Austin Comic Con vs. Texas Renaissance Faire

by Graham Haskin

Last weekend was a busy one for me, boys and girls. In fact, the entire month of November has been busy for me, but that’s another story. It all started when my good friend and podcast host Wade gave me his three day pass to Austin Comic Con, since he would have to work over the weekend (everyone shed tears of sadness for Wade). I thought, “Awesome! A free pass to a comic convention! I don’t even have to pay for a hotel room!”

I should take a moment to explain that I am a nerd. I’d like to believe I am one of the socially adapted ones, but regardless, I’m a nerd. Every year I make a trip to Boston to attend a three day anime convention. I’ve been to Media West, a large television/movie convention that has sadly died out over the years. I go to Quakecon every year. I have yet to make it to San Diego Comic Con, but I want to go. That’s how much of a nerd I am.

And when I learned that I would be able to go to Austin Comic Con, I was really psyched! I love the culture, the feel, the je ne sais quoi which makes these geek conventions an intrinsic part of my life. Basically they act as a release valve for all the nerd-dom that builds up in me over time.

So I got off work early Friday, stopped by my home, and walked to the convention center. To nerdvana (let’s see how many nerd-isms I can get in one article). I entered those hallowed doors, walked under the archway proclaiming AUSTIN COMIC CON and behold! The dealer’s room.

Now, for those not versed in nerd and/or con culture, I should explain that the dealer’s room is one of the two major draws for nerds. The other being the artist’s alley. It’s the place to hunt for that missing part of your collection. Or find some hidden gem you didn’t even know you wanted. It’s row after row, booth after booth of stuff to buy. Capitalism at it’s best, in many ways. There are some people who make their entire living just going from con to con, selling stuff in the dealer’s room.

And what did I find there? What did I take away from the mecca? Nothing. Zip. There were two problems. 1) two entire rows were dedicated to booths for the various celebrities that had come. That really cut into the available space for the nerdware. 2) What stuff there was just wasn’t that great. A lot of people selling individual comics, which would be great if you were looking for something, but I don’t collect comics, so I got nothing out of it.

Fine. So the dealer’s room was a bit of a letdown. Maybe the artist’s alley. Here was much great art for the taking (well, buying). Or at least that’s the theory. The artist’s alley was much smaller than the dealer’s room, and filled with a lot of mediocre artists trying to peddle their b grade art. I don’t mean to say that every artist was bad, but too many were just poor drawers or colorists. Thinking back on my memories of the alley, I could have easily divided the art into two categories while missing very few people. Smut and Zombies.

Don’t get me wrong. I like looking at scantily clad women in provocative poses. I’m a guy. But I don’t hang it on my wall. And I’m not going to horde it in my closet, to bring out when my door is closed for some “me time”. That’s just a waste of good art. And zombies? Yeah… no. Rotting flesh does nothing for me. Especially when it’s smutty zombies. I mean, I consider myself to be somewhat disturbed of mind, but smutty zombies are just too disturbing even for me.

Alright. Two strikes. Let’s try the panels. Panels are where people, mostly fans, sit down and discuss some topic. The one I went to was a panel on Steampunk (if you don’t know the genre, look it up. It’s great). The panel was good. A bit tangential, but generally well done with well spoken presenters.

But looking at the list of panels for the weekend, that was the only one I was interested in. Three days of comic goodness, and one panel. That’s bad. Now granted, percentage wise, that was pretty good, because there were probably only 20-30 panels over the course of the weekend (a problem in and of itself), which means, if I did my math right, I went to 5% of the panels.

I’ll be the first to admit that part of the problem with the panels was my fault. There were a lot of panels on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I never watched and never got into. If you were into Buffy, then Austin Comic Con probably felt like heaven. But I’m not. However, in the interest of fairness, we’ll put half of that strike on me. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, that makes the two and a half strikes for Austin Comic Con and half of one for me.

Between not feeling great on Saturday and my disappointment on Friday, I didn’t go on Saturday. Maybe I should have. As I think back on Friday, I realize that one of the subconscious problems was the lack of people. People are part of that je ne sais quoi I mentioned earlier. If you have a lot of people, energy running high, everyone excited, it’s infectious. The good mood of the mass of people means you’re in a good mood. I didn’t get to experience that because Friday was pretty quiet.

Then, after recovering from general apathy sickness on Saturday, I went with my friends to the Texas Renaissance Faire on Sunday. The day started much earlier than I really wanted it to, as it’s a three hour drive from Austin to Plantersville, and wasn’t the most comfortable drive with three of us stuffed into the back of a sedan.

Still. We got there, and it was good. Logistically, there’s not a lot of difference between a convention such as Austin Comic Con and a ren faire. Both are exercises in capitalism. You travel from booth to booth, buying or looking at products for sale and attending panels or performances all around. But the Texas Renaissance Faire has two major advantages over Austin Comic Con. 1) It’s huge. 53 acres, according to Wikipedia (as an aside, it’s apparently on the site of an old strip mining site. Huh. Learn something every day). 2) It’s old. I think they’re celebrating their 23rd anniversary this year. That’s pretty damn good and also means that they have had plenty of time to work out the kinks in production while finding what people want and will draw them.

Actually, let’s add 3) to the list. 3) It’s got a population. Again according to Wikipedia, the average attendance for a weekend in 2010 was 450,000 people. Austin Comic Con could only dream of those numbers. It makes a difference.

It’s good to know that our stories get cut off after a set amount. I’ll try to make shorter posts from now on. Here’s the rest of my rant: Having a good time with my friends at the Renaissance Faire was a perfect cap to the weekend. And lest you read this and think I hated Austin Comic Con, I want to say that I didn’t. I know, I know. I just spent a thousand words talking about it’s shortcomings. But I really didn’t hate it. I think it’s going through growing pains right now. I see the potential for great things in it, but they have some bugs to work out. For one: please, please, please have more panels. And not just ones where the celebrities speak. I know that’s a huge draw for a lot of people, but not everyone. I would much rather hear the fans talk about their passions than the celebrities repeat a speech. If you do that (aim for 50 panels over the weekend) and if you up the quality of the artist’s alley and dealer’s room, then you’re set. Get the quality up and then you’ll bring people in by the bushel (Does that work? You know what I mean.). I’m looking forward to seeing Austin Comic Con next year and seeing how it’s grown. I really, truly believe it can only get better from here on.