HeroesCon is practically a religion for Suzie Mason.
She's been attending the annual Charlotte comic convention faithfully since 2006, most of them with her little girl Madeleine, who's attended every year of her life.
"She's never missed a year and she's 7 now," Mason says. "I used to carry her in a sling."
Mason's enthusiasm is infectious, but it's no secret that this is Mom's thing, and both Madeleine and her mom are fine with that.
"She's not into it as much as I am," Mason says with shrug, motioning to the little girl who's clearly more interested in the video games in the family's living room. "She's into the more cartoon-based stuff."
Cartoons aren't exactly off this mom's radar. In addition to indie comics, Mason, who's smitten with all things Japanese, is a massive fan of the groundbreaking Afro Samurai animated series as well as Samurai Jack, created by the legendary artist Andy Suriano. At last year's HeroesCon, Suriano made an appearance, and Mason was there.
- Suzie Mason.
"I was super excited because Samurai Jack blew my mind when it first came out," says Mason, 35, whose day job is the Playstation representative for Sony Interactive Entertainment in the Southeast. She's also been active in Charlotte's music and creative communities for years, playing bass for bands including Zoe Vette and the Revolvers and Sunday Missile. Suriano obliged Mason with a signature in her Samurai Jack book, complete with a nice surprise.
"He drew Aku in it for me!" Mason says, referring to the iconic villain of the series. She grins widely. "I was super excited. I was totally fan-girling!"
HeroesCon descends on the Queen City for the 35th time for three days beginning June 16, and an array of writers and artists were still being added to the roster at press time. The event takes place at the Charlotte Convention Center, so be on the lookout for pedestrians in costume while driving through the Uptown area that weekend.
Karla Southern, the events organizer for the convention, reveals at least one special guest during this year's HeroesCon. "I have it on good authority that none-other-than DMC himself (Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC fame) will be in attendance, and might even jump in on some hosting duties."
Like many of the organizers, Southern started 10 years ago as simply a fan. "I was just a dedicated HeroesCon attendee and volunteer," she says. She remembers being "blissfully unaware of all that went into planning the show each year." In those days, Heroes founder Shelton Drum and Dustin Harbin did everything. In 2011, after Harbin went to cartooning full-time, Drum brought in Rico Renzi, an artist who colored for Marvel, and a local rockstar of the comics scene, as Heroes' creative director to handle the Artist Alley aspect of the show. A year later, he brought Southern in to coordinate the exhibitors and other aspects of the show.
Even now, elbows-deep in the nuts and bolts of planning a major Charlotte convention, Southern still remains, at heart, a fangirl of the local team that has brought Heroes to life. "I can't imagine how Shelton organized the show by himself for so many years, or how he and Dustin managed the task with just the two of them," she says. Renzi and Southern both will work without a break from the end of March right up to the opening day of the show to get everything right. Planning for 2018 is already underway, and apparently there is no slowing down on the books for either of them anytime soon.
Southern wouldn't have it any other way, though. "It really is a 24/7 labor of love from the whole Heroes staff."
But hey, Mr. Peabody, can we borrow the Wayback Machine, and take it all the way back to, say, about 1965?
That's where this story begins.
A 10-year-old named Shelton Drum had a revelation when a copy of the classic Amazing Spider Man #1 sold for a then-unthinkable $10. Seeing the potential for commerce based on passion, even at that age, Drum immediately began purchasing three of every Marvel comic being published, using the extras to trade for holes in his collection. He was soon buying out the entire comic stock of pharmacies each month. By the early '70s Drum would set up shop once a month at the Metrolina Flea Market, where he built a regular clientele.
In 1980, Drum rented the space that would become Heroes Aren't Hard To Find, near the corner of Central and Pecan avenues in Plaza Midwood, as much to find a place to store his ever-growing collection as to sell anything. Within a few months, Drum's enterprise (the name a twist on Fleetwood Mac's 1974 album title Heroes are Hard to Find) was doing a brisk business. Soon the store moved a block over to Thomas Avenue, almost a third of the space devoted to warehousing comics and supplies. In 1982, Drum's passion for comics and comic fandom was made bona fide with the establishment of the first Heroes Convention.
- Photo by Skottie Young.
Since 1982, Heroes has become a yearly must, first for the local Charlotte comic community, and increasingly for the entire Southeast region. Boasting its family-friendly atmosphere and an emphasis on comic-books first and foremost, HeroesCon has built a stellar reputation among the artist and writer communities they showcase, leading to impeccable guest lists with some of the comic field's most respected names. HeroesCon has become a "must see" on many an East Coast fan's summer itinerary, drawing creators and fans alike from every part of the country to Charlotte for one great weekend in June every year.
