For the love of comics: Comic culture grows at 4th annual expo

Comic book fandom and culture has exploded over the past decade with the rise of mainstream Marvel and DC Comics-related movies and television shows, as well as the massive popularity of comic franchises like The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth year, the Memphis Comic Expo celebrates the creators of those properties as well as those of smaller, independent artists and publishers.

Superheroes and villains will put aside their differences at the 4th annual Memphis Comic Expo, which brings together national talent while uplifting new comic creators, many of which are local to Memphis. 

“The old school comic conventions were all about fans being able to get together with the creators and interact with them and get sketches and autographs,” said Donald Juengling, who is manager of Comics and Collectibles at 4730 Poplar Avenue.

“The thing that I’m most passionate about in comics is the people who actually make them.”

This year's expo will take place in the main domed room at Agricenter International from September 16 to 17 and will feature approximately 80 artists and writers, including well-known talent like Gene Ha, Chris Burnham, Kyle Baker, Darick Robertson, Bob McLeod, Rick Burchett, and Ty Templeton.

Memphis is home to a number of established comics artists like Dean Zachery, Mike Norton, and Jim Hall, who will all be at the show. Martheus Wade is a local writer and artist that has been involved with the Memphis Comic Expo since it started.

"One of the things we need in the comic book industry right now is an outlet to show that we are not competing with Hollywood. We’re our own medium and we want people to be able to enjoy it. Comics started this pop culture craze that is going on right now," said Wade, who works as a graphic designer for the Memphis Redbirds. 

Wade and his wife, Janet, have a new four-issue comic series, Shinobi Ninja Princess: The Lightning Oni, that just came out, and they will be at the show both days signing autographs as well as art prints.

Wade sees the Memphis Comic Expo as a great way to bring young fans into the fold and educate them about comic book history and culture. He describes the show as a convention for die-hard comic book fans, while also having plenty of fun for casual fans.

“With the pop culture explosion of comics, I think the number of casual fans who see the movies, toys or video games is growing, while interest from hard-core fans and collectors might be waning a bit as they age,” said Wade. “That’s why conventions like the Memphis Comic Expo are so important because of being able to gather these people into one spot.”

In the past couple of years, a new comic shop, 901Comics, opened up in Midtown, while shops like Jupiter Comics in Collierville and the Comics Cellar in Raleigh continue to do well. And while years ago comic conventions primarily happened throughout the U.S. during the summer months, now they take place year-round.

Related: "Jupiter Comics brings superheroes to the suburbs"

The Memphis Comic Expo has grown marginally each year, and Juengling expects this year’s event to attract several thousand people over the two days. Single-day tickets and two-day passes will be available at the door. Food trucks from 3 Guys Pizza, Caliente, and Stick ‘Em will offer a variety of food options for guests.

“A lot of the shows these days have focused more on media-related guests, but our motto so far has been ‘Creators Come First’,” said Juengling, who pointed out that the show has become a haven for independent artists and writers who are just breaking into the business or who have aspirations of creating their own works.

The expo will feature comic dealers selling new comics as well as older back issues, along with broad array of merchandise like t-shirts, toys and statues, video games and posters.

Former professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, who is also an accomplished artist, will attend Sunday and is bringing along his full-scale replica Batmobile from the 1960s television show starring Adam West.

Aside from comics-centric talent, there will also be other media personalities on hand to delight fans, including Walter Jones, who was the original black Power Ranger on the show "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and Rosearik "Rikki" Simons, a voice actor who brought to life Gir the Robot from the cult-favorite animated series "Invader Zim".

Saturday will feature a Cosplay contest with fans dressing up as their favorite characters with a cash prize going to the winner.

“We always get a big turnout for it each year,” said Juengling. “There’s a huge amount of creativity and hard work that goes into creating some of the outfits.”

The 501st Legion, a nonprofit Star Wars costuming organization, will be on hand in costumes that look like they came right off the movie sets. They will be helping to raise money with a Droid Hunt for the Heroes Initiative, a nonprofit that helps aging comics creators in need of assistance.

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Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.