The 31st annual Heroes Convention was held in Charlotte, NC this past weekend, bringing together thousands of fans and professionals to celebrate the art and culture of comics.
I've been hearing about Heroes for decades – it's one of the best-regarded comic cons in the country, acclaimed for its focus on creators over companies, and for putting the art and culture of comic books and strips ahead of Hollywood interests and corporate franchises. One of the most common descriptions of the convention is "it's a show that's actually about comics", but I don't think that's exactly true: it's a show about people. People who make comics, people who collect comics, people who live and breathe comics, people for whom it's a spare-time hobby, people who are just discovering the wonder and potential of the medium. People in costume. People in t-shirts. People in business wear. Kids looking for their favorite characters. Grown-ups looking for bargain back issues. And toddlers in strollers and backpacks, wide-eyed at all the excitement.
It's clear that this convention is a labor of love from the top down, and those feelings of passion and excitement are evidenced in every detail of the weekend. The show floor was spacious and comfortable, wide aisles and lack of clutter making it easy to navigate. There were staff and volunteers readily findable, ready to answer any questions or provide assistance for anyone in need. The programming was carefully curated, and extra time was allowed in between panels to ensure smooth transitions. And everyone was smiling.
The tight focus of Heroes also means it's not a celebrity-driven show, it's a artist-driven show. And this year, they managed to assemble one of the best line-ups of comic creators that I've ever witnessed: Neal Adams. Jim Steranko. Kelly Sue DeConnick. Matt Fraction. Becky Cloonan. Evan Dorkin. Sarah Dyer. Bill Sienkiewicz. Peter Bagge. Mark Bagley. Amanda Conner. Jamal Igle. Ming Doyle. Chrissie Zullo. Greg Rucka. And literally hundreds of others.
The Charlotte Convention Center itself is a handsome venue, spacious, well-lit, with numerous stairwells and escalators to deliver the fans from the panel rooms upstairs to the main show floor below and back again, many times over the course of the day. Their major flaw isn't one of space, but one of technology and communication: cellphone service was almost nonexistent inside the building, and rather than following the lead of most modern convention centers and offering free w-fi, the venue charges an outrageous $80 per day for access to their network (and the service is only offered on the main floor, not upstairs in the panel rooms). This meant it was difficult to find your friends, and it was well-nigh impossible to file news reports or access social media from inside, negating the instant publicity that comic-cons can usually generate for creators and their projects.
As if comic conventions aren't surreal enough events on their own merits, the North Carolina GOP was holding their convention in one wing of the complex while Heroes was occupying the bulk of the building. This scheduling juxtaposition led to some incongruous scenes: men in polo shirts lined up to get coffee alongside ninjas and Jedis, confused politickers taking the wrong escalator and finding themselves among Captain Marvels of all ages, genders, and colors. There were a few occasions where I couldn't tell if someone was an actual Republican delegate or simply wearing an ill-fitting Clark Kent costume. (Spoiler: Republican delegates, every time.)
And downstairs on the show floor, the overall atmosphere was less like an average comic convention, and more like a backyard barbecue. Despite the large scale of the Charlotte Convention Center and the thousands of people in attendance, it felt like an intimate gathering of friends. Creators drew long lines, but nobody ever seemed rushed. People waiting for signatures swapped stories with the people in front of and behind them. Artists took an extra few moments to add commentary or throw in a quick sketch. And the shopkeepers and dealers were absurdly easy-going, offering discounts and deals by the handful, excited to show off their wares and strike up a conversation.
All the nice things people say about Heroes Con? They're true, but they miss one thing – they can't possibly convey the sense of community and family that pervades the entire weekend. I had high expectations going in, and they pale in comparison to the memories I came home with.