Mason has her share of HeroesCon stories, and they're all positive and unforgettable. Oh, except for one. Unforgettable, but not so positive.
A few years back, the convention had booked Rosario Dawson, then-star of Hollywood's adaptation of Sin City. Mason was a fan of both the comic and the movie, and was there with her Sin City DVD to catch a moment with the Dawson. "I was the only girl in line - it was all guys," Mason remembers, "and everyone was getting photos with her, and she wasn't making anybody pay, it was totally cool."
Almost totally cool.
"When I got up there, she tried to make me pay her $10 to get a photo with her." Mason shakes her head in wonder, even now. "I even said, 'But you didn't make those guys pay...' and she said, 'Well for you, it's $10.'" Mason laughs. "I was like, 'You're a jerk,' but she still signed my DVD, so I was happy."
If spoiled Hollywood types can be counted on to sour any stew, the experience also served to contrast and showcase the real heroes of HeroesCon: The artists and writers who, almost without fail, bring a lightness and a positivity to every interaction they have with their fans. "Comic book artists, they are the nicest people that you'll ever meet," Mason attests without hesitation. "It's totally different. They love their fans and they absolutely love talking about stuff. I'm sure they get asked the same stuff over and over, and they never seem numb to it. It's just awesome."
- Wonder Woman poses with a young fan.
Mason supports indie and local artists in the comics field with the same dedication she gave to music back in the day. HeroesCon's similar dedication to the local artist pool isn't lost on Mason.
"The indie stuff and the local artists — I probably support them more than anyone," Mason says.
Sean Hutchings has been a dedicated supporter of HeroesCon for 10 years. An avid video game enthusiast and comic-book collector, he manages a GameStop in Matthews, and knows exactly who he's looking for at the 2017 convention. This is the first year that Hutchings' favorite comic artist is appearing at HeroesCon. "Terry Dodson (Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman) has his own books he's been putting out in Europe, but this will be the first time I get a chance to get a commission from him," Hutchings smiles, hopefully. "Depending on if he approves of it, of course."
Artist commissions are a huge feature of HeroesCon these days. For a modest fee, fans can get original artworks made by request, hand-drawn by their artist of choice, if the artist is down. Mason got an original that a local artist did for her a few years ago. It still hangs on her living room wall — a beautiful, manga-inspired depiction of a girl holding a bloody katana blade against a Japanese screen, a dreamlike study of sexiness and brutality. Mason is looking forward to the commissions this year as always.
"You can have them draw anything you want," Mason says. "If you want Iron Man beating up Batman, you can have it. You can totally have them cross over. And you can get them from the actual artists that drew those characters for the majors."
Artists like the legendary Jim Shooter, the writer/artist for some of DC and Marvel comics' most iconic characters including Superman, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man as well as indie icons like Valiant Comics Shadowman series. And local luminaries like Babs Tarr, a Charleston, South Carolina, native who's Japanese-influenced style caught the eye of DC comics in 2014; the company promptly picked the Carolinian to draw the art for Batgirl.
"I'm a big supporter of Babs," Hutchings says. "And a shout-out to Wolly McNair, for being a big influence. He goes every year, and puts out his own books."
Babs and Wolly will both be at HeroesCon this year.
This year's HeroesCon will, of course, be clouded by the sad surprise loss of one major figure to fans everywhere.
Adam West, legendary for many roles but mostly for his '60s TV version of Batman, died last week at 88, and the loss is being felt at HeroesCon. "We were all very saddened to hear of the great Adam West's passing," Southern says. "For many, he will always be Batman. I'm sure that many people will contribute their own unique memorials to this cultural icon."
There is already talk of a possible Adam West Tribute for the yearly "Cosplay Class Photo" on Saturday, June 17, at 1 p.m.
So at the end of the day, what exactly does HeroesCon bring to Charlotte and its comics fan community?
"You answered your own question," Hutchings replies without a beat. "That word: community. Whether you liked comic books or other things, they've always figured out how to bring everyone together. The culture has become such a big part of everyone's lives, you see all walks of life."
Mason can't imagine her year without a June trip to HeroesCon. "Every year I look at the list, and I look to see who's there and I see what I've gotten signed already, and I take all of my comics by that artist that I know is going to be there," she says with contagious enthusiasm, "And I have them signed, and I tell them how much I love them."