Baltimore Comic-Con breaks attendance records

BALTIMORE - Convention season in Baltimore is over.

You won't be seeing anime ninjas, bronies, or superheroes walking down Pratt Street until…  well, Halloween.

"I'm exhausted," Baltimore Comic-Con founder Marc Nathan said Saturday afternoon.

It's a daunting task to manage the thousands of comic book fans who descend on Pratt Street once a year.

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The show, which concluded its 15 th annual run on Sunday, has grown every year since its inception. Attendance was up considerably from the year before although final numbers wouldn't be available for weeks, according to show organizers.

 "It's happening at most conventions all over the country," Nathan said.  "It has a lot to do with Adventure Time, Walking Dead, Big Bang Theory, Avengers, Batman—it's in the box office, it's everywhere you look. The line between comics and media, there is no line anymore."

The more accessible forms of popular fiction haven't just blurred the lines between comics and television and film—they've stomped, kicked, pow'd, whammed and zapped them into oblivion.

"People are making comics now as a movie handout script," Nathan said. "That wasn't the same 15 years ago."

In Baltimore, as opposed to San Diego or New York, the focus of the convention however remains on the comics and not as a launching platform for upcoming movies.

"There are only a handful of places that only focuses on comics. … And we are larger than the other few that do it," Nathan said.  "It's not that we're so much better than them. We're just in a better spot. We're that much closer to Philly, New York, D.C. and Richmond."

Although this past weekend's special guest is well regarded in almost all multimedia platforms including directing movies and writing comic books. Kevin Smith, of View Askew Productions, was "pond hopping" his way to the show where his appearance time was pushed back to 4 p.m. from 1 p.m.

"I don't know if you know this, but he's kind of an A-lister," Nathan said, downplaying Smith's celebrity status.

The line to see a special screening on Smith's latest animated film snaked around the interior of the convention center.

Wonder Women, Spidermen and even a few Silent Bobs, filled out the massive line, away from the main showroom.

"I wasn't expecting it to be quite as massive," Kelly Slagel, a local producer/director for CaveGirl Productions, said. "It's getting bigger than I thought it would get. I'm impressed with the variety of people who are here."

Slagel was at the show to promote her first feature length film "Of Dice and Men." The movie focuses on a group of Dungeons and Dragons gamers who are your normal, average, everyday people—something that has been lacking in the comic-book culture, she said.

"The tagline is ‘A geek movie without the self-loathing.' There are a lot of like-minded people here who can relate to that kind of story," Slagel said. "There are a lot of people who want that story told versus yet another movie that makes fun of them."

In that way, her project speaks to the higher power and purpose of what Comic-Con brought to Baltimore this weekend: a diverse atmosphere bringing diehard and casual fantasy fans together in the name of story and art.

Back in the main showrooms area, fans squeezed between rows of comic book and collectible vendors. It was hard to walk 10 feet without foot traffic coming to a standstill due to a photo-op in the middle of the road.

Away from the cluster of t-shirt sales and action figure haggling, artists showcasing their work made themselves available for one-on-ones with the fans.

"That relationship is really I think the strength of its growth," Nathan said. "More importantly, this is the only print medium that is bucking the trend on digital. No one goes up to the guy who draws Batman and says can you sign my iPad?"

Batman artist David Finch had a 50-foot line waiting for him at the convention. But not far from Finch's table stood another well-known artist, although his talents dealt more in scathing criticism of reality as opposed to fantasy.

Kevin Kallaugher, better known by his signature KAL, was celebrating his 35 th anniversary as a political cartoonist for The Economist with a heavy anthology book at the convention.

He set out to crowd-source funding for the book via Kickstarter.com. His goal was $20,000.

"Then I raised $100,000," Kallaugher said.

He presold 1,800 copies in 46 different countries. It was his first time at the convention.

"This is a group that really appreciates good artwork," Kallaugher said.

"All of the artists here and I face the same challenge," he continued. "We're given a flat surface and our job is to recreate a whole world that people then can get lost it.  So that when they're looking at the page, they don't think that they're looking at a piece of paper they're looking out a window into another universe."

Artist Robert Florio

Artist Robert Florio gave himself over to his art not just so he could look out of the window, but so he could feel more like the superheroes he was sketching and painting.

It was easy to spot Florio from the scores of artists on the showroom floor. He was the only one painting with his mouth.

A spinal injury when he was just 14-years-old left Florio paralyzed from the neck down.

"It helps me focus and channel my energy," Florio said. It's positive. I could be stuck in a home because a lot of people who have spinal chord injuries don't get a lot of respect. … I like superheroes because they make me feel like I have more power in myself."

He compared the accident when he was 14 to Peter Parker's spider bite, or the radioactive isotope spill that blinded Matthew Murdock.

"I kind of like mutated," Florio said. "I was always an artist. But [my injury] like brought out my super power. I don't know how I do it. I just see the detail and it pops."

Back in the staging area just off the main floor, Nathan took a moment to sit with a reporter.

Between wrangling talent and managing the hundreds of fans who apparently have never heard of the Internet or buying tickets online, Nathan said he was looking forward to nice dinner at the Harvey Awards—the Golden Globes of the comic book world.

"It's like buying Christmas presents for everybody," Nathan said.

Sitting in the staging area of the Baltimore Convention Center, Nathan pointed to the Hyatt just across the street. He was counting down the four hours Saturday until he could put the costumes and capes away in favor of a nice suit.

"It's a night that we dress up and polish ourselves and award ourselves," Nathan said. "It's heart-warming. It's a wonderful evening. If you feel rundown or jaded or—‘I don't like the way Justice League is being handled anymore'—that evening puts you right back into loving everything we do."

As if the hundreds of comic book fans standing outside the window, waiting in a line to get in, weren't enough.

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