Wednesday, February 25, 2015

magnum opus con 1986-2001

Magnum Opus Con was ahead of its time; embracing movies, TV, comics, gaming and all the other fandom categories that now make the various Comic-Cons and Fan Expos gigantic spectacles, and doing so in secondary markets far from typical con territory. MOC's peak attendance was somewhere in the thousands, but in spite of the nerd appeal and an enthusiastic crowd, MOC was its own worst enemy. After 16 years of conventions in Georgia and South Carolina, it vanished, never to rise again. 

MOC began in Macon GA, home town of its chairman. Early iterations of the convention were titled "Macon Opus Con", the “Opus” apparently a reference to the penguin character from the Berke Breathed comic strip “Bloom County”.  It soon moved to Columbus GA, to their unique downtown Columbus Ironworks Convention Center and several satellite hotels, linked by a shuttle service. Combining a strong media guest list with a crowd hungry for SF convention fun in the early Spring, and a geographical location under-served by fan conventions, MOC’s second and third years were busy affairs.  The second MOC became infamous as the last appearance anywhere of Dr. Who actor Patrick Troughton, who passed away in his sleep late Friday night of MOC 2.  

On the topic of MOC and Patrick Troughton and death, reader "A Million Masks" has this to say:

I am from Columbus, GA..where the infamous Magnum Opus Con was held in 1987. I didn't attend that show, but the guy who organized it was Pat Robinson, owner of Columbus Book Exchange which is the only comic shop left in that town. He's had the CBE since the late 70s/early 80s. At one point in the 90's, there were 7 comic stores in Columbus and Pat's the only one still going. He's also a kind and genuinely good man.

Anyhow, Pat told me about Patrick Troughton's death at the show that year. Apparently, he woke up, ordered his breakfast and talked to Pat about an episode of Dr. Who he personally selected for a screening at the show that day. When it came time for him to go down to the show floor, he was found dead apparently still sitting in front of his meal. Pat's still sad about that day. For one, nobody wants anyone to die on them and secondly (and certainly of lesser importance), it ended Pat's foray into organizing conventions forever.

For its fourth year MOC struck a deal with the city fathers of Greenville SC and became South Carolina's number-one (and only) fan convention. From 1989 to 1994 the downtown Hyatt Regency was filled with Trekkies, SF writers, Whovians, martial arts instructors, and “Bimbo Pageant” contestants of both sexes. The nightlife aspect of MOC began to take on more and more importance as crowds of liquored-up nerds surged through the city in various stages of inebriation and different crews of revelers competed with each other in "party battles." The convention added an extra day, becoming a four-day show, and events like the slave auction, the “MOC-Alympics”, belly dancing, MOC(k) Marriages, Casino Night, and the Mr Macho Contest captured the attention of congoers, to the perceived detriment of more traditional SF convention activities.

MOC’s guest list impressed then and is more impressive now considering many of them are no longer with us: Dr Who actors like the aforementioned Patrick Troughton, Colin Baker, Jon Pertwee, and Louise Jameson rubbed shoulders with Star Trek stars DeForest Kelley. George Takei and James “Scotty” Doohan; SF writers like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ben Bova, Robert Aspirin, Timothy Zahn, David Weber, Lois McMaster Bujold, Roger Zelazny and the unstoppable Brad Strickland mixed with astronauts and scientists like Dr. Story Musgrave and film & TV talent Phyllis Coates, Chris Potter, Bruce Campbell, Tom Savini, Bruce Boxleitner and Yvonne Craig, giving fans from all over the fandom spectrum somebody to get autographs from.

MOC made good use of direct mail advertising and several times a year would publish a magazine titled simply "Fandom", a black and white newsprint affair of 48-72 pages advertising the upcoming convention, highlighting the guests and events, showcasing glamour photography of the convention's costumers, and serving as a bulletin board for MOC attendees to ask questions and as a soapbox for MOC's staff and directors to sound off on whatever topics came to mind, with varying degrees of coherence and readability.

During the Greenville iteration of MOC, the Atlanta convention scene was then witnessing a bitter if meaningless struggle between the Atlanta Fantasy Fair and DragonCon. MOC's convention chair came down firmly on the side of the AFF in this debate, accusing the DC organization of sabotaging the AFF and any other fandom convention that threatened DragonCon's hegemony.  To this end MOC scheduled their 1995 convention directly opposite DragonCon, and moved it to Callaway Gardens, a resort complex located in Pine Mountain GA, close to Columbus and the "Little White House" historical site near Warm Springs, far away from anyplace fans had ever attended a convention.

This was a gutsy move, and as is so often the case with gutsy moves, was largely a failure. Attendance figures plummeted as Southeastern fans found themselves forced to choose between two conventions when they would normally have attended both, and Dragon Con, having a larger guest list, more attractions, and being in a city people could actually find, garnered the lion’s share of attendees. MOC compounded their problems by staging the next Magnum Opus Con in DC’s home turf of downtown Atlanta, on the weekend before the 1996 Dragon Con.  MOC 11 itself was reasonably well attended and its host hotel, the downtown Radisson, was a friendly if architecturally confusing facility with a charming indoor pool built for late-night convention socializing. Problems came when staffers from DragonCon rented a Radisson hotel suite and threw a DC room party welcoming MOC to Atlanta. MOC's con chair saw this as an “invasion” and made very public his feelings on the matter, removing the flyers advertising DC's party and at one point attempting to physically eject DC staffers. Atlanta fandom witnessed this in real time via posts to the Usenet group alt.fandom.cons, and the impression received was that of a friendly gesture irrationally rejected by an angry con chair.  The chairman’s behavior both at MOC and online would continue to repel potential MOC attendees for the remainder of the convention’s run.  

