Although crowds came out in force for this year’s C2E2—the Chicago Entertainment and Comics Expo, held at McCormick Place this past weekend—they had a better time than the publishers who attended. Attendance was up significantly—53,000 compared to last year’s 40,000—flooding even the cavernous McCormick Place with an army of costumed cosplayers, genre enthusiasts—and even a few comics fans.

Despite the size of the crowd, publishers who attended mostly had flat sales, according to those surveyed, including Dark Horse and Archaia. They were among the few publishers actually with a booth, however—in a surprising move, DC Comics, traditionally the anchor booth of the comic-con circuit, declined to set up due to evolving marketing plans, according to those briefed on the decisions. Although there was no central DC booth, they were still prominent via a full-line-up of panels and co-publisher Jim Lee’s Justice League art adorning ads and posters throughout the city.

Marvel Comics did attend and featured a striped down booth of the usual signings and giveaways, with Iron Man 3 the focus. Other established publishers in attendance included Valiant, Boom and Avatar. However, attendees who wandered the big booth region at the show were more interested in soaking up the vibe than buying, according to Graphitti Design’s Bob Chapman who was the designated merchant for DC swag. “They’re having a ball, but they aren’t spending money,” he said of the crowd.

It was a 180-degree difference a the show's Artist Alley, where creators set up and sell comics, original art and sketches. “This is my favorite show of the year,” said Reilly Brown, co-creator of the webcomic PowerPlay. “I make more money here than anywhere,” said Marvel artist Ryan Stegman who sat nearby. Everyone in Artist Alley had smiles and sellouts galore, and the crowd that made its way to that part of the floor seemed far more engaged with comics in general.

And some of the smaller publishers had good days. Brian Haberlin reported that he had sold out of his enormous interactive table top graphic novel Anomaly by early Saturday morning. “I’m kicking myself for not bringing more,” he told PW. Since rolling out last year, the project has been updated with new AR elements, including sound, and Haberlin plans two new books for next year.

While comics artists were a huge attraction, there was also a contingent of SF and fantasy authors, including John Scalzi, Audrey Niffenegger and Alex Hughes. According to Penguin associate marketing director Colleen Lindsey, all the SF/F panels were well attended, even the Sunday urban fantasy panel with Anne Bishop, Amber Benson, Kerry Schafer and Christina Henry, which was up against a packed R.L. Stine panel. Lindsey has attended for a few years and said “I'm hoping C2E2 will continue to grow into a an even better place to showcase writers.”

Quirk Books were set up with their line of mangled classics like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and The Meowmorphosis, as well as a few more comics like projects like E.B. Hudspeth’s The Resurrectionist, which tells a dark fantasy tale though intricate anatomical charts. Quirk has found success setting up at consumer shows, said publicity manager Nicole De Jackmo. “This is the kind of crowd that responds to our pop culture books,” she told PW.

Elsewhere, Dark Horse and IDW vied for most announcements at the show, with Dark Horse offering a new Hellboy graphic novel by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo, Hellboy: The Midnight Circus; new Elfquest material; and a new book by writer Alex de Campi. IDW announced a special two issue finale to Joe Hill’s Locke and Key called Alpha, and the return of Christian Gossett’s Red Star and Kevin Eastman’s Zombie War.

With some of the biggest comics publisher laying low, newer publishers had a chance to grab some of the spotlight. After a launch last month, Lion Forge Comics had one of the most impressive booths at the show, with a vaulted neon sign and giant giveaway bags of the kind usually seen at the San Diego Comic-Con. The company offers line of digital periodical comics, currently available via iVerse, the iBookstore, and Amazon, with such characters as Roboy and a superteam book called Catalyst.

Also debuting was Athleta Comics, led by local Chicago sports star Israel Idonije, a defensive end for the Bears. Idonije is a lifelong comics reader who several years ago came up with the idea of The Protectors, an all-ages book about sports star who band together as superhumans to save the world to give some positive role models. The sports/comics connection seemed to hit home with some young readers. “One mother told me her son goes to sleep with the comics,” said Idonije. Written by industry vet Ron Marz and drawn by Bart Sears, the book is currently looking for a bigger house to pact with.

Following the Diamond retailer summit held at McCormick just prior to C2E2, Friday morning featured a morning of professional programming for retailers and librarians. One panel described how to throw a comic con at libraries, with participants from Illinois and Iowa describing their events, which act to both bring a new audience to the library and expose comics to potential readers.

On a panel sponsored by retail organization ComicsPRO on adding new product lines, Thomas Gaul of Corner Store Comics and Eric Kissamer of Chicago Comics described new lines of successful merchandise from pizza cutters to clothing. Gaul said it was a matter of luring in new customers with well-known media brands. “They learn that True Blood and Castle have comics. You use those franchises to get people to come in and hook people who aren’t a Wednesday customer,” said Gaul.

On a panel on comics and education, University of Illinois assistant professor Carol Tilley spoke about the Common Core State Standards and how the emphasis on nonfiction and certain learning goals may make comics difficult to apply. “Comics are difficult to measure,” she said. “People need to be well equipped to ague comics as part of a Common Core classroom.” Tilley’s own slideshow includes examples of sophisticated comics storytelling that use the kind of ideas Common Core will call for.

The weekend’s display of the full range of comics and pop culture experience show that C2E2 has arrived on the local pop culture circuit. The difficulties that some publishers had on the show floor may have as much to do with the evolving model of the comic con in the era of crowdfunding and social media. Attending seems to be all about the personal experience—whether it’s listening to Felicia Day, dressing up as Harley Quinn or getting a beloved comic signed by a favorite creator.