Too Big for the Room: The First Annual New York Comic Con

Comic book conventions aren’t, as some people in the mainstream media would have you believe, a “nerd prom” or a “gathering of the geeks”. They are an event where fans of a unique American art form can get together and share their love of the medium. They are places where they can glimpse the idols that create their favorite stories. And they are a place where the fans spend an inordinate amount of money in support of their hobby.

New York had been the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without a major convention. The grand poohbah of conventions, the San Diego Comic Con, takes place a several hours’ drive outside of Los Angeles, and Wizard World Los Angeles takes place in Long Beach, California. Wizard World Chicago takes place not in Chicago proper, but in a suburb called Rosemont. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco all have comic conventions to call their own.

New York only had the Big Apple Con, a smaller convention that paled in comparison to the multimedia extravaganzas that the San Diego Comic Con and Wizard World Chicago became known for. But that was about to change.

The promoters of the New York Comic Con, Reed Exhibitions, had a bold goal, to make it the East Coast version of the San Diego Comic Con. They wanted a convention that would match San Diego in size, scope and prestige. They did well with the guest list. Popular comic creators such as Brian Michael Bendis, Brad Meltzer, and Jim Lee were tapped to attend, as well as guests from other media such as Milla Jovovich, Kevin Smith and WWE wrestler, Kane. So expectations were high. But as high as they were, they didn’t match up to reality.

The convention opened on a Friday and one could see that the show was going to be a popular one. The line for buying tickets stretched on for yards. There was even a line for people who pre-registered online, who were promised that they wouldn’t have to wait to get in if they went that route. To be fair, the organizers gathered more employees to process this group to try to get these customers into the event faster.

The convention took place at the Jacob Javits Center, one of the biggest convention centers on the East Coast. However, the comic con did not have use of the entire venue. They were relegated to one room of the building that had a maximum capacity of 10,000 people. As a matter of fact, there was another event, the New York Times Travel Show, taking place at the Javits at the same time.

Reed states that they run over 460 events in 39 countries. One imagines that these would be mostly trade shows and the like. And while the New York Comic Con seemed more like a trade show at times (a third of the floor was taken up by comic and toy companies, and good deal of the space usually reserved for vendors was taken up by smaller comic companies and book publishers promoting wares), it appears that the promoters were quite unfamiliar with the unique beast that comic conventions are.

The convention floor’s layout and design did not make it easy for the massive crowds that attended the events. The organizers probably did not realize how a person in an elaborate costume or someone carrying a long box full of comics could clog up an alleyway. At times on Friday, it was almost impossible to maneuver from one end of the room to the other.

The areas devoted to the exhibitors were cramped as well. The small space was good for small publishers and the like, but for the larger vendors, it was sometimes hard for customers to negotiate their areas. Regardless, some vendors did more business on Friday than they do through the entire runs of other conventions. This was something the New York Comic Convention actually was able to equal the San Diego Comic Con in, bringing sales to the vendors.

At other locations in the building, panels and discussions, another staple of comic cons, were being held. These are the events where companies reveal their new titles, actresses and actors promote their movies, and professionals discuss the events of the day. The organizers showed remarkable foresight by requiring people to pick up tickets for some of these events to insure people a guaranteed seat. This foresight, however, failed them on Saturday.

The organizers said they expected 20,000 people to visit the convention over the weekend. They soon found out that they would have an estimated 20,000 people walk up for tickets on Saturday alone. The convention floor on Friday seemed crowded, but Saturday’s crowds made Friday’s appear light by comparison. So many people attended the convention on Saturday that New York State Troopers closed down the convention, stating the building had reached maximum capacity.

This resulted in what might be considered chaos. People wanting to buy tickets were turned away. Advance ticket holders, many of whom traveled great distances to attend the convention, had to wait until somebody left to get in. People who left the show also had to wait a long time to get back in. This included many comic vendors, who became virtual prisoners of the convention, not able to leave to have a smoke or get something to eat (that is, if they didn’t want to stand in the long line for the food vendors in the convention room itself).

The crowds got so bad that convention organizers announced on their website that they were not going to sell any tickets for Sunday and that advance ticket holders would get preferential treatment. Many fans missed this announcement however, because people began lining up three hours early on Sunday to get into the convention.

Shutting down sales to walk-up customers was a tactic to satisfy the advance ticket holders who had already paid for their tickets. But this had an unforeseen side effect. In speaking to a representative of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, who was selling autographed merchandise to raise funds for their organization, he noted that the lack of new attendees meant that less people were visiting their booth. This meant fewer sales for the CBLDF.

The popularity of a convention this size was severely underestimated by the convention planners. The stated expectations of 20,000 seemed light when you consider over 104,000 individual attendees, professionals and exhibitors attended the 2005 version of the event they were trying to emulate, the San Diego Comic Con. And New York’s population is larger than Los Angeles’ and San Diego’s combined.

It is unknown as to why the convention organizers did not have access to the entire Javits Center. Perhaps the other space in the building was already booked. Or perhaps they judged the amount of space needed by the amount of vendors they signed up. Either way, plans are in effect to try to obtain a larger venue for next years convention. But whether or not the attendees who tried to get in this year and were refused will actually return is anyone’s guess.