Atlantic City Boardwalk Con Puts Focus Back on Comics, Cosplay

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ACBC Atlantic City Boardwalk Con Mike DlAlessio cosplay

For all the spectacle of a San Diego Comic-Con or a Wizard World, there' something that's been slowly slipping away from the concept of the comic book convention: the comic book. Oh, it's still there, but now it's become a mecca for video game developers to show off their latest beta releases and Hollywood movie studios to generate buzz for their next year's action movies.

Mike D'Alessio is no stranger to comic conventions. He may not be known to the fans, but to the industries who attend these conventions, he and his Promoguys Marketing Group are major -- nay, invaluable -- players. Now D'Alessio is bringing all his experience and klout to bear as he brings the first annual Atlantic City Boardwalk Con to New Jersey -- but this isn't just another comic book convention, as you'll see as we talk with Mike about what's going to make this convention bigger and better.

Wasn't there a comic convention in Atlantic City before?

To the best of my knowledge, there was two years ago -- not this past winter, the winter before -- there was New Jersey Comic-Con, and that was in Haddonfield in a VFW. It was very, very small. There's Darkon in the Tropicana in AC, which is done by the great John Henderson, who does great shows, but that was really featuring more of the bizarre -- zombies and piercings and stuff like that. There was going to be a Comic Con in Atlantic City -- somebody else tried to get in -- and that just didn't happen. They wanted to do it the week before ours. That didn't happen, because we had exclusive rights on it. But as far as I know, I think we're the first ones, at least on this scale, to the best of my knowledge.

And the scale is definitely massive. I'm seeing names like Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, Manu Bennett. How difficult is it to get commitments from names like this for a first-time convention when you are not Wizard world?

It's easy if you have the right connections. It's difficult if you don't have financing behind you.

Thankfully, I have a huge amount of experience in this industry. If you're familiar with San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, C2E2, PAX, etc., I've been in this industry for a long time, creating booths and experiences at all those shows. My company, Promoguys.com, we are actually the agency for Marvel, so we build their booths for them and then I co-host the booth with them.

So we have the ability to not have to knock on doors -- we get invited in, and people want to work with us. The very first convention after I made up my mind to do AC Boardwalk Con, I happened to be with Stan Lee at New York Comic Con. And I just asked Stan, "He, I'm going to do a show, would you support us?" And he was like, "Anything you want, I'll do." So that's the way to do it. I went out to the Hammer Museum in December to talk to Kevin Smith -- which is funny, because he's from New Jersey and I'm from New Jersey, we went to competitive high schools, and yet we have to go to L.A. to have a meeting. I was out there, and I walked up to Kevin and Stan introduced me to Kevin, which was as sweet as all hell that he would do that. And Kevin was, "Yeah, I'll support you however I can."

We have that ability to be able to do that and go to those Triple-A level guests and be able to get them to come on board.

Manu [Bennett] I met at a show in Hammonton, New Jersey two years ago. It was a horrible little show, and we just clicked. I had not watched ARROW yet, I had never watched SPARTACUS, I didn't know who he was. We just happened to click and became buddies. Then one night at Megacon two years ago, we just sat down and thought, "We need to do something. What are we gonna do for your show in Atlantic City?" And I said, "Well, I want to do something like Miss America." And hes said, "Ah! Miss Cosplay USA!" And I said, "Well, that's what I was about to tell you." That's how Miss Cosplay USA came up; he and I came up with that literally at twelve-thirty at night over a drink.

The other part of this answer is working with the agents. I know most of the agents who handle these clients. The problem is, sometimes, when you're a new show, because other first year shows have maybe not hit their numbers and not hit the guarantee, the agents are a little skittish to work with first year shows or they demand a high amount of money up front. I personally don't believe in having to put a couple of hundred thousand dollars down to reserve talent for a show, where I'm not putting that into anything other than the agent's personal account -- I'd rather put it into escrow. I'd rather use that money toward marketing. So we've been very picky with what agents we want to work with, and they've all been gracious. And we've been very selective on what talent we have, because we don't want to have the same talent that's at every show. We want to have talent that really resonates in the comic industry, and really resonates with our attendees and our guests.

It's interesting that you put it that way. I've been looking over the guest list, and you've got comic book professionals, and while you do have actors coming, they're all in comic book movies or television projects. One of the things I hear old-time comic book fans like myself moan about these days is that they can't go to a comic book convention anymore and it be about comic books. It's about Hollywood and the next big science fiction movie, with very little comic book attachment to it at all.

