For the first time in three years, San Diego Comic-Con is returning as an in-person event. However, in a world changed by an ongoing global pandemic, even the gigantic pop culture institution will look very different when fans finally return to the San Diego Convention Center July 20–24.

It’s all part of the event industry’s transition away from the most severe pandemic restrictions, as comics publishers and media companies approach events, sales, and marketing in a new social and economic landscape. For publishers, online sales have soared, and the cost of exhibiting at giant pop culture conventions isn’t always justified financially. Nevertheless, the glamour and excitement of SDCC remains a draw, and the intangible value of seeing popular artists, as well as industry colleagues, in person has been much missed.

But this year the layout of the exhibit floor at the San Diego Convention Center will feature significant changes. Warner Bros. Discovery, the newly formed parent company of DC, has pulled out of the massive booth that once anchored the end of one hall and housed DC’s SDCC booth presence. DC will have a full lineup of panels and talent, but no booth. Dark Horse Comics, which has had a large centrally located booth for years, will also be missing, along with the longtime floor presence of indie publisher Drawn & Quarterly and publisher/merchandise producer Graphitti Designs. Image Comics, also a major presence on the exhibit floor, will have a much smaller booth.

Making up for this, newer graphic novel publishers, such as Immortal Studios, Interpop, Tapas Media/Wuxia World, Three Worlds/Three Moons, and Z2, will have booths for the first time. Gaming company G4 is returning, and Toei Animation is attending. And, perhaps in a sign of the times, toy company Funko will have a huge presence—an interactive area called the Funkoverse. And Marvel is returning to Hall H—the massive space used to present the casts and preview footage from blockbuster films—despite rumors it would opt for a spot at Disney’s own D23 Expo event in September. Although unconfirmed at press time, the outside activations that light up the nearby Gaslamp district, and the outside grounds of the convention center and nearby marina, should be back in full force.

As Stan Lee would have put it, the old ways doth change.

Getting into “con shape”

For Comic-Con International, the nonprofit organization that organizes SDCC and the WonderCon show in Anaheim, this is a return to its biggest, most exhausting show of the year. Comic-Con Special Edition, a scaled back show that drew somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people, was held in San Diego over the Thanksgiving weekend last year, and WonderCon returned in April. Both were vibrant events, but nowhere near the traditional tumult and fanfare of SDCC, a mega-convention that attracts cartoonists, cosplayers, and all manner of media personalities, crowding the picturesque streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp district with thousands of fans lining up to buy exclusive merchandise and visit related media events.

CCI is still getting back into “con shape,” says David Glanzer, chief communication and strategy officer and the longtime public face of SDCC. “We just went through a horrific global pandemic—it’s weirdly almost science-fictiony—so we’re all dusting ourselves off, picking ourselves up, and trying to determine how best to move forward.”

This has meant that the familiar rituals of a 50-year-old institution—deadlines for hotels, attendance, and exhibiting—have rolled out at a different pace than in previous years. In 2022, “things are happening probably at a slower rate,” Glanzer says. “But we’re rolling with the punches. Everybody’s being pragmatic and cautious.”

The organizer’s caution is due in part to the continuing pandemic. This year’s SDCC will have a mask mandate for attendees, although the city does not require masks. And social distancing will still be encouraged. Though most people are eager to take part in in-person events after two years of online panels, health and safety are still issues at an event where the “con crud”—a frequent though benign postconvention respiratory malady—was a hazard even in pre-Covid days.

CCI has also undergone the same kind of financial hardships that other events companies faced during the pandemic. Ticket revenue has been on hold since 2020. Badges for the 2020 event went on sale in late 2019 and sold out quickly as usual. CCI has continued to honor these, so there have been no new sales. Surprisingly few people have returned their memberships.

For 2022, though, CCI has secured new sponsorships, and the Special Edition and WonderCon shows did generate revenue and demonstrated that people were eager to head back to cons. Glanzer says that when (and if) the 2023 show goes on as planned, CCI and the events it manages should be back to normal.

As for the changes on the show floor, Glanzer confirms that giving up long-held booth space is a sensitive topic for some publishers. “There’s no shame or animosity or frustration with how people are dealing with it. These are personal decisions, and there are no wrong decisions.”

