For over a decade, the annual Comic-Con International: San Diego—to be held July 21–24 this year at the San Diego Convention Center—has been a senses-shattering carnival for just about everything in pop culture, with more than 130,000 fans and industry professionals attending.
Although this year’s show promises to be another frantic media fanfest, the experience of exhibiting at Comic-Con is changing for comics publishers, and for the big film and TV studios more recently in attendance. At least one major movie studio, Fox, will sit out the upcoming show over fears that movie previews unveiled there may be leaked online, and several long-attending comics publishers are reconsidering how they exhibit—or in some cases, whether they exhibit at all.
SDCC has become a bigger and grander promotional event for media other than comics. Television shows, movies, and video games have taken over the show—as well as taking over all of downtown San Diego, where buildings will soon be draped with massive studio ads.
Despite the film and TV media presence, comics are still a primary focus of SDCC. This year’s publishing guest list includes such acclaimed comics artists as Daniel Clowes and Kate Beaton, legendary comics executive Stan Lee, and DC Comics copublisher and star superhero artist Jim Lee. David Glanzer, director of marketing and PR for Comic-Con International, the nonprofit organization that runs the event, says: “We have more comics guests and programing than any other convention. Comics publishers don’t have deep pockets to promote themselves like movie studios, but without them the show wouldn’t be the show. We’re even hearing from other shows asking us how to develop comics guests and programming.”
DC Comics has long had one of the biggest booths at the show, but this time it’s debuting an even more impressive exhibit by adding a second level to its space and a larger stage for events. The new space will provide the backdrop for a major celebration of Wonder Woman, on the character’s 75th anniversary—her famous invisible plane will, paradoxically, be on display—and promotions for Young Animal, a new line of more-adult-themed comics headed by musician and comics writer Gerard Way. With DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., launching more and more films based on DC characters, this year’s DC booth will showcase the integration of the studio and DC Entertainment, its publishing division, says copublisher Dan DiDio. The entire cast of Suicide Squad, a big Warner Bros. summer film (opening in August), will appear at the booth, including the film’s stars, Will Smith and Margot Robbie, who portrays fan-favorite Harley Quinn.
But even with the glitz, “our booth always seems to be the midpoint of the floor between all the other media,” DiDio says. “But it’s always more about comics than anything else.”
“This will be my 30th Comic-Con in a row, and comics are still a vital part of it,” Jim Lee says. “A lot of casual fans are coming in from pop culture outside comics, but they’re just as enthusiastic as the regular fans. It’s a great opportunity to evangelize about what we do.”
Elsewhere, con goers may find some new displays on the floor. Eisner Award–winning indie imprint Top Shelf was acquired by the major independent comics house IDW Publishing last January, and it will exhibit as part of the IDW booth this year, giving up its longtime highly visible spot in the indie publishing section near Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics. (Glanzer confirmed that a new comics publisher had taken the booth, but the name of the publisher was not known at press time.) Indie comics house Slave Labor, another longtime exhibitor, also vacated its prime spot opposite the big DC Comics booth, leaving room for another publisher to join one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the floor.
Prime exhibition floor space opening up is a rare occurrence at SDCC, although Glanzer says the waiting list for a booth isn’t as long as a lot of publishers—especially those seeking smaller booths—fear. Glanzer compared it to going to a restaurant. “If you want a table for 10, you may wait a while, but a table for one gets seated faster.”
Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros, another Comic-Con veteran, is looking forward to the move into a new space with IDW, describing it as a change of pace. “I know it may take awhile for everybody to realize where we are this year, but when you do find us we’ve got some amazing things.” Top Shelf’s debut books include Benjamin Frisch’s multilayered family drama Fun Family, a huge slip-cased edition of Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus, and the third and final volume of John Lewis’s acclaimed three-part civil rights memoir, the March trilogy. SDCC remains a lucrative show for book sales, Staros says, despite the competition from film and TV over in Hall H.
At last year’s show, Top Shelf hosted one of the most talked- and tweeted-about events: Congressman John Lewis cosplayed as himself, donning the raincoat and backpack he wore in 1965 during the famous Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.—this time leading a sprawling group of schoolchildren and captivated fans from his spotlight panel on an inspirational march back to the exhibition floor. Although that moment will be nearly impossible to top, Lewis and the rest of the March team, cowriter Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, will all be at this year’s Comic-Con.
