Road Trip Origins, Part 2 of 2: Our First Wizard World Chicago

Wizard World Chicago 1999!

July 17, 1999, a day that shall live on in the hearts and minds of at least two geeks.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. Every tradition begins somewhere. As longtime friends and readers might expect, ours began with a convention.

Enter Wizard World Chicago 1999. It was probably the largest comic con within 500 miles of home. We figured if we could handle a 2½-hour excursion southeast to Kings Island, then we could handle driving three or four hours northwest to Chicago.

Thus did two twentysomething best friends embark on their first real road trip, arrive at their destination in the Chicagoland town of Rosemont, and walk into the largest geek convention they’d ever seen in their lives.

We had each been to our own Indiana Convention Center at various points in our lives, but never for anything hobby-related. The Rosemont Convention Center, which would become the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in 2006, was a Leviathan compared to the hotel that sheltered our tiny sci-fi gatherings back home. If you’re familiar with their floor plan, WWC 1999 only took up Hall A and the first-floor conference rooms near the front door for the sake of containing 750 exhibitors and entertaining over 25,000 attendees, with maybe Halls B, C, and/or D for check-in and lining up. By comparison, WWC 2016 gave some tens of thousands of fans leeway to frolic and shop through the entire Convention Center, adding Halls F and G and all remaining conference rooms, effectively barring any other organizations from sharing the weekend with them anymore.

Wizard World Chicago 1999 program!

What’s this? A con so large, it had its own glossy program? With more than two pages in it? NO. WAY.

For us, Hall A alone was sufficiently mind-blowing — 250,000 square feet (nearly five football fields) filled with publishers, dealers, collectors, fan groups, autograph booths, comics, toys, more comics, probably bootleg VHS movies, still more comics, and for some reason a wrestling ring. I’m pretty sure somewhere in my head, blood vessels were popping from a level of excitement strong enough to level an entire nursing home. Entering the WWC exhibit hall for the first time was like a five-year-old’s first trip to Toys R Us. You wonder how anyone could arrange this many wonderful objects into a single, all-encompassing space, and you wonder why anyone would ever want to leave. Compared to this spectacle, Indy’s sci-fi con was like a hot dog cart, and our comic shows were like a high schooler selling band candy out of an art-supply box.


Right there in the lobby, a giant inflatable Ripclaw welcomes guests. If you don’t know who Cyberforce were, rest assured they’re now inessential personnel.

Adding to my disorientation were the frequent announcements broadcasting at volume 11 throughout the show floor at regular intervals, which might have been more tolerable if I could’ve understood any of them. Every ten minutes or so, the same thing: “ATTENTION! GRBLBLBLB MNBNMBN, THE FLFLBER OF WHRFBLBN SPMGKGBF, IS NOW SIGNING AT THE GLGLBLBLB BOOTH, NUMBER 266.” I could bear them for the first hour or so, but after the joint got packed, they became grating and not particularly helpful.

First order of business: meeting people who wrote and drew great comic books. At first glance they might seem like normal people. They are, in reality. To me they were rock stars shaping the universes I’d been visiting and following since I was six years old. Artists Alley had its fair share of creators, but most of the following appeared for autograph signings at the DC Comics booth throughout the day. Older fans who still attend WWC today can remember it’s been ages since either DC or Marvel cared enough to buy booth space. It’s no secret WWC has transitioned into more of an “entertainment” con with some comics in it than a true comic-book showcase about The Comics. That’s kind of what C2E2 is for, though in recent years they’ve been trying to serve both worlds in equal measure with varying results.

Anyway. The creators we met and photographed:

Tim Sale!

Tim Sale! Best known as the artist of Batman: The Long Halloween, he was there promoting the first issue of its sequel, Dark Holiday. I’d been a fan since the days of fantasy adaptations like MythAdventures and Thieves’ World. As the first artist I approached, he had the privilege of hearing me babble like a madman while my brain was still short-circuited from sensory overload. He was gracious, encouraging, and thankfully understanding.

(Status update: last seen in print on the Captain America: White miniseries with his Long Halloween collaborator Jeph Loeb, who’s now a Marvel Studios exec.)

Grant Morrison!

