New York Comic Con is coming back after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a year’s hiatus. But the show, known for the eager, chaotic crowds that attend, will look very different in 2021. A new surge in Covid cases driven by the spread of the delta variant has forced renewed attention to health and safety protocols. In fact, most publishers plan to sit out this year’s con, while offering support to any of their creators who attend, with additional plans to release a little publishing news along the way.
New York Comic Con—to be held October 7–10 at the Javits Convention Center—announced its return to an in-person event in April. At the time, the vaccination rate in New York City was strong and the delta variant just a glimmer on the horizon. Fans and professionals alike were optimistic that, after a more than yearlong stretch without public gatherings, the comics community would finally have the chance to safely gather once more.
Since then, a lot has changed. Due to the much more infectious variant, vaccine resistance, and lax masking requirements in some states, hospitalizations and deaths have surged. This latest public health crisis has forced New York state to order new masking protocols and require attendees of indoor events to show proof of vaccination.
With the uncertainties, the organizers of NYCC face difficult choices. “We’re just constantly taking safety as the number one issue, and bringing our community together as number two,” says ReedPop president Lance Fensterman. “When new information arises, or the situation changes, we adapt. [Adapting] is what we do pretty well, and it’s what we’ve been doing for a year and a half. We’re taking it really seriously because we want to come back.”
Health and Safety Protocols
Following city guidelines, NYCC has issued new, strict health protocols: proof of vaccination will be required to enter for those over age 12, and those under 12 must show proof of a negative Covid test. Masking inside the Javits Center will be mandatory.
The new guidelines were developed with city and state authorities, according to ReedPop event director Kristina Rogers, who oversees NYCC. “The Javits Center is a state-run facility, so they’ve been working with their city counterparts. But the venue have been really supportive of anything that we’ve wanted to do and are working very closely with us.”
Both Rogers and Fensterman had been wanting a vaccine requirement at shows. “So to be able to finally come out with it and to start hearing early support and relief around these guidelines is absolutely encouraging,” Rogers says.
NYCC will also have reduced capacity, with wider aisles, enhanced cleaning, and much larger areas between creators in Artist Alley. In some cases, there will be barriers between creators and fans for autograph and photo sessions.
Fans and exhibiting vendors will have more room to spread out—the long-awaited expansion of the Javits Center is now complete. The new wing at the northern end of the building features a one-acre rooftop farm, 400,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and a 5,000-seat theater that will give San Diego’s fabled Hall H a run for its money in terms of capacity. All NYCC panels will be held in the new wing, which Rogers describes as “beautiful.” She adds, “In the future, we’ll be able to grow Artists Alley in this area, but for this year we’re keeping it to panels, because it allows us to do social distancing without impacting the number of folks that we can bring in.”
Artist Alley will be located in Hall A and Hall B this year—in 2019 it was Hall A alone. Unlike past years, no offsite events will be held, although there will be a full track of library programming, accreditation tracks for librarians and lawyers, and possibly even retailer events at Javits.
Like most public events in the pandemic era, NYCC will have a hybrid program with both in-person and virtual components. Some media panels may be streamed, while others will be held in person, such as a Comixology panel offering comics writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. Though most of the streaming panels will be available only to those who buy special “virtual tickets,” some portions of the online show will be available for free, including an online marketplace that will allow offsite fans to make purchases from exhibitors and creators.
Publisher Plans in Flux
Still, there will be a distinct lack of the usual publishers that populate the NYCC show floor. But it’s still fluid, Rogers says. “Even with the delta surges over the last couple of weeks,” she notes, “we’ve seen some renewed interest and people saying, ‘Okay, what if you do have some room? Who could we bring?’ ”
Most comics and book publishers that normally set up at the show are still being cautious, and very few of the houses contacted by PW will be attending. Many companies still have employee travel bans in place; for others, it’s still too soon to exhibit at an event that, even before the pandemic, was known for spreading “con crud,” a catchall reference to respiratory illnesses common after mingling in the crowds of fans at giant cons and even at smaller comics festivals.
A few publishers have confirmed attendance: manga publisher Viz Media will be at Javits with a big panel presentation, and Bandai, another manga house, will have a large presence. Image Comics, which usually has a prominent booth at NYCC, is not setting up at any shows in 2021. This year, the house will coordinate and promote a few panels for Image creators at NYCC, and it will make several big announcements during the show, according to Kat Salazar, Image Comics’ director of PR and marketing.
The void left by the absence of major exhibitors has been an opportunity for smaller ones. Source Point Press, which puts out a variety of titles and recently licensed the Felix the Cat character, will sponsor NYCC badges, two of the stages, and other prominent signage at the show. The press is filling a spot formerly held by The Walking Dead and the AMC network.
It’s quite a step up for Source Point, says Travis McIntire, CEO of Ox Media, which owns Source Point and the gaming company Deep Water. “It’s an opportunity we couldn’t let go by,” he adds. McIntire recalls that he happened to be talking to a ReedPop rep on the day the previous sponsor dropped out, and he immediately knew “this was a chance for us to be part of what we hope is going to be a historic comeback.”
Live events have been a huge part of building Source Point’s presence in the industry. Before the pandemic, it exhibited at dozens of shows a year wherever it could, and the company considers ReedPop shows something of a home base. Sponsoring the badges is a big move for the future.
“One of the main points for me was that buying a sponsorship came with a right of first refusal,” says McIntire. “So, from my point of view, it’s a huge win-win. Not only can we be part of the resurgence and support a company that we’ve worked with for years, but in 2022 and ’23 I’m going to hold on to this. It’s not an easy opportunity to get.”