I agree! I've been a fan of this genre since I was four years old and I first saw SUPER FRIENDS while I was living in Manhattan. I grew up in New York City, and I remember watching SUPER FRIENDS and just being overwhelmed by it. My older cousin was an avid comic collector, with thousands and thousands of books in the seventies. And he turned me on to comics, and that was really how I started reading was reading comic books. I'm a comic book fan through and through. I've been written into WONDER WOMAN, under Gail Simone, for six issues, and been drawn in. It was the higlight of my life! I'm a massive fan of DC, Marvel, BOOM, Top Cow -- I've been very lucky to work with these companies and become fans of theirs.

So when I designed the show, I designed it as comic, cosplay, gaming and all things geek. I've kind of moved the gaming aspect out of the show, because I felt like, unless the games are directly related to comics...all those games would have to relate directly to our industry: comics. If they didn't, we had so many gaming companies that wanted to come and bring whatever first-person shooter game they had. Well, that's what PAX is for. And we love PAX, we support them, we do their shows. But we didn't not definitely want to have them at our show. It had to resonate back to the comics.

Everything we're doing has to come back to the world of comics, even if it's a TV show. We have some guests from ONCE UPON A TIME coming. It's still in that fantasy genre of the comic book world and heroes, etc. That allows me to put them on our guest list.

It's very rare that you put a show on, or see a show, that has comics at its core and keeps that mission statement throughout every extension, and that is a very difficult job to do, but we are trying our damnedest to do that -- even down to the musical guests we have coming, and performing. And those musical guests have to resonate with the industry. I can't talk about them, because we're still in contract negotiations, but to me, the three musical guests that we have are phenomenal. For instance, I'll give you one that I can talk about: Make Out Monday, the band that's headed up by Jeremy Shada who is the voice of Finn from ADVENTURE TIME. And, as you know, KaBOOM! Studios produces the ADVENTURE TIME comic book, so it directly relates to our industry in that sense. To me, it makes sense to have them there and perform a couple of songs.

So everything we do, from cosplay to our panels to our guests to the vendors that we have, it all comes back to the world of comics.

One of the other things that you list on your press release -- and I used to go to the conventions back in the 80s. I'm like you in that I learned to read from comics at 4 years old and I'm 47 now and always have a stack of them on my desk. But something I haven't seen since the 80s conventions is the opportunity for would-be artists and writers to get face-time with professionals who can evaluate and critique their work. I don't know that you can get that at cons today -- it all seems to be stand in line, get your ticket, get your signature, and get moving out the door. So who's going to be running these kinds of programs, and what prompted making this a part of the program?

I am so glad you asked that question! I'm going to come back to Marvel. At the Marvel booth, at every single show that we do (we only do three, so we do San Diego, New York, and C2E2, and the fourth one which is AC Boardwalk Con), we have something where it's portfolio review. You drop your art off the day before, we take everyone's art with a submission form, at the end of the night the editors look at that and pick normally about ten people that the editors want to meet with the next day. From that, they then get fifteen minutes sat down with one of the editors, and you never know -- you might get work out of it. I've actually seen quite a few people get hired for books out of it. Or you can just get great feedback, which is invaluable.

I always loved that because I've seen people come year after year after year, and finally get their feedback, apply it, and get hired. It's amazing to me. So that's why I created the Emerging Creator Program. We are working with every publisher that's coming, as well as the creators that are coming -- not just the artists who have purchased tables, but the guest artists and guest writers -- to create the Emerging Creator Program. We are going to allow anyone who comes to the show to upload their art onto our website. This will happen at the end of April, because we don't want to be flooded with thousands and thousands of pieces between now and the show. You can upload two pieces of art. We will then take them and present them to a slew of editors and creators, and those people will decide in advance who they want to meet with. And they will get ten to fifteen minutes with them.

We're also going to open up so that people can show up at the show with their portfolio and say, "Hey, I'm here! Do you have an open slot?" I don't care if you're drawing stick figures, I don't care if you're going to be the next Mark Brooks. We want people to get feedback because the person who is going to be the next Mark Brooks started drawing stick figures. And that is what really needs to be nurtured -- showing how to have perspective, and to draw properly for comics which is drawing totally different than for any other medium; how to tell a story sequentially and how to work with covers. So many artists start just doing covers, they don't understand that you have to worry about more on the inside pages -- telling that story and how to convey emotion. To me, that's why the Emerging Creators Program is one of the best aspects of our show. I think that giving anything back to the community of people who are going to be the next big artists or writers, that's invaluable.

A lot of people want to be comic book artists, and reviewing portfolios is something that can be done relatively quickly. But you also have something for writers. The scripting process for comics is also something that's very different from a prose novel because you have to condense the storytelling, you have to provide it in a certain format to communicate it to the artists. So how are the writers going to be taking part in the Emerging Creators Program?

