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Feature Tue Apr 06 2010

One-Shots: Lance Fensterman and C2E2

In a little over a week, Chicago's going to explode in a burst of comics, toys, and all manner of pop culture excitement. The source of this KAPOW is C2E2, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, a new convention packed with panels, merchandise, celebrities (Alex Ross! Colleen Doran! Anya from Buffy!) and more. I had the chance to talk to Lance Fensterman, the man behind the booths and exhibitions. Lance has had an interesting career in his own right, and shared his perspective on conventions, fans, and the details and methodology that make up planning a big event.

Name: Lance Fensterman
Job: Vice President of Pop Culture for Reed Exhibitions
Age: 32
Education: Just enough.
Location: Norwalk, CT, 35 miles outside of NYC
Hometown: Fargo, ND
Favorite place in Chicago: The Blue Frog? Or maybe Gino's East Pizza.

Portrait by Andrea Topalian

How did you get into running comic book conventions? Did it stem out of a love of comics, or something else?

I was a ward of the state and Reed adopted me and put me to work...actually, I was an independent bookseller for many years and hired by Reed to run the publishing industry's annual gathering. From there I took over New York Comic Con and the New York Anime Fest. As our group of events grew, so did my role, and I now oversee ReedPop our group of pop culture shows, including Penny Arcade Expo (PAX,) PAX East, UFC Fan Expo, New York Comic Con, Star Wars Celebration, and of course C2E2.

So did you like comics before running conventions, or did one grow out of the other?

Loved comics as a kid and, after high school I drifted. I have been intensely into graphic novels for years and taking on NYCC rekindled my love of comics.

What spawned C2E2?

Simply put, our customers, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, asked us for a massive, professionally run killer con in downtown Chicago. They asked us enough times that we thought we better get moving on this. So after checking with the fans of Chicagoland, it became clear that there was a real hunger for an event in the spirit of New York Comic Con in downtown Chicago. Just like that, and here we are.

What made you focus on Chicago? What about the city made you go "Hmmm, this place needs a new comic book convention."?

There are three times as many comic book shops in Chicagoland than all the boroughs in New York. Seriously. That was one of many things that made us realizes that it was high time the city had a true notational con within its borders.

Beyond the comics and toys, and even panels and screenings, what's the point of this convention?

Community. Events like C2E2, New York Comic Con, Penny Arcade Expo, the Star Wars Celebration are all about a huge group of people who love similar things coming together and celebrating their passions, hanging out, seeing cool stuff, meeting cool new people and knowing that even if they don't know everyone there, they are amongst friends.

Forget philosophical tenets, let's get to what's important: comics and toys and movies are awesome. What aspects of the convention are you particularly excited about?

I am a massive Chris Ware fan, so I'm beyond excited that he will be there. I'm also a big Scott Kurtz and PvP fan, so I'm really proud of the massive array of webcomic creators we have assembled. But my favorite part of the show is when the doors first open up and I get to watch all of the tens of thousands of fans come streaming through those doors. That is by far the most rewarding aspect of the event for me, because that's who we build the party for.

What do you think makes C2E2 unique to Chicago? What's the difference between this convention and New York or San Diego Comic Con?

Our guest list started with Alex Ross, a Chicago native, and if you scan down our dozens of guests, you'll see that the creator community of Chicago is very well represented. You'll also see the show spill out into the surrounding city -- it already has -- we've been doing events and meet-ups in bars and comic shops all over. During the con, we'll have parties and screenings all around the city.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting up a convention, what would it be?

Listen to the fans. If you do what the fans want and always put them first, then the rest will fall into place.

Going in the other direction ("When Potentially Good Conventions Go Bad"), what mistakes do you often see in convention planning? Comic book or otherwise?

Not listening to your fans and underestimating the complexity and cost of running a large scale event.

Why are comic book conventions important? What do they do for everyone involved?

Geeks are cool now, but that was not always the case. Cons used to be viewed as underground geek gatherings where people came out of their parents' basement and bought comics out of cardboard boxes, while C level celebrities of yesterday signed pictures of themselves for a fee. That's not the case any more. Geek culture is driving pop culture, which is driving mainstream culture. Geeks are cool. Cons are a celebration of the thriving geek culture and more than that, they help to grow and sustain that geek culture, making it ever stronger. This is our prom!

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