People Lost Among The Glitz Are Real Stars At Motor City Comic Con

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Like every year, Motor City Comic Con has come with crowds, celebrities and spectacle.  But in all the fanfare of a massive event there is something often forgotten – the people.  Specifically, the people who don’t sign glossy 8x10s of their face, the people who make up Artist Alley and the people who pay their hard-earned money to come in and spend more of it.

Allen Bellman may be a guest, but he is far from one of the celebrities who require bodyguards to escort him around. Bellman was an artist for Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics), who worked on such characters as Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch in the 1940s.

He is truly a man of the people and, at the age of 92, he is still a frequent face at comic shows across the country.

Allen Bellman. Photo: M. Lapham
“Without this I would die, I love the people,” says Bellman, describing his views on the show.

There is an openness with the fans that cannot be ignored in Bellman’s interactions, whether it was giving a fatherly hug to a fan who presented him with gift (don’t worry, his wife was right there and seemed okay with it) or telling stories of his life.

He is more than willing to talk about his time starting out as a copy boy in the journalism game, drawing for newspapers in his later years, and, of course, stories about the Golden Age of Comics.

One such story is about an uncle of Stan Lee’s, who was a hat maker and would come to the Timely offices and insult the artists’ work, including Bellman’s. He was new to drawing at the time and the unflattering critiques got to him. Captain America co-creator Joe Simon told him to just ignore the unwanted critiques.  After all what does a hat maker know of drawing a comic book?

His commitment to fans (and their eagerness to see him) is especially impressive given how few, if any, were even able to read when he did his work for the future comic giant.

There is even a book in the works about Bellman called “Timely Confidential.”

He also still draws the classic golden age characters and sells prints of his work, which includes everything from action scenes to a remembrance of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, when on November 9, 1938 in violence against Jews broke out across Germany’s Third Reich.

“Drawing is my Life,” he says.

There is even an interesting, albeit thin, connection Bellman has in Detroit.  In the last years before his death in 2006, fellow Golden Age artist Mart Nodell, creator of the Green Lantern, came to Motor City Comic Con every year, he not only turned Bellman onto attending comic shows, but at one point they lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Of course, not everyone in Artist Alley is a guest. Some had to pay to be there. Among those who pay to set up shop and try to make money with her artistic skills is Rebecca Silverman of RNG Originals.

Rebecca Silverman. Photo by M. Lapham.
Silverman sells wire-wrapped artwork (mostly jewelry) and even some blown glass.  While her most common place to set up shop is at The Rust Belt market in Ferndale, she has been coming to the Motor City Comic Con for four years and has found a valuable customer base, as well as learned some valuable lessons.

While The Rust Belt is the most common place to find her work, she sells in many places, including a few large venues. Lessons from the Comic Con helped prepare her for successfully working in those spots.  The most important lesson was to always bring help to the events.

She also learned a thing or two about pricing for large crowds. Smaller and cheaper jewelry like pendants sell better than the larger wire-wrapped sculptures she makes.  She also offers cash discounts.

Those not from the comic/sci-fi/fantasy worlds can sometimes be intimidated by the costumes. However, Silverman has also goes to the Renaissance Festival and has a natural ease with that group. That is what inspired her elf ear-cuffs, which tend to sell better at the Comic Con than at places with customers whose passions may be more conservative.

“Nerds, I love them,” Silverman says, smiling and devoid of irony in response to why she has found such comfort.

She has also made new contacts and dealer relationships at the show, found a few custom jobs, and even gained some pull in her time at the show.  She has even been able to grab her preferred position at the end of an aisle two years in a row.

Silverman also came up with a clever way to advertise.  She allows to the masses of visitors with cameras to take photos of her work, so long as they post it on social media and give credit, allowing untold numbers to see her artistry.

Her work has also found its way into the hands of several celebrities who were in town as guests of the show. The Bionic Woman, Lindsey Wagner, and Leah Thompson of Back to the Future fame now own pieces of her jewelry, a fact that she displays with photos of the pair showing off the purchases.