Fletcher Chu-Fong runs Fletch Forward, an events management and planning company that helps firms manage booths at SDCC and other shows. In 2022 he’ll oversee the booth of Comixology, Amazon’s digital comics market, and is consulting with a number of first-time exhibitors, including Immortal Studios and Tapas Media/WuxiaWorld. He agrees that returning companies “have been cautious, and rightfully so, because the pandemic is not quite over.” He explains, “It’s a tough call, because as an exhibitor you’d want to have your company be where your fans are, but you also are looking out for the safety of your employees.” The fan community, he says, “definitely” wants to return to in-person events, “as evidenced by such shows as WonderCon in March, and it has been growing steadily to record capacities as recently as MegaCon in May.” Fully vaccinated fans, Chu-Fong adds, are looking forward to returning, and more companies “are sending their vaccinated staff and talent to these conventions.”

Legacy publishers scale back

In an email, a spokesperson for Dark Horse, one of North America’s top five comics publishers, confirmed that it would not have a physical presence at SDCC or any other shows this year due to concerns over the pandemic and the safety of its staff. The Dark Horse booth previously included a retail operation and a section for ongoing author appearances and signings that anchored the comics section of the show floor. The publishing house was acquired by Swedish video game conglomerate the Embracer Group in 2021. Dark Horse said it still plans to make announcements that will tie-in with SDCC.

Image Comics, another top-five comics publisher, is also moving to a smaller booth—about the same size as its booth at last year’s New York Comic Con, as opposed to the larger convention footprint (and towering booth structures) of years past. Kat Salazar, Image v-p of public relations and marketing, says, “For this return to SDCC, we’ve opted for a streamlined layout with a more curated selection of inventory. We’re all experimenting with the new postpandemic convention foot traffic and consumer landscape and want to make sure we pivot our approach to meet the current needs of the showgoers.”

Salazar says that Image had considered not exhibiting at all, but, “Ultimately we felt a reduced presence was better than no presence at all—especially while we assess how the fan turnout goes postpandemic.”

As part of the scaling back, Skybound Entertainment, a multiplatform entertainment studio imprint at Image (and publisher of the Walking Dead and Invincible media and graphic novel franchises), will also have a smaller presence. Like many companies, Skybound launched its own successful online event during the pandemic, the Skybound Xpo, which was designed to maintain its connection with fans while in-person events were on hold. However, Skybound senior v-p and editor-in-chief Sean Mackiewicz says that the launch of Skybound Xpo was not a direct reason for its reduced presence at San Diego. “A core part of our business has always been interacting with the fans in person,” he explains. “At one time, we did over 25 live events over the course of the year.”

Skybound will continue to be part of the reconfigured Image booth, with plans to sell show exclusives, host creator signings, and hold panel discussions. But, partly out of concerns about Covid, the house is sending fewer staff members while also cutting back on lavish parties and receptions.

“We’re still very committed to live events, both at San Diego and in the future,” Mackiewicz says. “But it made sense to combine our merch teams to make sure that all of the Image product is available in one place.” Like Image, Skybound remains cautious about how fans will return and engage with the show, “until there’s a little bit more reassurance that fans will be engaging in a similar way.”

But this doesn’t mean Image/Skybound isn’t bullish on SDCC. Looking ahead, it plans a blowout celebration at San Diego in 2023 to celebrate the 20th anniversaries of its two pop culture media juggernauts: the Walking Dead and the recent animated hit show Invincible.

While Image has scaled back, Montreal-based literary graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly will no longer exhibit at SDCC after decades of attendance, according to D&Q publisher Peggy Burns. “It was a hard decision,” she says, stressing that it’s in no way a judgment on the marketing or retail utility of SDCC or any of the people running it. “We have a lot of respect and admiration for the show. But it’s a very long and hard event that forces us to cross the border and take two flights.”

In the end, the logistics of getting from Montreal to San Diego, as well as asking staff to take a week out of their summers, led to the decision. “It just came to the point where we’re like, ‘Can we do Comic-Con every single year for the rest of our career?’ And once we asked ourselves that, we said, no, we should bow out now.” Instead, D&Q will close its office for the week of the show and give staff the time off.

New publishers step up

But even as legacy brands change how they engage with SDCC, new publishers are taking space on the floor, and for some of them, finally getting a booth at the show is the result of long-term planning and a mark of the company’s maturity.

