Mark Walters: Leader of the Geeks
More than 20,000 Wookies, warlocks, and Avengers will attend his Dallas Comic Con this month. Set phasers to fun.
The Irving Convention Center is perhaps the ideal venue for a comic book and sci-fi convention. It looks like a Star Wars spacecraft, with its odd, jutting angles, top-heavy presence, and industrial, rust-colored facade. So it’s appropriate—necessary, even—that outside this clunky structure there is a line of Stormtroopers and Jedi Knights, warrior princesses and superheroes, all waiting to enter. It would look strange without them.
The line wraps back on itself again and again, seeming never to end. Within the mothership, Mark Walters observes the gathering crowd. Walters is the co-founder and event manager of Dallas Comic Con. He also operates the longest-running geek culture website in Dallas, Bigfanboy.com. He estimates more than 20,000 attendees, almost double that of the previous year. Walters, along with his team of friends and volunteers, has fought hard to earn an imperial presence on the North Texas pop culture calendar. They’ve beat back competitors.
They’ve withstood trying economic times. And they’ve done it on no sleep.
Dallas Comic Con’s journey to this point began in 1990. That was when Walters, who previously wasn’t into comics, discovered the “quarter bin,” the overstocked comics that retailers make available to clear inventory. In a month, he amassed enough comics to fill 20 long boxes, each accommodating about 300 comics. “It got ridiculous,” Walters says.
At the Dallas Fantasy Fair, he saw vendors selling their collections and realized he could do that, too. “I went from comic book fan to comic book dealer within a couple of months,” Walters says. Larry Lankford, the organizer of Dallas Fantasy Fair, liked Walters and asked him to work security. Walters worked his way up until, soon enough, he was Lankford’s de facto second-in-command. “Here I was, a teenage kid, working the comic conventions and being one of the top-tier guys, and still very new to it.” In Walters, Lankford saw a protégé and eventual heir to his convention kingdom.
In 1996, Dallas Fantasy Fair went under due to money management issues. Four years later, Walters started his own show called the Dallas Comic & Toy Fest.
“I didn’t realize how much work was involved,” Walters says, “even though I had been immersed in that whole scene for so many years.” He was burned out and needed help. “I was going days without sleep and just ruining myself.”
He partnered with Ben Stevens, who managed local sci-fi shows, and, in October 2002, they hosted the first Dallas Comic Con. Five thousand people attended. Larger crowds enticed bigger celebrity guests to attend, which in turn brought more fans. In February 2005, Dallas Comic Con invited Sean Astin from Lord of the Rings. “We realized we didn’t have the space to accommodate what was going to happen,” Walters says. The Richardson Civic Center was filled to capacity. People waited outside in the rain, and it was the first time they had to turn people away. “That was rough,” he says.
Dallas Comic Con’s biggest challenge, though, came in 2003, when Wizard World came to Texas. Wizard hosted conventions across the country and had the sort of industry connections and name recognition that struck fear in smaller operations. In some instances, Wizard planned its events to conflict with locally run conventions in an effort to drive them out of business. When Walters learned that Wizard was planning a convention in Arlington a few weeks after the October 2002 Dallas Comic Con, he approached Gareb Shamus, Wizard’s CEO. Walters wanted to discuss plans to avoid stepping on each other’s toes.
“He made it pretty clear to me that he had no interest in talking at all,” Walters says. “That was the moment it was obvious they didn’t care about anybody.”
Despite a larger budget and more resources, Wizard World’s Texas show declined in appeal while the Dallas Comic Con continued to grow. Wizard World left North Texas after canceling its 2009 event and relocated to Austin in 2010. Later, Shamus resigned as CEO.
Dallas Comic Con thrived by bringing in new guests appealing to a wide range of fans, whereas Wizard World had a rotation of familiar faces. “We went for a quality-over-quantity approach. ‘Let’s not worry about how many guests we can pack in and get the best quality guests we can,’ ” Walters says. “We survived it.”
Now the only challenge is their own success. After the overwhelming turnout for this year’s May show, Walters and Stevens had to find a way to avert the long lines. So this month, Dallas Comic Con will expand the event over three days (October 19 through 21) to spread out the crowd. The show will feature guests such as Stan Lee, the creator of the Marvel Universe; Bruce Campbell from Army of Darkness and Old Spice commercials; Robert Englund, better known as Freddy Krueger; and Tom Felton from Harry Potter. Also, Sean Astin will return.
Walter advises that you purchase tickets ahead of time.
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