Going Inside the Geekfest that is Emerald City Comicon
Behind the scenes of the high-energy, costumed celebration of comics, geek culture and superfans
By Jake Uitti
March 4, 2015
If you find yourself approaching the Washington State Convention Center later this month and Thor, Wonder Woman or Geordi La Forge hold the door open for you, just smile, nod a “thank you” and step right in like you belong. You’ve arrived at Emerald City Comicon (ECCC)—ground zero for Seattle’s superhero fandom.
It all happens during the weekend of March 27–29,when the streets of downtown Seattle will teem with costumed fans eager to meet and secure autographs from featured celebrities and artists; hunt down unusual swag; and generally geek out over what’s new in the world of comics, science fiction and pop culture. While San Diego boasts the biggest comic convention on earth, drawing 200,000 people each July, ECCC, now in its 13th year, has grown to be the third-largest event of its kind in the country.
And the sci-fi culture it celebrates is only becoming more mainstream.
Don’t miss our profiles on four spectacular cosplayers and how they prep for Emerald City Comicon!
“Geek culture is pop culture,” says ECCC founder Jim Demonakos in his Lynnwood office, which is peppered with comic memorabilia. And he’s right. Movies like Spider-Man, Batman and Captain America gross ridiculous amounts at the box office, and comics-based television shows such as Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash and The Walking Dead continue to be highly rated.
But the greater Seattle area, specifically, is the perfect petri dish for ECCC. “People here really want to appreciate creativity,” Demonakos says. Indeed, the city is home to brainy, creative, forward-thinking folks. In other words, nerds. We’re a city rich with artists, tech industries, cult icons such as Scarecrow Video and pop culture temples such as the Experience Music Project.
“It’s not just hard-core comic book readers either—everyone comes to these conventions,” says Todd Jones, celebrity operations director for ECCC, who recruits fan favorites for ticketed meet-and-greets each year and helps Demonakos run both ECCC and assist with production for Portland’s Rose City Comic Con.
Emerald City Comicon is indeed about the fans, says Demonakos, who moved to Seattle with his family at the age of 6 and was given comics by his parents to help the transition. He’s been reading them ever since. After graduating from the Art Institute of Seattle with an animation degree, he opened the Seattle-based Comic Stop shop, and still co-owns the Seattle, Redmond and Everett locations. “We know what our audience wants, because we are our audience,” he explains.
Seattle fans demand authenticity, and ECCC delivers, with the largest artist alley (where more than 500 individual comic artists and writers sell their wares) of any comic con in the United States, as well as hundreds of exhibitors, dozens of panel discussions, and areas dedicated to gaming and Lego sculptures, all abiding the comic book theme. In total, the con utilizes about 400,000 square feet of the Washington State Convention Center, its conference center, across the street, and Sheraton Seattle to present its events. But unlike at other large cons, says Jones, who met Demonakos as a customer at The Comic Stop, “there are no Playboy bunnies or wrestlers—we keep it genre-specific.”
Local comic book author Mark Rahner, who writes The Twilight Zone for Dynamite Entertainment, and has also covered the local comic scene and the convention for The Seattle Times, agrees. “We live in geek mecca, and ECCC is the greatest expression of it,” says Rahner, who has also worked on The Avenger, Vampirella and Dejah Thoris and the Green Men of Mars. “The focus at ECCC is still on comics and their creators. The San Diego con has grown too big, too expensive, too crowded, and overrun with TV, movies, video games and any other thing you can think of that has zero to do with comics.”
Costumed attendees wait all year to show off their creations
Meticulous replicas of Patriot, Captain Marvel and Supergirl costumes
In January, after 13 years of independent ownership, ECCC joined forces with ReedPop (reedpop.com), which produces New York Comic Con and other pop culture celebrations. The news made some fans nervous. Attendees at past New York Comic Cons have complained about companies hawking random merchandise, from caffeine pills to breakfast cereal—even chiropractic electrical stimulation machines. But Demonakos and Jones are quick to assure fans that the high-quality experience they’ve crafted over the years won’t change with the ReedPop partnership. “It was one of the big selling points,” says Demonakos, who, as part of the deal, will bring his programming skills to other ReedPop events (the company also produces PAX gaming conventions and dozens of other events). “They don’t want to get rid of all the things that make it special,” he says.
In addition, Demonakos, Jones and other key staff members (including operations director Kristina Rogers) will remain in their positions to ensure quality control.
Demonakos describes the origin of ECCC as a reaction to other comic cons—and a desire for improvement. In the early 2000s, Seattle only had Seattle ComiCard Conventions, small, 400-person events in KeyArena that, Demonakos says, never seemed to satisfy anyone attending. But it wasn’t necessarily size he was after; it was substance. “We all wanted it to be better—so I started talking with people, wondering if we should start our own con. How hard could it be?”
So began the process of bringing artists, dealers, exhibitors and merchandisers to the Emerald City. Demonakos called in every connection he had, and the first year drew 2,500 people—and the event broke even. Now, 13 years later, it’s a three-day blitz (with 80,000 attendees anticipated for 2015) bringing in stars such as Stan Lee, creator of Marvel Comics, LeVar Burton of Star Trek fame, The Walking Dead’s Dave Stewart and Stefano Gaudiano, and Homeland’s Morena Baccarin.
The atrium of the Convention Center is a popular spot for photo opps with costumed characters
Another contributor to the convention’s growing popularity is the visual feast that is cosplay. For the uninitiated, cosplay—short for costume play—is a type of performance art in which people dress up, often elaborately, as their favorite characters to be admired, have their pictures taken with fans (all you have to do is ask), start conversations and compare approaches to costume construction. And construction is the operative word: Most of the costumes are not of the “pick up a few things at Value Village” variety, but rather labor-intensive, handcrafted costumes made with special materials by professional, seasoned cosplayers that take weeks or months to construct. In fact, some say ECCC should be renamed Emerald City Costumecon because of the mass amounts of playful dress-up fervor exhibited during the weekend.
“ECCC has created a healthy environment that attracts cos-players,” says Kristen Jensen, cofounder of Seattle-based Comic Book Characters for Causes, which raises money for children in need. She says the local cosplay community has a life of its own, but “celebrates ECCC as being their biggest event of the year.” Duffy Boudreau, a Seattle comic book author who writes the series Halo: Escalation for Dark Horse Comics, uses the thriving cosplay scene at ECCC to get people outside his professional circle interested in attending. “I certainly have used the hook of seeing cosplay to rope friends and family members into attending the con,” he says. “You can get your picture taken with a storm trooper!”
Demonakos says cosplay at ECCC is something that’s happened organically. “Little by little, the community has built up,” he says. Now, cos-players make up nearly 15 percent of attendees, who, like Jensen, create well-conceived, movie-set-quality costumes and come to ECCC to share their work—from Spider-Man to She-Hulk—and participate in the con’s spirited costume contest on Saturday night.
Given the ever-expanding ticket sales, it’s clear that ECCC is as relatable to the mainstream as the comic books, games, movies and shows that fuel it. Says Rahner, “If you thought it was just man-child nerds with poor hygiene, like the Simpsons comic guy, you’re way out of the loop.”
Learn the proper ECCC vocabulary