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How a Geeky Superhero Fan Revived a Failing Comic Con

When Gareb Shamus graduated from college with a degree in economics, he had two problems: He wasn’t really sure what to do with his degree and he had no idea what to do with his life. The good news was that eventually the degree found a home hanging in his childhood bedroom between a giant poster of the Incredible Hulk and another of Spider-Man. A decade before, he and his brothers had been so obsessed with superheroes that they had convinced their parents to open a comic book shop they called Toywiz. It was only natural that he would have these protectors watch over such a valued possession.

The bad news was that he was stuck in that room, too. Until he could solve the second problem (what to do with his career), he would be living with his parents. To thank them, he helped out at Toywiz. The year was 1990, and being a comic book fan wasn’t considered cool yet. At the time, only geeks and nerds knew who the Avengers were or had ever heard of Marvel, but all that was going to change thanks to this unemployed, quiet, geeky kid living in his parents’ home in the suburbs of New York City.


In his first week at the shop, Gareb spoke to dozens of customers who wanted to know when a particular issue was coming out or what the value of an older issue was. His frustration with the fact that there was no place for fans and customers to find all of this for themselves led to a project: With the simple publishing software and printer on his new Macintosh computer, he created and then photocopied a weekly eight-page newsletter about the comic book industry. It contained write-ups about the latest industry news, as well as a calendar of upcoming releases and prices. His little side project quickly grew in popularity, and over the next few months he hatched a plan to start a magazine about comic books. By July of 1991, at the mere age of 22, Gareb became the publisher of the magazine Wizard: The Guide to Comics. The magazine was an instant success. For the first time, fans around the world could learn about their favorite artists and storytellers, discover trends, and read about the toys, films, cartoons, and TV shows they loved. In the back half of the magazine, he and his growing team included a pricing guide so collectors could look up the value of every comic they owned.

Gareb had created a central hub for comic book fans, and hundreds of thousands of people subscribed. Remember, this was before the internet. At the time, the only other way for fans to connect with the comics industry, and with other fans, was conventions, but they were small affairs—mostly comic book sellers offering back issues along with toys and memorabilia, and a few artists would be there signing covers. The biggest conventions would attract a few thousand people who would each pay $10 to attend. They weren’t anything like the celebrity-packed marketing and cosplay events we know today.

In 1996, Gareb decided to “try something crazy.” He wanted to throw a massive party for people who loved the comic book world. So, in the same daring fashion that led a 22-year-old to publish a magazine, a now “much wiser” 27-year-old decided to buy the failing Chicago Comic Con, which had been running for almost a quarter century. Gareb was either a brilliant marketer or a terrible business person, because he spent $100,000 on a convention that was losing money every year, just in hopes of throwing a party to promote the magazine. But Gareb had a vision: those with the best costumes would be featured in the next issue. People came dressed as their favorite heroes from Batman and Superman to pop culture characters like Homer Simpson and Scooby Doo. Millions of people would see these articles and pictures, and while the word “cosplay” had been virtually nonexistent, suddenly it was a legitimate form of creativity. Now the community of fans around the world could finally see an opportunity to connect in person.

Over the course of the next decade, Graeb and the team at Wizard introduced countless innovations to revitalize this dying Comic Con, focusing on ways to include the wide varieties of fan communities and their interests. Thanks to the magazine, the team at Wizard had relationships with toy makers, video game producers, film studios, and marketers. Suddenly Gareb was merging worlds and bringing in the glamour and high production values of the entertainment industry to this formerly shabby conference. They created professional celebrity photo ops and meet and greets, video game activations, film promotions, and marketing pop-ups. Suddenly fans were part of the action: They could meet their heroes, and compete against each other for best costume. They made friends playing tabletop games in the dedicated gaming areas, to earn status or make friends. With every innovation, larger groups came and more communities connected. Gareb’s convention became known as Wizard World Comic-Con, and had gone from an event for a few thousand to more than 50,000 people in a single weekend. What started as a glorified flea market became a central hub for fans and enthusiasts to gather and connect. In time, they expanded to host events in more than 16 cities a year. In the meantime, the magazine gave fans year-round access to industry news related to TV, film, video games, comics, toys, events and even cosplay.

Notice that Gareb didn’t invent comic book fandom—the fans were there before he was even born. Instead, he gave them a place to come together and express themselves free of judgment. A place where the members of these subcultures could share an emotional connection. When you are a fan of comic books, shows, or story franchises, with that comes a mythology and history that you identify with. All Star Wars fans know about the Force, Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker, any Spider-Man fan knows that Peter Parker regrets deeply not stopping the criminal who killed Uncle Ben, and that with great power comes great responsibility. And, of course, every Harry Potter fan knows of Lord Voldemort. Wizard magazine and, in time, Gareb’s Comic-Cons gave all these fans a place to connect around a history and mythology they loved. Today, that mythology has redefined the entertainment industry, and every major blockbuster comes from one of these storylines, but it all came close to never happening.

Even with the increased community and sense of belonging fans were experiencing, by the late 1990s, the comic book industry was in a slump. People were buying fewer comics, and toy sales were down. Marvel was forced to file Chapter 11, and in 2000, the company brought in a new president to turn things around. Before the new president even started, he knew that he needed as much insight about the state of the industry as he could get. He knew his old friend Gareb might have some ideas that could help the future of Marvel. While most people in the industry sat in offices writing, drawing, or managing, Gareb had a unique perspective. Not only was he connecting with people across all the related industries, he was engaging with the community of fans every day through conventions and magazines, and he understood the intricacies of the subcultures. As they spoke, Gareb joked that “after years of writing, the comic book stories had aged characters up so much that the next issue of Spider-Man would be Peter Parker vs. the Prostate Exam.” The fact was that many of Marvel’s characters were no longer contemporary or socially relevant. If the company wanted to connect with new fans, it needed to reinvent its characters, and Gareb suggested they start with Spider-Man.

It is no surprise that a shy and scrawny nerdy kid from New York would say the hero we all needed wasn’t some billionaire like Batman or muscled giant like the Hulk, but instead was an awkward, bullied nerd from New York who lived with his family and wanted nothing more than to fit in. It seemed that maybe the hero that Marvel needed was the one that reminded us all so much of ourselves, that underdog that struggles with great responsibility. Maybe what people needed was a geek to look up to.

The new Marvel president knew they needed to appeal to a fresh and younger audience, but thanks to Garab’s insight they now had a clear strategy, and he brought in a team to revitalize the wall-crawling hero. Nine months later Marvel published the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book, which re-booted the story line to when he was a teenager. It became one of the best-selling series of all time. Within two years, this younger, more contemporary version of Spider-Man was played by Tobey Maguire at theaters across the world and earned an incredible $821 million at the global box office. Gareb and his team had not only brought people together, but had revitalized an entire industry, and as a result redefined the worlds of film, TV, gaming, pop culture, creative self-expression, and marketing. They set the stage for one of the largest and most active community cultures in the world.

When people look at success, it is easy to focus on dollars, and stock value, but what Gareb’s story demonstrates is that the drivers of our success are wonderfully more human. They come down to the ability to connect, build trust, and give people a sense of belonging. It wasn’t an investment banker that created our modern mythology and entertainment, but a rather unremarkable boy looking for a way to help people connect and a place they could feel safe and enjoy the things they care about.

This essay has been excerpted from Jon Levy’s YOU’RE INVITED: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, published by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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