – and then in a blur, it’s all over and you’re left exhausted beyond reason. While in part it feels good, it’s also difficult to get back into your normal world and for days, you hear phantom walkie-talkie speak in your ear and wake up panicked that you’ve left someone at the airport. Some of us are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But when that wears off, it’s time to celebrate and remember why we put ourselves through it: it’s because we believe in what we’re doing. And what we’ve done is amazing and unbelievable, even to us sometimes. We experienced the physical manifestation of a dream (that in fact goes so far beyond the original dream) and not many people get to say that. When the dust settles, we realize how lucky we are to be part of a world that makes people happy, creates community and supports an amazing cause.

Personally, it’s affected my life in a lot of ways. I’m no longer anonymous, and that’s both good and bad. Students know me now before I start classes and it’s a bit odd after so many years. People who never talked to me before now do, and for someone as introverted as I can often be, it’s quite strange to hear my name said so frequently. On the upside, it’s nice to have a voice in a community when we’re trying to promote literacy and arts programming in schools. The con is a vehicle for that message to get out and I can overcome any level of discomfort with spotlights if that is the result. On the whole, this entire endeavour has changed my life positively and given me a new direction to channel my energy, even if some days it feels like it’s slowly killing me. 6974 610138532338913 938219340 n 450x300 Exclusive Interview: The Rise of Denver Comic Con & Comic Book Classroom, Part 2 Expansion

[Hearing these personal stories and observations brings home the human strain that large events and plans of action entail, but what’s so immensely impressive is that both Denver Comic Con and Comic Book Classroom rose to the challenge and at no point simply froze up, unsure how to proceed. Their initial vision seems to have sustained them in a way that most organizations can only hope for, and in action, they’ve gone from strength to strength. They’ve made history in terms of popular culture, and also in terms of bringing comics into the educational forum, and their actions suggest the stature comics can attain in society right now when spokespeople and volunteers step forward to make comics a part of culture as a whole rather than relegating comics to a fringe element in public interest.

They’ve made a statement on a large scale, and anyone hoping to follow their example can find plenty of wisdom in these interviews about what to expect and how to find the drive to follow through on their plans. Thanks, Chris and Illya for taking the time to share your stories with readers and give them a firmer grasp of how Denver Comic Con and Comic Book Classroom unfolded, and endured their first massive steps toward making a difference for fans and young readers alike. We can only wish you the best of luck following your dreams, and also hope you have lots and lots of volunteers and like-minded people to help carry your achievements forward after such a monumental, promising start.] 

Disclaimer: Hannah Means-Shannon attended the Denver Comic-Con as their guest. She 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.

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