In her time at the show, Silverman has become part of a larger community at Motor City Comic Con that is very supportive and protective of each other. As a result, Motor City Comic Con is now more than a show and certainly more than a place for television and movie stars to gather. It has its own vibe … its own community … for anyone who cares enough to try and become a part of it.

A more in depth look at the communal nature can be found here.

However, the most overlooked people at Comic Con are the people who pay for the tickets.

Six years ago, Chris Austin started to get back into comics after decades away.

Now 62, he started to get back into the hobby through auctions at a local comic store, picking up the classic Marvel comics he read as a boy in the 1960s, and began attending Comic Con.

In those six years he has come to the show three times. While it may seem like he was unimpressed, that is anything but the truth.

“Jan, my eyes are worn out,” he told his sister when she called during the end of his first trip.

Austin is truly in awe of the show, for the comics he is able to pick up (especially when they have artwork by his favorite artist Jack “the King” Kirby) and the ability to talk to creators, and see other pop-culture icons. What he likes the most is the sense of community he feels among those in attendance.

This is best described when he was leaving one year and saw a cosplayer in her 20s, dressed as Julie Newmar’s interpretation of Catwoman, get into her old beaten-up Toyota. He said to himself, “that is what it’s all about.”

While most people who come to the show share sitting on Cloud Nine with Austin, there is another side. In the past few years more fans of the medium that got the whole thing started …  comics … have become more disillusioned.

One of the best examples of this is Tim Murray.

Like Austin, Murray is a comic fan. However, unlike Austin, he finds the show to be a more and more trying experience. That may be because he didn’t unlike Austin he didn’t get back into comics after decades away. He has been coming to the show since the 1990s.

In fact, this year he wasn’t even going to come until Dave Gibbons, the artist on Watchman, was announced.

Murray acknowledges the need for non-comic guests, but as he has watched the number of comic professionals dwindle over the years he wishes for more equity between comic and media guests.

This is not the only issue Murray has with the current state of Motor City Comic Con.  He points to the rise of popularity in having people show up with no interest in comics.

“They’re here to be seen and put things on their social media,” he muses.

He also believes there is a lack of care for the fans. He cites several factors, including rising ticket prices and dealers overcharging for comics with prices two, three, even four times what they would be at smaller shows or in comic shops.

“Dealer prices are out of control,” he says.

There was also a noticeable disconnect between fans and creators themselves in some cases.  Murray found himself standing in a rather short line for at least an hour while one artist was missing from the table.  The line had formed before he left and was cut off.

“It’s disrespectful to fans,” he says.

Missing creators was not something he was shocked to have happen and says it is becoming more and more common at shows.

Interestingly, he noted the treatment of fans didn’t even get this bad in the ‘90s, when a speculator boom pushed certain artists to superstardom and lines for autographs ran around the block in hopes that the signed comic would be worth big money. Some creators became notorious for taking advantage. That speculator bubble caused comics to be bought up for nonrealistic investment purposes and almost killed the industry and has its fair share of horror stories about some creators then new to the industry.

“It goes both ways,” Murray says regretfully, but he gives a certain amount of responsibility to fans.

It is not uncommon for someone to stand in line, get an autograph or sketch on a book and just to turn around and sell it on eBay. That shows a certain amount of disrespect and monetary obsession on the side of ticket holders.

While some of these complaints may seem like small things that should just be dealt with, keep in mind, Murray paid $25 to get in and $10 for parking for a grand total of $35 to be underwhelmed, and even unwanted.  It is also important to note he attended the show on the slowest and cheapest day. The price for Saturday was $40. For Sunday it was $30. The best value was an adult weekend pass for $70. “It isn’t about comics anymore,” and “It isn’t for me,” says Murray, summing up his view and that of a growing number of comic fans.

That trend of leaving comics behind is not unique to Motor City.  It is indicative of larger shows across the country where comics take a back seat to more mainstream forms of pop culture.

A colleague asking me why they even call it a “comic con” when it seems to be more about meeting famous people seems to validate Murray’s theory.  However, given the legions pf people who show up, it seems the event has a large group of fans in its own right.

Motor City Comic Con is often billed as the biggest pop culture event in Michigan.  But it wouldn’t be possible or even matter if it were not for every person attending on those three days in May every year.

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