Grant Morrison! I loved Animal Man and Doom Patrol, but JLA had made him a more mainstream superstar by this point. I didn’t quite get The Invisibles, but had decided perhaps to revisit that in the future. When it was my turn at his table, a middle-aged, redhead woman in some official capacity chose that moment (my moment, of all possible moments!) to sit next to him at the table and talk his ear off for a good two or three minutes. Morrison nodded at her every so often while keeping one eye turned toward me as a reminder that this wasn’t his idea.

(Status update: he would later spend several years on a Batman storyline so continuous and complicated that not even the New 52 could shut it down. His All-Star Superman became a fascinating DC animated film. He completed his stay in the DC Universe with 2015’s Multiversity and is now doing weird, self-fulfilling projects beyond super-heroes.)

Garth Ennis!

Garth Ennis! This was indeed the heyday of DC’s Vertigo line, whose stellar talent lineup included the co-creator of Preacher and the writer of my favorite Hellblazer arc (“Dangerous Habits”). Hearing him repeat my name back to me in his Irish accent stuck in my head the rest of the day.

(Status update: creator-owned books for Avatar and Dynamite such as Crossed and Red Team; a couple of outside-the-box Hitman spinoffs set in DC’s New 52; and Preacher is now an AMC series.)

James Robinson!

James Robinson! His 80-issue Starman series would be among my DCU favorites of the 1990s, but smaller books like Firearm and Leave It to Chance were likewise acclaimed and on my reading piles. He was in the process of launching DC’s first real JSA series since the Golden Age. He seemed quiet, and I thought he deserved a longer line.

(Status update: Robinson took occasional breaks from comics after writing the screenplay for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. After a discontent stint in DC’s New 52, he’s over at Marvel handling Scarlet Witch and Squadron Supreme.)

Joe Kelly!

Joe Kelly! The man who made Deadpool ten times funnier and turned him into the fourth-wallbreaker we know and spend too much money on today was in the middle of transitioning from that gig to becoming part of DC’s Superman writing team. In hindsight I kind of wish I wasn’t in that photo, but he invited me into it, so why not. Photos like this remind me how my previous employer didn’t permit beards. When I changed career tracks in September 2000, I couldn’t get mine started fast enough.

(Status update: his Action Comics #775, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” (pencils by Doug Mahnke), quickly became one of my Top 5 Superman Stories Ever, and was later adapted into the animated film Superman vs. the Elite. As a member of Man of Action Studios, his influence reached across media and generations as their creation Ben 10 became one of my son’s favorites. In comics he was last seen back at Marvel on Spider-Man/Deadpool.)

Kurt Busiek!

Kurt Busiek! He was instrumental during Marvel’s post-Heroes Reborn/Return recovery phase at the helm of both Iron Man and Avengers. His creator-owned Astro City universe was a mere four years old, having moved from Image Comics to Wildstorm’s underutilized Homage Comics imprint. We met him at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund booth, where he and a couple of friends were toiling away at fundraising, signing and sketching and writing out word balloons and whatnot. We waited forty-five minutes for the privilege, which by our nonexistent 1999 convention standards was like a lifetime. Today, forty-five minutes is an eyeblink to us hardy, swaggering con vets.

(Status update: Astro City continues as a regular series today, just about the only sign of life in DC’s Vertigo line. Over at Image, his fantasy series The Autumnlands boasts amazing art by Ben Dewey, who has yet to appear at a con near us.)

George Perez 1999!

George Perez! Busiek’s Avengers artist and CBLDF booth-buddy. (Their Avengers colorist Tom Smith was likewise in the house but barely visible in the pics. Sorry, Tom.) From New Teen Titans to Wonder Woman to Avengers and beyond, his art has been around practically my entire comics-reading life. If you squint, you’ll note that classy Hawaiian shirt is covered with Lambchop.

(Status update: we later saw Perez again at two Superman Celebrations and last year’s Indiana Comic Con, where we found he’s nowhere near my girth today. His comics work is more intermittent but never loses that attention to detail. To this day he’s the only comics creator ever to leave a comment here on MCC, though it was to correct a misunderstanding that I’d expressed in kind of a dumb way.)

