Local Arts

Building a sense of community is a big draw at HeroesCon in Charlotte

Charlotte’s 37th HeroesCon is a bit like Halloween, except with around 50,000 fans in one convention center.

Inspector Gadget browses comics books next to her friend Pearl from the “Steven Universe” animated TV show. Dave Strider and Dirk Strider from the web comic “Homestuck” are on the other side looking at cartoon paintings.

And then there’s Wonder Woman with her costumed dog and her 6-year-old sidekick, “Wonder-Woman-in-Training.”

Since 1982, HeroesCon has allowed comic book fans and artists alike to participate in what they love: “purely comics,” as artist Bridgit Connell said. Fans come from Charlotte, Atlanta, and even other countries to dress up, meet cartoonists and watch artists draw at “Artists Alley,” where they can purchase the work.

They pack the Charlotte Convention Center with rows upon rows of comic book artists and vendors. The cartoonists and fans come back every year, making HeroesCon a mecca for comic “camaraderie,” Connell said.

“Some people have been coming for 20 or 30 years,” said convention founder Shelton Drum, who owns the Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find comic book shop in Charlotte.

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Cosplay is a common sight at Heroes Convention. Stephanie Bunao sbunao@charlotteobserver.com

Bonding a community

Connell, a Concord resident and freelance artist, has been attending HeroesCon for about 15 years. She said in college she “learned more (from) watching artists draw at HeroesCon than going to illustration classes” at UNC Charlotte.

HeroesCon remains a way for artists and fans to interact.

Because HeroesCon mixes fans, future cartoonists, amateur artists and experts, everyone feels involved and welcome, said Andy Smith, a Charlotte artist who sits at his booth in Artists Alley at the convention with his daughter.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the business or an expert. Everyone is here mixed together,” he said.

Drum hopes to welcome all fans, whether cartoons are their career goal or just their hobby. This year, he decided to offer free admission to everyone 18-and-under to “encourage them to stay in the industry or stay in the hobby.”

Some fans at HeroesCon feel welcome because they can participate in the art, too. Polk County High School student and fan Jasmine Atkins (aka Inspector Gadget) said her favorite part of the convention is fans’ art — their costumes — even more than the comic books.

Melissa Lookabill, an eight-time attendee and Kannapolis resident who dressed as Wonder Woman, says HeroesCon gives her freedom as an artist.

“Society is not as forgiving when you want to be different and dress up,” Lookabill said. “This convention gives people a chance to be with others who enjoy perfecting the art.”

Even the youngest fans at HeroesCon dress up and participate. But Lookabill’s 6-year-old sidekick Jaydalyn said that while she’s enjoyed the convention, her favorite part was “riding the light rail” to the convention center.

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Crowds flock to the opening day of the three-day HeroesCon in the Charlotte Convention Center Friday. Adam Bell abell@charlotteobserver.com

History and Inspiration

Drum said he first became interested in comics as a kid. While at first he wanted to be a cartoonist, that didn’t work out.

“I guess I lived under that delusion for a good six or eight, maybe even 10 years,” Drum said.

But Drum stayed in the business, first selling comic books in the 1970s at flea markets, news stands and through the mail. Eventually, he started his store Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in 1980, admittedly as a way to enlarge his collection.

After running a few mini conventions, the comic book lover decided he want to do something to “celebrate the industry more and bring attention to my store.” That’s how HeroesCon started in 1982 at Holiday Inn-Woodlawn.

Now at the Charlotte Convention Center, HeroesCon has become a Charlotte staple. Drum thinks of it as a “comic book summer camp, except you don’t grow out of it.”

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The first day of Heroes Convention kicks off at the Charlotte Convention Center, June 14, 2019. Stephanie Bunao sbunao@charlotteobserver.com

As the convention has grown, Drum said people have asked him to consider moving to Nashville or Myrtle Beach. But he doesn’t have intentions to move anytime soon.

“Charlotte’s home for me. It’s homegrown. Charlotte has grown up with us,” he said.

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