Superheroes and the local economy

Friday, April 26, 2019
Variant edition Marvel cover featuring the Bill Emerson bridge and the Avengers before inking, Commissioned by rustmedia for the 2015 Cape Comic Con. Limited editions are available at the this year’s Comic Con from the artist, Greg Land.

When I was seven years old, my mom took my comic books away. The last straw was my friend John Lohr and I putting on capes and jumping from the top of the refrigerator across the room to the kitchen sink. Lord knows how neither of us broke a leg. The shenanigans weren't done, however. We had a hallway in the house that was just narrow enough for my younger brother and I to climb to the top of the 10-foot ceiling, wedged between the two walls, a la Spiderman. Not to mention climbing up and down the outside of the house and up and over balconies, our "Spidey sense" in full force tuned to whether Mom was near.

Nowadays, some of those comic books might be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. And the industry behind them? Worth billions.

Marvel Comics, for example, owns the highest-grossing film franchise in history, having earned nearly $20 billion since launching its Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2007, featuring superheroes created by Jackson native and comics legend Roy Thomas, who was recently bestowed the key to that city. (Meanwhile, Thomas' creation "Captain Marvel" alone has earned more than $1 billion to date in a 2019 theatrical release.)

This story will introduce you to an outgrowth of the comic book industry, the comic con, and explain how it is driving business -- and entertainment -- into Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff and other towns throughout Southeast Missouri. It will do this by focusing mainly on two perspectives: a comic con organizer, Ken Murphy of Cape Girardeau, who has built the second-oldest ongoing convention in the state; and exhibitor Bill Drake, who was so successful in Poplar Bluff selling comics at a Black River Coliseum yard sale that convention center management asked him to start a new comic con in their town. We're also sharing an update about Roy and Dann Thomas, who represent the royalty of the industry. Roy grew up in Jackson, graduated from Southeast Missouri State University and made his career in New York, working alongside and then succeeding Stan Lee as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. He and his wife, Dann, appeared in Jackson Feb. 23 at the first-ever "Roy Thomas Day."

A Comic Convention

Just what is a comic con, though? To gauge reader interest, I asked that question around town, and most people identified it as a place where people dress up in comic book character costumes and buy or trade comic books. Few understood the business plan or economic impact. When former Cape Girardeau mayor Harry Rediger was recently told that Cape Comic Con will draw 5,000 attendees to the Osage Centre at the end of April and fill 200 hotel rooms for a weekend, he cocked his head and said, "Really? I had no idea."

Comic con is short for Comic Book Convention, but nowadays -- in most places, since each comic con is a unique experience reflecting the character of its organizer -- it's so much more. According to Ken Murphy, who's turned organizing the Cape Comic Con into a second job beyond his responsibilities managing the local Starbucks (along with putting on monthly championship wrestling shows, but that's for another article), it's a weekend full of entertainment, culture, gaming, memorabilia, fandom, workshops, camaraderie, new experiences and celebrated nostalgia -- with commerce making it all happen.

"You can go to the movies and spend 10 to 12 dollars, and you're in there for two and a half hours, hoping you've got a good experience. Great," Murphy said. "But you can come to Comic Con for the full day, spend the same money, and we're hoping you see things and have an experience that brings a different level of enjoyment: get pictures with people dressed up. Meet people you didn't know who have similar interests. Watch a costume contest. Purchase a few things from nostalgia. See what's new in comic book art. Check out the video game competitions. Meet a pop culture celebrity. What we want to do is drive people to the event by providing content and programming that well exceeds the value of their ticket."

Comic books are still a big part of a comic con, and there will be vendors selling rare and expensive issues -- or maybe just that one issue (not so rare) that delights a new fan or fills out a local person's collection. But activities have evolved well beyond comic heroes -- with exhibitors playing the central role.

