Call it a geek-culture state fair, a pop-culture spectacle or an entertainment circus.
But whatever moniker you choose to slap on it, you'd better also slap on your sword and superhero boots: Wizard World, one of the biggest pop-culture conventions in North America, is poised to land at Madison's Alliant Energy Center the first weekend in February, much like the Incredible Hulk will land on Tony Starks' Hulkbuster armor in this summer's Avengers sequel.
How big is it, you ask? Wizard World is headlined by William Shatner, who, depending on your generational prism, is either the legendary Captain Kirk from Star Trek or the guy who gets you great rates on hotel rooms and rental cars. The three-day extravaganza features appearances by actors from big-time entertainment properties like Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Brett Dalton), The Vampire Diaries (Ian Somerhalder) and True Blood (Racine native Kristin Bauer van Straten). Bruce Campbell, who has parlayed his role as Ash in the classic Evil Dead films into a long and lucrative geek-culture career, will be there taping episodes of Last Fan Standing, a game show centered on geek trivia.
Comic artists and animated films are on the docket. And, of course, plenty of people dressed up in superhero spandex, zombie chic and chainmail will be letting their geek flags fly.
Wizard World has always been perched high in the pop-culture firmament -- the con's annual Chicago event is second only to San Diego's International Comic Convention in terms of size and scope -- but for most of its existence, the event has been held in bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia. As geek culture has expanded to every corner of the entertainment universe over the past five years, Wizard World has seized the opportunity: Last year, the show added seven new midsized locations in places like Tulsa, Richmond and San Antonio, and this year chose Madison to be one of the new cities for 2015.
"Madison deserved a show. The audiences there deserved it," says John Macaluso, the affable 58-year-old CEO of Wizard World Inc., the entertainment company that stages the convention events. The business grew from the ashes of a print magazine that used to track the value of collectible comic books back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Macaluso calls Madison a "clear sky" city -- meaning the field is clear of similarly sized convention competitors, and Wizard World will tap into the state's deep geek-culture roots. Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, the granddaddy of tabletop gaming conventions, for 18 years before the event picked up stakes and moved to Indianapolis in 2003. Today, Madison has its own thriving community of smaller-but-growing geek-culture cons, events like the sci-fi focused Odyssey Con, the feminist-focused WisCon, Gamehole Con and Geek.Kon, an event that pulled 2,400 people last year.
Adam Pulver, one of Geek.Kon's primary organizers, says the news that Wizard World would be stopping in Madtown surprised him. "Madison is a bit off the beaten path for them," he says. "That said, Madison has always been a very geek-friendly city, with many game and comic stores, along with several professionals in the industry."
He means people like John Kovalic, the artist who created the sublime Dork Tower comic strip, as well as classic games like Apples to Apples and Munchkin. For decades, Kovalic has enjoyed a front seat at the cosmic convergence between pop and geek culture and fans' growing appetite to indulge. Ten years ago, Kovalic was doing comic strips riffing on the fact that a mere handful of celebs -- cats like Wil Wheaton, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, ex-major league pitcher Curt Schilling and voice-of-Groot Vin Diesel -- were dipping their toes in geekly gaming pursuits.
"Today, there's nothing shocking about celebrities immersing themselves in geek culture," says Kovalic. 'You've got the cast of Downton Abbey playing Cards Against Humanity."
Wizard World's Macaluso agrees. "The genres we go after -- things like horror, superheroes, sci-fi and fantasy -- are growing by leaps and bounds," he says.
He's not just blowing Pym Particles, those subatomic specials that make Ant-Man a possibility. A TV show like AMC's The Walking Dead went from zero to 23 million viewers in an undead heartbeat. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is just the latest in a long line of superhero flicks to conquer year-end profit charts. Even if you've been living under that proverbial rock, a pack of Marvel superheroes, a troop of bloodthirsty zombies and the bloodlusty Lannisters from HBO's Game of Thrones have probably found you and smashed that boulder into so much pixie dust.
According to Judy Frankel at the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, Wizard World Madison is expected to bring in more than $1 million in economic benefit to the city. Even though Wizard World events are scheduled later this year in Midwestern cities like Chicago, Des Moines and Minneapolis, fans from those areas are expected to trek here, too.