Without publishers, creators will be the main draw at NYCC, and some road warriors have been setting up at shows that have opened over the past year. As comics events have come back, creators are learning to adapt to the crazy quilt of health regulations they must deal with across the U.S., says Renée Witterstaetter, who runs a variety of businesses, including Eva Ink Artist Group and Pros & Cons Celebrity Booking, which manage public appearances at conventions and elsewhere for a stable of prominent artists and celebrities.
For 2021, Eva Ink’s plans have been scaled back, but artists Michael Golden, Rodney Ramos, and comics publishing legend Jim Shooter will all be selling and sketching. “I have very limited table space, so we’re going to just be interacting with the people who come,” Witterstaetter says. “It’s a way to reconnect with our fan base in New York, because we haven’t been able to for so long. We really have no expectations. We’re going to go and support the show, because we are local, and just see what happens.”
Witterstaetter’s businesses ground to a halt when the first lockdowns happened in 2020. But she quickly pivoted to a new online event business, Happy Space Pop Con. Her creators were among the first guests to appear at shows when they started again in 2020. “As things started to open up a little bit,” she says, “we did store appearances and very small conventions where we could control our crowd and make sure that there were precautions in place, like a mask mandate and sanitizing stations and temperature checks.”
Local regulations have complicated matters. Many creators pulled out of MegaCon, held in Orlando, Fla., in August, due to the surge in Covid cases in the state, even though the show itself required masks. Some of Witterstaetter’s artists have preexisting conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, so they’ve had to take special precautions. “Sometimes we’d actually put them in a little plastic bubble, which we had made, and have books handed to them,” she says. “Who knows if it did any good, but at least it gave us a sense of security.” She’s also stopped flying to shows and travels by car instead, leading to a series of continent-spanning road trips.
Witterstaetter’s artists are “pretty on board for anything we need to do to stay safe,” she says. “As I book them into appearances, I tell them what the protocols are—and everyone does it. Nobody wants to get sick.”
Talking with a few creators, PW found the same uncertainty about what to expect at this new version of NYCC. Artist Jamal Igle (The Wrong Earth) is a guest at both NYCC and at the Rose City Comic Con in Portland, Ore., in September, and plans to attend both, for now. “I’m playing it day by day,” he says. “With the new safety protocols, I’m a little more comfortable than I probably was before.”
Igle says he’ll wear a mask at both Rose City and NYCC. “I’ll be using hand sanitizer and no handshakes,” he adds. “And if you come near me, you’d better be wearing a mask.”
Writer Joe Harris (Snowfall) has been to all the past NYCCs, and he bought a table at this year’s show—but he’s ambivalent about attending. Like many professionals, he hasn’t been to a major event since the pandemic began. “With New York Comic Con being the hometown show, I had a burst of optimism that we were turning this corner,” he says. “And that has not proven to be the case.”
Harris is grateful for NYCC’s enhanced vaccination and mask requirements, but he remains hesitant. “I just don’t know if this is the right thing to do,” he notes. Still, he adds, “I want to see my friends, so I’ll probably attend.”
Professionals at all levels of the publishing and convention businesses say the absence of comics events over the past 18 months has changed the entire comics industry, and permanently changed the event space. Many cons that relied on celebrity appearances have gone online only, and the Wizard World brand of shows, formerly a major presence on the pop culture events circuit, recently sold its entire convention business to Fan Expo, a fan events brand run by the international media company Informa. Smaller indie comics festivals, such as SPX, continue to be virtual events only, and there have been layoffs throughout the pop culture event industry, including at ReedPop.
For creators and publishers, the pandemic pause has been a learning experience and a chance to reassess. Igle says his own business hasn’t been affected by the lack of cons. “I’ve never counted on conventions as being part of my business model, so going to conventions has been more promotional than anything,” he notes. He was formerly the marketing manager for Action Lab Comics and attended more than a dozen shows a year, a grueling schedule that he’s pulled back from. “I really got burnt out on the whole convention scene,” he recalls.
Harris says that at first, the lack of shows cut off a revenue stream for him, but he found more opportunities for freelance work and time to do it, “so it has not been a disaster.”
Before the pandemic, McIntire says, Source Point and Deep Water made 50% of their annual revenue at pop culture shows, but since then they’ve built thriving e-commerce businesses. “After the Diamond distribution shutdown [last year], I actually rented a storefront near our office to store stock, and we aggressively built our e-commerce. By the end of April, we had already turned it around and could meet our payroll. And by the end of 2020 we had actually increased our sales.”
Witterstaetter recalls, “We had to completely regroup and change our whole focus, to internet and different things, and taking up hobbies that we never did before. Some of my artists will probably never go back to doing a lot of shows, because they found other ways to make money, and they find that they’ve enjoyed being home a lot more than being on the road. The dynamics of what we’re doing is going to change even more over the next few years.”
Even ReedPop, which organizes and manages pop culture conventions around the world, has pivoted, Fensterman says. “It’s forced us to do some things that we have talked about for a long time, actively investing in digital initiatives that we think will create new opportunities for fans. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we should turn on the live stream,’ events are being produced and thought out to bring something unique and special.”
And ReedPop’s business will continue to evolve, Fensterman says, as it looks at ways to build “a marketplace that will connect artists, vendors, and collectors directly between the shows. It’s been really good to see that innovation come about, even if it’s been born out of a lot of difficult and tough decisions.”
Despite all the worries, adjustments, and change, Rogers says, NYCC will have “a lot of the same stuff that you always loved about NYCC—it’ll just be delivered a little bit differently.” The hubbub and craziness of NYCC may be tamped down this year, but, she notes, “I keep reminding everybody, myself included, that this year is really about the community. Yes, we all want the biggest and best—we always do. And we’re going to do our very, very best to deliver that safely.”
Delivering it safely is not impossible, McIntire insists. “I’d like to think that as long as everyone’s going to try to be responsible and work together, there’s not really a good reason why we can’t start going to shows again.”