"This year, for example, we reached out to this wonderful little group in Cape, which organizes theme parties for kids centered around Disney princesses," Murphy said. "I told them about the crowds we bring to the Osage Center: 'You've got a real nice, captive audience. If you want to exhibit and put on a small program of maybe 30 minutes to show what you offer in the area of children's parties, I think it will help get your business name out and create a tremendous booking opportunity.' She was excited. And we're excited they'll be there."

For the comic con audience, such programming becomes entertainment, as well as information leading to commerce, which is what drives the success of the event.

Ken Murphy, Event Organizer

Ken Murphy, organizer of the Cape Comic Con in Cape Girardeau, holds the Cape Girardeau collectors’ comic Variant edition of the Avengers — Ultron Forever at his shop at 637 Broadway in downtown Cape Girardeau. The Cape Comic Con is estimated to draw 5,000 attendees to the Osage Centre at the end of April and fill 200 hotel rooms in Cape Girardeau for the weekend.

Ken Murphy grew up a comic book reader, enjoying the graphics and artwork, and really liking "the good guy versus bad guy thing," he told the Southeast Missourian in 2006. That interest and a desire to be his own boss led him to taking over the Cape Girardeau comic shop Marvels and Legends when he was 30 years old. Murphy is 54 now.

"The previous owner of the store absolutely sent a trial balloon my way. He knew it, and I knew it. I think at that age I wasn't naive, but you still wouldn't mind giving it a try. For a few reasons: one is you love the hobby and you want to promote the industry within the area and try to make a living doing it. But I was also ready to be on my own."

As a comic book merchant, Murphy started to closely track "these events that were popping up regionally based off of the big comic con out in San Diego." According to Murphy, St. Louis had hosted a couple of failed events, and Kansas City's was just starting to grow.

"I think from a business standpoint, I just saw it," Murphy told me. "This community is really special, because we appreciate and want well-run entertainment events, and we'll support them. Yet most folks here -- within a 65 mile range -- don't have that overwhelming passion to get on an airplane flight to San Diego.

"I didn't know where it would lead 14 years down the road, but I thought I could pull it off. Like the Chamber of Commerce talks about, there is a drawing power to Cape Girardeau on the weekends when people come in from smaller communities to shop, attend a basketball game, dine out or whatever it would be. I was in the business from a retail standpoint, and comic cons were starting to kind of blossom. I wanted one for our community, and I really felt from the beginning that it was something that was sustainable."

Murphy started out the first year in downtown Cape on the top floor of Buckner's Brewing Company, a historic four-story department store converted into a brewery, which wasn't the best location to lug up hundreds of boxes via a narrow stairwell. Making a lot of money wasn't his early goal; creating a sustainable event and not failing was.

"My wife said, 'Hey, enjoy this. Let's at least break even.' It was a lot of work." It wasn't a smashing financial success for Murphy, but it hadn't failed, either.

"If I had tanked, whew," Murphy said. "Cape Comic Con would have been tough to do again. When you're a smaller independent business guy, you might get a couple of years to get your feet planted and to grow, but in my economic place, I couldn't survive a big retail hit."

Over the years, Murphy established a strong reputation for fair treatment of exhibitors and for putting on a good show. Attendance grew steadily, from 400 in 2006 to 1,700 in 2014. The costume contest was something unique, which gained Cape Comic Con a lot of attention. Then the event exploded, adding nearly a thousand attendees per year between 2014 and 2017. In 2018, 4,900 people attended. Murphy expects more than 5,000 -- and hopes for many more than that -- in 2019.

Guests at Cape Comic Con this year, which takes place April 26-28, will include four of the actors from the original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers; voice talent Veronica Taylor, who has starred in animation from Pokémon to Sailor Moon, as well as in numerous video games; professional wrestler Road Warrior Animal; and Marvel artist Greg Land. But it's the vendors -- and what they provide at their booths or in one of the "stadium" rooms -- who take the entertainment and experience to the next level, whether it's through Lego presentations, painting and writing workshops, or something called LARPing (Live Action Role Playing games, in costume).

