The con is coming back to the Big Apple: New York Comic Con, North America’s largest comics event, returns to the Javits Center October 6–9. After a downsized but lively show in 2021, organizers expect a full house of 200,000 attendees—near the 250,000 mark reached in 2019—for a whirlwind of panels, signings, and cosplay.

The nation’s still-evolving pandemic landscape has changed how publishers and media companies market to fans of comics, books, and films. But according to publishing executives in and out of the comics industry, returning to in-person connections is as crucial as ever. And continuing a trend from prepandemic times, NYCC is becoming an indispensable venue for traditional book publishers to both showcase authors and take meetings—picking up for the category the B2B functions of the now-defunct BookExpo America, which was also run by ReedPop, NYCC’s parent company.

ReedPop has restructured as it resumes a full schedule of live shows following layoffs during the height of the pandemic. In the restructure, Kristina Rogers was promoted to vice president, global comics portfolio, running shows in the U.S. and U.K. She brings new perspective and looks to take advantage of the expansion of the once-cramped Javits site that opened last year, allowing more fandoms to be served than ever. “I’ve long held the theory that New York Comic Con needs to take a festival approach, and truly have an event for everybody,” she says. That includes maintaining the commitment to programming for librarians and educators and the potential for more B2B industry events.

Tabletop gaming and anime—two pop culture sectors that shot up in popularity during the pandemic—will have an increased presence, as will podcasters, YouTubers, and other social media influencers who flourished during lockdown.

Several publishers that exhibited at July’s San Diego Comic-Con won’t be setting up in New York, with many citing the spread of omicron variants (a wave of Covid cases hit comics professionals and fans after SDCC)—but the high costs of showing at Javits and the general wear and tear of resuming in-person events also factor in.

As for hygiene, NYCC will require all attendees and exhibitors wear masks, but it will not require proof of vaccination or a negative test—“provided case numbers stay around the same,” Rogers says. “We feel we’re at the stage now where requiring masks is what’s most critical for fans.” She believes the spread of Covid at SDCC was mostly due to after-parties, not interactions on the show floor, where masks and vaccination were required. The Javits Center itself has made major upgrades relating to Covid safety, including accelerated cleaning and air filtration.

Overall, Rogers reports that enthusiasm for live events has been growing, with most exhibitors “ready to get back.” Even for publishers who are not setting up traditional booths, she sees that “they’re coming in hot with guests and content and unique ways to connect with attendees.”

Making space for growing fandoms

The 2022 NYCC will take over more of Javits than previous iterations of the show, with programming spreading into the spacious new wing, which includes the 5,000-seat Empire Stage, to be used for major media presentations. Artist Alley, always a highlight of NYCC, will remain in Hall 1B in the main building. New this year: the entire Hall E in the main building will be used to showcase tabletop gaming, a pastime that boomed over the pandemic, including demos and live play.

Manga and anime also surged during lockdowns, and several manga publishers are returning to the exhibition hall. Despite the category’s rise, Rogers says there are no plans to bring back a separate anime area for NYCC—a split that garnered mixed reviews from attendees over the years—or a separate ReedPop anime show, because “we finally have room for it all.”

But off-site events are an area ripe for development. NYCC lags behind SDCC in this department, since San Diego’s tranquil weather and sunny terraces are perfect for promotional installations. Rogers thinks movie studios and other forces are going to learn to take advantage of the many striking architectural spaces, parks, and other outdoor event locations near Javits at the redeveloped Hudson Yards. “It’s not as expansive as San Diego yet, but there’s already a lot to do within that four-block radius.”

Back to the booth

The heart of Comic Con remains comics and books and the people who make them, and most publishers that PW spoke with are eager to get back into booths, showcasing titles in person to passing fans—in many cases for the first time in three years.

While Marvel is expected to have its usual centrally located exhibit, DC’s
participation had not been nailed down at press time, though it’s likely to include a full lineup of guests and panels. IDW is another major comics contender setting up a booth, with traditional trade publishers such as Abrams, Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster exhibiting. Heavy Metal, Mad Cave, and Z2 are among the other independent comics houses setting up shop.

Among anime and manga companies, Bandai will have an expanded booth, with a focal promotion of its classic manga/anime series One Piece. Crunchyroll, Seven Seas, and Viz will also attend.