Local businesses and events that cater to geek culture are banking on more than a short-term economic bang from the teeming mobs of fans, cosplayers and autograph hounds. If Wizard World succeeds here, it may also boost the profiles of events like Pulver's Geek.Kon.
"Much of the fun comes in meeting people who share your interests, seeing some amazing costumes, and just being able to indulge in your fandom for a weekend," he says. "That's something that Geek.Kon and the other conventions in the area provide every year," says Pulver.
Simon Tsang, the owner of the west-side collectibles store Geek Plastiq, is one of the guys who also stand to benefit from the bump. "The thing about con culture is that it's becoming bigger," he says. "I don't see it going away after Wizard World leaves town. Geeks are always going to be there, wanting what's new."
They'll be here, sure -- but will Wizard World? Macaluso talks about "building a foundation in Madison," but won't confirm anything at this point, other than to say "we're working on it." Given that nearly 40 major superhero and sci-fi movies will hit screens in the next five years alone, Madison's geeks are hoping Wizard World will turn out to be more -- maybe even much more -- than a one-time fling.
Michael Rooker on adoring fans, Hollywood and blue body paint
Michael Rooker began his Hollywood career playing a stone-cold psychopath in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Now that he's starred as the blue-skinned, scenery-chomping bounty hunter Yondu in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and the hateful Merle Dixon on AMC's The Walking Dead, he's connecting with a huge geek-culture audience, many of whom will be only too happy to mob him when Wizard World comes to Madison. As it turns out, he has an interesting tie to the Dairy State.
Not everyone expected Guardians of the Galaxy to be such a gigantic hit. What's it like to get swept up into the Marvel-movie rollercoaster?
I think you know you've succeeded when you start being harassed on the Internet. People are stabbing me and harassing me -- finally, I've made it in Hollywood.
Have you been to Wisconsin?
I'm familiar with Wisconsin -- I grew up in Chicago. I have a place in Princeton, Wis. It's an old brewery. Don't know what I'm going to do with it yet, but it's kind of a cool little space. It's called Tiger Brew. It went out of business many, many years ago.
Do you, Rebecca Romijn and Jennifer Lawrence have a support group for actors recovering from blue body paint?
You know, mine wasn't bad. It was just my upper torso and my arms; all the rest of my body was covered with wardrobe. A lot of people had it a lot worse than me.
Which was the more bizarre role for you -- Henry, Yondu, or the heavy metal zombie Viking in the videogame Lollipop Chainsaw?
The voiceover stuff is really cool, and I enjoy doing it. I did all the motion-capture work for the other couple of games I was part of. I just finished doing voiceover work for Finelli, a shotgun company. Primarily, I do film work. The Walking Dead, that was huge for me. I don't usually do ongoing characters for TV. It was a wonderful project to get into.
What's the weirdest thing to happen to you at a Wizard World event?
I don't know what's "weird." Wizard World events are very family-oriented. The fans come from all over the place. You don't get a lot of weird stuff. It's fun, the people dress up, cosplay. It's like a state fair atmosphere. We all have a great time. There's food and drink. People just spend their days walking around looking at the artists and celebrities. It's like a big family.
Let's reframe the question. What's the most memorable thing that's happened to you?
I was doing a show -- it wasn't even a Wizard World event -- and literally the lines were out the building and around the block. I thought that was very strange and unusual. I couldn't figure out why there were so many people. Then I realized -- The Walking Dead has so many viewers and became so popular so fast that when it was advertised that I was going to be there, people got out of their living rooms and down to the place.
I bet you sometimes wish you had Yondu's arrow to get you out of these uncomfortable situations.
It's crazy at these places. I don't think Yondu's arrow could have helped out. I'll tell you one thing -- you are absolutely wasted by the end of the day. You are exhausted. You have time to eat, have a nightcap and you're done for.
What's next up for you?
The Marvel guys already announced that Yondu is part of number two. I just finished a movie called King Bolden about the birth of jazz. The story of Buddy Bolden, the grandfather of jazz, the first king of jazz in New Orleans. It's a period piece set in 1905, close to his death. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it when it comes out.