There’s a magical time each year, when the forces of good (and evil) set their sights on the Pacific Northwest, converging on Portland’s convention center in a clash of universes and pop culture icons. Whether it’s The Karate Kid explaining Mr. Miyagi’s wax on, wax off technique to Doctor Who, or Batman interrogating a squadron of Stormtroopers, at Rose City Comic Con, the entertainment crossover potential is endless.
With the rise of fantasy and sci-fi television and movies, once obscure subcultures have now become mainstream media, seen everywhere from Game of Thrones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I couldn’t even imagine having a conversation when I was 15 in high school talking about Captain America like it was cool,” says Ron Brister, Rose City Comic Con’s founder and director. “But now, it’s totally different.”
Truthfully, superheroes and space travel have never been hotter, and the success and popularity of these large pop culture events show the demand warrants the supply. These multi-day, multi-genre celebrations provide the chance for fans to meet their favorite on-screen characters, discuss plotlines with beloved authors and simply enjoy a sense of community. “It’s everything nostalgic, it’s everything retro, it’s everything current,” Brister explains. “It’s certainly this amalgamation of everything we love, from the past 30 years to the present.”
Brister’s path to the industry wasn’t direct. “Most people always assume I own a comic book store or something,” he admits. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.” While working in IT for manufacturing and software companies, he sought a creative outlet and found inspiration during a road trip with his family.
When he was a kid, Brister didn’t have much interest in reading until his mother took him to a comic book store. To foster the same appreciation in his son, the two began going to comic book events.
During the long drive back from San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, Brister’s boy asked, “why don’t we have one of these in Portland?” That was the question that got the ball rolling. “I kind of formulated a business plan in my head. My wife and I talked about it on the 21-or-so-hour trip and she thought I was crazy,” says Brister. “I called up a few creators I had gotten to know and I think that by and large, most of them told me I was nuts. But, I decided to do it anyways.”
Now in its seventh year, Rose City Comic Con has seen remarkable success by being creator-centric and emphasizing affordability. Its Artist Alley of nearly 400 tables is one of the largest on the West Coast – there, guests can interact with illustrators and purchase commissioned sketches or other merchandise. At its inaugural convention, 750 attendees were needed to break even. When Brister saw a line around the corner, he thought a fire alarm had forced the set up crew outside. They ended up with 4,100 attendees before the fire marshal shut them down. “I was blown away that we exceeded our number. But, it is a good problem to have,” says Brister.
Some of the early bumps in the road, like outgrowing its facility space after one year, were minimized by Brister’s relationship with the organizers of Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con and their own experience. “That’s kind of what tied the rocket ship to this thing really. I will say that without those guys being a part of the show in the early days, I think we’d be a little further behind than we are now,” he says. “We got to learn from all of their mistakes, without having to make those mistakes ourselves, which is great.”
Another element of Rose City Comic Con’s success is the city’s population of generally well-read, well-educated and artistic residents. Publishing powerhouses like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press and Image Comics call Portland home, as do many acclaimed writers like comic book power couple Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction, and five time Eisner-winner Brian Michael Bendis.
“Because people are aware that these folks exist and live in their city, they come out to libraries for talks or book signings,” Brister says. “There’s just a higher awareness of comics and the culture in Portland so the appetite for a convention is just much greater.”
This year, Rose City Comic Con runs September 7-9, 2018, and will have a diverse guest lineup. Fan favorite actors and actresses from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctor Who and even Evangeline Lilly of Ant Man & the Wasp will be there. Play Fair PDX, the expanded family-friendly area, will occupy its own 30,000 square foot pavilion with kids activities and stage. Exclusive movie previews, video game unveilings, costume contests, autograph sessions and exciting Dragon Ball Z and Star Wars exhibitions are all on the itinerary.
Even more super - the economic impact of the convention, which fills up hotels with out-of-town visitors. “When you think about it, a show like ours, what the metro and city takes in on convention center rent, along with food and beverage and jobs we’re able to provide for just that weekend, it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.”