Alumni Profiles, Giving Back

Camden’s Dynamic Duo

comic books store
Miranda Powell (left) and Bill Haas among the offerings at Secret Origins Comics & More in Barrington, New Jersey. Photo by Douglas Benedict.

What’s cooler than a comics convention on a Rutgers campus? That’s easy—being the Rutgers alumni pair who founded the convention and who bring it back year after year, stronger than ever.

Miranda Powell and Bill Haas hold the bragging rights there. They launched Camden Comic Con in 2014 and have shaped it with just the right balance of industry savvy and indie attitude. No small feat, although anyone familiar with this creative couple (they’re getting married in October) knows how focused they were on getting it right.

“Our goal was always to be accessible,” says Powell CCAS’11, describing not just the festival but also how it meshes with its community. For her and Haas CCAS’11, accessibility means keeping “Camden” in the title to honor their South Jersey roots. It means welcoming all ages and never charging admission, although this year’s show filled two major Rutgers–Camden facilities, the Athletic and Fitness Center and the Fine Arts Building.

Most importantly, the emphasis on access means ensuring that local vendors and unknown artists can rub elbows with some of the most high-profile figures in the business. “You’ve got Walt Simonson and Gerry Conway and these big names who have worked for Marvel,” continues Powell, “and right next to them you have somebody who is up and coming, an illustrator who’s yet to be discovered.”

First envisioned as a stand-alone event at Rutgers–Camden’s Center for the Arts, where Powell is the arts education and community arts program coordinator, the original Camden Comic Con defied expectations, attracting more than 400 attendees. This year’s convention, held on Rutgers Day in April, drew more than 4,000. For Haas, who volunteers his time overseeing everything from the guest lineup to graphic design and web promotion, that growth is exciting—and a natural part of his story arc.

“My dad was a massive comics reader and collector,” says Haas. “Some kids grow up with Aesop’s fables or Grimm’s fairy tales. I grew up with stories of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man…with truth and justice and morality tales about vigilantes and super-soldiers fighting evil.” He spent much of his childhood happily in the local comics store, “watching my father and the owner talk about who was a better Robin or if Captain American could beat Thanos.”

Although he and Powell have dated since high school, Haas has always been the more fervent comics fan of the two. “Sometimes I will get into some truly out-there conversations,” he reports, “and Miranda will just nod, smile, and push imaginary glasses up the bridge of her nose” in affectionate mockery. But they’re both capable of getting into the weeds in a wide range of areas, whether it’s Powell’s growing interest in historic preservation, Haas’ photography work, or the pair’s latest enterprise: Secret Origins Comics & More, in Barrington, New Jersey.

Which highlights the accessible theme again. “We want to be the friendly neighborhood comics store,” says Haas, “bringing families, kids, and new audiences into the fold while maintaining the collectors and older readers.” And the stereotype of the hole-in-the-wall outlet staffed by grumpy, aloof comics snobs? Haas pledges that Secret Origins will be “the antithesis of that in every way.”

Meanwhile, there’s next year’s Camden Comic Con to prepare. And although Powell and Haas are its heart and soul, they are both quick to thank the many volunteers who make it possible—most of all, volunteer coordinator Lex Weaver CCAS’18. “Lex is a truly extraordinary person, always the first to arrive and last to leave on event day,” says Powell. Without that kind of above-and-beyond support, she says, “we could not have built Camden Comic Con into the event it is today.”