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Contributed by writer-photographer Tim Lasiuta

How do you know you’re going to have a good comic convention experience? When the first celebrity you meet is Gene Simmons being escorted out to his spotlight and getting a fist pump in return...that’s how!

On September 22-24, 2017, the Edmonton Comic and Entertainment Expo hit new heights this year, with living legend Jim Steranko and rock star and media personality Gene Simmons in the same room. Add William Shatner, G.I. Joe legends Larry Hama and Robert Atkins, and Deadpool creator Fabian Nicieza, and you have a power house line up.

“I had been trying to get [Jim] Steranko to come to Edmonton for several years,” show organizer Shane Turgeon said. “And this was the year and I am pleased to be able to have local fans meet Steranko. Alongside that, I was able to celebrate the 35th anniversary of G.I. Joe as well as hosting Larry Hama and Robert Atkins. I am a huge Joe fan so I managed to add a little museum of original comic book and concept art as well.”

Turgeon added that attendance at the show was ‘on target’ and he expected to meet 2016’s numbers.

“Along with my operating partner, we have been trying to keep comic books the focus of Edmonton Expo and not descend into movie/tv emphasis,” said Turgeon who has been involved with conventions in Edmonton since 2003. “Draws like special media stars do bring people in, but for us, comics come first.”

The 2017 comic book lineup included Jim Steranko, Bob Budiansky, Bob Hall, Bob McLeod, Nat Jones, Diana Greenhalgh, Fabian Nicieza, Greg Hyland, David Spurlock, John Gallagher, Kelly Tyndall, Larry Hama, Kate Niemczyk, Kyle Charles, Robert Atkins, Vic Malhotra and Ryan Ferrier. While Simmons led the media charge, Supernatural’s Adam Fergus and David Hadyn Jones, Alex Kingston, Anna Silk, Captain America’s Anthony Mackie (The Falcon), Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo, The Expanse’s Cas Anvar, the voice of Mario Charles Martinet, Daredevil’s Charlie Cox, Buffy’s Clare Kramer and Kristine Sutherland, Ernie Hudson, Wonder Woman’s Eugene Brave Rock, Garrett Wang, William Shatner, Jodelle Ferland, John Rhys Davies, Melanie Scrofano, Rose McIver, and the voice of Wonder Woman Susan Eisenberg.

Interspersed between non-costumed attendees, cosplayers willingly posed for photos, some as groups, and some as solo characters. With the rise in popularity of Guardians of the Galaxy, at least two rival hero groups strode the convention floor standing guard to 1970s rock tunes courtesy of blue tooth.

DC Icons, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman also toured the floor, trading photo opportunities with Magic The Gathering characters, the Care Bear Wookie family, Super Mario, Indiana Jones, the Silver Surfer, Gene Simmons (the taller version from Saskatoon), manga characters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, space aliens, and a wide variety of other costumes.

Gene Simmons’ first Edmonton convention appearance drew a colorful and enthusiastic crowd. “People ask me why I wear sunglasses all the time, even inside,” Simmons told the crowd. “That’s because the sun never sets on the planet cool.”

Tanner Z, the spotlight host, was faced with a moving target during his interview moderation. Shortly after sitting down in the comfy chair, Simmons stood up and asked if he had to talk up on the stage. That was his invitation to hop down to main level and take the wireless microphone and interview his fans in the audience.

“I’d much rather talk to you than talk about myself,” he said. “You can find all of that on the internet. But, I am interested in you folks.” That said, the former KISS front man asked questions of audience members, talking about his experience as a sixth grade Spanish teacher, and his arrival in North America at the age of 8, having to learn to speak and read English from comic books.

A young Indie artist asked his advice about starting a career in music as a singer-performer-song writer. “Move,” was his advice while offering encouragement to the young woman.

Much to the delight of the hometown audience, Simmons spoke of his first Edmonton performance in 1974 at the University of Edmonton as their first album was released and the broken tables/stage that ensued. When asked if he would run for president of the United States he offered an alternative, “benevolent dictator,” but only for six months, then he would give up power to the people. Simmons and his house band performed on Saturday night to the delight of KISS fans throughout the convention floor.

