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Comic Fest Growing Roots in the Garden State!

Garden State Comic Fest
Image: Garden State Comic Fest

Fans gathered in the Garden State last weekend to celebrate all things superhero! Garden State Comic Fest (GSCF), held at the Mennen Arena in Morristown, NJ, played host to a myriad of talent from legendary comic creators to extraordinary artists. With a focus on the origins of our favorite TV and movie superheroes, GSCF offered fans an intimate setting to peruse their comic passion. Toys, jewelry, treats and props were just a few things scattered amongst an endless array of comic books, collectibles and cosplayers.

Garden Sate Comic Fest, Bitten Apple TV
Images: Bitten Apple TV – Rafael Tavares

Normally I spend a convention weekend trying to capture its cultural core, but this time I chose to dig even deeper. Since Garden State Comic Fest is all about getting to the roots of the comic book industry, why not take a look as to how GSCF itself began? Founders Dave O’Hare and Sal Zurzolo were kind enough to carve time out of their busy weekend to discuss what started their quest into the comic con realm.

Sal Zurzolo…

Linda: How long have you been doing Garden State Comic Fest?

Sal: [Since] January 26th, 2014.

Linda: Clearly you’re a comic book fan, but what prompted you guys to do this (GSCF)? I know it’s a lot of work to put these events together.

Sal: I gotta give credit to Dave (O’Hare), he’s actually the founder of the show. He’s a big comic art fan and he’s been going to New York Comic Con and some of the bigger cons over the years and he thought we need something in North Jersey. So, when he started doing it, I happen to be between jobs and I said, yeah I’ll help you out. He knew who my brother was, Vincent Zurzolo the co-owner of Metropolis Collectibles, so he knew I had a lot of connections there. We got together and we put on our first show in less than three months. It was a small show with about 40 tables in a small hotel out in Ledgewood, NJ and we did really well.

Everyone was telling us to be prepared to lose money on your first show, well we didn’t. We decided ok, we’re making money, let’s go a little bigger. We moved to a bigger hotel in Morristown at the Hyatt, tripled our attendance and then we said ok, Mennen Arena…let’s make it even bigger! Again, doubled our attendance. This is our fourth show at Mennen Arena and we’ve done one in Atlantic City and we’ve done a couple for Great Adventure (Six Flags) and we’re looking for other locations and we’re having a great time!

Linda: Are looking to do more throughout the year?

Sal: Once we get past this one, we’re gonna sit down and revise our business plan and I think we do wanna do more events, the problem is there are so many events [already] out there.

Linda: I was gonna talk to you about that.

Sal: The challenge is finding a free date. Every weekend you look at, there’s something going on within 60 miles. We’ll talk to people ahead of time though and try to figure something out. We have pretty good relationships built with all the promoters we know and that we’ve gotten to know.

Linda: It’s such a small world and these people become family.

Sal: Yeah, we’ve had tons of fellow comic con promoters here. Terrificon, Super Megafest, Big Apple Con has been here. We have tons of other promoters that we’re friendly with and we all support each other and help each other out.

Linda: To what do you attribute Garden State Comic Fest’s expanding success? What makes you guys stand out?

Sal: I think part of it is that Dave and I have a ‘hands-on’ attitude. We don’t hire a bunch of people to be the face of our show, we’re the face of our show and we try to make a concerted effort to talk to every single vendor and artist. I’m not gonna say we’re perfect, occasionally we’ll miss a few people but we try to talk to every single person, every vendor, artist and celebrity on the floor and give them some attention and let them know we value their appearance. We try to talk to as many fans as possible and they get to know us. It’s funny, we’ll go to comic shops and people will recognize us [and I think] this is what a real celebrity feels like. (laughs) It doesn’t happen a lot but, it happens. So, it’s kinda neat.

Gareden State Comic Fest, Bitten Apple TV
Images: Bitten Apple TV – Rafael Tavares

Linda: I am always able to easily find one of you guys on the floor. You guys really seem to care.

Sal: We really do value the vendors and that’s why we have such a good return rate on vendors who have been with us. It’s over 85%  over the years. A lot of these guys have been with us from the beginning.

Linda: What do you find the most challenging aspect of running this event?

Sal: The thing I hate the most is booking hotels and flights. (laughs) I do it because I wanna make sure it gets done right. I don’t delegate that, I do that. It drives me nuts. I think next year we’re gonna have a travel agent handle it for us. Other than that I love doing the layout and figuring who goes where. Dave and Evan, our General Manager, do a lot of that but I’ll chime in and do a few tweeks. I think that’s a lot of fun like putting together a puzzle.