After years of publisher complaints about the changing nature of Comic-Con, some comics publishers have made good on their threats not to exhibit at all. NBM publisher Terry Nantier already made the move away from Comic-Con last year. After exhibiting at SDCC for 30 years, NBM skipped the show in 2015 and plans to do the same this year, although NBM’s sister company, Papercutz, which publishes graphic novels for young readers and teens, will continue to exhibit and has a full schedule of giveaways and promotions. The house will be offering Slicez, a free 96-page anthology promotion, in addition to the second Lunch Witch graphic novel. Published under Papercutz’s Super Genius imprint, the first volume of cartoonist Jessica Abel’s new SF YA graphic novel series, Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, will also be heavily promoted; and readers can enjoy it all at the new Papercutz booth’s lounge area.
Nantier says he made the right decision not to have an NBM booth, adding, “It’s too hard to stand out.” He believes many of the fans at SDCC these days aren’t interested in NBM’s line of mostly literary foreign graphic novels with nuanced adult themes. But even Papercutz’s focus on kids at the show is changing. “We used to be primarily running a bookstore with signings,” he says, referring to book sales at publishers’ booths, a mainstay of comics shows. “But we’ll just have our major books there this year.”
Papercutz’s licensed offerings, including a tie-in with the upcoming Trolls movie from DreamWorks Animation, seem to be more in line with what people are looking for at SDCC, Nantier says. “Papercutz is a more mass-media-entertainment appeal and pop culture kind of company, and Sunday, which is Kids Day, is a great day for us,” he adds.
How to exhibit and whether to exhibit are not easy decisions for publishers. Drawn & Quarterly publisher Peggy Burns, a longtime exhibitor, is constantly evaluating which shows D&Q needs to attend, and even SDCC comes under scrutiny. For a small Montreal-based company like D&Q, getting staff to San Diego is “incredibly taxing” in terms of both time and money. She adds, “We do shows for two reasons, marketing and money, but these two reasons were far more pressing 15–20 years ago, before the Internet and before we had stable distribution.” D&Q’s frequent author tours give it less reason to attend shows. SDCC works closely with smaller publishers to help with setup costs, “which is immensely invaluable, and as support, it can’t be overstated,” Burns says. Even so, sending an author instead of an entire booth with staff is more efficient for D&Q.
A big part of what makes shows such as SDCC important to publishers is that they give fans a chance to interact with their favorite authors. Artists Alley, where individual cartoonists can set up and sell books, original art, and prints, remains a key part of the SDCC exhibition floor. Last year, an 11th-hour exit by the section’s sponsor, online art site Deviant Art, raised some alarms about whether the area would retain its signage and upgraded seating options. Glanzer says a sponsor is being arranged for this year, and he’s “90% certain there will be comfy chairs.”
And for the second year, CCI and the San Diego Public Library will coordinate on a track of professional programming on comics aimed at librarians and educators at SDPL’s nearby flagship branch, to be held July 21–23.
With existing floor space at a premium, the show is adding another venue, the new, spacious Marriott Hall—part of the hotel adjacent to the San Diego Convention Center. The facility will be used for off-site exhibits and programming, Glanzer says, and a veranda will be the site of an event activation, offering fans yet another a chance to relax.
CCI is also in talks to develop more high-profile outreach, including a Comic-Con museum and a glitzier Eisner Awards show. “This is something we’ve long wanted to do,” Glanzer says, though he acknowledged that both the museum proposal and a larger Eisner Awards format remain at the conceptual stage.
Glanzer also points out that Comic-Con HQ, a subscription video-on-demand service, was recently launched by CCI in conjunction with the film production company Lionsgate. He emphasizes that the show continues to explore new possibilities to engage Comic-Con attendees, as well as those beyond the convention hall.
Glanzer says that it can be presumptuous to talk about projects that aren’t finalized but acknowledges that “Comic-Con has not always been the best at promoting what we do.” He adds, “We’re trying to change that.”