This weekend my wife Anne and I attended the inaugural Ace Comic Con Midwest, the third show from the new geek-convention company that previously exhibited in Seattle and in Glendale, AZ, before turning their attention to someplace within our driving distance. The creators were previously the bigwigs behind the Wizard World empire, but parted ways a while back, decided to do their own separate thing, and took all their learned lessons and deep Hollywood connections with them.
We’re used to Chicagoland cons taking place in large-scale venues such as McCormick Place and the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Whether due to creative choice or limited options so late in the year, Ace instead took place at Chicago’s famous Navy Pier on the shores of occasionally beautiful Lake Michigan. Few attendees knew Navy Pier has an event space big enough to hold a con. Beyond the Pier’s shops, restaurants, Children’s Museum, climate-controlled Ferris wheel, and other forms of entertainment, on the second floor near the eastern end is a Festival Hall with a 60-foot ceiling and tens of thousands of square footage waiting for big companies to come fill it with booths, fans, and fun.
One catch: the transportation situation. A lot of folks can take buses, cabs, Uber, or Lyft into the area. The trains will only get you so far and require a Plan B to span the remaining distance. For those who prefer to steer their own destinies, the Pier has its own parking garages with 1500 spaces available at $30 per day. If you’re planning to hang around the area for more than a few hours, $30 is pretty competitive with the exorbitant Chicago parking scene. If that’s too rich for your blood, there’re better offers to be had with certain parking apps, as long as you don’t mind the extra walking.
That’s why Anne and I arrived at the show Friday afternoon already dead tired. As part of her big birthday weekend we parked two blocks away from the Pier for $24, but then spent the four hours preceding the con walking all over downtown Chicago — over to the Magnificent Mile for a stop, down to the lakeside park area, over to the Loop for light shopping, then all the way back to the Navy Pier for our feature presentation. It didn’t help that temperatures had been in the mid-40s all day, or that light rain at one point dampened our clothes and spirits while we looked for things to do. We’re now in our late 40s, clearly not at peak health as our photos might attest, and perhaps should’ve thought a little harder about our tourism strategy.
We reach the Pier around 3:30 local time, already fairly in pain. We’d walked its length once before, five years ago — not quite enough exposure to have the layout memorized. We assumed we’d see signs of where to go on the outside, so we charged onward through the long, outdoor march. On our right, cruise ships had signs promising Lake Michigan tours but had no takers in the gray autumn doldrums. On our left, one long, long building that never seemed to end and said “Ace Comic Con” at exactly zero points on the outside. Blocks later, the sidewalk ended at a deserted beer garden and a set of doors leading inside, where we found signs of conventioning at last, and, more importantly, heat and shelter.
Everyone was herded upstairs toward the easternmost entrances to the Festival Hall and divided into VIP and General Admission lines. At 3:40 we joined the GA line behind hundreds of other fans far more energetic and dry than we were. The line headed back west, past a series of sections under unsightly construction that hampered our view of ostensibly scenic Lake Michigan.
The doors were scheduled to open at 4:00. Based on line size alone, we had serious doubts about getting anywhere convention happiness anytime before 6:00. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a speedy admission process that got us wristbands by 4:30, even from our faraway position in the crowd GA, even including a walk through the first round of security checkpoints immediately at the front door. They saved us a bit of time by barely glancing into our bags, but got bit consternated with me setting off the metal detector in dumbfounded ignorance until I remembered I was wearing steel-toe sneakers. That’s what I get for shoe-shopping only a week before showtime and promptly forgetting my footwear had special features. Fortunately at least one security guard knew shoes and recognized steel-toes when she saw them. They didn’t double-check to ensure I didn’t also have a 9mm tucked in my belt, but I promise I didn’t.
Thirty feet beyond the front door were tables where we traded admission tickets for wristbands with no delays or complications. At last, it was time to go crazy, comic-con style.
Based on our readings about the first two Ace Comic Cons, we knew their primary focus was on the celebrity interaction experience. The average Ace guest list is shorter than the average Wizard World roster, but not bolstered by character actors, B-listers, and retirees. We’ve been perfectly happy to meet folks from all of those career levels and will likely continue to do so in the future, but Ace’s roster boasts actors more popular and (for now) stratospherically higher on the Hollywood food chain, drawing especially heavily from the world of superhero films. The showrunners behind the most recent Wizard World Chicago struggled to tap that vein and in some respects also appeared to have forgotten how to run a convention. By and large, Ace Midwest did not share their problems.
Ace had its own set of drawbacks, which bothered some fans but left others unaffected. Artists Alley offered only 20-25 creators, and the entire Festival Hall sported about thirty vendors. That’s a significant pullback when you’re used to seeing hundreds and hundreds of dealers, shop owners, publishers and self-publishers sprawled across multiple halls. More could have been accommodated in exchange for narrower walkways, but apparently that’s not Ace’s thing. To be candid, Anne and I find ourselves buying fewer and fewer items from typical exhibit halls, and were exhausted enough that it was a sort of perverse relief not to have all that extra walking, window-shopping and not-buying to do.
On the other hand, I’m much happier when Artists Alley is bursting with recognizable names and visibly talented newcomers, which is why C2E2 has remained a must-see for me every year. Most of the Ace lineup comprised creators who’ve shown up at other Midwest cons. I made a point of buying from one who’d impressed me previously — Ryan Ruffatti, creator/writer of a series called Teleport (illustrated by Moomie Swan), of which I’d bought #1 from him at Cincinnati Comic Expo 2017. I jumped as soon as I saw he had #2 at his table.
Between Friday and Saturday, we made what we could of the show floor.
We had no appointments until 6 p.m. and killed a little time enjoying seats for a Main Stage Q&A starring a pair of WWE wrestlers. We don’t watch wrestling, but we needed to sit down. The shortest exhibit hall is still a burden when you’re old and you’ve overextended yourself. Anne took a few shots while we recuperated. The Friday night celeb lineup was mostly wrestlers, but their fans appreciated them coming out.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover we shared the highlight of our Friday night: meeting Tom Hiddleston, star of the BBC miniseries The Night Manager, which aired in the U.S. on AMC and whose finale begat one of my all-time biggest live-tweeting nights on record. Also, he was Loki and tried to murder Thor a few times. Ladies apparently love him. Like, lots. Lots and lots and lots.
When we first planned to do Ace Comic Con for Anne’s birthday weekend, we drew a line and determined we could only spend up to a certain limit to meet any given actor. When Don Cheadle was announced as an Ace guest on September 29th, we tiptoed a few inches over the line and bought a prepaid photo-op with him. When Cheadle canceled on October 7th due to last-minute filming changes, we were bummed and in a vulnerable state. Not until Thursday the 11th — literally 24 hours before this moment — did we decide to go wild and overindulge in this brief brush with Hiddleston. His line began moving a bit late, but not unforgivably so. He was in good spirits, about nine feet tall, and far more energetic than we were. Clearly he hadn’t spent all day strolling up and down Michigan Avenue before clocking in and filling the Festival Hall with awe and wonder.
The only other hard part about doing his photo-op besides the asking price was the mandatory extra security gauntlet. Every Ace Comic Con to date has included a second wave of metal detectors in front of their autograph/photo-op sections. Even if you entered the front doors without a problem, you had to do the same thing all over again. At Ace Midwest the main difference was the second wave of security cared even less if we were packing than the first wave. They stared at us as we approached, hardly moving, not even to offer the courtesy of pushing us one of those doggie dishes where you’re supposed to dump everything from your pockets. They didn’t touch our proffered bags, not a single poke. They seemed even more tired than we were, or simply intensely bored, and about as enthusiastic as extras playing security guards in the final half-hour of Saturday Night Live.
Naturally I had to complicate the process by getting my jacket and bag strap tangled up and looking like an idiot dancing in place while trying to remove things obediently. This time, though, at least I knew to announce “steel-toe shoes!” before walking through the detectors. They checked our photo-op ticket, but didn’t bother to see if I was also carrying a nasty, jagged shiv that I’d somehow cobbled together from spare table parts after clearing the front-door check, but I promise I didn’t.
Once we’d finished with Hiddleston at 7:20. we died. Then we walked back through the now-darkened halls of Navy Pier, having realized we didn’t have to walk it entirely outdoors. We grabbed dinner at a chicken place that took over twenty minutes to cook our order, then got our separate “original” and “spicy” requests backwards, much to Anne’s burning regret. We died while waiting, ate half our meals, continued onward, eventually reached our parking garage, died inside our car, had to beg security to let us drive out when the ticket reader didn’t recognize our prepaid status, drove out to our hotel in Oak Brook, and then spent the rest of the night continuing to die, but at least now we could lie down while dying.
* * * * *
COSPLAY INTERMISSION TIME!
Full disclosure: we took very few costume photos. I know fans love them and search for them and share them far and wide, but the truth is not much stood out to us. Much of the Ace population comprised newcomers to the convention scene — some flying in from as far away as England, Japan, and Argentina — and had fun joining the crowd in their own ways. In many cases this meant either no costumes, Halloween costumes, or dressing as Marvel heroes. That’s cool and I hope everyone felt welcome and had as much of a blast as we ultimately did, but in recent years we’ve gotten extremely finicky about what we photograph and save for posterity. Also, when crowds thickened Saturday, stopping cosplayers midstream grew increasingly challenging. Also also, that severe exhaustion I mentioned dulled our reflexes and our attention spans.
Behold what passes for our Ace Comic Con cosplay photo gallery for Friday and Saturday:
END TINY COSPLAY INTERMISSION.
* * * * *
Sleep provided a bit of recovery, but my legs were still aching when we showed up Saturday morning over an hour before the Festival Hall was scheduled to reopen at 10. To our relief, apparently everyone behind the scenes got really hyper and started letting us in early. Also to our relief, another guard recognized steel-toe shoes and let me in without touching my bag. Less of a relief was the argument we got to overhear while waiting for the detectors, in which another guard kept bickering over his walkie-talkie about someone named “Keena” who was clearly doing something that upset him enough to make him curse in front of an all-ages crowd. The respondent on the other end ultimately pulled rank and said approximately, “Let’s not do this over the walkie-talkie…” at which point he stormed off, presumably to go throttle Keena.
Saturday was the big day for all the biggest guests to be in the house, actors as well as comics creators. Two gentlemen in particular have been doing fine works since I was a kid and were a pleasure to meet. Most famous among them was Jim Starlin, best known as the creator of such Marvel personalities as Thanos, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer. He also played a major role in the life of the original Captain Marvel until his death from cancer, and orchestrated all the best stories starring Adam Warlock, that vague outline of a being revealed at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 who may mean more in future films. Over at DC Comics he co-created the Superman villain Mongul as well as a Batman foe named the KGBeast, who was brought to the big screen as a henchman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. While playing in their universe he also famously helped murder Robin through a publishing stunt that allowed fans to call a 1-900 number and sentence him to death. As a kid I also dug his creator-owned sci-fi series Dreadstar.
Also appearing was Ron Lim, whose career dates back to the late ’80s and such titles I collected such as Captain America, Silver Surfer, Badger, Psi-Force, and the back half of the original Infinity Gauntlet miniseries — i.e., the basis of the next Avengers film. He had an energetic style that lent itself well to the action heroes of the time, especially Badger because the Badger was awesome. Most recently he drew a few pages of Nazi-punching action in this year’s Captain America Annual, which I’d picked up right before the show.
(Ron Lim was a late addition to that panel, which was originally scheduled to feature Starlin, creator of Thanos, and Donny Cates, who writes Marvel’s current Thanos series. A few days before showtime his name was quietly deleted from the panel description. Ace’s official site listed him as a guest for the weekend anyway, but neither fan comments nor his own Twitter feed confirm his presence there.)
The rest of our Saturday focused on meeting actors. Of those on hand, we’d already met Matt Smith (cf. Wizard World Chicago 2014) and Karen Gillan (the first and only Wizard World Indianapolis in 2015); we don’t watch wrestling or TV’s Lucifer; and we kept waffling over whether or not Elizabeth Olsen would be amenable to jazz hands.
And then there was the super-sensational Chris Evans. Once he was added to the guest list, his Saturday opportunities sold out at light speed. We couldn’t attend Sunday, and even if we had, his prices were at least as out-of-this-world as Hiddleston’s. We couldn’t possibly do both, though Evans’ sold-out status made our self-control easier in his case.
Nonetheless, we had two more guests to meet. This meant more trips through the second-wave metal detectors, but my system of announcing “steel-toe shoes!” was saving some seconds and awkwardness. Once again they didn’t bother to touch our bags, and didn’t check to see if I’d also gone out Friday night after the show and bought a shotgun from Turk in a van down by the river, but I promise I didn’t.
The only actor autograph I’d purchased was for Lee Pace. You might remember him from such films as Guardians of the Galaxy, in which he was the big blue jerk Ronan (who’s returning next spring for the retro-set Captain Marvel), and in The Hobbit trilogy as the creepy elf lord Thranduil. More recently, viewers caught him as the star of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, while New Yorkers may have caught him on Broadway in this year’s Tony-winning revival of Angels in America. But Anne and I knew him best as Ned the Piemaker, hero of the late, lamented Pushing Daisies, which ABC couldn’t figure out how to promote or connect with viewers. A young Pace had to master the fine art of machine-gun-speed baroque dialogue while surrounded by outlandishly cultivated Barry Sonnenfeld/Bo Welch set decorations, a top-notch supporting cast, and the dead bodies he had to bring back to life for quick, bizarre testimonies. This very show was his first American convention appearance. We preferred not to miss it.
We joined the autograph line at 11:30 behind several dozen other folks. We were scheduled for his photo op at 1:00. At 12:20 an Ace volunteer loudly insisted everyone with the tickets for the photo op should leave the autograph line now now now, go join the photo-op line early, and then rejoin the autograph line much later. After several people in front of us bought this scenario and left, we found ourselves maybe 10-12 equally stubborn fans away from Pace’s table. We stuck it out, got to his table right at 12:30, and enjoyed the moment and the pleasantries and Ned the Piemaker in reality minus superpowers.
Then we did the photo op. And, um, kind of wish we’d been in a position to ask for a retake.
My loot pile effectively stopped accumulating around this point. Two autographs, one new comic, a Black Panther magnet for my work desk, a free sticker, and a few business fliers isn’t as much to show off as we normally have from an average con experience, admittedly.
While we waited in line for Pace’s photo, we enjoyed one of Ace’s other perks: TVs around the show floor live-streaming events as they occurred at the Main Stage. If I’m not mistaken, the venues for the two previous Ace shows had advantageous super-sized Jumbotron-ish screens that could broadcast the goings-on writ large for all to see while trapped in lines or milling around the show floor. Navy Pier had no such amenities — hence the TVs. They were a nice perk if you could get near one and the sound was turned up loudly enough. From Pace’s line I could catch much of the Q&A with Zazie Beetz, the last actor I’d be meeting later.
Marvel fans know her best as Domino from this year’s smash hit Deadpool 2, returning to theaters this December but whittled down to PG-13 so now it’ll be fun for the whole family like most other superhero films, some of which made less money than either Deadpool movie. But I knew her first from TV’s Atlanta, the Emmy-nominated FX series starring, created and produced by TV’s Donald Glover. While much of the show focuses on Glover’s character Earn and his misadventures as a would-be manager for his rap-star cousin — when it’s not ignoring the “rules” of half-hour TV shows and experimenting with narrative and format — Beetz is up in there as Van, mother of Earn’s daughter, trying not to strangle him throughout their on-again off-again relationship. The show is risky, audacious, inventive, subversive, thought-provoking, and never boring. Beetz has played a major part in that.
She was among the first guests announced after Ace Midwest itself was announced. I was sorry her Q&A conflicted with the Lee Pace schedule, but I appreciated the opportunity to experience much of it secondhand but still live. In case I had missed it, one comics news site later turned nearly every other thing she said into separate news articles, which amused me to no end and failed to improve my opinion of them.
Beetz, on the other hand, remained classy, as seen in our lead photo. Her photo op was our last activity of the entire convention. In a rare shocking move, they began ushering her line through early. She complimented my shirt (twice!) and…well, you can see the results. It took all my remaining energy reserves to come remotely close to keeping up with her spirit in that shot.
(Special shout-out to Ace for making digital copies of every single photo op a free perk, not an upcharged item as they are at Wizard World and many other shows. That rocked.)
Meanwhile at Ace Comic Con, thousands of attendees took nearly all the chairs at the Main Stage for the 2:30 Avengers panel starring Karen “Nebula” Gillan, Lee “Ronan” Pace, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. For the majority it was their one and only chance to see Cap without putting his superstar fees on their credit cards. My spot in Beetz’ line left me far away from any TVs and 100% unable to hear what was going on. When we began filing into her photo booth I took a few shots of the nearest TV before it was my turn to move on.
I’m aware all the Q&As have now been posted on Ace’s Facebook page in full for watching anytime. That’s an option, but once the show is over, such artifacts lose a bit of their power and sway.
Thanks to the unexpected acceleration of that final line, our Ace Comic Con experience ended around 3:10 p.m. Saturday. We had a few regrets, but another round of memories and souvenirs to cherish for some time to come. We left the Festival Hall, walked the full Navy Pier length one last time, returned to the parking garage, had to petition security to let us ago yet again without double-charging us, then returned to the hotel and died yet again.
So far there’s no official word as to whether or not Ace Midwest will become a permanent annual event, whether it’ll return to Navy Pier or move to a commoner venue, or whether it’ll even stay in Chicago or hop around the Midwest according to the showrunners’ moods and negotiations. We wanted to try it at least once and we’re satisfied with our results to the extent that we knew what we were getting into. Our heads are still buzzing from all that fan overload, but as to whether or not it’ll be an annual ritual for us…at these prices, I can’t promise it will.