Now approaching its fourth year on April 8, the Camden Comic Con has quickly gained a reputation in the region for offering guests a free, enriching, all-ages comic convention on the Rutgers University–Camden campus.
But unbeknownst to convention-goers, there has been an unheralded superhero – Barrington resident and 2011 Rutgers–Camden graduate Bill Haas – working diligently behind the scenes to make the Camden Comic Con what it is today.
“Since our first year, he has been the wizard behind the curtain,” says Miranda Powell, arts education and community arts program assistant for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts. “While I am focused on programming, he is handling everything from designing the graphics for the promotional materials, creating the website, and lining up artists and vendors.”
With Haas working his magic, this year’s Camden Comic Con promises newly appearing artists such as Amy Chu, a writer for Poison Ivy’s first solo series, and returning icons such as Larry Hama, a writer, artist, editor, and actor best known as the writer for Marvel’s G.I. Joe and Wolverine comics in the ’80s and ’90s. There is also an array of engaging panel discussions; more than 125 vendors selling comics, art, memorabilia, and merchandise; and exciting new features, such as a kids zone offering non-stop arts activities for kids from open to close.
For Haas, it has been nothing short of “surreal” watching the Camden Comic Con grow exponentially from two guest artists and around 60 vendors that first year to more than 10 featured artists and 125 vendors this time around. In spite of the marked growth, he says, he is especially proud that they have remained true to their original mission to offer a free art show that appeals to both novice and hardcore fans alike.
It’s a message, he adds, that isn’t lost on the artists.
“These artists love coming here,” says Haas. “They are industry professionals with impressive resumes who otherwise wouldn’t be able to interact with their fans. Many of them are also educators themselves, so they understand what we are trying to do here. You aren’t going to get the long lines and the autograph fees. In the end, it’s a legitimate art show that has something for everyone.”
While it all might seem like a dream to Haas, no doubt adding to the experience are the unlikely circumstances that led to his involvement.
In spring 2014, he recalls, the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts was presenting an exhibition celebrating graphic novels in various mediums when they decided to take it the next level and host a mini comic con bringing together fans, artists, and vendors. From the get-go, the organizers turned to Haas, a program assistant in the arts center, for his extensive knowledge of comics and the comics industry.
“I could tell them who the great artists were,” he says. “I had never thought about doing anything like that before, but I said, ‘I’m there.’”
As Haas tells it, his comics sensibilities began early in his youth when his father would drag him along to “the old armory comics shows.”
“It was a bunch of old guys selling boxes of books,” he says, “and they didn’t really care all that much for kids being there.”
So naturally, one might assume that Haas got his own start reading comics by perusing his dad’s treasure trove of titles – well, actually not so much.
“My dad regaled me with lots of stories, but you didn’t touch dad’s comics,” Haas says with a laugh.
Instead, the Rutgers–Camden graduate treated area toy stores like his personal libraries, scouring the biographies on trading cards and the backs of action-figure packages, and let his imagination run wild creating stories of his own. In time, he saved his pennies to purchase his first, seminal issue, a #3 X-Men “Age of Apocalypse,” and was soon snatching up every comic within arm’s reach.
While his interests in drawing waned during his teen years – he can’t quite put his finger on “why” – his creative energies were renewed shortly after arriving at Rutgers–Camden. As Haas explains, he had earned an associate’s degree in history at Burlington County College, but wasn’t quite sure what direction he wanted to go next. That was, however, until he discovered Rutgers–Camden’s film program.
Haas was required to take a variety of electronics art courses and – in addition to picking up drawing again and creating horror-comedies for class – he was soon trying his hand as a freelance photographer and graphic artist.
“I was really bitten by the bug. I would take my camera everywhere,” says Haas, whose first gig was taking real-estate photos for his mother’s listings. “I would take any job I could find and it really took off.”
Around that time, Powell asked Haas to create a poster for the Arts Students Gallery at Rutgers–Camden and a successful partnership was born.
True to form, Haas continues to seize opportunities when they come along. Through his success with the Camden Comic Con, he served as a consultant for Artistacon, a convention focused on mentoring the next generation of artists, held recently in Burlington.
Ask Haas, however, and he is quick to credit the Camden Comic Con as a model for what conventions can and should be.
“When it comes down to it,” says Haas, “we are becoming a prime example of how to do it right.”
The Camden Comic Con will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 8, on the Rutgers University–Camden campus. Admission is free. For more information, visit camdencomiccon.com.