Creators met but not photographed:

* Young upstart Greg Rucka, whose Whiteout I’d bought at the Oni Press booth and devoured while in the CBLDF booth line, and left me itching to get to the sequel. He’d recently been hired to begin his renowned Detective Comics run, so I found him seated at the DC booth next to Robin writer Chuck Dixon’s long, long line. After signing Whiteout he directed me over to Artists Alley, where co-creator Steve Lieber cosigned and sketched in it for me.

* Cartoonist Jon “Bean” Hastings, creator of the fun black-‘n’-white book Smith Brown Jones: Alien Accountant.

* Nexus co-creator Steve Rude, who had to explain to a disappointed fan that he wouldn’t sign his copy of Action Comics #600 because he didn’t actually work on it. He had declined to draw the story offered to him by DC, who assigned it to someone else but forgot to remove his name from the cover. We later saw him again at a Superman Celebration and very briefly at last year’s Indy Pop Con.

* One artist/painter who’d worked for Comico and First Comics but who seemed so miserable that I felt sorry and intrusive and tiptoed away.

I attended two panels that day: a 2 p.m. Q&A about Wildstorm Comics’ fringe imprints Homage, Cliffhanger!, and America’s Best Comics; and the last activity of the con, a 5 p.m. JLA/JSA panel. My memories have mingled both panels because I wasn’t in the note-taking habit back then, but I know the former included Kurt Busiek, Ford Gilmore (no idea whatever happened to him), a mostly quiet Tomm Coker, and Gene Ha before that time he did a wonderful sketch for us in 2016. The latter panel brought in Grant Morrison, James Robinson, and Mark Waid (who had to refuse a tacky autograph request from a fan who walked up to the stage at the end), with a surprise cameo by DC Publisher/Executive VP Paul Levitz.

While in various lines I had the pleasure of chatting with fellow starstruck comics fans who couldn’t believe the size, the bustle, the ubiquity of COMICS COMICS COMICS that now immersed us everywhere we walked. The conversations alone were bizarre to me because I’ve spent so much of my life surrounded by people who don’t get me that I rarely talk about comics out loud. When I do, I’m so unpracticed at it that the words are difficult to piece together because I’m used to having all the time I needed to deliberate and type about comics. Even at the comic shop every Wednesday, I’m usually in and out in five minutes in humble silence. Other fans have their own forms of awkwardness and social deficiencies; this, I discovered, was one of mine.

In between events and Artists Alley and long lines: old comics! Back issue boxes are fun to dive into when you have a mile-long want-list and nobody tapping their watch at you.

back issue boxes!

At last, late-’70s issues of The Incredible Hulk, you will be mine.

Anne tagged along with me for some of this, but she didn’t deserve to wallow in boredom while I indulged. Occasionally she wandered of her own free will and did her own thing. Mostly she remembers browsing the celebrity autograph section, home base for those Star Wars actors we knew would be there. Sadly, their autographs were not included free with our ticket prices. We had some cash on us, but not that much. We weren’t ready to shell out dozens of bucks for what we used to get for free at the old cons back home. Then again, those old cons didn’t invite Star Wars actors. Times and marketplaces have changed since then, and so have we.

In the meantime, she enjoyed the window shopping as much as she could.

Anthony Daniels!

Anthony Daniels, costar of The Phantom Menace!

Kenny Baker! Caroline Blakiston!

Kenny Baker, also costar of The Phantom Menace! Next door is Caroline Blakiston, the original Mon Mothma.

David Prowse, barely!

Darth Vader’s body David Prowse, off in the distance to the left.

Also on display: cosplay! Of course! These were simpler times before monetized cosplayers became a career track, a guest-list qualifier, or a reason to rent a booth. Folks did what they could with the tools at hand to represent the characters they loved. And we liked it.

Phantom Menace!

Look, in these primitive times before the advent of social media and armchair critics on every virtual street corner, there was a reason The Phantom Menace made $431 million in its initial U.S. run. No one held us at gunpoint and forced us to see it six or ten times each.

Spidey and Wolverine!

The duds on those corporate mascot cosplayers weren’t much fancier than what fans wore in for free.

Dr. Doom!

” HEAR ME, PEASANT! DOOM has time-traveled from the future to stop Marvel from licensing the Fantastic Four to Fox!”