Antics such as these by con chairs continue to happen in the fandom world, but today social media gives fans the ability to spread news and gossip far and wide and with amazing speed.  These days, bad conventions and/or bad con chair behavior usually won’t last long. MOC, however, continued on for several more years.

MOC 12 would be in downtown Atlanta, attended by a dwindling number of fans attracted mostly by the convention's reputation for parties. MOC would move in 1998 to Athens GA, to a sprawling facility known as the "History Village Inn”, which was extensively remodeled in 2001 to become the “Foundry Inn & Spa” and after more remodeling has reopened as a boutique hotel operating as “The Graduate”.  MOC 13, 14, and 15 would be at the History Village in Athens, a location closer to the con chair’s comic book shop and a facility the convention could safely book every hotel room of, in order to keep out the vandals and secret agents thought to be working to destroy MOC. 

Pages from one of the final "Fandom" issues. Click to enlarge for more information about 'cronies'
In MOC’s declining years, the chairman’s behavior became even more erratic as guests, long-term staffers, and attendees alike were banned for transgressions real and imagined. The most frequent and most famous charge leveled against MOCs enemies was that of being “cronies” in the thrall of Dragon Con. Repelled by this behavior, fandom ironically turned its back on the convention whose magazine bore Fandom’s name. Surly, paranoiac, and stressed, the con chair retreated to the safety of his suburban Athens comic shop, where, with disturbing frequency, he’d ask female customers and employees to pose for nude photos.

 In 2001 the convention would have its sixteenth and final show in Atlanta, in what was then the Ramada Plaza Hotel Perimeter North and is now just the Presidential Hotel, a mixed-use residential/commercial building recently rendered bereft of electrical power owing to a billing dispute. MOC’s last year would wring maximum drama from a minimum number of attendees; a mere handful of fans attended the show and even this small group was subject to bannings, criminal trespass warnings, restraining orders, and threats.   The con chair suffered a heart attack while prosecuting some of “the cronies” in court, and as a result of his health condition and many other factors, turned MOC over to long-term staffers for an attempt at a 17th MOC that did not come to pass.

It's a shame MOC self-destructed.  The convention mixed literary SF, gaming, genre film celebrities, and fandom events in a way that hasn't really been matched since, and when it was focused on its strengths it was as fun a convention as could be.  However, its successes – and there were many - have been overshadowed by its apocalyptic and apoplectic end. MOC endures as a cautionary example to convention organizers and staffers alike of what not to do and how not to do it, and its legend still looms large in the collective memory of Southeastern fandom.

More information and photos of past MOCs can be found here:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Atlanta Fantasy Fair 1986 program book

1986! A wonderful time to be a teenager with a solid part time job and some time off in the summer to visit the Atlanta Fantasy Fair! The '86 year was, to my admittedly biased mind, the pinnacle of AFF excitement. Attendance records are spotty but it sure felt like the '86 show was the busiest of all.

front cover by Joe Phillips, back cover by Jim Valentino

The AFF took up all of the convention space in the Omni Hotel downtown, as well as a good portion of the Georgia World Congress Center next door. Guests for '86 included authors like Robert Aspirin, Chris Claremont, Diane Duane, Denny O'Neil, Stan Lee, Steve Jackson, John Varley, and the ubiquitous Brad Strickland,  artists like Ralph Bakshi, Matt Feazell, Kelly Freas, Dave Gibbons, Greg Hildebrandt, Jim Starlin, John Romita, Boris Vallejo, and Bob "Flaming Carrot" Burden, and producers and media personalities like Carl "Robotech" Macek, "Officer Don" Kennedy, Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games, and more.

Of course video rooms at the AFF were still a big deal, and you can see that while Star Trek was still the go-to vid for fandom, weird foreign imports like Dr. Who and Japanimation (at this convention, this meant "Macross", "Captain Harlock" and "Mobile Suit Gundam") had staked out territory and were firmly entrenched. Gaming at AFF was held on the American Cafe level of the Omni, a large open-air area full of tables and dice and gamers. Both TSR and the club that would later become Dragon*Con ran tournaments that I avoided because I'm not a gamer.  Rest assured the Star Trek Bloopers and Warner Brothers cartoons were screened in the auditorium along with Ralph Bakshi films and a presentation on the upcoming Marvel Comics movie "Howard The Duck".  How did that one turn out, anyway? 

Saturday's big event was, as it is at every fantasy convention ever, the Costume Contest, which was a must-see event preceded by a film print of "Duck Dogers", as I recall. Other events like talks from artists and writers, a Robotech presentation from Carl Macek, and yet another screening of the Blooper Reels, awaited Sunday revelers. 

Most of the original text for the program book was generated using a very 80s dot matrix printer, which was then used to shoot negatives to burn plates for printing these books on cheap newsprint.  If you're wondering why we all wear glasses now, this is why. 

One of the fascinating elements of this program book is that it featured not one but two short comic book stories by emerging talents featuring their own original super-hero characters engaged in adventures. Since this is 1986 and the black and white comic boom was even then exploding across the racks of comic shops throughout America, such things were expected. Looking back this does seem to be kind of an extravagant waste of pages in an already bloated (72 pages!) book.

Much of the program book was taken up with ads, some from local merchants and others from corporate sponsors like Marvel and DC.

How did that whole "New Universe" thing work out for you there, Marvel?  Between this and the "Howard The Duck" film, the second half of the 80s was not looking so great for the company.

However terrible Marvel's short term future looked, things were turning out great for fans like us; we had a great convention to hang out at, lots of movies to see and comics to buy, whole new universes of Japanese cartoons and British television to expand our minds with, and friends with which to experience it all. Why isn't it 1986 every year? 

the author (left) with friends at what I believe is AFF 1986.

Thanks to Devlin Thompson for this program book.