ALTHOUGH IT has at times over the past decade seemed to be a comic con waiting for a supervillain to put it out of its misery, the 10th anniversary of Wizard World Philly - this weekend at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 11th and Arch streets - appears to be bigger and better than ever.
The main reason? Gareb Shamus is back in charge.
"I had left Wizard for a number of years," said Shamus, whose Wizard brand is arguably the most popular, powerful and influential name in comics. "Around 2003, when I felt the company and conventions were healthy and in good hands, I decided to try something different."
Shamus immersed himself in the world of mixed martial arts fighting before realizing he needed to again guide his company through the no-holds-barred, ultracompetitive world of comic-book conventions.
Dimming star power, bad scheduling decisions and reports of declining attendance at Wizard shows nationwide had rumors flying fast and furious that the shows would soon be phased out - which only accelerated when the Wizard shows in Los Angeles and Texas were canceled last year. Philly was rumored to be next.
"These shows take a lot of time and a lot of money," Shamus said. "I thought others could handle them, but then decided I had to get back to the company.
"The thing is, the shows were never in danger. The contraction last year was all just part of a grand plan dating back to when I came back in 2008. We had already decided that Austin [Texas] would be better to have a show than Arlington and Anaheim [Calif.] would be better than Los Angeles, so why put the time, effort and money even for one more year where we knew we wouldn't get maximum benefit? We needed to realign and put our time, effort and money on making sure that worked long-term. But we have never failed. Some people laughed when we did Boston for one year and stopped. Well, guess what? We're doing a Boston show again."
Shamus said that because Wizard has been so successful, it is a target for everybody - from fanboys on the Internet to writers and artists who are used to being coddled at smaller shows.
"A lot of those people who complain want something for free," Shamus said. "We will work with people as much as they want to work with us."
He's also amused by those who say smaller shows are better because they get more time to talk and aren't as "crazy" as Wizard.
"I don't know who's happy with nobody showing up," he said, laughing. "Our fans are going to come to our events. We're like Bruce Springsteen on tour. We put on the most compelling events and have magazines, Web sites and other things all these other companies don't have to promote themselves. Everything we're doing is with the goal of creating the most compelling show possible."
Consider that goal achieved in spades. Even with the last-minute cancellations of actor William Shatner and Phillies legends Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt, this is still easily the most star-studded Wizard World Philly ever with headliners including actors Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Bruce Campbell, Linda Hamilton, Adam West, Avery Brooks and James Marsters. (Info, schedules and tickets at wizardworld.
"Patrick is just an amazing star for us," said Shamus. "He's an actor's actor and has starred in two of the biggest franchises in history. To be able to have fans meet Captain Picard and Professor X, have their picture taken with him, attend a panel starring him - that's a great experience to be able to give people.
"Bruce is great also. He hasn't done a lot of shows lately, so that should make this special. In addition to fans of Ash, people should also recognize him from 'Burn Notice,' so there's a connection to the past and present there.
"Linda? She's a really, really great lady to meet. When you think about strong female characters, she's one of the first ones that comes to mind. Sarah Connor is one of the strongest, toughest female characters of all time.
"James has been in a lot of different genre projects - from 'Buffy' to 'Caprica' - and the truth is we've gotten him for our female fans. We'll attract a lot of women with James - and they can have their picture taken with him as well.
"That's really one of our core tenets," Shamus said. "We want to make the talent accessible so that fans can meet people who have had an influence on them."
While Shamus said his grand plan includes 25 annual Wizard shows all over the globe, for now it's clear he is glad to be back in charge and can't wait to hit Philly, gobble a few cheesesteaks and watch everything unfold.
"For me, it's like old home week," he said. "I just love the show business aspect. To me, it's going to be great to be out there."