Darren Tompkins attended his first comic convention (or comic con) in Roanoke, Va., back in the mid-1980s. At the time, these gatherings were only for die-hard comic fans — people who might invest in a Batman or Joker costume to wear once a year.
"Really, it was just a small ballroom filled with cardboard boxes," Tompkins says. "I mean, there weren't any actors or famous people or panels or anything. It was just a place for comic book dealers to get together and sell their wares."
Tompkins now runs the Houston Zombie Walk, a charity walk that he promotes in a booth at Comicpalooza, Houston's leading comic con. He's watched attendance here nearly triple over the past two years, from 11,000 to more than 32,000. And while there are people in costume, most attendees are ordinary folks in street clothes.
"This is a vastly growing market," says John Simons, Comicpalooza's founder and chairman. "And a lot of that is tied to the fact that a lot of the things that were previously considered, you know, geeky or nerdy are now very mainstream; everybody goes to see Spider-Man."
Superhero movies are a big part of the growing popularity of comic cons. Such movies used to come out once every few years. In 1989, Batman earned just over $400 million in ticket sales. The first Spider-Man film, in 2002, doubled Batman's record. Now, Hollywood turns out at least one superhero movie a year, and they rake in billions at the box office.
The growing popularity of comic cons is why a European multinational bought Toronto-based Fan Expo, the company behind one of North America's largest comic cons. Fan Expo president Steve Menzie says his mandate is to buy up other conventions. His first purchase: Dallas Comic Con, the largest event in Texas.
"So the way we wanted to approach it was to find like-minded show promoters like ourselves that had produced great events ... that we could kind of bring under our tent, enable them to sort of continue doing what they do, but to facilitate doing that bigger, better, and hopefully more of," Menzie says.
But as the industry shifts toward big corporate players — who can afford big venues and pay for big-name guests — there's more pressure on smaller, independent organizers like Christina Angel, director of Denver Comic Con.
"When you get a group of corporate franchise cons that have much deeper pocket books, it's difficult to compete with them," Angel says. "They can get bigger guests, and we depend entirely on our attendance numbers to be able to attract guests of a certain level to our shows."
That means putting on the best show they can, which is what Comicpalooza was aiming to do when it brought comic book legend Stan Lee to Houston.
Ticket holders lined up for blocks to see the former publisher of Marvel Comics, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man and dozens of other superheroes. The 91-year-old — who's unmistakable with his sunglasses and bushy, white, moustache — has watched the turnout for comic cons grow for decades
"It used to be just for kids. Now, people of every age are here," Lee says. "I meet people who come with their children. I meet people who come with their grandchildren. You see older men with beards. It encompasses the whole human race!"
And with that, Lee turned and climbed onto the stage to face more than 2,000 screaming fans.