Here's a back-of-the-napkin analysis of Murphy's convention business (he sold the comics store a few years ago, needing health insurance for his family, and found his job managing Starbucks through a comics connection): In the early days, exhibitor revenue is what kept the event afloat. Now, booth space costs roughly $150 per booth. With various discounts for extra footage, let's say (these are not Murphy's numbers, but my own) the average income comes to $135 per booth. At Cape Comic Con 2019, there will be 150 booths. So that's vendor revenue of approximately $20,250. Murphy does not charge vendors a revenue share of their proceeds -- a practice at some shows -- which is one reason he usually has a waiting list for vendors each year, most who reserve space at least a year out.

With a sizable gate -- 5,000 attendees -- real income is now starting to flow into Cape Comic Con. In 2019, there will be four classes of tickets, with kids under 6 years old admitted free. Day passes for adults go for $12 the first two days ($10 on Sunday); kids 6 to 12 years old are $7. Weekend passes are $25 for adults and $20 for kids. The Gold Pass, which gives full admission over the weekend plus perks, a swag bag and other mementos, is $50. Murphy tracks traffic by individual tickets and estimates 10 percent of his crowd purchases the Gold ticket; the total average ticket price is $24. If 5,000 individual tickets are sold, that's a revenue stream of $120,000. Murphy is a promoter, so let's cut that figure by a third, assuming the 5,000 in traffic represents many who have multiple-day tickets, are vendors or are younger than six. Still, that's $80,000 in revenue.

Murphy also derives income from branded t-shirts and merchandise and a little from advertising and other promotions within the venue. All together, this puts his revenue comfortably above $100,000.

Murphy's biggest costs are around renting the venue for three days and bringing in talent, including appearance fees and travel. A celebrity guest like Lou Ferrigno in 2018, who played the Hulk on TV, costs more than $10,000. Some talent seek a guarantee on autograph signing; if he or she doesn't hit their agreed threshold, Murphy writes a check for the difference. Others get paid up front. With artisan talent, Murphy might buy hundreds of books from the artist, which are used to stock the swag bag. Other swag bag items might come free from Marvel or DC or another production company, which could be promoting a new movie or other upcoming feature. Comic books inside the swag bags are usually paid for. Insurance, because the event is inside, is minimal. Murphy takes advantage of a lot of free media -- and promotes regularly to those who attended previously.

For this year, Murphy estimates the total cost to produce Cape Comic Con is around $40,000 -- with half being investments in talent, celebrities and their travel. That figure doesn't count his own travel to visit other comic cons throughout the year in search of hot talent and to recruit successful vendors. Nor does it count his and his family's time putting on the event -- something that is a full-family affair. Still, clearing more than $60,000 before taxes in Cape Comic Con is quite an accomplishment.

"I have an incredible team, even though there's not many of us," Murphy said. "Brian and Amanda Rhodes are the project managers. Shane Lodi is in charge of talent relations. Then it's me and my wife Deneke' and our kids, Morgan, Connor and Brady. It's a full-family project. But we couldn't do it without an incredible group of supporters throughout Cape Girardeau. Gary Rust and the Southeast Missourian cheered us on from the beginning, and rustmedia has helped with marketing. Once we established a track record, Brenda Newbern at the CVB has been instrumental. Ryan Gibson at Drury Hotels works right alongside us to find enough rooms, and Scott and Penny Williams with Cape Parks and Rec are great to work with. Byron Aden has been an important supporter, and The Bank of Missouri with Dawn Dauer and Aaron Panton have helped our success. Amy McDonald with the Cape Schools Foundation really helped us out of a bind last year. There's really too many people to mention who've added to the success."

If there's a risk to Cape Comic Con -- now that locking into a venue and holding blocks of hotel rooms have become somewhat routine -- Murphy indicated it has to do with competition and overlap.

