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On the Edge of Hell’s Kitchen in a Cramped Hallway: New York Comic Con 2014

What was it like? We return to the scene of the crime, in this case NYCC 2014, where Michael D. Stewart writes, "I have a confession. I like New York Comic Con. But I don’t love it."

I have a confession. I like New York Comic Con. But I don’t love it.

That’s not to say that the four day-plus celebration of geek culture is a bad show – it’s a great show in many respects – but between the crushing mass of humanity that descends on the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, a terribly designed building, and the behavior of some con attendees, it can be a difficult popculture event to experience.

Really my biggest complaint is the location, and it colors much of my enthusiasm for the show. The Javits Center expresses architect James Ingo Freed’s disdain for the ways humans congregate. It’s a maze-like compound on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen of cramped hallways, unexpected stairs, and escalators. It lacks aligned floor space and a sufficient amount of bathrooms for the types of gathering it’s meant to hold. Last year New York Comic Con stretched the Javits Center to its 840,000 square feet seams. That’s why a number of convention events happened off site this year.

“There’s only so much more growth we’re going to have within these walls,” Lance Fensterman, who runs New York Comic Con for ReedPOP, told The Wall Street Journal. And with 151,000 tickets sold, New York Comic Con needs the space as it tries to ascend to the top of popculture gatherings.

Superheroes mingle with ordinary mortals at Comic Con 2014 (photo by Michael D. Stewart)

Attendance grows each year, and this year many noted that it sold more tickets than San Diego Comic-Con International. But Comic-Con has been forced to cap attendance at 130,000 because of its own issues with space and capacity at the San Diego Convention Center. Also, the math around New York Comic Con’s 151,000 is a little fuzzy.

That’s 151,000 tickets sold, meaning that someone could buy two one-day tickets for separate days and thus be counted twice while in fact only one person attended. It’s a difference in counting methods. San Diego counts each person. New York counts each ticket sold. There’s nothing wrong with either method, it’s just that both require context. What doesn’t require context is New York Comic Con’s amazing growth. It won’t displace San Diego Comic-Con International’s status as the very pinnacle of pop culture, but the east coast-based festival of all things geek is certainly a must attend show.

The unprecedented demand and rapid sellout, to the frustration of many convention hopefuls, only adds to the hype. It’s also a convention like San Diego that has become more and more about everything other than comic books – the “comic” in Comic Con.

It covers all of geek culture’s manifestations – science fiction, fantasy and horror-related TV, movies, video games, toys and to a smaller extent comic books. They are still the foundation for New York Comic Con, just like in San Diego too, but as the larger aspects of popculture continue to overshadow the source of geek culture, the comic in Comic Con loses meaning year after year.

In previous years I’ve complained about New York Comic Con moving Artists Alley – where comic creators are mainly situated – to the furthest reaches of the Javits Center. “If the major conventions are slowly divorcing themselves from comics, then the location of Artist’s Alley at this year’s New York Comic Con was part of the trial separation,” I pithily wrote in a 2012 Iconography. But despite my snarky complaint, the move was a wise one. With so many people attending this year, it was actually one of the better parts of the experience to have it separated from the rest of the convention.

It meant that if you’re a comic book fan, you could avoid the nearly impassable main show floor. It meant you could navigate away from the main throngs of cos-players, whom I love but who take up vast amounts of prime real estate to show off their amazing comic book, video game, movie and TV inspired costumes.

Cos-players to me are a quintessential part of any comic con, but to some (not me) they’re a nuisance.

Not too long ago there were some disparaging takes on cos-players attendance of comic-cons, blaming the costume-clad fans for everything from lack of creator sales to diminished product launches to slowing floor traffic to encouraging harassment. That’s a lot blame to level at fans, the actual point of conventions, because without fan demand the industries that cater to geek culture wouldn’t exist.

Having met numerous cos-players, I have nothing but respect for them. I find it terrible that anyone would criticize someone’s expression of fandom. People like what they like and are entitled to express that fandom in whatever constructive way they want.

The attention to detail in some of the costumes is inspiring. I believe without any hint of irony or snark that cos-playing is an art form. It is a merging of comic book art and fashion design. It’s the manifesting of imagination. It’s a pure and unbridled expression of fandom. I just wish the cos-play photographers and other picture takers would snap quicker and get out of the way when I’m trying to get a $6 cup of coffee.

We must defend cos-players in the news, online, and especially at the conventions themselves. In the wake of reports of groping and sexual harassment of women in costume at other conventions, this year New York Comic Con instituted a specific, strict, and widely promoted anti-harassment policy. “Cos-play is not consent” and “Please keep your hands to yourself” read the signage at various spots at the Javits Center.

While I’m happy to see a formal and declared policy, that such a move was necessary makes me very sad. Having to tell people specifically how they should behave, that they must treat other people with respect shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I had hoped for better from geek culture.

The same culture that created slippers in the vein of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who also can’t keep their hands to themselves. It’s a punch in the gut to see the fans of truth, justice and the American way having to be told not to grope women. Sadly it’s happening and I commend New York Comic Con for putting a spotlight on this atrocious behavior.

But if my only complaints are too many poorly behaved people in an absurdly designed building, then what was I expecting? This is the state of any mass gathering. Oh, there were surprise celebrity appearances – George Clooney! And there were wonderful announcements about new comic books and other things – although Warner Brothers and DC Comics saved its biggest announcement for well after the show. Those things made New York Comic Con feel as important as it was hyped to be. And while I’ll continually complain about the Javit’s Center and the panic inducing crowds, that’s my own problem and well out of New York Comic Con’s control. Try finding another facility that could accommodate 151,000 geek culture enthusiasts with a fairly convenient mass transit system? Not easy to find.

So I’ll conclude by saying this: I like you, New York Comic Con, but I’m not ready to love you, just yet.

Splash image from New York Comic Con.com.

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