With art, we can look at the style and the technique and very easily talk to that. With writing, it takes a little while to sit down and read, especially if you're writing on a character that is not known. So that's going to be a little different. They can upload their [material] and we're going to be sending that to a choice selection of writers and have them read through. It's like four pages they get to upload, and then that way we can read through it. And we'll have some sample pages out there saying, "This is how you should format your writing," so that we're not getting prose writing the whole way down. A lot of writers will start out writing prose, and then take their prose story and, from that, deconstruct it and make that into their storyboard and into a proper script format for the comic book. But we want to take that step out of it and get it down to the lowest common denominator.

But we will have that open for the writers as well, and of course we have writers that are coming. You may have someone like Phil Jimenez who is a writer and an artist looking at your work. But a lot of times at the shows, the artists get the love. Well, the writers are the ones who bring the story to life and tell the artists what to do. It's the Great Collaboration.

Look at George Perez. George Perez redesigns WONDER WOMAN in 1987, and he was not just the writer but he was the plotter, and that plotting skill is massive; to be able to say, "I'm not only going to shape what she says, the dialogue and the pace of the story, I'm going to plot out the entire world for her and then work with great artists on it," those skills are needed to be passed along to the burgeoning writers out there.

One of the impediments to would-be writers trying to break into comics, that simply isn't there for artists, is that most shops are closed to unsolicited submissions. Nobody wants to even see a story featuring one of their characters, reject it, and then risk a similar story in the future that winds up in a lawsuit. What is your get-around for that type of situation in these workshops?

We're going to state that if you're going to submit then you can't submit with any copyrighted characters. It has to be an original story.

So nobody can say, "I've got this great Batman story that utilizes the Batman mythos."

No, it's against so many rules, because God forbid you're a writer and you read something a fan submitted or a fanfic, and then you have it in the back of your head and then all of a sudden you're writing about it a few years later and you use that same mechanism, then somebody could say, "I showed her this, and she's using that." So we're only going to do it with new, unpublished characters.

One of the things you've stated you're hoping to do with this convention is to help revitalize Atlantic City after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. How big of a role did that desire for revitalization play in your plans for ACBC?

Well, I'm a Jersey Boy. I've lived in New Jersey since I was eight years old. I live on the Jersey Shore, and we were directly affected by Sandy. One of our houses in Lavallette was destroyed. We had no power for fourteen days where we live in Red Bank. Our office had been flooded. So restoring the shore is really near and dear to my heart. I watched so many of my friends lose everything.

When I first started to develop the idea for the con, I developed the nexus of the con and what it was without any idea of where I was going to do the show. I then started looking at the hole in the con calendar, and saying, "Well, here's a hole in a region, and here's a hole in timing. So let's take a look at what we can do in those holes." My lawyer actually told me, "Have you looked at Atlantic City?" I had looked at New Jersey, but I had looked at Meadowlands, I didn't even think about Atlantic City -- and I'm a big gambler, so I'm in Atlantic City all the time.

It was at the bottom of my list of ten, and it made it's way to the top within probably a week of research, because it was all about how the city had come so far. I lived there in 1994 for three months -- I lived in the Taj Mahal, working for World Cup Soccer '94, and it was a horrible, dirty city back then. The city has become this great destination place for families, not solely around casinos, but entertainment and restaurants and the beach and the boardwalk -- and they just poured a ton of money in after Sandy restoring everything. I believe that the more business we can drive to Atlantic City and to Jersey Shore, that would be the best thing we could do. But we don't want them to treat us like a local convention -- we are not local, we are regional, and we are hoping that we will reach regional convention status and become a destination convention for the entire country and potentially the world.

You've got a huge event planned for ACBC -- that being Miss Cosplay USA. Obviously that leaves the guys out of the equation...

No! We're announcing it! It's on our website now, we announced it! MISTER COSPLAY USA IS COMING! Here's why: We originally came up with Miss Cosplay USA, and Manu and I did this twelve-thirty at night Megacon, at the bar. By 1 am, I already owned the URL for around the entire world -- Miss Cosplay Dubai, Miss Cosplay China, Miss Cosplay Canada -- I owned all of these by then, and I LLC'd everything. It was great -- but it evolved, because here's the thing with Miss Cosplay: We don't care if you're a size 2, we don't care if you're a size 42. I don't care if you're able-bodied or if you have a disability. As long as you're over the age of 16, and as long as you contribute to the design and makeup of your costume, that you do work outside of conventions such as going to children's hospitals, schools, or veterans hospitals doing something to further the idea of heroism and cosplay, that is what it's all about. We don't care what age, race, sex, gender identification, anything.