We never got anywhere near Ray Park that year, surrounded as he was by constant throngs. Far as we know, we were never within two hundred feet of WWC 1999’s Guest of Honor, director Kevin Smith. We did walk past the table of B-movie actor Robert Z’Dar, who’s appeared in at least two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and whose unique jaw you might remember from Tango & Cash, but our thought on that differently priced opportunity was, “…nah.”

The program lists another dozen or more comics talents we missed. Curiously, despite its glossy pages and non-mimeographed nature, upon closer examination the same program is shoddy and incomplete, listing none of the actors except Ray Park, providing a map of the show floor with nothing labeled, but taking care to devote a space to quasi-cosplay quasi-guest Keep-Squeezin’-Them-Monkeys Lad. (Hey, don’t give me that look. I never worked for Wizard.)

Harassment Guidelines 1999!

Also, here’s what passed for rules of conduct and harassment guidelines in 1999. The short version: “Please don’t make us have to act like grown-ups at you. Pretty please? Guys?”

Eventually we stopped walking back and forth across the show floor and convinced each other to stop looking for comics people or actors or action figures or reasons to spend our last pennies. Closing time became a reality and not just last year’s earworm. But in all the fun, the chaos, the lines, and the overwhelming geekiness of it all, we realized we’d skipped an event.

We’d forgotten to eat lunch. At all.

Adrenalin and water fountains had carried us through the entire day on a wave of euphoria that had been like a renewable energy source until we realized it and broke the spell. Hours after entry, we were suddenly dying. Thankfully we still had that cooler filled with lunchmeat, toppings, and drinks out in the car. As we exited the Convention Center and walked across River Road to their colossal garage, we realized we’d overlooked something else.

We’d forgotten where we parked.

Approximately seven thousand minutes passed while we searched up and down the length of the garage floor where I was almost certain I’d parked, until my trusty ’96 Cavalier revealed itself on the next level above. Naturally.

We popped the trunk and sat in the car for a while, emptying the contents of the cooler into our stomachs, listening to the radio and wishing our feet would stop aching and swelling and crying out for amputation. We were in any number of pains, but the experience and the present company were all we needed in that moment.

And then the radio interrupted and broke the news to us that John F. Kennedy, Jr., was missing and presumed dead when his plane disappeared after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard. As if someone in charge of the airwaves had been listening in and decided to remind us what real problems look like.

Not that we needed reminders, thank you very much. We would have Sunday to recuperate and readjust to the outside world, but Anne had already scheduled off work on Monday to attend her great-grandfather’s funeral.

But that was Monday. For now, on this Saturday, we’d proven a lot to ourselves about our capabilities for planning, for working together, for diving headlong into new experiences far from the safety of home, all without getting lost, mugged, crashed, or worse. Wizard World Chicago 1999 represented multiple huge steps for us.

And we still have some of the souvenirs to prove it.

Dark Horse bag!

The bag that once contained free swag courtesy of the Dark Horse Comics booth.

Oni Press 1999 ashcan!

Sampler of forthcoming works from still-young Oni Press, future publisher of Scott Pilgrim.

Tony Stark balloon!

The word balloon that Kurt Busiek hand-lettered for me in exchange for my CBLDF donation. Note the extra care Busiek put into gilding the balloon edges to resemble Comicraft-style Iron Man dialogue. Gotta love that attention to detail.

We didn’t conclude the weekend by declaring that we should make Wizard World Chicago an annual tradition. We didn’t return until 2010, though it’s been an annual event for us since then.

We also didn’t look at each other and decide, “We have to do a road trip every year!” We took away enough new confidence to know that maybe, just maybe we could find other things like WWC to do in the future — cons in other cities, actor/creator shindigs on weekends other than Thanksgiving, or even amusement parks besides Kings Island. Whatever would be, would be.

The following year, a convention in another state jumped out at us that opened yet another new horizon in an unpredictable fashion. The year after that, we pushed our distance and our definition of “convention” even farther at the opposite end of Illinois. Over time we started finding reasons to detour from Indiana that had nothing to do with organized fandom, as unlikely as that would’ve sounded to us in 1999.

Today, we’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: