A New Convention Comics to Philadelphia
It’s always fun to visit a new and unpredictable comic convention, but there’s always a risk with a first-year con. Many have turned into disasters due to inexperienced proprietors or poor policies. Remember DashCon? Remember Universal Fancon? (No one actually does because it never happened.) Remember FyreFest? (Those that do are still conferring with their lawyers.)
But few first-year conventions started a pedigree like Keystone Comic Con. The company behind the event, ReedPop, is behind two of the biggest conventions in the United States. They brought an A-list convention back to Chicago after the slow collapse of Wizard World with the popular C2E2, and they wrangled the massive New York Comic Con—the second largest convention in the country—into a semi-functional show despite its limited space. So expectations were high for Keystone Comic Con, the first A-list comic convention to hit Philadelphia in years. Your intrepid reporter was on hand to experience the con—and sample the local food. Mmm.
Welcome to the Con
Keystone Comic Con was located in the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a spacious building attached to Jefferson Station on the SEPTA line. That means you can step right off the train, which connects to both local Philadelphia trains and longer-distance trains from New Jersey, and be at the convention in less than five minutes. The convention space contains a large show call, several panel and entertainment spaces, meeting rooms for smaller panels, and a semi-large theater with sloped seating like a movie theater for easy viewing. It’s a laid-back space that feels like it would be more suited for a business convention than a large fan event. A far cry from the chaos of NYCC, the only other major convention I’ve attended, including the orderly admissions process.
I was able to walk right into Keystone Comic Con with my press pass, and the security and staff were all highly professional and friendly. The first thing that surprised me on my visit was that this con was not nearly as busy as I expected it to be. I’m used to not having the room to breathe at comic cons! ReedPop charged $75 for three-day tickets with higher-priced VIP options, which is right in line with most mid-level cons. However, for a first-year con people may have found it a bit steep. Maybe a lot of fans were waiting for year two to make sure they weren’t stepping into another first-year con disaster? ReedPop wasn’t involved in year one of NYCC, but its legendary overselling and shutdown are still talked about in the fandom.
The Show Floor
The lighter crowds all weekend gave me the opportunity to take in the show floor at my leisure. It was a far more informal affair than you’d see at a bigger convention. An offbeat mix of talents mingled, with jelly bean proprietors sitting next to fantasy-romance novelists, and Artist Alley saw boldface pros like David Walker and Ken Lashley sitting alongside up-and-coming talents. This felt like a show floor where fans and pros were on an equal footing, and it was easy to strike up a conversation with your favorites and have the time and space to chat.
Before moving on from the show floor, I’d like to give some brief shout-outs to two of my favorite indie pros who you may not have heard of.
Travis Holyfield – Travis is an old friend of mine going back over ten years from a now-defunct message board, and he’s also a highly talented comic writer. He is the author of two series—Dober-Man, a parody of silver age superhero comics with artist Edward Whatley, and the ongoing noir thriller Street Clothes, about a retired supervillain with art by Von Randal and Kevin De Castro and letters by Taylor Esposito. Information on both series and a collection of Travis’ short stories can be found on his website here.
Crimson Melodies Publishing – Founded by author Peter Dawes and editor J.R. Wesley in 2009, Crimson Melodies Publishing is an innovative independent publisher focusing on supernatural fantasy, romance, and horror titles. Many of their books feature LGBT characters and have been acclaimed for bringing more diversity to the genre. Talking to the brains behind this operation was one of the best parts of this weekend, and I think anyone looking for a unique take on the vampire genre will be very happy with their books. More information on their titles, including their signature The Vampire Flynn series, along with purchase links, is available on their website here.
After touring the floor, it was time to enjoy some panels. The programming was a little sparse compared to bigger cons, but what it lost in options it made up for in innovation. Intimate, conversational panels focusing on topics as diverse as comics as therapy; the role of comics in advocating against the war on drugs; how to use comics in schools; disability in comics; and even a panel on combining comics with craft beer were a breath of fresh air. I didn’t attend all of them due to time constraints, but the ones I did felt less like panels than informal meetups—in the best way.
The biggest events at Keystone Comic Con were found in the Keystone Theater. In contrast to the mega-panels at NYCC, this one felt more like an intimate movie theater or lecture hall—a brightly lit theater with descending seating to ensure everyone has a good view no matter their seat. This theater played host to talents including Chris Claremont, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Barrowman, and Andy Serkis, as well as spotlights on Marvel Comics, Valiant Comics, and the Batman Day Panel.
I attended the last one, which featured Bat-creators Steve Orlando, Peter J. Tomasi, and Greg Capullo talking about their books and what Batman means to them. Tomasi’s veteran experience mixed nicely with Orlando’s “ascended fan” enthusiasm, and Capullo was a hilarious chaos agent that kept the panel light and unpredictable. Much of the panel was devoted to an open question-and-answer with free candy for those bold enough to step up to the mike. I got to express my thoughts about the Robins and Batgirls being an absolutely essential part of the Batman mythos, and let’s hope DC is listening!
Of course, everyone knows that when attending a convention, you have to eat. That’s often a major hassle—you either have to check in and out of the con and deal with the lines coming back in, or eat the often overpriced and mediocre con grub. That’s not the case here—one of the biggest draws of Keystone Comic Con isn’t actually part of the con. That would be Reading Terminal Market, attached by a quick tunnel to Jefferson Station. Philadelphia’s original food hall is a tightly packed, often chaotic hub of over forty vendors serving every type of food under the sun. You can find Chinese, Cajun, Middle Eastern, soul food, diner grub, Italian, a wide selection of Penn Dutch meals and groceries, and of course, authentic Philly Cheesesteaks. 90% of stands will give you a full meal for under $10. My two favorite spots are Sang Kee Peking Duck House for their roast meats and noodle soups and Fox & Sons Fancy Corn Dogs for their elevated, allergen-friendly versions of the classic fairground treat. The full selection of vendors can be found here.
So that’s year one of Keystone Comic Con. Was it a good first-year con? Absolutely. A good variety of talent and panels, with a much more interactive vibe than any other convention I’ve attended. It had a very relaxed, friendly vibe—maybe a little too relaxed. I’m a little worried about the sparse attendance I saw, and I hope the con was profitable. The staff and guests showed a great love for the world of comics and entertainment, and I’m excited to see what Keystone Comic Con grows into in the future.