Superheroes are taking over the suburbs again.
Hard-core fans of Spider-Man, Optimus Prime and countless other pop-culture icons will gather in Rosemont this weekend - some of them in costume - to celebrate their obsessions at the annual Chicago Comic-Con (formerly known as Wizard World Chicago).
"We're expecting record attendance," said Gareb Shamus, chief executive officer of Wizard Entertainment, the New York-based organizer of the show. "Chicago-area fans are always good to us."
Despite Shamus' optimism, the show opens today after weeks of Internet speculation that it might not be around much longer. The biggest comic companies - Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse - won't set up booths at the show this weekend, a change from previous years. The number of panel discussions and other special programs is down, as well.
Adding fuel to the speculation is that a new comics show, the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (or "C2E2"), debuts at McCormick Place in the city in April 2010. Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse have already secured booth space at that show.
Are the suburbs losing their biggest comics convention? Not a chance, Shamus says.
"We're absolutely committed to the show and its location," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we'll be there forever."
That's good news for Rosemont and surrounding towns. The show, held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, brings an estimated 75,000 people to the Northwest suburbs over the course of the weekend. Rosemont officials say the event provides a nice boost for local businesses.
"A good portion of the hotel rooms will be occupied, and our restaurants absolutely thrive during an event like this," said Chris Stephens, general manager of the convention center. "Plus, it's fun to see the fans who dress up walking down River Road."
The Chicago Comic-Con gives comic-book fans a chance to buy comics from dozens of dealers and meet the top creators in the industry. It also offers plenty of products and celebrity appearances for fans of animation, video games, movies and television.
Like other conventions, particularly the huge Comic-Con International that just wrapped up in San Diego, movies and TV play an increasingly large role at the Rosemont show. Michelle Rodriguez ("Fast & Furious"), Edward James Olmos ("Battlestar Galactica"), Cameron Bright ("Twilight") and Ray Park ("G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") are among the big- and small-screen stars scheduled to attend.
Shamus says, though, that comics remain the heart of the event. He pointed out that while the large comics companies won't have booths, they've sent dozens of their best writers, artists and editors to talk with the fans.
"No fan of Marvel or DC or the other companies will come away disappointed," he said.
Shamus added that he's not upset about the arrival next year of the C2E2 show, which will be put on by Reed Exhibitions, producers of the successful New York Comic Con.
"I don't look at it as competition," Shamus said. "Anything that raises awareness about comics and pop culture is good for everyone."
Dan Brouwer, an employee at Graham Crackers Comics in Naperville, said that comics fans sometimes get bummed that other forms of pop culture seem to be taking over conventions like the one in Rosemont. Graham Crackers plans to set up shop there this weekend.
"It seems like the comics crowd has gotten smaller at the show, but it's still a major event," he said. "And next year, we'll have the new convention, too."