The country may be reeling from the worst economy in years but you couldn’t tell it from the tens of thousands of fans pouring into the Jacob Javits Center for the fourth annual New York Comic-Con this past weekend. The show opened on Friday afternoon to a respectable crowd of fans after a morning of trade and professional presentations, but the fans showed up in force on Saturday, and the Javits Center was a beehive of enthusiasm and commerce as huge crowds swarmed the entire exhibition floor from one end to the other all day long. Reed Exhibitions v-p and NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman said this year’s show drew nearly 77,000 fans, up from the 67,000 attendees last year. (PW is a sister company to Reed Exhibitions.)

Show officials had projected this year’s show would continue to grow despite the dire shape of the economy and it didn’t disappoint. Demand for tickets was high and the show was sold out on Saturday for the first time ever. The second year of Kids day on Sunday—featuring a signing by Wimpy Kid creator Jeff Kinney and a variety of kids' workshops—really kicked in this year, and the exhibition floor was filled with crowds of kids and their haggard, stroller-pushing parents. Traditional book publishers were out in force. The category continues to grow in the book market and big publishers like Random House are beginning to look right at home amid the bedlam, hype and wacky costumery of the typical comics consumer show.

Such publishers as Del Rey, Titan Books, HarperCollins, Macmillan/First Second, Disney, S&S/Pocket Books, Hachette/Yen Press were all on hand—not to mention educational and nonfiction houses like Lerner, Watson-Guptill, Rosen and others, which have embraced the category and made major investments into the graphic novel market. And with some exceptions these traditional houses are all selling direct to fans hand over fist, like most comics publishers—Abrams did a brisk business selling Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Schuster. While fans seemed ready to spend money, some publishers had mixed results—DK’s Rachel Kempster said her sales were down a bit—although others like Oni’s James Lucas said Bryan Lee O’Malley’s new Scott Pilgrim title was flying off the table.

Abrams ComicsArts executive editor Charles Kochman (l.) and Bat-Manga editor/designer Chipp Kidd at the Abrams booth

Fensterman said the exhibition floor was about 10% larger than last year and could have been larger but for a scheduling conflict with the Toy Fair that kept toy companies from exhibiting in force. As usual the booths of DC (which screened more of the upcoming Watchmen film) and Marvel (new Fantastic Four team announced and much else) were mosh pits of wall-to-wall fans, and while some significant publishers were missing—Viz Media did not exhibit but was much involved in the programming, and important indies such as Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics were absent—the show still offered a diverse offering of product. Tokyopop returned a year after its reorganization with a visible though much-reduced booth space presence, and indie houses Top Shelf, Boom! Studios, Fanfare/Ponent Mon and Euro/American startup Cinebook were on hand to offer a different brand of graphic novel. While announcements weren’t huge, there was news—Yen Press picked up the popular Yotsuba manga license from ADV; Del Rey will take over publishing the Penny Arcade webcomics collections; Viz announced a new series by legendary Ranma 1/2 creator Rumiko Takahashi, and Vertigo trumpeted its new crime line with original graphic novels by Brian Azzarello, Peter Milligan, James Romberger, Sarah Glidden, bestselling prose novelist Kevin Baker and, in a first for DC, an original Fables prose novel by Fables creator Bill Willingham. Pantheon was trying to get word-of-mouth going on Asterios Polyp, a new and much anticipated work by the acclaimed David Mazzucchelli because the talented but eccentric comics artist is declining to do media interviews after working on the book for 10 years.

All of this excitement in a down economy bodes well for the show the year before its dates are switched to fall for 2010—where it will remain for the next three years after a series of constantly shifting dates the past three years. Kuo-Yu Liang, v-p sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors, called this year's NYCC “the best Comic-Con for us ever. We had very productive meetings with retailers, media and publishers.” Check out tomorrow’s PW Comics Week for comprehensive coverage of this year’s New York Comic-Con.