Linda: You have a method to the madness.

Sal: We try. It’s like planning a wedding. (laughs)

Linda: What do you love most about this GSCF?

Sal: I love the people! Seeing the happy faces, especially the kids. I love seeing a kid’s face light up when they see a cosplayer or they see the guy that drew or wrote their favorite comic book. It’s just nice and we’re trying to do our best to get the next generation to appreciate this because if we don’t it’ll just die out. And with the movies being so big, I think this is a really great time. Everywhere you turn there are comic book based characters.

“I love the people! Seeing the happy faces, especially the kids. I love seeing a kid’s face light up when they see a cosplayer or they see the guy that drew or wrote their favorite comic book. It’s just nice and we’re trying to do our best to get the next generation to appreciate this because if we don’t it’ll just die out.” – Sal Zurzolo

Garden State Comic Fest, Sal Zurzolo
Image: Facebook – Garden State Comic Fest

Linda: I love what you’re doing. People need to understand that their favorite superhero celebrities would not even exist without the amazing creators behind them. I love how they’re highlighted here.

Sal: That’s actually part of our promotions. Like the movies? Meet the people that actually created these guys. We’ve got so many! (Click GSCF Creators for the full list)

Linda: Is there a creator here that you’ve been most excited to meet?

Sal: I will say this, Greg Hildebrandt. We’ve become friends. I love having him here, he just adds a special element to the show with the incredible painting that he does and we were the only comic con he did until last year when he decided to go to New York Comic Con. So we’re in the same league as New York Comic Con as far as Greg Hildebrandt goes. (laughs) Greg’s art is incredible, but it’s hard to pick a favorite. We’ve had Kevin Eastman who’s incredible for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he always draws a crowd. I could be here for an hour [trying to choose]. But Greg is really special and has a ball with his fans.

Garden State Comic Fest, Greg Hildebrandt
Fan admiring Greg Hildebrandt artwork. Image: Facebook – Greg Hildebrandt

Linda: I stopped by and watched him [Greg Hildebrandt] for a little while yesterday.

Sal: Yeah, he does the live painting like Christian Masot. That’s a thrill for people to see. They try to remember how he did it so they can reproduce it.

Linda: It’s cool because when you only see a print, it difficult for many fans to determine the process behind the original artwork. To see an artist working live brings a whole new awareness and appreciation of the process.

Garden State Comic Fest, Greg Hildebrandt, Christian Masot
Christain Masot and Greg Hilebrandt. Image: Linda Marie

Linda: What was your first comic convention experience?

Sal: My first one was actually the Big Apple Con. My brother started with Mike Carbonaro back 22 years ago and then my brother let Mike handle it and kind of got away from it so he could concentrate on his vintage comic book business. So Mike Carbonaro has kept the show going for 20 something years. That was really my first comic con experience, they were in a small church basement. It was such a fun convention and I wish I had started this (GSCF) business right after that.

Linda: You do what you gotta do to get to where you wanna get. Keep going.

Sal: That’s part of the reason we wanna do more shows, Dave and I both wanna stop doing our regular stuff and start making a full-time living at this. I can’t imagine doing this alone, Dave has been a great partner. It’s a two-man job plus we’ve got a great General Manager in Evan Goldstein, we’ve got Danielle Pierson who’s the director of vendor relations and we have a pretty good staff of people that help us out.

Garden State Comic Fest
Teamwork! Image: Facebook – Sean Wolf

Linda: You guys seem to work well together.

Sal: Yeah, and we like each other.

Linda: So, you didn’t grow up going to conventions.

Sal: No. There were conventions back in the late 60’s and 70’s and I really didn’t [go], not until the early 90’s. But I did collect comics when I was 4 or 5 years old. My mother bought me my first Superman comic book off a spinner rack in Coney Island. I remember every time we went to the beach we would stop at the train station where there was a place to get suntan lotion and there was a rack of comic books. I remember picking up a Superman, Batman, The Flash… all of them. So that’s how long I’ve been into comics.

Garden State Comic Fest, East Side Mags
Image: Facebook – East Side Mags

Linda: Garden State Comic Fest is a true comic convention.

Sal: We modeled ourselves a little bit after Baltimore Comic Con and some others that are primarily comic book art and comic books and of course [there’s] toys and jewelry and other stuff that goes with it that’s superhero featured.

Linda: Have you guys considered expanding your convention to other states?

Sal: Absolutely we would! [note: GSCF is considering expansion to nearby states New York and Pennsylvania.]

