A look back at the pros and cons of Chicago’s inaugural RetCon.
The first annual RetCon was held August 12–13 at Chicago’s Bailey Auditorium. Located just west of Greektown in the Windy City, the event had the mission statement of “bringing comics back to comic cons.” I went on the 13, and I think they’ve successfully made an intimate, comic-centric event. There were some weaknesses to the day, though, as this is their first event and certain allowances can be made.The first hurdle for the event was its location. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult problem to solve, as any venue in any city that is large enough to accommodate the number of people attending such an event aren’t very centrally located. Luckily, I was able to park my car relatively easily in the surrounding area, but it will certainly be a challenge as they try to expand their attendance to try and convince people to get out to the venue.
Once inside, however, I was immediately awash in nostalgia as ReCon immediately felt like an old-school comic convention. While I was nowhere near the beginnings of such events as Comic-Con International: San Diego or New York’s show, comic cons weren’t always as massive as they are now; those old-school shows had humble beginnings too.
With basketball court flooring and a small stage built into the back wall, Bailey Auditorium was more akin to the gym-a-toriums of my elementary and junior high days. Consequently, I felt teleported back in time to what it must have been like in those early days of San Diego. Along the walls were a handful of vendors, including Alleycat Comics, First Aid Comics, and Grim Comics, who were in from Indiana. In the middle were the tables of roughly 50 or so creators who were there with their work.
The throwback vibe of the event made the show very charming. As someone who has been to a lot of big blow-out cons, it was nice to be in a smaller, more manageable space. It definitely felt more like a community event and the people who were there seemed to be truly interested in the topic at hand.
Unfortunately, there were not very many people attending. While I don’t know any attendance numbers for either day, the turnout was sparse when I was in the room. That isn’t very surprising considering that this was the con’s first year, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for my friend who was tabling and who I don’t think received very much return on his investment this year.To me, it seems like the biggest issue facing RetCon moving forward is the event’s identity. Right now, RetCon is positioned as “The other comic con.” While a mission statement born out of reaction to other events isn’t inherently bad, this style of branding is difficult to sustain because with every success, it will become harder and harder for the con to hold onto that identity; the bigger you get, the less you’re the “anti-show” show. Also, the “you’ve seen the rest, now try the best” messaging requires attendees to have been to so many other shows that they’re searching for an alternative, another hurdle placed in front of potential growth since die-hard con-goers jaded by the experience will always be a minority.
These are not insurmountable issues, however. Events like Chicago Alternative Komics Expo (CAKE) are well-respected and well-attended, while explicitly maintaining a “small con” size. The advantage CAKE has, however, is the strong rallying point of being an “Alt-comics” show. I think it would behoove RetCon to follow in CAKE’s footsteps and hone in on what truly makes them unique. This year, I was craving something more out of RetCon than to just be not C2E2 or San Diego, but for something it can claim as its own as well.
The second part of their mission statement reads:
“The comic book community is filled with diverse, up-and-coming writers and artists who are not currently featured in the mainstream comic industry. RetCon is committed to representing diverse creators.”
I like this sentiment, I think it’s a worthy goal of a convention, and it makes me more interested in seeing what RetCon is about. The problem is that I only really saw this part after the convention. While RetCon was a pleasant throwback to old-school comic swaps, the internet does a lot of the swapping for us. In a world full of nerd conventions that cater to all our various interests, I don’t know yet how much we need just another show on the calendar. But in an industry still largely dominated by old white men, diversity and new voices are definitely two categories that could use more attention, support, and visibility, so moving forward, I would love to see RetCon shrug off the chip on their shoulder and instead invest in getting these hitherto untapped talents out in front of the world.