“It’s TED Talks meets Comic Con meets Book Expo.” That’s how show organizer John Shableski describes the Wildcat Comic Con, a two-day celebration of comics in the classroom to be held this weekend, April 13-14, at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (the technical wing of Penn State) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Shableski, a former sales manager for independent retail, schools and libraries at Diamond Comics Distributor and a longtime advocate for graphic novels in publishing, conceived and organized the convention hoping to bring professional and aspiring creators, educators (from K through 12 to post-grad), librarians and comic fans together to share the benefits of applying the comics medium to education.
Following an unexpectedly positive response from the Penn College administration, which was eager to promote the school’s new video game development program, what started as a series of hosted lectures in collaboration with a local high school quickly evolved into a full-blown convention with approximately eighty hours of programming. But “Wildcat Con is not a comic book convention,” instead it’s “an excellent educational opportunity for all” says PCT president Davie Jane Gilmour in an invitation to the event’s opening ceremonies. It’s a distinction Shableski echoes, noting that aside from himself, all of the people running Wildcat Comic Con had no prior knowledge of comic conventions, but were no less open to the potential of comics in education, and eager to bring the two worlds together.
The two worlds have had little overlap in the past, although that should be changing soon, says Shableski, as a new generation of “decision makers,” people who really know comics and all they have to offer, mature and are in position to use their knowledge in new ways. This new generation will look to connect comics to all levels of the curriculum, show how comics can aid in literacy and autism programs, and work to support graphic novel collection development for libraries. Shableski hopes Wildcat Con will also attract young people who are interested in entering the comics and graphic novel business with panels and workshops on the creative process and navigating the ever-evolving world of digital comics. One of the convention’s main sponsors - deviantART, a popular online social network and portfolio site hosting the works of millions of artists - reflects the growing opportunities for creators to showcase and share their work in today’s increasingly digital landscape.
When choosing Wildcat Con’s guests, Shableski says he looked to industry pioneers, forward thinkers and game changers who shared his zeal for “pushing the medium” and finding “the next best thing.” From creators, editors and educators such as Dean Haspiel, Alex Simmons, Joan Hilty, Dave Elliot, Mark McKenna, Tracy White, Josh Neufeld, and many more, Shableski stressed the passion each had for their work and how invested they were in the story. There’s Robert Berry, who’s web comic and iPad app, Ulysses Seen, is an online adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who Shableski considers a great example of the kind of projects that inspired Wildcat Con. There’s also deviantART’s Yumei, a young artist who has acquired millions of online followers with her unique brand of digital comics storytelling, and local talents such as Oscar Award-winning special effects creator Tom Woodruff, who is giving a talk on mastering creature characters for film.
But a comic convention is still a comic convention and there’s plenty of entertainment including costume contests (Shableski urges fans to dress up), signings, drawing sessions, a masquerade and even a mass video game LAN party sponsored by the ARMY/National Guard. According to Shableski, all the event’s sponsors and participants, including media and mobile technology companies and even Pepsi Co, see those attending Wildcat Con as an upcoming and potent demographic they’re looking to connect with and attract.
In a culture where comics continue to become more ubiquitous, Wildcat Con represents a new breed of convention, one that its organizers hope will not only give the medium more appreciation in education but also offer practical uses for it by bringing a broad range of savvy and insightful people together. “There’s a logic to it,” admits Shableski, whose ultimate aim is set up a national and local “comics resource for educators, librarians and creators.” Not an overlap between the worlds of comics and education, but something entirely new.