PRH is employing the setup it debuted at SDCC, according to director of brand events Lindsey Elias, which unites all its brands—from licensed titles to kids’ comics—in one booth. It’s bringing a top-flight contingent of authors, including Terry Brooks, Diana Gabaldon, Naomi Novik, and actor/author Omar Epps. When PRH exhibited in different areas of the show floor, “we weren’t able to give attendees the experience that we wanted,” Elias says, “but now we’ve created a one-stop shop for readers.”

PRH’s various graphic novel lines are also in the mix, with a focus on the hot kids’ comics category, including the Random House Graphic imprint. Elias has observed more and more families attending the con, with parents ready to pick up new releases.

Over at Macmillan, imprints Fierce Reads and First Second will share a joint booth, with author Leigh Bardugo as a headliner, debuting the Darkling prequel Demon in the Wood, which features art by Dani Pendergast. While Macmillan is still figuring out its mix of live events, Morgan Kane, associate publicity director, says, “There’s a lot of value in the energy of being in the same space as your fellow readers, celebrating your shared passion. The energy of fandom is unmatched.”

Abrams ComicArts is fielding one of its strongest seasons, according to editorial director Charles Kochman, with new series debuting from superstars Brian Michael Bendis (Phenomena: The Golden City of Eyes, with artist André Lima Araújo), and Marjorie Liu (The Night Eaters: She Eats The Night, with artist Sana Takeda). Liu will be signing and appearing on panels. Abrams is also promoting the first graphic novel from famed artist Alex Ross, Fantastic Four: Full Circle. Ross rarely attends cons but has produced a video to be shown at the imprint’s panel.

IDW is bringing an impressive new exhibit, dubbed IDW City, that debuted at SDCC, publisher Nachie Marsham says. The long-planned new booth’s goal promises to be “more experiential and less retail.” The setup includes a space where attendees can visit and view the gradual creation of a mural for Star Trek: The Lower Decks each day.

Beside licensed titles, IDW is giving a big push to its Originals line. But licenses are the mainstay, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cocreator Kevin Eastman will take a turn at the booth. “Kevin is just Kevin,” Marsham says. “For someone to have existed in so many different facets of the industry for so long and still be legitimately excited about not only creating but talking about it is truly a joy to watch.”

Talent untethered

For some publishers, NYCC exhibits this fall feel too far a stretch for pandemic-stressed staffs. Rachel Barry, v-p of marketing, publicity, and e-commerce at Insight Editions, notes that though her company has exhibited in the past and did so at SDCC, cons are “a muscle we had to relearn to exercise.” Instead of “biting off more than they can chew” in New York, Insight Editions is supporting the release of fan crafting guide Star Wars Everyday, by actor Ashley Eckstein, with an exclusive enamel pin, distributed through a collaboration with the Pop Insider booth.

Image imprint Top Cow’s new booth was a big draw at SDCC. But while it hopes to continue the celebration of its 30th anniversary at NYCC, it is going with a smaller Artist Alley position, mostly due to costs—Javits is notorious for high drayage and setup fees, which have only increased during the pandemic, as pressure from event cancellations and inflation coincided. Top Cow president Matt Hawkins says he prefers selling his own books in Artist Alley. “At NYCC they do such a good job of curating that area that the people who walk by are almost all comics readers, which isn’t true at other shows,” he explains.

With so many publishers taking a time out, those that are stepping up are seeing benefits from increased exposure, Hawkins finds. “We were very aggressive at San Diego and I feel we’ve benefited tremendously from it,” he says. “We’re going to have a strong presence at all the shows we do for the next six months in the wake of so many people being absent or being in a wait and see pattern, and it’s going to be a big marketing boost for us.”

Another prominent booth-free publisher is Dynamite, publisher of The Boys and popular licensed fare such as Red Sonja. Company president Nick Barrucci explains that “between the fact that it’s been a crazy year but also so many of the staff have families, I’m still a little uncomfortable sending anyone to shows.”

Dynamite will, regardless, promote Stan Lee’s Alliance, another posthumous project from the beloved icon, and it’ll be making more than a dozen announcements during the show—something Barrucci asserts works for the publisher despite the competitive barrage of news about film and streaming. The house will also be represented by talent flying solo at Artist Alley, including signings by Luke Lieberman, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Ryan Silbert.

