Phillips burg Comic-Con organizers on turning students' dream into successful reality

Joe Kelly.  ( Photo)

Joe Kelly. ( Photo)

The real heroes of Phillipsburg Comic-Con do not leap tall buildings in a single bound or wear bright spandex, although costumes are an option. 

Organizers Faith Roncoroni and Jake Cutrufello say it's the students who save the day.

"My kids understand what goes into it. And that passion comes through," Roncoroni said during a April 30 interview. 

This year's convention -- and third overall -- will be held 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Phillipsburg High School. The guest list includes industry legends Walter and Louise Simonson, who, collectively, have lent their talents to such popular titles as "Thor," "Fantastic Four," "X-Factor" and "Superman: The Man of Steel." (Louise Simonson co-created fan-favorite Marvel Comics characters Cable and Apocalypse and was one of the architects of the famous "Death of Superman" storyline.) 

Writer Joe Kelly, inker Scott Hanna ("Amazing Spider-Man"), artist Lee Weeks ("Superman: Lois & Clark"), writer Amy Chu ("Red Sonja") and artist Ralph "Rags" Morales ("Identity Crisis") are also among those scheduled to appear. Combined, it is a lineup that has lent their voice, and pencils, to the most iconic characters in comics. 

"We're extremely excited for this year. It's just a phenomenal lineup," Roncoroni said. "We can't believe it."

Roncoroni, who advises the Phillipsburg's Comic Club and Anime & Manga Club, said it was the club members who first pitched the idea of holding a comic book convention at the high school.

Roncoroni said she and Cutrufello ran with the idea and spent the next 12 months prepping by attending larger, regional conventions. They began establishing contacts and building relationships with industry professionals. A year later, the first Phillipsburg Comic Con was staged. 

"We started with eight guests our first year, now we have 34 guests," Roncoroni said. "It started as a dream with kids as 'Hey, do you think we'd ever be able to do a comic con?' We took the request seriously right away and started prepping that summer and had a full year to prepare."

Though Roncoroni and Cutrufello handle the booking of talent, the bulk of the convention -- from planning to organizing, set-up and running the show -- is handled by the students.

"We want (guests) to know we take it seriously, even though we're a small show, there's a lot of work that goes into it behind the scenes," Roncoroni said. "All of the creators who come to our show are very good with the kids... That's something we care about when inviting guests and making room for guests because our show is predominantly for the kids in our town."

Cutrufello echoed Roncoroni's sentiment. He said the convention has become a point of pride for the students as well as the organizers. "The guests reflect on us. We try to put together a show we'd want to go see," he said. "The guests were impressed after that first show... Those are the kinds of things people come back for. We have to start early and the kids realize that."

Kelly -- whose credits include "Deadpool," "Action Comics," "Supergirl" and co-creator of the animated series Ben 10 -- praised Roncoroni and Cutrufello and the students for their hard work and commitment. (During his popular run on "Deadpool," Kelly created the character Blind Al, played by actress Leslie Uggams in the 2016 Deadpool feature film.)

"The kids really put their heart into it. That vibe carries through," Kelly said Thursday during a phone interview. "The enthusiasm level really is infectious. Everybody there is excited in the way I was excited when I was reading comics for the first time. Nobody's jaded."

One of the more common questions Kelly said he is asked during a convention is how to break into the business. The answer, he said, is often blunt and direct. "I make it a hard and fast rule: always shoot straight with everybody. I tell them it's hard work."

Kelly said he enjoys being what he described as an ambassador of comics to attendees who are slowly dipping their feet into the waters of the medium or being exposed to it for the first time. "You're never bored. For me, that's the hallmark of a good convention," he said.  

A portion of the proceeds from today's convention will benefit RAINN, which provides help to victims of rape and sexual abuse. (Last year's event also benefitted RAINN.)

"It's an all-around great event. If they want me and I can swing it, I'd be happy to come back," Kelly said. "If there's a seat for me, I'll keep it warm."

Phillips burg Comic-Con is 10 a.m. to today at Phillipsburg High School, 1 Stateliner Blvd. Admission costs $5.