China Is the Latest Market for Comic-con Organizers to Conquer

Julie Makinen
British actor and singer Luke Evans at the Shanghai Convention and Exhibition Center on May 16, 2015. (Marcio Machado/Zuma Press/TNS)
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Forty-five years after Comic-Con International launched as a little gathering in San Diego, later exploding into a pop-culture juggernaut spawning dozens of similar events around the US, the phenomenon is going global.

SHANGHAI — Two sexy female Captain Americas, a Superman, a Catwoman and Japanese anime schoolgirls come to life were milling around the second floor of the Shanghai Convention & Exhibition Center when Yang Wanjing emerged from a curtained booth, trembling.

Unlike many of her counterparts at the first Shanghai Comic Convention, she had decided to forgo a costume. But the 23-year-old automotive quality-control clerk nevertheless was living out her personal fantasy, plunking down $115 — 20 percent of her monthly salary — for a fleeting meeting with her idol, Mads Mikkelsen of the NBC show “Hannibal.”

Bashfully clutching photographic proof of her star encounter (“I look terrible next to him,” she lamented), Yang struggled to compose herself. She seemed unsure of whether she had just made the best decision of her life — or the worst.

“All fans are idiots, in a way,” she said, laughing at her profligate ways. “We will do anything to meet him, to talk to him, even for a few seconds.”

Forty-five years after Comic-Con International launched as a little gathering in San Diego, later exploding into a pop-culture juggernaut spawning dozens of similar events around the United States, the phenomenon is going global. And free-spending fans like Yang are making China the newest frontier.

This month, two of the largest American organizers of comic conventions, California-based Wizard World and Connecticut-based ReedPop, launched comic conventions in China.

Hollywood films like “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” have done gangbuster business at the mainland box office and coincided with China’s rise to the second-largest movie market after the U.S. With genre TV shows like “Gotham” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” also finding strong Chinese viewership through online streaming video sites, convention organizers sense a lucrative market just waiting to be tapped.

“I think the latest count is there are 217 cities in China with over a million people,” said Adam Roseman, chief executive of FansTang, a marketing company that specializes in connecting Western celebrities to Chinese fans and that is partnering with Wizard World to produce a comics event in Guangzhou at the end of May. “Our plan is to do two to three events in 2016, and maybe even squeeze another one in this year, at the end of 2015.”

Comic conventions and gaming shows are not new to the mainland; the ChinaJoy gaming show in Shanghai has attracted more than 250,000 people. But with its heavy emphasis on “booth babes,” ChinaJoy has earned the nickname “Chai Nai Zhao,” meaning “tear open the bra,” and some attendees have clamored for less sexually charged events with a better mix of international content and celebrity guests.

The ReedPop-organized Shanghai Comic Convention appealed to ChinaJoy veterans like Huang Luying, 27, a special-effects designer for an online gaming company. Dressed in a green kimono with a blond wig, after the protagonist Ohana Matsumae from the Japanese anime Hanasaku Iroha, she was hoping to buy some English-language comic books.

“In recent years, thanks to the popularity of American TV shows in China, I got to know a lot about American comics, but I’ve never been to a comic-con about them,” said Huang, who already had shopped on Amazon for English-language versions of “The Hobbit,” “The Hunger Games” and the fantasy novel series “A Song of Fire and Ice,” on which “Game of Thrones” is based. “I always feel the TV shows or movies are different from the original books.”

Hong Yimin, 22, a college student majoring in industrial design, got dolled up as a female Captain America for the Shanghai convention, though her costume also revealed a tattoo of her other favorite character, Thor’s brother Loki.

“I became a comic fan about two to three years ago when the first Avengers movie came out,” she said. She learned about characters in the Marvel series and started to look for original TV shows. “All the characters are really fascinating,” said Hong, attending her first comic-con. “I wanted to go to the Comic-Con in San Diego this year, but it was too late and I couldn’t get the tickets. I’ll definitely try next year.”

Lance Fensterman, ReedPop’s senior global vice president, said that the company’s New York Comic Con has attracted a small contingent of Chinese fans — fewer than 1 percent of the 150,000 attendees — and that ReedPop began thinking about a China event as early as four years ago after launching in Singapore. In the last three years, ReedPop has convened shows in Australia, India and France and has plans for events in five other countries, Fensterman said.

In many ways, doing a show in China is the same as anywhere. “Geeks are kind of the same all around the world wherever we go,” Fensterman said. But he noted that “there are limitations around what is OK content-wise with the Chinese government.... You work with the bureau of press and publications to make sure you’re within the guidelines,” particularly on violent or sexual content. He expected to sell 15,000 to 25,000 tickets for Saturday and Sunday at the Shanghai convention.

The Shanghai show featured “Furious 7” and “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” actor Luke Evans and “Gotham” star Robin Lord Taylor. Much to the disappointment of some ticket-holders, “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Lee Pace canceled his appearance, but he is now scheduled to attend the Guangzhou show, along with Paul Wesley of “The Vampire Diaries” and Chloe Bennet from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

In this first year, neither the Guangzhou nor the Shanghai show attracted participation from Hollywood or Chinese film or TV studios, though Roseman said at least two major American studios would be sending representatives to Guangzhou to observe.

Chinese video-streaming services like Youku and LeTV set up large displays touting their American and Japanese content, as did Beijing-based DMG Entertainment, which said in March that it would invest $10 million in New York-based comics publisher Valiant and that it hoped to bring its characters such as Harbinger and X-O Manowar to TV screens and cinemas.

To help foster an atmosphere akin to that at its U.S. shows, ReedPop paid to fly American cosplayers to Shanghai, including Linda Le, 32, of Torrance, who was turning heads in her shiny black Psylocke leotard and spike-heeled boots. She was hawking photographic prints of herself (three for $40) and posing for selfies alongside San Diegans Brianna Nicole, 19, attired as Catwoman, and Nicole Marie Jean, 29, dressed as Wonder Woman.

“It’s cool,” Jean said, “to come halfway around the world and see the same passion from fans.”

* * *

(Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)

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