New York Comic Con returns to the Javits Center October 12–15 and is expected to draw 200,000 attendees. The biggest pop culture fan event in North America continues its strong postpandemic recovery, even as fan-favorite franchises transition—the Walking Dead and the MCU show signs of decline, while demand for anime and manga continues to grow—and the live-events industry is hit with downsizing and acquisitions.
NYCC organizer ReedPop, which also owns C2E2, Emerald City Comic Con, PAX, and Star Wars Celebrations, had major personnel changes in the past year. ReedPop president Lance Fensterman, who led the Reed Exhibitions division since its creation in 2009, departed to start a line of sports-focused events for Fanatics, the sports merchandise and collectibles juggernaut, that aims to become the “comic con for sports.” In addition, Mike Armstrong, v-p and former showrunner of NYCC, left ReedPop to join Fensterman’s new team. ReedPop is now led by Mike Kisken and Simon Maxwell, while Kristina Rogers continues as v-p of the ReedPop global comics portfolio, overseeing C2E2, ECCC, and others. Fensterman will be missed, Rogers says, but she notes that “he left us with the tools we need.”
This year’s NYCC will have the same general layout as last year’s show, including a dedicated gaming hall, panels, and some nighttime events held in the convention center’s new North Hall. Off-site events will be reduced because ReedPop has fewer staffers available to manage them, Rogers says. “We just don’t have the bandwidth this time, and I didn’t want to do it unless we could do it right.”
Covid restrictions are a thing of the past, but one pandemic feature remains: wider aisles, allowing for a modest amount of social distancing. “That’s here to stay,” Rogers says. “We’re giving people as much space as possible.”
Attendees can also expect to see more traditional book authors and publishers. This year’s NYCC will include Writer’s Block, a section of Artist Alley set aside for wordsmiths, and Barnes & Noble will serve as NYCC’s official bookseller.
More than 100 authors will appear at the show, not counting comics writers and cartoonists. “It’s been awesome to get this support from the traditional publishing industry and everybody coming back in a big way,” Rogers says. Among the authors appearing are Cassandra Claire, Christopher Paolini, and V.E. Schwab.
Penguin Random House and Macmillan are exhibiting, as is Marvel. However, many comics publishers plan to participate in different ways. After making a noted return to the exhibition floor of the San Diego Comic-Con in 2023, DC will go boothless at NYCC 2023. IDW, which went through a major reorganization over the spring, will attend with a setup in Artist Alley. Though Image Comics, a major independent comics house, is not exhibiting, several of its imprints are, including the creator-driven studios of Mad Ghost, led by writer-producer Geoff Johns; Giant Generator, under the direction of comics artist–producer Rick Remender; and Massive-Verse, a superhero universe and imprint created by Kyle Higgins. Dark Horse will be sponsoring events at NYCC, but it will not have a booth on the floor, preferring to concentrate on shows closer to its Oregon headquarters, such as Rose City Comic Con.
The soaring costs of travel to New York City are continually cited among the reasons fewer publishers attend the show. In addition, union fees at the Javits Center can make simply unloading a truck an expensive investment. Blocks of economically priced hotel rooms (the “con block”) sold out quickly, and regular N.Y.C. hotels, publishers say, are expensive.
Competition for space at Artist Alley—the section of the exhibition where individual artists and creators set up to sell their books, prints, and original art—was fierce even before NYCC added the Writer’s Block. This has led to some grumbling from established creators who were denied tables when assignments went out over the summer. But practically speaking, this was inevitable. According to Rogers, there are only 380 open table spots for Artist Alley, and ReedPop received 2,500 applications. “There’s just no way to fit in everyone,” she adds.
Organizers are also working to make sure Artist Alley is a diverse space. “We’ve made a big effort internally on that, and even created new funds to bring in young emerging professionals who maybe couldn’t afford to come since it’s such an expensive show,” Rogers explains.
It’s all part of the rush, as fans and pros alike are eager to get back to full-scale live events. Jazzlyn Stone is an independent marketing consultant who runs an agency that helps comics creators with show planning and scheduling panel appearances. She points out that NYCC is known for an exhausting schedule of social events and is quick to advise clients to pace themselves. “I know people who were doing four panels at every con in 2019, and they are trying to do it again, and it’s just too exhausting,” she says.
The ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which show no signs of abating at press time, add another wrinkle to organizing NYCC programming. While both unions allow their members to appear at fan events, they are prohibited from promoting current or upcoming projects subject to the strike. This has led to several awkward moments at recent shows—William Shatner, a popular and frequent con guest, won’t answer questions about Star Trek!—but photo ops are still available, and otherwise it’s mostly back to normal with hugs and photo poses, Rogers says.
