During the heyday of the independent comic book boom in the late 80s through the mid 90s, the Dallas Fantasy Fair (DFF) was third to only Comic-Con International in San Diego and the old Chicago Comicon. What set the DFF apart from other conventions was the support for independent creators by the person behind the show, Larry Lankford. Lankford didn’t care if you only had an ashcan preview and a dream to be published — if you made comic books on some level and you presented yourself even reasonably well, he gave you a table.
That’s a huge thing. Beyond that, though…if you made comic books and were given space, you were treated no differently than the big names bringing in guests: there was no waiting to get in, the provided space was always generous, and there was access to the pro suite, where you could chat with the people comic book geeks and pop culture fans only dreamed about paying to see at other conventions.
While rubbing elbows with one’s heroes was always cool, there was something even better about the shows…
I was fortunate to have met so many friends at the old DFF conventions; I’m still friends with many of the people I met back then. More than a handful have gone on to making a living in the industry, some now the very names people go to shows to see and meet.
The Dallas Fantasy Fair brought us all together. For many of us, the shows taught us to be serious about our dreams. While I no longer do anything with independent comic books, I carry so many lessons learned at those shows in my early 20s, all because Lankford was generous enough to let us in as guests.
Today, a good friend met at a DFF show in the early 90s told many other friends that Larry Lankford recently died. I had limited contact with Lankford, mainly just always thanking him for allowing my punk ass in for free so I could make connections and share my enthusiasm for the medium with other creators on my level and above.
The Last Show
The last DFF I attended was with my wife. We were in the process of working together on a book of our own, and while the venue had changed from Dallas Market Center to a hotel with far less room, Lankford still gave us a table. It wasn’t a table shoved off in a corner, but a spot in one of the busiest sections of the show. (It didn’t hurt that he seated us right next to Adam Hughes, one of my wife’s favorite artists.)
As the show went on, it was clear the lack of space was an issue. Lankford needed our table for a much bigger guest, and it was evident his decision to ask us to move was not an easy one for him. When the guest (Mark Waid) saw that we were leaving to give the entire table to him, he insisted on cramming the three of us behind the table. There was no way we were going to do that, even though it would have meant the chance to show Waid what we were doing. The show was tight on space, and we gladly gave up our spot, knowing how fortunate we were to be there at all.
Given a Shot
It’s easy to look back and say that Larry was ahead of others, realizing there were independent fans…so why not let independent creators in for free to draw those fans? Savvy marketers get that, now, but even today, the thought of even a well known independent creator being allowed into a large convention for free is crazy talk. It never seemed like a move to get more fans in with Lankford, though — he really seemed to take serious creating a place where all creators, regardless of where they were in their careers, had a shot.
That’s all any of us can really ask for in life: a shot. Lankford gave a shot to people like me, who never made it in comics…and he gave a shot to many who have lived the dreams we all talked about in our early 20s at Lankford’s Dallas Fantasy Fairs.
The Power of Generosity
If there’s a sad tone to this, it’s not intended. As I mentioned, I was not friends with Larry Lankford…just one of many acquaintances he gave a chance. If there’s any sense of melancholy behind all this, it’s that I’m a bit nostalgic as I think about how many great friendships and careers began at Dallas Fantasy Fairs. They were a lot of fun, a break from working in hot warehouses and believing, if only for a weekend, that something more was possible.
Most of us, on some level, have affected the lives of others in positive ways we may never know. I can name so many people who were affected by Lankford’s generosity. It was a little gesture, but I hope giving up our table when he needed it at one of his last shows was seen as the thank you it was meant to be.
We were all given a shot — and while dreams of making it writing comic books never happened for me, the friendships made because of one person’s generosity are far better than 23-year-old me could have ever imagined. More than that, I hope Lankford’s generosity — something I’m not sure many of us even realized was as big and rare as it was at the time — lives on in those he helped make their dreams a way of life.