"Probably the biggest concern for us is the timing of other shows," Murphy said. "For example, there's a show in Calgary, Canada, the same weekend as mine. That show is going to draw 100,000 attendees. Now, do I think I am a competitor of theirs? No. Do I think their show is going to draw from our primary market? No.

"My concern is when I call 100 agents and 95 of their clients are going to Calgary, and I'm left with, you know, I can't get the guy I want, I can't get the young lady I want, the actors I want, I can't get the voice actor I want, because the competition is so great, and they all have to go where their biggest opportunity is, and they're going to wait before committing. And of the 400 to 500 Gold Ticket buyers, some might look to go elsewhere, because of the talent." That's among Murphy's biggest stress.

"I'm so excited about 2019," Murphy said. "It's a fantastic line-up. But the coolest thing is, I'm so jazzed about 2020, I can't stand it. Each year, it's that way. After the show in April, I'll stay on Comic Con for two to three more weeks, then I will take June and July and not do much about it. From August until show day, though, it's part-time work, about 15 to 20 hours per week for eight, nine months. But I love it."

Murphy started the event out of a love of comics, wanting to share that passion with others in the area, and a hope to create a new business. Fourteen years later, he's accomplished all of that, electrifying thousands with fun engagement and making good money for his family (albeit with a lot of work). It's also driving business into Cape Girardeau: according to Murphy, about 75 percent of the 150 vendors are from out of town, most booths manned by more than one person, each needing a hotel room. A portion of the Gold Ticket buyers travel in from elsewhere, oftentimes following the appearance of a particular guest celebrity. Both of these groups -- celebrities and some Gold Ticket attendees -- also need hotel rooms. And the event each day ends early enough to release thousands to area restaurants. All of that spells money for local tourism, gas stations and more, not to mention the vendors.

After 14 years of building Cape Comic Con, Murphy, a fount of ideas, isn't close to being done. The one idea he's most eager to pursue is to be in two venues in the future: the traditional Comic Con in the Osage Centre and at a gaming expo at the Arena. Same weekend. Same channel. Same great super hero action. Stay tuned.

Roy and Dann Thomas, Legends

Roy Thomas and his wife, Dann Thomas

On February 23, Jackson celebrated "Roy Thomas Day" with a day-long event highlighting the Jackson native's career as a comic book writer for Marvel Comics and DC Comics, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, creator of Wolverine and the comic book character Conan the Barbarian, film screenplay writer and initiator of dozens of comic books, including the first "Star Wars" comic book series. He and his wife, Dann, were bestowed the key to the city.

In remarks at the Montgomery Bank Conference Center, Thomas talked about growing up in Jackson and going to St. Paul Lutheran School. At one point when he was a student, the school had been persuaded that comics were bad for kids, so a comic book burning was organized.

"My parents didn't mind me reading comics, because I read so much other stuff, and I didn't like or read the crime and horror comics," Thomas recounted. "But with the burning, my parents asked me to give some up, anyway. So I gathered several I'd cut apart to create my own stories, and when I put them in the stack to burn, I saw a couple [of comic books] that I'd never seen before and swiped them. [They were] Space Busters and Wild Boy of the Congo. I'm probably the only one who went to a book burning who came home with more!"

Thomas talked about his career path and the creative process, as well as the joys and idiosyncrasies of coming home to Jackson. "I like traffic lights, I'm sorry. Roundabouts, I don't know how to drive them." Later, he signed hundreds of autographs for free at the Cape Girardeau County History Center in Uptown Jackson.

Parody of Justice League cover by Roy Thomas, mimeographed in 1962.

Carla Jordan, director of the History Center, told the Southeast Missourian,"The Uptown Jackson Revitalization Organization, the committee, they did a fantastic job of getting this organized. It was wonderful to partner with them."