A changing convention landscape
Prior to the pandemic, many professionals in the events industry believed the comics convention space in the U.S. had become overcrowded, and the pandemic served as a reset. The question of whether fans would return to live events has been answered with a resounding yes, and shows are jockeying to give them the best possible experience.
Over the past two years, ReedPop underwent significant layoffs and a reorganization. Though no North American shows were canceled, the U.K.’s MCM series, which ReedPop acquired in 2017, was scaled down. The shows that are back have seen attendance levels that approach prepandemic numbers.
Informa, the company that runs the slate of Fan Expo conventions, took the opposite tack from ReedPop in 2020, raising $1.24 billion to propel its trade and consumer shows through the pandemic. Informa v-p Andrew Moyes says the company kept its team on, and by the time events came back in 2022 it had added eight shows by acquiring the Wizard World portfolio. “During the pandemic, we focused less on virtual, temporary content and more on developing the best possible experience for our fans when we could finally gather again,” Moyes says.
That has included signing exclusive deals with some top-tier talent, including legendary comics creator Frank Miller and Stranger Things actor Joseph Quinn. For 2023, Moyes says, “we saw massive attendance hikes across the board, including many first-time attendees. We know the industry has faced a lot of challenges, but fans want to meet each other just as much as they want to meet celebrities or special guests.”
Leftfield Media, which oversees several popular shows—including Awesome Con in Washington, D.C., and the rapidly expanding AnimeNYC—joined the acquisition mode, partnering with Ace Comicons last year. Leftfield Media did downsize a bit, president Kelly Comboni says, and joined other shows in pivoting to virtual events during the pandemic. But Leftfield’s pivot was “a fun learning experience,” she adds, noting, “I think that’s the best we can say about that. But we did a lot of things that we were able to feel good about in helping the entire industry, like a mask program our cosplayers put together.”
Since then, Leftfield successfully brought back AnimeNYC, an event showcasing Japanese and Asian pop culture, which has exploded in popularity. The 2023 edition of AnimeNYC drew 55,000 fans.
Even more players are rising on the convention scene. GalaxyCon is a slate of comics and anime events held mostly in the Southeast, run by former comics retailer Mike Broder, who says his shows have come back big time. The GalaxyCon Richmond held in February 2020 drew 18,500 people; the 2023 event drew more than 30,000. Broder’s company also expanded during the pandemic, as it shifted to Zoom events and offering signed collectibles. “We went from 15 full-time employees to 40,” he says. “When every-
body else was shrinking, we were growing.”
New fandoms rise
Meanwhile, as the live-events industry is changing, fan tastes are shifting. “Young adult romance is getting a real surge,” ReedPop’s Rogers says. “It started with BookTok over the pandemic, normalizing reading it. Bestselling author Sarah J. Maas is an excellent example. It’s been fascinating to see us bring in authors that are appealing to this audience, and how well that’s taking off.” Tabletop gaming is another area that boomed during the pandemic, and its prominence is growing in the event space.
Kids binged content on Crunchyroll, Disney+, and Netflix during the pandemic, and manga sales soared, but now these figures are returning to a more normal state, Broder says. “But it created fans, and people got excited about things in a way that they hadn’t been excited before, including at shows,” he says. “Now anime voice actors are like rock stars, and we’re seeing lines for anime the likes of which we’ve never seen—and I’ve been booking anime guests since the beginning.”
The growth of the anime space is a big part of the evolution the industry is seeing today. GalaxyCon and Leftfield Media have launched standalone anime events, while Fan Expo and ReedPop are keeping these events integrated into their main shows, for now. In spite of the general overcrowding in the fan events space, there’s still room to expand into underserved markets.
Most intriguing among the new players in the space is Fensterman’s project at Fanatics. “It’s about taking the sports fans and fans of collectibles, trading cards, and memorabilia and building an environment where they get to really revel and wallow in the stuff they love,” Fensterman explains.
This new fan-focused project is similar to what Fensterman did at ReedPop, but with a different audience. While Fanatics plans to launch next year with two events, show content is still in development. “I don’t see us moving into the territory of NYCC yet,” he says, “but could other non-sports collectibles be a part of something we build? Absolutely, but not at the beginning. We need to cater to a very specific community.”
