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The Inaugural Wizard World Pittsburgh

on Wed, 07/22/2015 - 00:00

Comic book and pop culture conventions have become a hot commodity in the Twenty First Century. Comic-Con International: San Diego is considered the most prestigious of such gatherings, with Hollywood on hand to promote their latest film and television shows, while the New York Comic Con has set attendance records that top the 150,000 mark.

Then there’s Wizard Entertainment, former publishers of Wizard and ToyFare magazines, which first entered the convention fray in 1997 when they purchased the former Chicago Comicon and have since expanded into cities across the country, including Albuquerque, Cleveland, Las Vegas and New Orleans. In January 2015, Wizard World purchased the former Pittsburgh Comicon, adding the Steel City to their ever growing roster of pop culture showcases and enhancing the region’s Geek Culture offerings in the process.

“We know there is a vibrant pop culture fanbase in Pittsburgh, and that other events have been successful there,” Jerry Milani, public relations manager for Wizard World, explains of the acquisition. “Fans from the area that attended our Columbus and Philadelphia shows indicated that we should take a closer look at Pittsburgh and we were pleased that everything worked out.” Milani adds that it can be long process to determine if a particular city is right for Wizard World.

“We survey fans who attend our other shows in the region, as well as those who interact with us on social media,” he further elaborates. “Once it is established that there is a fanbase, we visit the city, determine if the convention center venue fits for our show, and start to work on potential dates that would fit our calendar, the pop culture festival calendar in general, and the convention center’s schedule. The process can take a couple of years until everything is in place.”

Although the former Pittsburgh Comicon had previously been in existence for over twenty years, it was regularly held in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, as opposed to Pittsburgh proper. Wizard World Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will take place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, a venue strategically located within the downtown region of the Steel City. When Wizard World launched their first convention in Cleveland, Ohio, during February 2015, the event brought out the Geek faithful in full force despite single-digit temperatures and a steady snowfall. The inaugural Wizard World Pittsburgh will premier in the warmer month of September but the enthusiastic fan reaction of having a major pop culture convention within the confines of their hometown will no doubt be the same nonetheless.

Whereas Cleveland is known as the “Birthplace of Superman”—with Ohio natives Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating the first comic book superhero while residing in the region—Pittsburgh has likewise produced its fair share of comic book creators, writers and illustrators through the years. Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, for instance, hails from nearby Johnstown, Pennsylvania, while Golden Age artist Matt Baker and former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter were both raised within the region.

Wizard World Cleveland paid tribute to the achievements of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with a panel discussion featuring members of the Siegel and Shuster Society in February 2015, and Wizard World will likewise honor the current crop of Steel City artists with a special “Pittsburgh Creator Spotlight” during the inaugural Wizard World Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh has a wealth of talented comic creators, and we wanted to highlight that at the show,” Jerry Milani explains of the feature. “We have well-known artists like Neal Adams, Tom Cook, Phil Ortiz and others that attend a lot of our shows, but one of the key elements that make each Wizard show different is the local talent. D.J. Coffman has helped assemble a great lineup that we hope Pittsburgh fans will want to meet.”

In addition to Coffman—whose Hero by Night won the first Comic Book Challenge contest in 2006—participants in Wizard World’s “Pittsburgh Creator Spotlight” include 2015 Eisner Award winners Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg. Although not officially part of the spotlight, Steel City native Ron Frenz will likewise be in attendance. The co-creator of Spider-Girl, Frenz has provided artwork for such heavyweight series as Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man and Superman throughout his long and storied career.

While comic cons were initially solely about comic book fandom, more general aspects of pop culture have become intertwined within the proceedings in recent years as well, with Wizard World being no exception to the trend.

“Our shows have always and will continue to feature comics, artists and sci-fi and genre attractions, but in the past few years, we’ve expanded to a broader audience,” Milani says before naming a few of the many celebrities who regularly attend Wizard World conventions. “Nathan Fillion has a great fanbase from Firefly and Serenity, but he’s also the star of one of the most popular network shows in Castle. William Shatner is Captain Kirk but he’s also Denny Crane and the Priceline Negotiator. Ian Somerhalder stars in a hugely popular show Vampire Diaries. It’s a broad spectrum of fandom and it comes out in the diversity of our guests.”

That diversity likewise expands the Wizard World experience in general. “Someone may come to the show because they are a big William Shatner or Star Trek fan,” Jerry Milani continues. “And on their way to meeting William they may see a vendor with a unique Star Trek item, or a fan dressed as Kirk or Spock, or an Artist Alley creator with a new interpretation of the show. And finally they get to meet or take a photo with William, as well as ask a question in the Q&A session. But there may be 100 other things that they do, and maybe any of those are most memorable.”

Milani considers this variety of entertainment options as his overall favorite aspect of Wizard World but admits to having a personal preference as well. “I’m particularly drawn to our programming, which has been enhanced to a great degree in the past couple of years,” he concedes. “Even fans with great panel ideas can suggest them and maybe even have their own panel. Between the celebrity Q&As, creator sessions, screenings and costume contests, many fans spend the majority of their time at our shows in the panel rooms.”

While every Wizard World is unique in its own way, meanwhile, Jerry Milani says that the 2015 installment of Wizard World New Orleans contained one his most memorable convention experiences. “We had a Make-A-Wish youngster who loves The Walking Dead, and just wanted to meet one or two of the actors,” he explains. “So we took him backstage after a panel. Jon Bernthal, Scott Wilson, Steven Yeun and Sarah Wayne Callies were unbelievable. They made him feel like the most important person they’d ever met. Bernthal gave him his cell phone number to keep in touch. Michael Rooker met with him privately afterward. It confirmed to me what I’ve always felt about the celebrities who come to our show—they thrive on the interaction with fans, and often get as much from them as they give.”

During the weekend of September 11, 2015, comic book and pop culture enthusiasts in the Pittsburgh region can partake in a full array of similar festivities themselves, joining their fellow fans from across the country who have already crafted their own special memories of Wizard World.

Anthony Letizia

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