Dave O’Hare…

Linda: Sal said you were the man behind starting GSCF. What made you want to dig into the comic con realm? It’s a big undertaking.

Dave: It’s a great question and I do get that a lot. What really started the whole thing is I started purchasing original comic art and original art as an investment and when you start to purchase that off of a friend’s advice, you fall in love with it and then you can’t sell it. I kind of got tired of going away to shows so one day at New York Comic Con I decided, why can’t there be something like this New Jersey. So I made that comment at a poker game where somebody actually bet me 20 dollars that I wouldn’t put together comic con. So I spent a couple thousand dollars to win that 20 bucks because I’m a bad gambler and Garden State Comic Fest was born.

Garden State Comic Fest, Venom
Image: Facebook – Garden State Comic Fest

Linda: That’s awesome! What do you find the most challenging aspect of putting these shows together?

Dave: Planning a convention is almost like planning a wedding for 8 to 10 thousand people, two or three times a year because now we have quite a few shows. You know how stressful it can be for one wedding, well do it three times.

Linda: But clearly you love doing it.

Dave: It’s kinda like you a bug. You get up to the show a couple days before the show, you’re pulling your hair out, you want it to be over, you wanna cancel the whole thing but you get to the show and it’s a blur and you don’t remember much of it and then after the show you sit down and you look at the pictures and you get to relax, you realize how great it was. You say I’ll do it again! Then it’s the same stress, the same pressure and you go oh I remember this but you’re back to it.

Linda: What do you love best about it?

Dave: I think it’s the atmosphere of the show. I’ve tried to put a little bit of my own personality into Garden State, I’ve tried to keep it very mellow. I like that it’s intimate, you can actually talk with people where you’re not getting pushed around. The best thing I really love about it though is really that we’ve become such a family show. To be able to see families come in and enjoy it together. [I love the] smiles, I love seeing bags in people’s hands, I know that means vendors did well. It really is the smiles.

Garden State Comic Fest
Sa Zurzolo and Dave O’Hare with a young fan. Image: Facebook- Dave O’Hare

Linda: What I like is that GSCF is very creator based.

Dave: A lot of comic cons that are called ‘comic cons’ are not comic cons. We are very creator-focused, especially our Morristown event. If it was not for the creators in the back, there would be nothing here in the front that everybody would have to sell. These are the guys that made it. They earned their respect and they deserve it.

Linda: Do you have a favorite creator? Is there anyone you would like to have at GCSF that you’ve not yet gotten?

Dave: For one, I would of love to have had Steve Ditko. [Note: Mr. Ditko passed away June 29th] My favorite creator, we’ve actually had him out here at Garden State Comic Fest because the comic book I grew up loving is G.I. Joe and that’s Larry Hama. So Larry’s been out here… just a great storyteller and that’s what got me into comics.

Garden State Comic Fest, Bitten Apple TV
Kitt! Image: Bitten Apple TV, Rafael Tavares

Linda: I know you’re busy so I don’t wanna take up too much of your time. I spoke with Sal about expanding GSCF into other states and if it were a possibility.

Dave: That IS a possibility. We’ve had such a great fan reaction to Garden State Comic Fest over the years and we’ve built an unbelievable base here which I try if I can to meet every fan that comes here. A lot of these guys (creators) come hours and hours away to be here. We’ve had people come from Israel, Saudi Arabia and England… just for this show. We really like to spread the word of Garden State and see what happens. We’ve always talked about Pennsylvania and New York.

Linda: It’s difficult to separate yourself from all the conventions out there.

Dave: There are sooooo many conventions out there nowadays. The whole circuit just took off but, there’s really only a handful of shows out there that people need or want to go to every year and we really want Graden State to be one of those at the top of the list.

Linda Marie, Sal Zurzolo, Dave O'Hare
Linda Marie, Sal Zurzolo and Dave O’Hare at New York Comic Con 2017. Image: Linda Marie

Many thanks to Dave and Sal for taking the time to speak with Fan Fest News, I wish them much success with their future endeavors. Every comic con is unique and I encourage fans to embrace and appreciate those that work so very hard in providing lifelong memories, Garden State Comic Fest is no exception. Also, a special thanks to Bitten Apple TV for sharing their photos… you guys are awesome! Last but not least, kudos to the entire GSCF staff for all their kindness and assistance. It’s the little things that make a big difference. 🙂

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Full-time fangirl and part-time fitness trainer. A comic-con junkie with a passion for writing and great artwork. Catch me... if you can!