It’s easy to see why people would gravitate towards ACE Comic Con. Didn’t get your convention fill this year? Trying to meet that one last celebrity? Tired of waiting for hours to go to that panel only to be turned away due to max capacity? ACE is the place to be - billed as a family and fan first experience, as well as something different than the typical convention. I sat down with Gareb Shamus, one of the founding members of ACE, as well as a founder of Wizard World and the famed Wizard Magazine itself, and it was clear within minutes he was truly trying to do something different with ACE.
Gareb is keeping his cards close to the chest regarding his vision of the future but emphasized a desire to put fans as close to the action as possible for an all-inclusive experience. “My goal has always been to give people that access, with ACE we are finally at that point where we are able to build it up to so that we try to get our audience and fans as close to being inside as you can possibly get.”. How does ACE Con achieve this? By focusing on a smaller number but larger profile celebrities, panels that are big enough to fit anyone (but of course making room for those V.I.P.’s first), and rotating shifts of autograph signings and photo ops. This isn’t the norm for conventions when panels are first come first serve with limited capacity seating, overlapping panels and autograph sessions, so many celebrities to name for limited time engagements. Other cons tend to be a mission-based event but with ACE, you’re sure to grab that autograph you want or that hug from a Marvel hero or sci-fi movie star. If you miss them at noon, you know they will be signing again at 2, it just works.
The guests featured this year included Frank Caliendo, Brie Larson, Josh Herdman, Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Holland, Kit Harington, Norman Reedus, Gwendoline Christie, Taron Egerton, Kiernan Shipka, Ross Lynch, and Henry Zaga. Each of them had panels describing their experience in previous roles, funny anecdotes, future roles, and audience questions before taking a selfie with the crowd. Between these panels, there were rotating shifts of autographs and photo ops that delighted fans and gave that “all access” experience Gareb hoped to achieve. Some of the funnier anecdotes from the weekend include Brie Larson being part of a proposal, Tom Holland discussing his Lip Sync Battle TV appearance with Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Hemsworth’s tales of the Endgame set, and Gwendoline Christie discussing her future role in the upcoming film: The Personal History of David Copperfield. Each panel was more intriguing than the next, ending with Taron Egerton confirming that there was a script finished for the fourth movie in the successful Kingsman franchise (which had yet to be revealed.).
The atmosphere of the crowds remained positive and upbeat throughout the weekend. With ACE, there may not have been as much cosplay as some other cons, but the cosplay presented was well thought out and creative, with some being intricate and larger than life. These fans know how to show up to a convention. The shops were the standard faire with the expected Funko pops that litter the floor, but between them were more creative shops armed with old timey sodas, cosplay foam weapons, custom glasses, custom Legos, and printed t-shirts. Beyond this merchandise mecca led to a smaller artist alley which still sported some big names such as Andy Park (of Marvel Cinematic Universe fame) and Ale Garza (of Wildstorm/DC Comics/Marvel’s Spider-Man). This artist alley is where you can meet your favorite comic book artists and get custom work done. The big name artists they were able to book supported Gareb’s vision for ACE - less volume, more prestige.
While Gareb has cultivated a unique experience for fans, it isn’t without some drawbacks. The rotating shifts in panels vs signing worked best when given time to breathe, but some stars’ schedules didn’t align, pushing panels back over an hour in some cases because signing took precedent over the live panels, leaving some fans confused while patiently waiting in line. Other times, staff seemed uninformed of procedure and didn’t know where lines started or how they were organized, but this could be chalked up to the event’s only second appearance in Chicago. It’s easy to understand why perhaps the panel lines overlapped with restaurant line with ACE being relatively new though. There are growing pains with any convention, especially with one as ambitious as this one, but it will be interesting to watch as this convention continues to mature and become something truly great.
ACE, or ACE Universe as it is officially called, is more than just a convention to end the season, it’s a convention for the fans. It’s a small intimate conversation with the stars (albeit for $200.) It’s about feeling like you are a V.I.P., part of the conversation, in with the in-crowd. Does ACE really pull off what it’s trying to do? The answer is yes. All without a hitch? No, but I for one, am interested to see how ACE continues to grow in the future, because Gareb and the staff are trying to do something different here, and it shows.
Alex Orona is a member of Super GG Radio and a special guest reporter at ACE Chicago for the Front Row Network & NPR Illinois