While Roy signed autographs, I had the pleasure of talking with Dann Thomas for more than an hour, hearing her insights into the evolution of the comics industry and the business and personalities behind it. She was one of the first women writers, with screenwriting credit on several superhero comic books, including "Wonder Woman." Dann credited the industry's catering to women, especially in movies, as well as the emergence of CGI, for much of today's blockbuster success. Women and girls' engagement has also impacted comic cons, she said.

"The first comic conventions were just crazy. Most of the fans were men, boys, so it was primarily a male event with the occasional wife or eccentric girl. But still the sex ratio would be at least 20 guys to every woman. One of the greatest changes with comic cons is now it's practically a 50:50 ratio. I think a lot of that is due to cosplay -- with the costumes -- and women like costumes. Now, so many are participating."

Roy Thomas at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills Hotel 1977. Taken while waiting for Phil Silvers to show up for an interview. Photo by Alan Waite.

Dann also described how her husband would look for talent at comic cons -- and often hire from those attending.

Now, the industry is "so much more professional than before," Dann pointed out. Data analytics is so important, it's like the "tail wagging the dog. But the stakes are so much higher, too. Everyone wants to turn a comic character into a film, and making a movie is like building a pyramid; it takes a lot of capital, a lot of money. What's really interesting is seeing all the character mining going on, where they take what was an obscure character in the original comic and elevate him or her to stardom."

The current Captain Marvel movie, which has earned more than $1 billion in worldwide release, emerged from a character her husband redefined, creating Carol Danvers originally as someone in the role of supporting cast, who became Ms. Marvel and eventually Captain Marvel.

Who's next? Who knows.

But it might just be another character created by a hometown hero of Jackson and Southeast Missouri State University: Roy Thomas, industry icon, his wife, Dann, alongside.

Bill Drake, Exhibitor

Bill Drake, comic con exhibitor and organizer of SEMO Con in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, with his grandsons, Gavin and Liam.

Bill Drake describes himself as "one of the happy endings."

"My mom never threw away my comics when I was a kid," said Drake, who has family and conducts business in Dexter, Poplar Bluff and throughout Southeast Missouri.

"I was raised in California, mowed yards, collected soda bottles and each week walked into the grocery store to buy my weekly stack of comics and Super Bubble bubble gum."

When his mom questioned his habit of buying comic books, Drake introduced her to a few superhero issues with star-crossed love stories, and she was hooked. When his family moved to Arkansas when he was 12, somehow all the comics made it, too.

"I kept collecting in high school. Then went to college, and my old stuff survived. I stopped buying for a while and later started filling in my collection, buying from other people. I was one of the first to set up on eBay."

Today, Drake buys and sells at local comic cons. A church minister on Sundays (and a retired K-12 art teacher), he doesn't like to venture more than four hours from his home in Paragould, Arkansas, so he can be back comfortably on Saturday nights to be fresh to preach on Sundays.

"I've been invited to Dallas, Colorado Springs, the East Coast, but they're just too far," said Drake, who keeps his most rare magazines in a bank vault lockbox. He's been offered up to $20,000 for some of them. He tells a fun story about bank staff asking permission to join him in the vault to look at the comics when he visits.

"The bank president asked me once, 'Mr. Bill, how much money do you want to borrow? I'll loan you anything you want.'"

To Drake, the best vendors are those who take care of customers with the golden rule.

"I remember one time I'm selling in Memphis and I had one little 10 x 10-foot spot across from a guy with a 10 x 50 booth. He had a wall of fame with his best comics behind plastic. I like to have people come in and touch the comics, feel them, get a sense of the quality. Some of his books ranged up to $4,000. At one point during the show, he met me in the aisle and tells me he's seen a lot of business around my table, and asks how I've been doing. I told him I probably have about $500 in profit, and he replied, 'Well, I've only lost about $700.'

"I didn't tell him, but what happened is that he had been sitting looking at his phone, not taking care of customers. One lady pointed to a comic marked '$250' and asked [if it were negotiable]. Without taking his eyes off the phone, he explained to her that he had a lot of overhead, that he'd driven from Atlanta, and this was his business. 'The price was the price.' He didn't have any joy about what he was doing. So, she was frustrated and left.

