Over the weekend, Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo took over Los Angeles Convention Center's South Hall and the Generalissimo, as he is often called, was all over the pop culture convention that bears his name. His face loomed above the crowd from propaganda-style posters. Lee himself appeared on stage and at autograph signings throughout the event. Symbols of his storied years at Marvel lined large display cases. Artists like Camilla d'Errico and Mark Dos Santos turned his likeness into convention exclusive items. There was even a fan who showed up wearing an incredibly detailed Stan Lee mask, complete with gold-rimmed sunglasses.
But this wasn't so much a celebration for the guy behind Spider-Man and the Hulk as it was the ultimate stamp of approval. The 89-year-old comic book giant had lent his name to what is perhaps the most ambitious fan convention to arise in greater Los Angeles over the past few years.
Typically, fan conventions start out small and maybe they'll grow into larger events over time. Even San Diego Comic-Con spent decades under the radar to the mainstream before becoming the behemoth that it is today. Comikaze Expo is different. Founded by three siblings — Regina, Mario and Fabiano Carpinelli — Comikaze Expo began in the Convention Center's South Hall parking garage last year. They only had $10,000 behind them, but still brought in superstar guests — Lee was one — and tens of thousands of people. Their budget was small, as was the venue, but the production was huge. Now with Lee on board, Comikaze Expo has grown up fast. This year, they scored the entire South Hall building. At the time of the publication of this article, attendance numbers were unavailable, but, CEO Regina Carpinelli said in an email that they were “above and beyond” the team's expectations.
There are always growing pains with conventions and those can be amplified when an event mushrooms before it has developed a longtime following. That happened for Comikaze on Saturday, when a line wrapped around the Convention Center as the temperature surpassed 100 degrees downtown. Inside the event, I heard varying stories about the pre-sale ticket line, with people estimating wait times as anywhere between a half-hour (which is long, but not unexpected for a convention) to over two hours. On Facebook, some attendees who had bought their tickets online noted that they got fed up and left before they entered the con. One mentioned that he went and bought another ticket, as the box office for on-site sales lacked the epic wait.
Comikaze did respond to the complaints on Facebook and the line situation appeared to be resolved on Sunday. They also honored unused Saturday passes on Sunday. “We made every effort to address the challenges our customers faced on Saturday,” said Regina Carpinelli in an email. “Today [Sunday], we believe we were successful in getting our fans into the show within fifteen minutes of lining up.”
Inside the convention hall, Comikaze had a lot of offer people from a multitude of fan communities, from Quidditch Pitch to a Zombie Apocalypse obstacle run. The exhibit hall didn't have a huge presence from comic book publishers, although Hollywood-based imprint Archaia had a booth with creator signings, as did a few other independent companies. There was a good number of comic book creators who had their own booths with some, like Reed Gunther mastermind's Chris and Shane Houghton, drawing healthy crowds all weekend. On the video game front, Activision had a booth, which was awkwardly placed next to the main stage. At times, video game noises competed with the biggest panels of the convention.
Up next: Comikaze vs. Comic-Con
For a year now, the buzz has been that Comikaze will be the L.A. equivalent to San Diego Comic-Con, but it's not there yet. There were none of the oversized, swag-filled studio booths that you would see in San Diego. There was, however, some interesting TV and film programming. The stars of the original Batman series — Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar — were on hand. There were reunions for the popular '90s children's shows Salute Your Shorts and Wild & Crazy Kids. Elvira and Peaches Christ brought their film competition Elvira's Horror Hunt to the convention. Their event at the Vista Theatre last week served as a kick-off to Comikaze.
Animation studio Titmouse, who appeared at the first Comikaze event, increased their presence at the convention this year. In addition to a general Titmouse panel, there was a scheduled panel for Grimm Fairy Tales, a Kickstarter-funded project based on the comic book series of the same name to be directed by Jon Schnepp (Metalocalypse) and animated by Titmouse. They also hosted a screening session, which was packed, that included full episodes of Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja (which premieres tonight on Disney XD) and Motorcity, the Disney XD show created by Titmouse head Chris Prynoski. In addition, Schnepp joined Aqua Teen stars Dana Snyder (Master Shake) and C. Martin Croker (Dr. Weird) for a panel devoted to Aqua Teen, Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Titmouse's Metalocalypse.
What Comikaze has in its favor is that they immediately marketed the event as a pop culture convention. They've given themselves the freedom to experiment with different types of programming without alienating people, something that has been an issue for conventions that began their life in a smaller niche. But they haven't had that long gestation period that so many cons have had before they got big. When I covered the inaugural event last year, I noted that the biggest problem was the amount of space available for the convention. This year, the issue was with the pre-sale line. Both of those instances could be linked to simply being unprepared for the volume of people who want to attend the convention. It's something that Comikaze's team will need to resolve to reach the next level.
Beyond that, they could benefit from expanding into the Convention Center's West Hall, which has larger auditoriums better suited for the main events than a stage in the exhibit hall. Even though they had a solid schedule of panels and screenings this year, they are going to need room to grow for next year. Comikaze is the event that L.A. needs, a pop culture extravaganza worthy of the city where so much of the media we consumed is made. Even Stan Lee said as much when I interviewed him about the event last April. Right now, we're all watching it grow and, despite the trials and errors, that's fascinating.