Fanatics also owns the well-known trading card company Topps and has licenses for Star Wars and Strangers Things, and Topps itself owns some IP, like the classic Garbage Pail Kids. “We’ll see what people want,” Fensterman adds.
Other companies are also looking cautiously at expansion. “We are always open and exploring new fandoms, and even new opportunities of acquisition of strong events that are looking to capitalize on their growth,” Leftfield’s Comboni says.
“I’ve got visions,” Rogers says of ReedPop’s expansion plans. “I think there are a couple key gaps in what the industry is serving right now that could use dedicated shows. So I’m definitely interested in some launches, or some acquisitions. And I would like to go back to global to bring this content to other countries. But I also think that the North American market is being really well served right now.”
As events come back and expand, creators will likely become choosier about which they’ll attend, Stone says. “We all have to be choosier, because it’s very expensive to go to these things, and you come home and you’re exhausted for a week.”
And remember, Covid is still out there—there were reports of a significant outbreak among San Diego Comic-Con attendees—and the threat is forcing some creators to make hard decisions about participating in in-person events. NYCC will continue to stream panels via its Popverse site so that those who can’t attend in person can still experience the programming. Some small indie shows are still requiring masks and tests—FlameCon, a queer-themed fan event in N.Y.C. that includes many disabled exhibitors and attendees—required both at its August show, and Small Press Expo in North Bethesda, Md., required attendees to be masked earlier this month.
Graphic Policy podcast host Elana Levin has been among those who remain vocal on social media asking for shows and attendees to continue with Covid precautions, including wearing masks. “We talk a lot about the comics space as a community,” Levin says. “One thing that community needs to do is look out for each other. We need to do our best to try to avoid spreading a disabling illness among a community of people who mostly don’t even have health insurance, and definitely don’t have sick leave.”
New York Comic Con, which runs Thursday–Sunday, October 12–15, will feature a variety of events for industry professionals—including librarians and retailers—and publishers will roll out a number of announcements. Here’s a look at some highlights.
As in past years, the New York Public Library is organizing a program for librarians, including sessions that can count as professional development.
ComicsPRO, Thursday, 12:30–2:30 p.m., River Pavilion
The organization for comics retailers will present a programming block covering its activities, including strengthening graphic novel metadata and a state-of-the-industry discussion, as well as retailer roundtables on different retailer-focused topics.
Comics Industry Social Hour, Thursday, 2:45–3:45 p.m., River Pavilion
ICv2 and ComicsPro will cohost an industry mixer.
ICv2 White Paper, Thursday, 3:45–4:45 p.m., River Pavilion
Milton Griepp, publisher of industry news site ICv2, will present his annual white paper on the state of comics and a look back at the 50th anniversary of the direct market.
Industry Summit @ NYCC, Thursday, 6:45–10:15 p.m., River Pavilion
Marketing and programming consultant Jazzlyn Stone hosts ReedPop’s Industry Summit with speakers Katie Pryde (owner of Portland, Ore., bookstore Books with Pictures), Tom Taylor (Titans, Superman: Son of Kal-El, Nightwing), and a special keynote by Marie Javins, editor-in-chief of DC.
OTHER PANELS OF INTEREST
Joining Forces: Comics Publishers, Librarians, and Retailers Unite—and Unite Fans—Against Book Bans, Saturday, 11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m., River Pavilion
PW’s Meg Lemke leads a discussion on how to work together against censorship and book bans, with the CBLDF’s Jeff Trexler; ComicsPRO’s Jenn Haines; Little, Brown editor Andrea Colvin; and librarian Stephanie Anderson.
Feeding Dangerously—A Breakout Graphic Novel About the Power of Food, Hope, and Community, Friday, 7:45–8:45 p.m., Room 409
Chef José Andrés virtually joins Eisner-nominated comics creator Steve Orlando to talk about their graphic novel Feeding Dangerously: On the Ground with José Andrés and World Central Kitchen (TKO Studios, Nov.)
Who Was Steve Ditko?, Saturday, 12:15–1:15 p.m., Room 406
Family members and coworkers gather to discuss the reclusive cocreator of Spider-Man, cartoonist Steve Ditko.
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, Saturday, 12:15–1:15 p.m., Room 405
Creator Bryan Lee O’Malley and producer BenDavid Grabinski discuss the upcoming Netflix anime series Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, based on the cult graphic novel series.
Manga Publishing in North America: Past, Present & Future Trends, Sunday, 11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m., River Pavilion
Yen Press publisher Kurt Hassler and Kodansha USA publisher Alvin Lu join PW contributor Deb Aoki for an honest discussion about manga publishing.