Turgeon, Edmonton Expo organizer, brought out the legends to the 2017 show. Bob Hall, Bob Budiansky, Bob McLeod, Larry Hama, and Jim Steranko spotlighted artist alley with their talent and extensive publishing catalogue.

But it was Steranko who stole the show, comically speaking. Steranko and Vanguard Publishing’s massive booth dominated artist alley and was a focal point for classic comic book collectors with line-ups lasting as long as two hours to snatch five minutes of Steranko’s time. “I don’t allow photographs at my booth, but that’s because I want my fans to have the Steranko experience,” said the artist. “I don't just give an autograph, I tell a story and give them a moment they can remember the rest of their lives.”

Fans in the line agreed, and soaked in tales from Steranko’s time at Marvel Comics in the 1960s enthusiastically. One comic book fan was a little different. “Jim Steranko inspired me to become a professional illustrator,” said Ron Lamarre, a 33-year veteran of the animation industry who now lives in Edmonton. “His craftsmanship made me want to draw, and I have gone on to work on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jem, Dennis the Menace, Arthur, Caillou and other films at Nelvana in Montreal. I worked on Rock & Rule with Nelvana that featured music from a bunch of 1980s top bands.”

Lamarre went on to say that he remembered playing ping pong with Geddy Lee of Rush during that time and he wondered how he managed to win $50 from Lee due to his lack of racket skills. “I moved to Edmonton a few years ago and now work at a small studio here doing work for corporate clients,” he added. “Steranko and Chuck Jones were my heroes growing up. This is a special day.”

During Steranko's panel, J. David Spurlock encouraged the artist to share the story of how he got hired at Marvel in the mid-1960s. The moral of the story, listen to Wally Wood and never underestimate how much trouble you can get to in 15 minutes. The highlight of the Steranko panel was not an impromptu Steranko sketch, but rather a phone call to comic book legend Joe Sinnott.

“It was a special opportunity to call Jim’s special friend Joe close to his 91st birthday,” said Spurlock. “Joe got to talk about Jim and his talent, and for the first and last time, Jim led the crowd of close to 150 fans in singing happy birthday to the legend.” Steranko added this would never happen at Wizard World.

Kirby historian Steve Coates moderated the Bob McLeod spotlight and as part of his presentation paid tribute to those comic artists who passed away in late 2016 and 2017. “This year we lost John Calnan, Dan Spiegle, Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, Bob Lubbers, Adam West and Sam Glanzman,” said Coates. “It is important to remember their contributions to the comic industry.”

Artist McLeod, who is retired now, travels to conventions but does not miss the comic book industry. “I enjoy conventions and interacting with fans,” said McLeod. “It is more rewarding to do commissions now than drawing full pages for comic books. With my career behind me, I now find time to talk to fans who connected with my art and that is satisfying.”

With 35 years of G.I. Joe behind him, artist-writer Larry Hama thought he was in for a “year and a half or two years at best.” “I was the last guy they offered Joe to,” remembered Hama. “Everyone else rejected it and I figured I had nothing to lose. Other artists and writers considered a toy property to be the kiss of death, and it had proven to be so for some of them.”

Now, with close to four decades with the characters, he explained that it was code that animated commercials could only have 5 seconds of story, but with comic books, the whole issue could be one commercial for the toys. “Rom and G.I. Joe were exceptions to the rule,” he added. “This has been a great run for me.”

In addition to Hama, Robert Atkins, Joe artist since 2007 appeared at the show and signed his Edmonton Expo cover for fans of his work. “We did have G.I. Joe figure designer Ron Rudat cancel out but our duo of Joe creators was thrill for fans,” said Turgeon.

Storyboard artist, John Gallagher spoke to Flash and Supergirl fans about his love for the medium and his future. “I can’t imagine that a lifetime comic book fan actually gets to work on characters he grew up with,” said Gallagher. “I have the greatest job.”

The artist noted that he is working on Ant-Man and Wasp in the future but suspected he was going to have to leave The Flash to work on a new film.

