How a Dr Who fanboy geek took Armageddon from a trading card convention to one of New Zealand’s biggest events

This (Labour) weekend the streets around Auckland’s Greenlane Showgrounds will fill with a procession of zombies, stormtroopers, 300 warriors and all flavours of cosplayers, nerds and gamers.

Around 55,000 visitors are expected to attend Armageddon, a multi-million dollar expo which started as the ultra-nerdy Comic and Trading Card Convention organised by  self-confessed geek (and Dr Who fanboy) Bill Geradts.

Geradts has ridden the growing wave of sci-fi and fantasy fandom to take the show from 150 people in 1995 to one of the largest events in New Zealand. He talked to Adrienne Kohler about his 20-year journey.

So what's the backstory?

I can actually track Armageddon back to a Dr Who series in 1992, when a four-part story called Tomb of the Cybermen was found in a basement in Hong Kong. There are 97 episodes of Dr Who that don’t exist anymore and back then this was four of them. It had just been released on video and I thought “Oh my God, I’ve got to watch this thing” It was in black and white, and hokey ­– and it was brilliant.

I wanted to do something more with it so I managed to track down the NZ Dr Who fanclub. We started running video days and meetings in my house; 40 fans watching the shows and arguing about Dr Who. So in early 1995 we decided to do a video day; we got 150 people and then later that year we did the first Armageddon Comic and Trading Card Convention at Avondale Raceway. We wanted a cool name that people would remember.

Technically that first one was 90% trading cards because 1995 was right in the middle of this big boom in trading cards; within six months half the stores selling them had disappeared.

We lost a hunk of money and my wife was not keen on us doing it again. But we did a show in August the next year and we made it cheaper, and it did okay, so we did another one and another and so on.

When did you start bringing in the stars?

The first guests were in 1998, a couple of American comic creators. Then the first celebrity guests in 1999, and then the first animation guests in 2001, and we have been hosting them ever since.

Are you a natural organiser

It's been trial and error – screw up enough and you get it right sooner or later. It was early internet days and it was damn hard getting hold of people. I look back at the first shows and there are things that I did then that I would never do now.

Like what?

Money you spend that you shouldn’t spend, guests that were nice but you needed to look for guests that had more mass appeal.

Were you part of a sub culture?

In the early days, most people who started conventions were die-hard fans. I’m a nerd, I’ll own it, I don’t have the computer smarts that go with it but I certainly have the collectible personality. I’ve been beaten up enough times, I can look back and point to stereotypical things that would happen to nerds and I can tick off the things that have happened to me. I was a Dr Who fan, I was buried in sci-fi, back in the times when you couldn’t see the stuff - you could maybe listen to it. It’s been a pleasure watching the evolution of fandom in that respect.

The local sci-fi club used to get together every three months and they would get video tapes from a guy in America who would record Star Trek. You would go this community hall and there would be about 50 people there all watching the latest Deep Space 9 or Star Trek Next Generation that somebody had mailed from America. That was how you got your fandom, instead of clicking on a download to get it 20 minutes after it screened. Back then, we would get the shows a year or two years later after they had screened there, and so knowing that they were out there and not being able to see them was almost painful.

Was there a point when you wanted to give up? 

I don’t think I’ve ever really sat back and gone: “Oh I’m never going to do this again,” but we have certainly had our disasters – financial generally. In 2011, the Rugby World Cup nearly killed us, but that said, I don’t know anyone who ran an event that year who didn’t get screwed over by it.

About 2002, I quit my job and did the show. I have a family of four kids so it wasn't an easy decision, but it was time to do it – it was just becoming bigger and it required more energy and time and I just didn’t have it. But that year it didn’t make the money I had hoped so I had to go back to work. But then I just went for it for the next one and we have been working it fulltime ever since – and the show has certainly benefited from it. This year is the biggest year we will ever have and next year will be even bigger.

Is it still a nerd-fest?

People don’t look down on fandom anything like they used to. There’s still a diehard fan element, and people who go too far – a couple of people you don’t want to sit next to. But it is more mainstream and an acceptable thing to come along to now.

Is Armageddon the new Easter Show?

About eight years ago the show was still called The Armageddon Pulp Culture Expo. I was at a radio station, and, and the DJ said “Armageddon is back on” and it occurred to me that we had finally got to the point there the name told everything – we had an awareness like the Easter Show. So we changed the name to Armageddon Expo and that is what it has been ever since.

How much does it mirror overseas shows like San Diego Comic Con?

It definitely has a unique flavour. I’ve been to Comic Con four times, and numerous other shows across the world. I remember being told back in 2002 by one of the guests that we ran one of the best shows around. At the time I just dismissed it, but then I went to the overseas ones and realised that the shows we do here are better. In my opinion, the Auckland show is one of the best fantasy shows on the planet because it is more diverse. In Australia and the US, there is much more fantasy and pulp culture – so many more collectible stores and toys. That makes the shows cool when you go for the first time, but it makes them a little boring because there is a lot of repetition. So while we have fantasy and sci-fi, we have had to diversify the show. We have gaming, wrestling and Burning Man; this grab-bag of fantasy and fun that no other show has. Of course, Comic Con is THE show – I would never say we are as good as that, but by the same standard, at Comic Con you can spend four hours queuing up to meet one star.

And the future?

Next year’s show has to be bigger; I just have no idea how it is going to be bigger.

What’s it like dealing with celebrity guests?

Back when we first started it was “I’ll make a little money and have a holiday.” Over the last five years, and particularly in the last couple of years, it has become much more of a business. We still deal with a lot of guests that are old-school, but getting a new guest, it is a lot harder than it used to be and significantly more expensive.

It used to be a fan circuit but now the international circuit is more of money-making circuit. New Zealand has never been a place where people are hugely in to paying for photos and autographs and that normally means we just can’t afford to get the really high-end guests people want to see.

However, the ones that come are very patient and kind to the fans. We rarely see that Hollywood “star” attitude. I can only think of three guests (from the same show) who were just terrible – and even then, they were nice to the fans publicly. 

Any stars on your bucket list?

Of course [Star Trek captain] Patrick Stewart, and I’m a big Dr Who fan so would love to get [twelfth doctor] Peter Capladi. And [eleventh doctor] Matt Smith would be great – but probably in ten years’ time when I can afford him.

Jenna Coleman [Clara from Dr Who] and [Stargate’s] Richard Dean Anderson are definitely the star guests this year. Collectively people are happy – although some people say “I don’t like any of your guests”. It is so random and you try the best you can.

What is the main thing you have learnt?

Probably to try to listen. I don’t necessarily agree with other people but I certainly listen to what they say, because you never know what is going to be the next big thing.