By Ken Stone
All he wanted was an apology.
But Chuck Rozanski didn’t get one. So the 62-year-old founder and president of Mile High Comics — considered the biggest comic-book seller in the country — won’t be at this month’s San Diego Comic-Con for the first time in 44 years.
And he calls that decision “really gut-wrenching.”
“You have to understand,” he said by phone Thursday from his “Cathedral of Comics” in Denver. “I raised my children at this show. My four daughters used to sleep in bassinets underneath our table when we were selling over at the Civic Center.”Since age 17, when he paid $40 to rent a table at the 1973 convention, Rozanski hasn’t taken a single summer vacation, he said, because “I have done San Diego nonstop.”
But after last year’s event — when his team was given only eight stressful hours to set up a custom “mobile comic book store” — the Boulder resident says he became disenchanted with the attitude of folks running the show.
“They feel they can just do anything the want, pay themselves nice big fat salaries and suck up to Hollywood,” said Rozanski, who himself appeared in a Morgan Spurlock documentary on the 2010 Comic-Con.
“And that is their main goal in life. As long as they’re making ‘Entertainment Weekly’ happy, they can give a rat’s ass whether [comic-book vendors] live or die.”
Comic-Con — a 501(c) nonprofit whose last reported annual revenue, in 2015, was $19.8 million — did not respond to a request for comment.
At the end of last year’s Comic-Con, after Rozanski had lost $5,000 overall, he paid $18,000 for space in the 2017 show. But in February, he called for his check to be voided.
That’s because nobody said they were sorry for how Rozanski and his staff were inconvenienced. They waited from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. for Comic-Con’s green light to move Mile High’s leased 45-foot semitrailer, holding seven booths and 100,000 comic books, from a National City staging area.
They never got the promised OK.
“It’s hard to differentiate between incompetence and malice,” said the German-born retailer and columnist. “One would hope that there was no malicious intent, but leaving us sitting there with 12 employees for the entire day of Tuesday and not even having any one from the convention staff come by and say, ‘Hey, we’re having a problem.’”
It wasn’t until later that Comic-Con informed him of “something they were keeping secret, which was that the fire marshals had restricted their access to some of the loading docks in the back.”
Comic-Con told him he was victim of “the luck of the draw,” he said, “and we were one of the unfortunate few that were really victimized by this.”
Had officials leveled with him, it wouldn’t have “functionally” made a difference, he said, “but … I could have sent my guys home. ‘Hey, we’re not all going to sit here and eat deli sandwiches and drink Coke all day long wondering when our freight’s going to arrive.’”
Rozanski publicly announced the pullout Wednesday via a 700-word email newsletter. Social media reaction was intense.On Mile High’s Facebook page, Kevin Deselms said: “This is SDCC forgetting where it came from, because it’s suddenly the toast of Hollywood.”
Jason Kleinman added: “It’s such a shame. I miss the old days when comic book shows were at dark out of the way hotel conference rooms and the only people who went to them were comic fans who found out about the show from their comic shop!”
Cho Jitsu called Comic-Con a “joke.”
“I remember when SDCC was about comic books, artists, inkers and the writers,” Jitsu said on Facebook. “Now it’s just a media circus promoting everything beyond just the comic book stuff. Now it’s just about waiting in line to buy the next toy.”
Hugo Valentin Negron wrote: “It’s sad when the backbone of the industry is treated in this manner. It was the comics that started this mega pop culture ride, and seeing them pushed aside in favor of everything BUT comics at events that literally were grown by them is a shame.”
Rozanski said he spent a couple hours online Thursday morning and saw “the better part of a thousand comments on various websites.”
“They care about us to the extent of putting on panels and having creators there — at least the top-line creators,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they really do not care about their vendors, because they view their vendors as being completely interchangeable.”
He said if Mile High didn’t buy a booth in the cavernous Exhibition Hall, Comic-Con would just sell the space for a higher amount to a “jewelry seller or a poster seller or somebody selling Medieval clothing. … San Diego has become a flea market under a tent.”
Michael Cavna, longtime Comic Riffs columnist for The Washington Post, said he and director Tim Burton had a chat at 2009 Comic-Con about how “when a comics fest becomes a huge pop fest, the soaring costs can squeeze out smaller exhibitors first.”
Cavna, who earlier worked at The San Diego Union-Tribune, called Mile High’s pullout “a continuation of the great transformation.”
Rozanski offered no hard data, but said he’s seen “a steady attrition” of comic-book vendors at Comic-Con. “Actually maybe half of the dealers seven years ago are gone,” or perhaps more, he said. His wasn’t the only vendor not to renew this year, he said.He cited other reasons for the shrinking turnout of comic-book sellers at the event, which this year is July 19-23.
Floor traffic to his seven booths was down as much as 50 percent, he said, partly because of the lure of Comic-Con events outside the San Diego Convention Center.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I think is going to kill the show — that the city of San Diego has said: ‘Oh my God; this is such a good thing. Let’s have all kinds of things outside the Convention Center.’ It ends up being a death of a thousand cuts,” he said.
Six days’ lodging also became too expensive — the result of what he called horrific gouging.
“At the Hilton, they were charging $299 and they wanted to bump it by another hundred,” he said. “I was paying a $5,000 to $6,000 hotel bill [for his crew]. That’s a lot of $4 comics.”Rozanski concedes he heard contrition once from Comic-Con — when he asked for his check to be canceled.
“All of a sudden they were profusely apologetic,” he said. “But when people treat you with such utter disregard, and you’re already dealing with an economically marginal endeavor, you just feel like there’s no point in coming back.”
He’s also hurt by the lack of appreciation for a pioneer vendor.
“When you’ve done a show like we have for 44 years, and you helped raise money when the show was on the edge of bankruptcy back in the late ’70s, and did things for them that you didn’t have to do, and now they screw you over and can’t even come over and say they’re sorry? I have a lot of other options in my life.”
He said he works a lot with charity.
“In fact, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “Instead of going to Comic-Con, I’ll be traveling to some charity events and helping raise money for the poor. And I would rather do that than be in an environment where I feel there’s no respect.”
At the end of a 20-minute chat with Times of San Diego, Rozanski stressed his love of the fans.
“We had our store in Anaheim for a long time,” he said. “And I think that the fans in the Southern California area are some of the greatest people in the world. It was an honor to be able to serve them.”
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