Alex Finbow of Renegade Arts Entertainment was pleased with the reception of his new book, When Bears Invade. “It has been received well,” said Finbow of the illustrated novel. “From Toronto to BC, readers have enjoyed it and I am happy with how it turned out.”

The Canmore based publisher added he decided Canada needed a monster myth, so he created one. “I live in Canmore, and bears are everywhere around me and with the current ecological buzz, it made sense that bears would defend the environment,” he added.

Luke Kristanjson, senior writer at Bioware, was joined by a strong presence of creative staff at the convention. “I have been part of the company since 1996,” said Kristanjson who has been part of Bioware’s Mass Effect properties since their inception. “The process of game creation is the ultimate team effort. As writers, we don't write the entire game, but rather with the producers decide where the game will go and work to get buy in from the artists who bring the concepts to life.”

He noted that while writing fiction and comic books is a linear pursuit, the skill of writing for gaming is not. “We have had some great writers come in and try to write games and not do well,” he added. “Yet some have done very well. When a player goes into a scenario and has limited options for weapons and defenses, that changes the story and options. As writers, we have to recognize that.”

Adam Fergus and David Haydn-Jones of Supernatural chatted with fans in their dedicated panel. “It was interesting and I learned quite a bit,” said one fan about the panel. “It is one of those shows that keeps you interested.”

Canadian born William Shatner beamed down to Edmonton and shared his career with fans of Star Trek, T.J. Hooker, and Boston Legal in addition to his prolific writing career. Shatner spoke on stage of entertaining people. “You have to be adept to keeping people entertained and do a lot of ad libbing. That alone would be worth it. And I’ve got a lot of things I’m doing that I want to let the fans know I’m doing,” added the actor.

Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are synonymous with Star Trek, now more than 50 years old. “I talk about him a lot ‒ a week doesn’t go by when I don’t,” said Shatner. “He was a sweetheart. He got sick and changed a little, but he was a wonderful man. He had all the warts and bruises of a human being, but in total he was a living, generous, intelligent man ‒ and very funny.”

Direct from Hobbiton, John Rhys-Davies thrilled fans with his empathetic, talk to me approach to his large fan base. “Fan conventions are no longer a place for lonely souls and closeted nerds,” said Rhys-Davies. “In the old days, there were always one or two people in any town or village who loved science fiction, [who] loved the idea of being able to dress up like a Star Trekker or something like that.”

Rhys-Davies has been going to conventions during his storied 50-year career. Rhys-Davies said he loves going to conventions because he gets to meet real people, “the people who have been paying my bills.”

Rhys-Davies, with roles in adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Lord of the Rings franchise, has plenty of cinematic history to draw on with more than 250 film credits to his name, voice credits inclusive. “To be part of a great movie is in itself an almost unique experience. We don’t get that many chances and if you get one great movie in your lifetime, you’re a lucky man,” he said. “And I’ve been lucky because I’ve [got] two or three or four at least.”

Board gamers were not left out of the adventure with a dedicated section for gamers to try a wide selection of games. Other events scheduled included local film premieres and showings such as Star Trek Renegades, Legend of the Lich Lord, and Sharkasaurus. On Saturday afternoon, the running of the rex, T-rex that is, took place as a small herd of costumed dinosaurs had free reign of the convention floor...unfortunately, there was no Kazar to control them. Panels and discussions scheduled featured topics such as writing from breaking in to genre, copyright, the evolution of comic books from novelty to lifestyle, spotlights on the comic book creators and Game of Thrones.

Focussed squarely on the new and popular, Deadpool creator, Fabian Nicieza landed in the Capital city to talk about everyone’s favorite deviant superhero which has taken Hollywood by storm.

With the show winding down, fans and collectors gathered up their signed items, their merchandise and headed home already planning their next expedition into Edmonton and Calgary Expo. Information on Calgary Expo can be found at www.calgaryexpo.com, www.edmontonexpo.com, and saskatoonexpo.com.

Tim Lasiuta is a Red Deer based writer and photographer. Jeremy Rinas also contributed photographs.