Z2 Comics, an independent comics publisher specializing in graphic novels that tie in with musical artists and celebrities such as Anthrax, Vince Staples, and Weird Al Yankovic, will have a booth for the first time at SDCC. The house exhibited at Special Edition last November, which moved it up the waiting list, according to Z2 publisher Josh Frankel. Getting a booth on the floor—among several publishers taking booths in Dark Horse’s former spot—was a long-range plan for the company, he adds.

Frankel explains that his approach to exhibiting was inspired by a conversation with a publisher who ran a splashy booth for a failing imprint: “You need to just set up and sell books.” When Z2 started out, setting up at pop culture events was low on the priority list. But the fast-growing house now releases about 50 titles per year, and exhibiting is both more practical and more effective. Frankel had another reason for laying low for Z2’s first few years: “Quite frankly, we were trying to keep what we’re doing a little quiet, because we didn’t want anyone to steal the idea,” he says.

As a comics publisher that deals directly with famous musicians, Z2 is smack in the middle of SDCC’s mix of nerditry and pageantry. Although Z2 hasn’t exhibited at SDCC before, it has been in the mix in other ways. In 2019 it held an off-site concert with J-pop-inspired performer Poppy. In 2022, it plans to bring major star power to the show, including the electronic/reggae super group Major Lazar and the band’s art director Ferry Gouw, who drew the cover art for Year Negative One, the group’s first graphic novel; the cast of the immensely popular horror podcast Last Podcast on the Left; actor and comics writer David Dastmalchian; and Schitt’s Creek star Emily Hampshire, who will release her first graphic work, Amelia Aierwood: Basic Witch, in August.

Frankel says the time is right for in-person events. “More and more people are spending on events, there’s pent-up demand, and I think people are going to be crazy about going back to Comic-Con.”

Z2 senior v-p Josh Bernstein took note of the house’s focus on music: “We’ve found an entirely new comics fan base, and a show like SDCC helps foster that.”

Fletch Forward’s Chu-Fong agrees that SDCC is a great opportunity for new exhibitors. “When I first started in this business, comics was almost a secret, underground subculture thing,” he says. “Over the course of time, and thanks to hit TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and the Marvel movies, comics are now a huge part of mainstream culture with more and more people curious about the art form coming in to explore. There are a lot of potential new fans out there being brought in by these avenues—whether it’s TV, games, movies, or digital—and they are very eager to know more, and if you have the right product or pitch, they can end up a fan for life.”

The con must go on

Despite significant absences, SDCC will still have a strong comics presence on the floor and in the show’s programming. D&Q is sponsoring the appearance of cartoonist Sophie Yanow (The Contradictions). Top Shelf, an indie graphic novel imprint at IDW Publishing, will be a part of a redesigned IDW booth and will celebrate its 25th anniversary, according to Top Shelf editor Leigh Walton. Among other titles, the house plans to showcase New Yorker cartoonist Sofia Warren’s debut nonfiction graphic work, Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator, an account of a year spent documenting the political campaign and 2018 election of democratic socialist Julia Salazar to the New York State Senate.

Fantagraphics, another respected literary graphic novel publisher, is returning to San Diego in full force, says director of publicity and promotions Jacq Cohen. Cohen highlights a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Love and Rockets, an acclaimed literary graphic novel series created by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. “Fantagraphics has been attending SDCC for over 45 years,” Cohen says. “It’s part of the company’s annual tradition. While it’s an expensive show at which to exhibit, we always break even or make a small profit. We view conventions as a marketing and PR opportunity, and there are endless networking possibilities that we wouldn’t get elsewhere.”

For publishers, the joys of connecting with the comics community continue to be SDCC’s biggest draw. Despite the costs and changes, everyone PW spoke with is looking forward to being in the same room with colleagues once again, despite any lingering Covid risk.

Indeed, Mackiewicz says what’s most missed about in-person SDCCs is “connecting with our creators. They are people who have become friends, some for over a decade.” He adds, “No matter how many phone calls or Zoom calls we do, seeing someone in the flesh is always best.”

And even as the spectacle and camaraderie of SDCC returns, CCI is looking to launch new projects. Previewed at the last in-person SDCC in 2019, the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park is now open and will have several exhibits, including a major display focused on Marvel’s Spider-Man.

SDCC keeps evolving, which is part of its charm, Glanzer says. And the buzz is growing for this year’s show and its return. “As an event planner, you’re always worried about making sure this train stays on the tracks. But I gotta tell you, there is definite excitement for this coming up. Seeing all the people we haven’t seen for years is a real sign of normalcy returning.”