RobCon fills Viking Hall with costumes, comics & fun
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 30, 2014All things comics come to Viking Hall Aug. 2 at RobCon 2014, the brainchild of Robert Pilk. This year's event is the 29th convention that Pilk and his assistants have held.
"We called it the Bristol Comic Book Card and Game Show when we started, which is a pretty lame name," Pilk says. "The kids who were working for me started calling it RobCon. I thought it's pretty catchy, and it's easy to remember, so I kept it. I talked to my business partner John and suggested we call it JohnCon because it rhymed, but he said to call it RobCon. I know it sounds kind of egotistical, but it's not meant to be, and no other con is named that. It's hard to name a con a cool name that someone hasn't already come up with."
The name is the least of what Pilk and his helpers have to come up with to have a successful show. They have to book vendors, artists, writers and guests. They have to cope with logistics, scheduling and marketing, among other tasks. "I started working on this show in December," Pilk says.
The first show wasn't nearly as big as this year's, and it was held at Pilk's store. "Initially we didn't put a lot of work into it," he says. "We had 10 to 15 dealers with boxes of comics and that was pretty much it. Then we had it at the Paramount one year, and it did a lot better than it ever had before. So I got to wondering, how big would it get if we really worked at it? We had the show at the Paramount two or three years, and then moved to the mall for three years. The last time we were at the mall, we had 500 people attend, and I thought that was huge. The first year we moved to Viking Hall, attendance was 1,300. I think we'll get at least 1,500 people this year. It grows every year. I don't know how long it's going to keep up like this; but as long as it's going, I'm going to keep on doing it."
He visits other conventions throughout the year to look for vendors and guests. "Once they come up here, a lot of them will contact me and want to come back. We treat them well, and we're nice to them and respect them; so it's not hard to get them to come back. The vendors have grown from just guys with boxes of old comics to vendors who specialize in comics from the Golden Age (the "40s "50s and "60s) and people who specialize in comics with variant covers, old toys, new toys and handmade super hero and fantasy-related items, such as hair bows."
In addition to vendors, the convention hosts writers such as New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Estep, Stephen Semones and others, who will be selling and autographing their books.
"We have a ton of artists and really huge talents," Pilk says. "Some haven't been published yet, and some have."
One of those who has been published is Charles Vess. "Charles is one of the top two or three fantasy artists in the world. If we didn't have anybody else but Charles, we'd have a huge draw. He and his wife Karen have been very nice to us over the years and been very helpful and real friends to the store and to me personally, and I appreciate anything that he can do. I'm very grateful he's coming to the show. He's so helpful to other artists. He'll bend over backwards to help them get a leg up, find a job, get a break here and there. People don't realize what a great guy he is."
Joe Staton, who has drawn many super hero comics such as The Green Lantern and Scooby Doo, is attending. He is currently drawing the Dick Tracy comic strip. "You can just walk up to him and ask him to do a sketch of Dick Tracy. I stood and watched him at HeroCon, and I just love to watch him draw. He's really good – fast and just smooth as silk."
Other artists include Scott West, Tom Lyle, Rico Renzi, Brian and Marie Bridgeforth, Jennifer Driscoll DePaola, Jason Flowers, Kaysha Siemens, Andy Runton, Brockton McKinney, Matthew Childers, John Hairston Jr., Brett Cook and Gary Kwapisz.
Matthew Smith, who's filming an independent horror movie based on his comic, "Bee Sting," will be showing previews of his movie.
The Carolina Ghostbusters, who are paranormal investigators, will be on hand with the "Ghostbusters" car, the Ecto-1. The Scooby Doo Mystery Machine Van also will be on hand.
You may want to escape in the Tardis when you hear a Dalek exclaiming, "exterminate," but your apprehension should be soothed by the sounds of radio-controlled R2D2s beeping their way around. But watch out for the zombies from "The Walking Dead."
Pilk says that the show gets bigger and better every year, but that sometimes he feels like it's getting out of his control.
"When it was tiny, I knew everything – even how much money people were making at their tables. When it gets this big, I don't have time to talk to everybody. Even with more help, we start earlier and earlier. I started in December for this one. We're getting bigger names instead of just people from this area. But I love having the area guys. I'll have them every time. We've got guests from New York State to Georgia, so the geography just keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Those guests have to be put up in hotels, their expenses have to be paid and some charge an appearance fee. But Pilk strives to keep the entrance fee low. "We charge $6 to get in. I've been to a lot of shows in Knoxville, Charlotte, Roanoke, Asheville, and no one is that cheap. I don't want to exclude people. If I charged $35 to get in, a lot of people wouldn't be able to come, especially if it's mom and dad and two kids. I have to balance the costs with keeping the ticket price low. I don't try to make money. If we break even or maybe make a little, I'm happy."
"Happy" is the best word to describe Pilk. He's happy at the convention and at his store and makes people smile when they come to visit him.
RobCon is held Saturday, Aug. 2 from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at Viking Hall, Bristol, Tennessee. Admission is $6, and children 10 and under are admitted free.
Vendors of comics, toys and handcrafted items fill the floor at Viking Hall during RobCon.