So Manu and i were talking one day about it, I think down in Louisville, and I said, "What about the boys?" He said, "Let's do that in 2016." And I was like, "Okay, we'll alternate, Miss Cosplay and Mister Cosplay.

I started talking to a lot of my male friends who are cosplayers, and I cosplay myself at times, and I thought, "You know what? No. We need this now. We're not waiting until 2016." So much of cosplay is focused on women -- it's a very heavy, male-centric industry, so we focus on the women -- but I think the men need to get equal time as well. So we're making this all about the men as well.

And on top of that, we added in a Prop Contest. Men, women -- it doesn't matter. You make a prop, you are involved in the Prop Contest. We are looking to make this inclusive.

If there's one thing I can leave you with, it would be this: ACBC is an inclusive convention. We are making sure that women, people of color, gender orientation -- it doesn't matter. You're included. We have an entire aisleway on the main aisle that is dedicated just for people with disabilities to use so they don't get jostled by the crowd, they have theire own little highway -- it's called the Ty-way, after our friend Tyler Holt who died of NF2, who was a massive fan that we met last year at the shows out in San Diego, and became great friends with. We're about including. So even our advertising which is going out -- we just did this amazing ad that's going to be in 2.5 million issues of Marvel; every Marvel book throughout the month of April (we have a different ad coming out in March), and it has got people of color, two women. Out of the four characters on it, you've got a person who's black, two women, and a raccoon! So even the animals are represented! We want to make sure that everybody can come here and feel safe, feel secure, and feel like they belong. That was my mission.

With a title as grandiose as Miss Cosplay USA, that's setting a bar at a certain level, people are bound to ask: Yaya Han?

Oh, Yaya's a great friend of ours! She is doing a show in Europe the same week. She was going to do our show. She felt really badly. She said, "Michael, I can be in Europe and see my family during the show," because her mother lives in Germany. I was like, "Yaya, please. Are you kidding me? Come in 2016, I know you support us." She loves me. I love her. we've co-hosted cosplay events together. So, no, Yaya won't be here. That has nothing to do with HEROES OF COSPLAY or anything to that effect. It literally was I can't ask her to give up going to Europe for a convention when she gets to see her family. Otherwise she would be here.

But we have cosplayers like Ivy Doomkitty. Now, if you're familiar with Ivy Doomkitty, she's gorgeous, she makes all of her own outfits, she's one of the most personable cosplayers out there, but she's also not a size 2. She's a fuller figured girl. We love that about her! We have Kit Quinn, Valerie Perez. If you're not familiar with Kit and Valerie, check out their work on Facebook. Valerie is like the best Wonder Woman out there. Kit does everything -- she doesn characters people haven't thought of in twenty years and she'll make outfits on that. Her Maleficent was amazing. We have a variety of guy and girl cosplayers that are coming to the show and representing for us.

We also talked about with Miss Cosplay that Yaya would not enter.

I presumed she might be a host at some point, much as she was on HEROES OF COSPLAY. Is HoC going to be covering this cosplay event?

I have a meeting set up with Syfy in the upcoming weeks. I'm not sure if they're going to cover it for us, but I will tell you this: if they do come to the show, and we'd love them to be there, the competition has nothing to do with HEROES OF COSPLAY. They can cover it, but it would not be part of their competition, or their filming where they would be able to control what happened. It is controlled by Manu and me. It's owned separately from AC Boardwalk Con, it's owned by Manu and me.

Lucy Lawless has expressed in writing the interest in becoming a mentor for the show. And our ultimate -- ultimate! -- would be Lynda Carter, because nobody embodies cosplay and talent competitions better than Lynda. She won Miss world and then went on to become Wonder Woman. She's the original cosplay goddess.

Has she expressed interest?

We've had very very strong talks with her. She has not done conventions. We've had very strong talks, and we are waiting with bated breath to see if she will accept our invitation. The good thing is, we are very highly aligned with the Marston Estate -- William Moulton Marston who created WONDER WOMAN. I was just up at the Wonder Woman Museum in Connecticut, and we are bringing the first ever Wonder Woman Museum to AC Boardwalk Con to compliment the Stan Lee Museum that will be at AC Boardwalk Con. And part of that is that the Marstons have reached out to Lynda as well as we have, to say, "Hey, we're bringing this here, it's 74 years of wonder Woman. Next year's going to be the 75th, and we want to try it this year and make sure we get it right for next year, It would be great to have you there."

We're also trying for Gal Gadot, so I have my hands in a lot of fires.