For nearly 35 years Chicago has had only one major annual comics convention—Chicago Comic Con, also known as Wizard World since it was taken over by New York-based Wizard Entertainment in 1997. That’s about to change.

Wizard’s domination is being challenged by a mighty foe rising from the east. Reed Exhibitions, a division of European information titan Reed Elsevier, is holding its own convention, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, aka C2E2, this weekend at McCormick Place. It’s but one battleground in a war the two powers are waging across the country—an epic struggle that some observers see as a contest between the forces of good and, well, not so good. Aficionados and dealers I’ve talked with suggest that this is a fight over the very nature of a comic-book convention, triggered by the encroachment of a broader nerd culture that embraces pro wrestlers and TV kitsch to the detriment of the art form the purists love. Or maybe it’s just business as usual, with an entrenched operator under attack from a powerful upstart.

While Reed is a newcomer to comic book conventions, having staged its first in New York four years ago, it’s also “the world’s leading organiser of trade and consumer events,” with 2,500 employees in 35 offices around the globe, according to its Web site. Reed has been running the American Booksellers Association’s BookExpo America since 1992, and has put together a comics-centric lineup for Chicago that features 175 panels and screenings, 200 exhibitors, and a roster of 250 artists, including big industry talents such as locally based stars Alex Ross and Chris Ware.

Trouble was already in the air last August at Rosemont’s Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, where dealers and visitors to the Wizard event found major comic book publishers Marvel and DC conspicuously absent. The buzz was that the big guys had dumped Wizard for C2E2—and sure enough, they’ll be on hand with their artists and swag this weekend.

Then there was the C2E2 party hosted by the Chicago Comics store in Lakeview on the Saturday of Comic Con weekend. The Chicago Comics folks promoted it with flyers they handed out at Rosemont, even though they weren’t exhibiting there. Featuring a devil tending a barbecue, the flyers advised conventioneers to “Get the ‘F’ Out of Rosemont.” Chicago Comics owner Eric Kirsammer maintains that was merely his way of inviting out of towners to escape the tarmac-and-tollway suburb and see the real Chicago, but C2E2 producers bearing gifts and prizes were prominent among Chicago Comics’s guests.

The Rosemont convention’s origins go back to 1972, when local dealer Nancy Warner launched a collectibles and comics expo, which she called Nostalgia ’72, Chicago Comic Con. By 1976, when she had a contract to hold the fourth annual show at the Playboy Towers (now the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel at Walton and Michigan), she was looking for someone to take it over. One of the people she contacted was Joe Sarno, a dealer whose last store was Comic Kingdom at 5941 W. Irving Park. As Sarno told it in an account on his Web site, he recruited several partners, including Larry Charet, who’d been running his own shop, Larry’s Comic Book Store, since he’d returned from Vietnam four years earlier. No money was involved in the transfer of ownership, and they didn’t even bother to buy Warner’s mailing list.

Sarno died last month, but Charet told me more of the story. The first year they took it over, the convention attracted about 1,500 people, he recalls. The space at the Playboy Towers was relatively small and expensive, so in 1977 they moved Comic Con to the Pick-Congress (now the Congress Plaza, at Congress and Michigan), where it was held every year through 1983. Then, in 1984, attracted by easier access for dealers and plentiful parking, they moved it to Rosemont—first to the Ramada O’Hare and finally, in 1993, when comic-book collecting was riding a speculative bubble, to the 840,000-square-foot convention center, where Charet says they attracted between 20,000 and 30,000 people. But the bubble popped, and in ’97, strapped for cash and unable to pay their convention-center expenses, they sold Chicago Comic Con to Wizard, owned by Gareb Shamus, who’d started his comics-industry empire with Wizard magazine in 1991.

Under Shamus, attendance more than doubled, and Chicago’s became the second-largest comics convention in North America, after San Diego Comic-Con International. But in recent years, as Wizard added conventions in 11 other cities, some local dealers became disenchanted.

Kirsammer, who also owns Quimby’s, says he stopped renting a booth at Wizard World about five years ago, after he started noticing changes he didn’t like—for example, an emphasis on wrestlers as featured guests. And the Rosemont location “always bugged me,” he adds.”

Mark Beatty, owner of Dark Tower Comics and Collectibles in Lincoln Square, hung in with Wizard last year, but says he thought the show “really took a dive.” Besides the missing major publishers, it looked to him like they “scrimped on details . . . and the focus seemed to be too much on the old TV shows and not enough on the comics.” But the final straw had to do with money. Beatty, who bought the equivalent of four booths, says he was charged full price only to learn from other exhibitors that they’d been charged less.

“Everybody’s going to tell you this or that,” Shamus replies. “You’re talking about one person. We have 1,000 vendors at our show in Chicago, and they make a lot of money.”

Though Beatty is concerned about the operating costs at McCormick Place, like Kirsammer, he’s going to give C2E2 a try.

Wizard has been buying up smaller shows around the country, but it also wound up canceling dates for two expos last year, and neither DC nor Marvel is exhibiting at its Anaheim, California, Comic Con this weekend. Shamus says Wizard’s multi-city expansion made some schedule adjustments necessary and denies that C2E2 is a competitor. “They’re a local comic-book show,” he says. “We’re a North American tour for pop culture. It doesn’t affect our business.” He maintains that last year’s Rosemont convention was the best and largest they’ve had, with attendance of about 70,000.

Even so, Wizard seems to be fighting back with head-to-head scheduling. The company is mounting a Big Apple show that will run on the same dates as Reed’s New York comic-book convention this year. And the Anaheim event is concurrent with C2E2—a potential conflict for exhibitors and artists, if not attendees. But Kirsammer says Reed “blew it out of the water” in New York, creating a buzz for this weekend in Chicago.

Charet, who closed his store in 2002 but still deals on eBay, will be at C2E2 to take part in a panel called “Chicago Vintage Comic Fandom” on Saturday at 12:15 PM in room E352. Charet says the panel will include a tribute to Sarno.