"That's when I kind of caught her eye and wiggled my finger at her. She came over. I told her, 'That's not the way it's supposed to be done.' I invited her in and pulled out some books, and she found what she was looking for. It cost her $50, and she bought some others, spending $100 with me in total. Later, she brought a lot of people back who bought from me, too. This is a hobby. If my life depends on selling a comic book, I'm in trouble.

"But you got to sell yourself as much as any merchandise. And you might as well have fun doing it."

A few years later, the Black River Coliseum in Poplar Bluff hosted an indoor yard sale. Drake got a few spots, and in a day sold about $1,500 of comics and toys.

"It was a feeding frenzy. Awesome," he said. "Midway through, I look up and see the Black River Coliseum management, two guys and one lady, walking towards me, marching in step. What did I do wrong, I thought? And they came up to my booth, told me there'd never been a comic con in the Coliseum, and they want me to put it together."

So Drake did, working out a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Coliseum. Because of his respect for Ken Murphy and Amanda Rhodes at Cape Comic Con, he touched base with them so the event in Poplar Bluff would be halfway around the calendar. He also confirmed they were good with the name SEMO Con.

"I set up SEMO Con with the golden rule, the way I'd want it to be set up if I were a vendor or a guest, and that perspective has worked well." The third annual SEMO Con will take place Sept. 13-15, 2019.

Drake credited the success of the Cape Con to a similar ethic.

"Ken and Amanda work so hard not to make the show for the

mselves but for vendors and the customers," Drake said. "They'll do their best bringing in a variety of great guests. If you like anime, they'll have that. If you like Pokémon, they'll have that. If you like superheroes, they'll have that. And it's priced right. Some big shows charge you so much just to get in that you don't have any money to buy memorabilia.

"Cape Con is one of my favorites, and I learned the lesson as an organizer to price reasonably."

Drake isn't as complimentary about all the shows he's worked.

"Every con has its own personality. It reflects the management. I've been to shows where I'll never go back, because it was all about making money. If you go into it with that kind of attitude, you won't be around long. You have to go into it with the attitude that it's about the community. But you can't lose money, either, because if you do, you're not going to be in existence for long, like any business.

"As a vendor, you have to understand the market, too. Some places I won't bring out my $500 to $1,000 books, though I'll keep them in back."

Drake explained that for the high-dollar books, there are three main types of customers. The first is the individual who has a collection that might lack a single issue, "like the Avengers number four, which is the return of Captain America. It's a thousand-dollar book," he said.

"This person has budgeted, planned and knows how they want to negotiate. They're headhunting," Drake said. "The second group would be other vendors. There's not much negotiating, because everyone kind of knows the value, and it's only about resale, not completing a collection."

The third group is made up of people who don't have an emotional connection to a particular comic book but who see it as an investment.

"They don't care about the collection. They just know it's gonna be valuable someday," Drake says. "That's a good thing about my comic books; they've never gone down in value. The stock market jumps up and down. These continually run up. Now, will a book you buy today new, is it going to send your kids to college someday? No, probably not. But in a few years, it might be worth a couple dollars. The old ones in good condition, though -- for example, the first appearance of Superman in 1938; it sold a couple summers ago for more than $3 million. Not bad for a 10-cent comic. That's why investors buy."

Drake is ambivalent about whether there are too many comic cons popping up and what that means for vendors.

"Every little town thinks they need to have a comic con nowadays. If it's handled right, if it's managed right, then it could be a success." But the more towns in a region that have one, the less bang for the buck for each one, which is why he was careful to schedule Poplar Bluff's dates with separation from Cape's. Still, he's willing to try some new ones, if they fit his schedule and aren't too far away. His next stop: Sainte Genevieve, Missouri.