South Africa is to get its own Comic Con. But things are not as they seem, as "I'm no geek" reporter and Comic Con fan Faranaaz Parker found out.
If the organisers were hoping to build hype around the event, they underestimated the type of fans they were dealing with – smart, net-savvy and not easily, ahem, conned.
By Friday morning Lazygamer had thoroughly debunked the rumours of a mind-blowing geek culture con headed for local shores, with writer Gavin Mannion saying: “Virtually everything you think you know about this event isn’t true.”
The Comic Con name raises the prospect of attending discussion panels featuring stars from beloved science fiction and fantasy genres, be they in the form of comics, books, television series or movies.
But it was the old Charlie Brown football gag all over again.
The local version, to be held at a venue that caters for between 150 and 200 people, would feature local comic artists and distributors, a competitive LAN, and a sketchathon.
Mannion pointed out that the directors of the companies behind the convention, Tlou Ramatlhodi and Mzingaye Dube, “both show no relation to events, comics or the general geek culture in any way”.
When I spoke to Ramatlhodi on Thursday, he was evasive about who was running the show.
“We're not allowed to disclose who our client is,” he said.
“Officially, we're having a comic con. There are going to be number of local vendors that are going to participate: Zombiegamer, Outer Limits comics, and a number of other distributors and local comic book artists. Our clients, whom we cannot disclose, have told us that what we're officially allowed to say is that we're priming the Marvel Superheroes Magazine.”
Comic Con International has said that it is in no way associated with the local event. When asked about the use of the Comic Con label, Ramatlhodi said: “It’s legal.”
“All comic cons are independent, you acquire your own sponsors, copywriter, and licensing with the idea in mind that comic cons have a certain benchmark that you have to live up to."
Despite the talk of benchmarking, Ramatlhodi seemed unaware of what exactly makes a comic con. His description of comic cons merely as a “platform where people who are interested in comic books and associated entertainment can come and get the skinny on the games, the titles coming out in terms of movies and the likes, and can dress up and have a good time” seemed to miss the mark.
Beyond the cosplay and the artists' alleys, the cornerstone of any comic con is the panel discussions by stars from the comic and broader entertainment spheres such as artists, writers, directors and actors.
The international San Diego Comic Con draws the top stars in pop culture but even the most humble comic cons make some attempt to put on a show for those attending, whether in the form of sneak previews, talkshops or authors’ readings.
In recent years Wales Comic Con has been heavy on guest speakers from the Game of Thrones television series while the Chicago Comic while Entertainment Expo recently featured Audrey Niffennegger, author of the Time Traveler's Wife, as a literary guest – an apt selection as Niffennegger's book is set entirely in Chicago. When India held its first humble, comic con in New Delhi in 2011, artists conducted academic and practical workshops.
But Ramatlhodi described the April event as “more of a networking event than anything else”.
Networking might be the reason many artists descend on comic conventions but for the majority of fans who attend these events, it’s the guest speakers that are the main drawing card. As a result, organising a comic con should be less like organising a networking event and more like organising a literary festival.
If one were to launch a comic con in South Africa, it would make sense to approach someone like homegrown sci-fi author Lauren Beukes, a Cape Town resident.
I asked Ramatlhodi if there were any special guests from the film, television or comic book industry that fans could look forward to hearing from and whether there were any panel discussions planned, but he seemed genuinely perplexed by the question.
With a mere three weeks to go before the event, there is no official schedule yet. Ramalthodi said the organisers would be releasing all the details in a couple of days and that these would be listed on the website. Entrance would be in the region of R150.
Ramatlhodi said the organisers were looking at this first event as “a way of getting our sponsors to give more of their resources to us next year.
“Right now it’s more networking, meet and greet, having people there to show our sponsors that the community is serious,” he said.
But South Africa has a longstanding tradition of genre-inspired festivals. Icon, which has been going small but strong for over two decades, is an annual event in Johannesburg dedicated to role-playing and fantasy war games.
Meanwhile, rAge – predominantly a gaming expo but one which is steeped in geek culture more generally – is now in its 11th year. Last year almost 30 000 people attended over the October weekend in which it ran.
The idea that sponsors don’t already know that there is a hunger for a comic con-styled exhibition in the country seems misplaced.
What’s really needed is an organiser who understands the format and the fans, and who has the skills to pull in the writers, artists and actors needed to headline the event.