The stars came out for San Diego Comic-Con—only this time they were all cartoonists. In a year when strikes by WGA and SAG-AFTRA shut down virtually all the big media panels that normally generate big Comic-Con headlines, publishers and cartoonists got a chance to take center stage at North America’s biggest pop culture event held, which was held July 19-23 at the San Diego Convention Center.

Superstar cartoonists from manga mega-sellers Junji Ito and Makoto Yukimura to kids’ comics leaders Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi appeared at packed panels and signings. Marvel made news with a 40th anniversary return for Secret Wars. DC announced a team-up between the Justice League, Godzilla, and King Kong. When DC publisher, president and CCO Jim Lee announced that “Comic-Con belongs to the comics again” at a spotlight panel, the room erupted in cheers.

With no reason to sleep out overnight to get into Hall H—where the splashy media presentations from movie studios are made in a typical year—fans were free to wander the show floor and spend money. Which is exactly what they did. “Holy [expletive]” one comics exec at a major publisher told PW. “Crowds are bonkers, sales are bonkers.”

Aisles in Artist Alley, where individual creators hawk and sign their wares and take commissions, were jammed, as were panel rooms. Virtually everyone PW spoke with—from publishers to creators—said they’d had higher than ever panel attendance and record sales.

Fans who came more for their favorite movies and streaming shows didn’t go away entirely disappointed: studios had already committed to the elaborate displays that keep the backlots and marine front surrounding the convention center humming, and set-ups for Adult Swim, Hulu, and AMC—which took over a whole building for Anne Rice’s Interview with The Vampire—had constant lines.

Both DC and Dark Horse successfully returned to the show floor. DC’s booth had massive lines to buy exclusive collectibles from McFarlane Toys and Cartamundi. Dark Horse senior v-p of marketing Cara O’Neil was happy to see fans interacting with creators again. “We changed our strategy this year, only focusing on exclusives rather than trying to bring a huge retail store because that is extremely expensive. We know what interests fans the most are exclusives and it worked,” O'Neil said, noting that they had a financially successful show.

Publishers of all sizes benefitted from the traffic redirected by the strike. Rocketship publisher and CEO Tom Akel noted that the lack of media presentations “definitely drove more customers onto the floor to look at comics. For the comics industry, it was a change of pace that was, honestly, a little bit welcome.”

Retailer Jen King of Space Cadets, in Oak Ridge North, Tex., enjoyed the dedicated focus on comics, too. “This show allowed comic book companies, publishers, and retailers to shine. Maybe it gave us an opportunity to think outside the box: how do we get a little more excitement in our industry?”

The show wasn’t without a few storm clouds. Vendors who sold high-ticket items like original art and Golden Age comics reported much slower sales, with one prominent art dealer declaring it was their worst Comic-Con ever. The drop was perhaps due to the lack of high roller attendees from the entertainment industry—but general uncertainty about economic conditions also had an effect. Con goers had no problem dropping $50 on an exclusive, but a $3,000 piece of original art was a riskier purchase.

There were also numerous reports of slower sales for the industry in general, even in the once red-hot manga category. The general mood of uncertainty was captured at a lunch for retailers presented by Diamond Comics when Boom! president for publishing & marketing Filip Sablik referred to “turbulent and disruptive times” in his presentation.

The ongoing strikes brought to attention that the studios' battle with writers and actors are over issues that similarly affect comics publishing: AI; reporting accurate numbers and residuals; and shifting audience expectations. But Comic-Con’s traditional huge crowds, flashy costumes, and thoughtful conversations were as evident as ever—and the mood as ebullient.

King acknowledged the looming tough times, but put forward a message of strength: “If we were an industry that had never been through this much struggle before, maybe I would be worried about how we come through it. But having been through the 1996 crash, the 2008 crash, and the pandemic, I know we're very a resilient industry. We figure out ways to pivot to make sure we survive long enough to get to the good times.”