To Be Continued: HeroesCon at 40

After a two-year hiatus, the convention returns to celebrate four decades of comic book culture and community
22 0412 Heroescon Color Flat 600dpi
ILLUSTRATION BY DUSTIN HARBIN

In the beginning …

In 1977, Shelton Drum, an ambitious 23-year-old, hosted a small comics show at Eastland Mall. The Charlotte Mini-Con was an opportunity for comic book collectors and dealers to gather and build buzz around a growing industry. He opened his shop, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, in 1980 and continued to organize the annual event.

By then, the Mini-Con wasn’t so mini. Drum found a bigger venue, the Holiday Inn on Woodlawn Road. In June 1982, he held the first official Heroes Convention, a comics-focused convention that would become one of the industry’s headline events and attract enthusiasts from around the world.

This month, the show returns from a pandemic pause to celebrate four decades since that weekend. Much has changed, especially in the last two years: Since 1995, the Convention Center has hosted the show, but many of the vendor contacts Drum has worked with for decades have left their jobs since 2019. Some friends and colleagues Drum has looked forward to seeing every year are growing too old to travel. Comic book culture has exploded into the mainstream, and the prices of rare collectibles skyrocketed during COVID. HeroesCon returns to, in some ways, an alien world. Drum says he’s “stretched to the max.” But a lot has remained the same, too.

From that first year, Drum made HeroesCon a destination. The inaugural guest lineup included artist Butch Guice, New Teen Titans creators George Pérez and Marv Wolfman, and Captain America artist Mike Zeck. Just two years later, a visit from Marvel’s Stan Lee, one of the most famous and influential comic book creators of all time, catapulted attendance to more than 1,000. Over the years, Drum has resisted offers to include movies and comic-adjacent pop culture. “We’ve always been the show that was about comics,” he says.

The family-friendly event was where connoisseurs could spend time with their idols, find long-sought issues for their collections, and commune with others who care just as deeply about the craft. Drum says he often meets third-generation attendees who inherited their fandom from parents and grandparents. In 2012, when he was 89, Stan Lee returned to HeroesCon and spent time with a Make-A-Wish child who wanted to meet the man behind such iconic characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Black Panther. At HeroesCon, those kinds of wishes come true.

***

In brightest day, in blackest night …

Drum, now 68, has been in the business long enough to have seen idols, friends, and colleagues come and go. Lee died in 2018. COVID claimed artist Steve Lightle, writer David Anthony Kraft, Aquaman artist Robson Rocha, and Argentine artist Juan Giménez.

Some creators, Drum says, with a catch in his voice, “are fighting mortality right now.” Pérez, one of HeroesCon’s first and frequent guests, recently refused treatment for pancreatic cancer, and Drum spearheaded an initiative to collect and send letters of love and gratitude. In a testament to the power of the comics community, he shipped 10 pounds of letters this spring.

Drum says that over the course of hosting the show, he’s learned the mark of real friendship. It doesn’t mean seeing each other every month or even every year; it’s about support you can count on, whether in person or on Facebook. And that was never more obvious than during the pandemic, which threw his retail shop into turmoil. 

“We had to shift gears just like everybody else,” he says. “We revamped a lot of things: point of sale, displays and warehousing, and all that kind of stuff.”

In those two years, some wacky things happened in the world of comic distribution and collection. Marvel and DC, the two biggest publishers of comics, parted ways with a longtime distributor. And, separately, the value of collectibles shot up as stuck-at-home collectors put new pressure on the market. In January, a single page from a 1984 Spider-Man comic—with art by inaugural HeroesCon guest Zeck—sold for $3.36 million. Pent-up demand and increasing value are part of why Drum thinks this year’s show will be “spectacular.”

***

To be continued …

HeroesCon will include a 280,000-square-foot vendor floor; a live art stage, where artists create pieces for auction; a “Drink and Draw” event to raise money for Parkinson’s disease research; a “Quickdraw Contest”; and more than 500 special guests, including John Romita Jr., Ron Frenz, and Roy Thomas. Drum is eager to welcome back some of the same guests and vendors who were at the Holiday Inn 40 years ago, but he’s also excited to make new friends: people who have gotten into comics during the pandemic, for example, or 6-year-olds who don’t know much about the business (yet) but love Spider-Man. (Anyone under 18 can attend the show for free.)

Drum offers some practical tips for first-timers: Research the books you’re interested in and establish a budget—you’re almost guaranteed to find them at HeroesCon. Bring cash to increase your likelihood of getting a good deal. Wear comfortable shoes. And above all, “just enjoy what’s going on.” He’s seen four decades’ worth of life-altering magic in these interactions, as much for the artists and creators as for the fans. “When you know someone’s going to be somewhere and you value them—take that time,” Drum says. “You don’t know. You don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”

Allison Braden is a contributing editor.

Categories: Arts + Culture, The Buzz