“Some of our marketing is effective for the comics market, some of it is effective outside it,” Barrucci observes. “Fans still see the big shows like San Diego and New York as the lightning rods. The community is there. They’re seeing it happening. They feel the electricity in the air. It reminds everybody how viable this industry is.”

Insight’s Barry concurs about the “being there” prospects. “A show like NYCC is exciting for fandoms because being at the place where news is breaking makes them feel part of it,” she says. “Before they could just buy a book, but now they want to know, What’s the exclusive? What’s the news of the show? They’re a lot savvier in that regard.”

A place for books to do business

Several industry leaders PW spoke with agree that NYCC is slowly replacing some of the trade show aspects of BookExpo for popular genre schmoozing and dealing. Barry says that NYCC has in some ways occupied BookExpo’s place as “a moment to break out authors, and to get noise and news around books.”

PRH’s Elias notes that while NYCC has always been a place to meet with licensing partners, she believes that dealmaking “is going to become more and more normal as things like BookExpo don’t come back.”

NYCC also functions as the kind of industry gathering place that BookExpo once represented, drawing not only readers but booksellers, librarians, and educators. Marsham says, “New York Comic Con is smart to be fanning those flames. There’s more and more crossover every single day from people who are working in the traditional trade space who want to work in the comics and graphic novel space.”

The rise of the con as a venue to launch prose titles alongside graphic novels to general consumers may also represent an evolution from BookCon, a consumer show that ran alongside BookExpo and was shuttered in 2020. Several observers referenced that event as a precursor to the way publishers are reaching fans at NYCC.

That’s particularly true with more families in attendance. Elias thinks that it just took time to get the mix right at fan-focused cons and “really figure out what our overall approach is across divisions and understand why these shows are so important,” she says. “Comic cons were previously thought of as a place where it’s only graphic novels and comic books, and they were the stars. But these readers read novels too, and they want books for their kids.”

Barry agrees. “It’s gone from something that was thought of as niche to something that’s definitely not,” she says. “It changed from just the superfans going to them bringing their whole family and friend groups.”

All of the changes across the comics industry over the past three years mean networking is more essential than ever. It’s especially anticipated by Marsham, who started his position in the early days of the pandemic and looks forward to finally seeing his colleagues in person. “It’s so beneficial to be able to sit in a room full of peers,” he says. “We work in a relatively small industry and knowing that we’re together with our shared challenges is really heartening. And I think it makes for getting better books out there in the world.”

“As much as fans missed meeting up, so did we,” Barry says. “At San Diego you’d run up to somebody and then it was an hour conversation because it had been so long since you last saw them.”

Barrucci agrees that the social aspect has been keenly missed, namely “meeting up with creators with colleagues from other companies. Fans love the interaction with creators and publishers—and we do too.”

It’s all for the fans

Ultimately, talent and producers reaching out directly to fans is what makes NYCC a successful show, even as the very meaning of gathering has changed, ReedPop’s Rogers says. “So much has changed in the last three years, including how people want to experience a comic con and the content they want to see. Talking heads panels are not their thing anymore. Fans want a more interactive experience—they want to ask questions, or watch an artist draw. It’s a much more collaborative mindset.”

To that end, earlier this year ReedPop launched Popverse, a traditional comics and media news website run by veteran journalist Chris Arrant that ties into initiatives such as The Haul, a collectors’ marketplace. In addition to reporting on major comic cons, Popverse hosts livestreams of panels at ReedPop events, with exclusive digital content available to subscribers.

Given the threat of Covid, “Popverse is here for people who don’t feel like conventions are a safe place for them yet,” Arrant says. “They can enjoy an approximation of the convention experience online.” For him, whether online or in person, it’s also about the connections. “My favorite thing about comics isn’t the actual comics, but the amazingly creative people that make them. I just want to be able to see people enjoying comics and everything else—movies, TV, games.”

Rogers’s vision for NYCC as a festival covering many areas continues to evolve. “It’s trying to balance out the new with the old, and it’s a very different generational mindset,” she says. “The shows are attracting a younger crowd, which is exciting because it lets us play in things that people weren’t interested in seven years ago. The energy is exciting.”