Now in its fourth year, New York Comic-Con, scheduled for February 6—8, stands as the second biggest comics/pop culture expo in the U.S. and the fourth largest event in New York City (following the International Auto Show, the International Orchid Show and the New York City Marathon).
This year's Comic-Con brings together a high-powered mix of cartoonists, publishers, movie companies, video companies and fans, but the timing—it's the first large show in the recession-ravaged economy—has given it a kind of bellwether status for the comics and publishing industries. So how's it holding up so far? According to Reed Exhibitions event director Lance Fensterman, pretty darned good.
“I keep thinking I'm going to jinx myself, but we really haven't seen any drop-off,” Fensterman told PW (which, like Reed Exhibitions, is owned by Reed Elsevier). Attendance is behind last year's at this point, but he expects presales to pick up in the two weeks before the show. While Fensterman acknowledges the difficulties that have hit the publishing industry, the graphic novel—centric festival seems to have the momentum to rise above the economic downturn, mirroring the interest in comics in general.
Most graphic novel publishers PW spoke with had the same feeling. Although suitably cautious, the comics industry has not seen the kind of dramatic drop-off in retail sales other sectors have. According to DC publisher and CEO Paul Levitz, the cutbacks among attendees may be on a smaller level: “There will be people who decide not to come from out of town, certainly, but it may not affect local people. Maybe people will buy an item or two less on the floor, but in many ways, it's cheap entertainment. With all the previews and opportunities to see creative people, there's still a lot to do.”
Joe Nozemack, president of Oni, which is planning a major push at the show for the new Scott Pilgrim graphic novel, has similar views. “Oni's doing good. Last year was our best year ever,” he said. However, with chains getting pickier about what they buy, he foresees some backlist titles going out of print. “As you're looking at the catalogue, the ceiling is getting higher. The lower titles are dropping off, but the top stuff is selling better.” He cited a recent hardcover compilation of Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local—it's doing well because it offers “good value for the price. If you're realistic and have a good price point and packaging, you'll do okay.”
Among book publishing companies attending the show, the attitude is also wait and see, said Gina Gagliano, marketing associate at First Second, an imprint at Macmillan's Children's Publishing Group. “It's the first comics show and first consumer show of the year, so it will give us a guide to the rest of the year,” she said. First Second's big push at NYCC will be for Adventures in Cartooning, a how-to graphic novel by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost; Frost and several other First Second authors will appear on various educational and graphic novel panels.
Many publishers are still waiting to feel the pinch. “You clearly have a lot of concern out there,” said Levitz. “It's the first time we've gone into a significant recession where customers for comics spend the kind of money that they do today. When comics were 25 cents, in a recession they would thrive wonderfully. Now readers spend a couple of thousand dollars on comics. You kind of hope that they cut back on comics before they cut back on eating.”
Despite the general optimism—or at least delayed pessimism—among comics publishers, there are still signs of a slowdown. Dark Horse is attending fewer shows this year, and there will actually be fewer shows to attend—Wizard Entertainment, publisher of Wizard magazine, which puts on WizardWorld Chicago, the third biggest comics show of the year nationally, recently announced it is canceling a show in Dallas and postponing another in Los Angeles, while concentrating on existing events in Philadelphia and Chicago. Most observers say the cutback is part of a larger retrenchment at Wizard, which has been laying off staff and refocusing in a difficult environment for newsstand magazines.
Still, there is no lack of enthusiasm for this year's show. Dynamite Entertainment publisher Nick Barrucci isn't exhibiting, but he'll present several panels promoting licensed titles such as Battlestar Galactica and the popular superhero satire The Boys. “From a consumer point of view, Comic-Con is still a great show. It's one of the cheapest shows to get into, relatively speaking, and with the big guest list, it has a lot of fun going on. There's a social function to a show like this—we're fans, too, and just like being there,” he said.
Fensterman reports that exhibitors from the comics and graphic novels worlds will be at the show in the numbers similar to last year's, and he expects a greater presence among gaming companies, both video and board games. Manga publishers are focusing mainly on book and manga-specific shows this year, including Reed's own New York Anime Fest in September, but a few, including Tokyopop, will attend Comic-Con. Movie and television studio participation is expected to increase as NYCC establishes itself on the promotional calendar.
There are still a few weak areas, however. Indie and literary comics publishers are underrepresented at New York, despite what Fensterman calls a concerted effort to bring more on board. He explained, “I don't think we're going to see the uptick in those independent comics publishers we wanted this year, but I feel extremely good about the effort we've made and we'll keep at it. We're not going to stop until we get everybody there.”
One indie comics publisher that is a regular at the show is Atlanta-based Top Shelf, which has taken a more prominent booth in the exhibit area this year. Like others, publisher ChrisStaros is keeping a close eye on the economy, but the publisher's backlist of seemingly recession-proof favorites—including Blankets and From Hell—continues to do well. He shares the greater concern about the instability at B&N and Borders and how it will affect big books like the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill and The Surrogates graphic novel (a film adaptation starring Bruce Willis will be released in September). “In a down economy, will the big chains pull back because they're nervous, or will they do the opposite and go deep with a safe bet? That's the question,” Staros said.
Despite worries over the economy and the distinct possibility of an early February snowstorm in New York, the event will still be packed with announcements and programming, including a Kids' Day and an educational programming track. The pop culture news site ICV2 will hold its annual Graphic Novel conference on February 5. Marvel and DC are bringing mega-stars Brian Bendis, Grant Morrison and J. Michael Straczynski. Perhaps the biggest splash at the show, however, will be the debut of Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, the much-anticipated fifth volume of Bryan Lee O'Malley's slacker comedy epic. The book will have a midnight signing at Jim Hanley's Universe store in Manhattan and a release party at Rocketship, the popular Brooklyn comics bookstore. O'Malley will be featured in a spotlight panel and Oni marketing director Cory Casoni promised “enhanced content at no extra cost” for those who attend Pilgrim signings.
The excitement for a book like Pilgrim exemplifies what is still seen as an upward swing for the graphic novel category, despite the poor economy. Said Levitz, “The good news is that [the economic slowdown] is coming at a time when the medium is growing so strongly. With a little luck, the number of new readers coming to the medium will balance out the challenges to the existing business.”