In the world of comics, July means only one thing: it’s time for the San Diego Comic-Con International, North America’s biggest and loudest festival of all things pop culture. Held this year July 18–22 at the San Diego Convention Center, it’s once again expected to draw some 130,000 attendees and an unknown number of onlookers who will flood the streets of the Gaslamp District with spectacular costumes, elaborate installations, and highly sought-after giveaways.
While SDCC remains the biggest showcase for comics, over the past decade the hype about its star power and promotional influence has rubbed off on other comics events, leading to an explosion in the number and variety of comic cons. In recent years the number of comics-related events has grown to thousands of annual events, from giant pop culture conventions that can draw more than 100,000 fans to cons and festivals held in local library branches. But even these library shows are growing, with some drawing thousands of patrons.
And it’s not just in the U.S.: the influence of the American comic con experience has gone international, with pop culture events now held everywhere, from Paris to Shanghai to Buenos Aires. Even a culturally conservative country such as Saudi Arabia now has a comic con where young people regardless of gender are allowed to dress up in comics costumes and mingle.
Far from being the specialized gatherings for rabid fans they were once, comic cons are now a popular destination for people of all ages, genders, and media interests. For some, it’s a family activity, for others a rite of passage to see a favorite creator or a chance to display (or cosplay) elaborate costumes. And, oh, yes, it’s still a chance for publishers to market and promote their graphic novels and cartoonists.
A Glut of Comics Conventions
More kinds of organizations are organizing comics conventions than ever before. In the last decade, CCI (Comic-Con International, which puts on the San Diego con and its sister show, WonderCon, held every spring in Anaheim, Calif.) and the long running Wizard World convention slate have been joined by ReedPOP (New York Comic Con), Informa (Fan Expo in Canada), Leftfield (Awesome Con in Washington, D.C.), and such newer entities as Ace Comic Con and Fandemic, which focus on celebrity-driven autograph shows around the country and feature less comics content. Add in the growing number of smaller comic arts festivals—such as TCAF in Toronto and MoCCA and CAB in New York—that focus on literary comics and indie creators, and an increasing number of events being held in libraries, and you have an overwhelming schedule of events.
Indeed, the expanding comics convention schedule is beginning to tax publisher budgets while turning comics creators into a hardened (and often exhausted) group of road warriors who must trek to a different city every weekend.
As more and more events flood the schedule, publishers and creators alike are developing new strategies for dealing with the demands for their time. And the conventions are beginning to evolve, some developing business models to stay above the pack of newly launched shows, while others, including many poorly planned and financed events, are becoming synonymous with disaster, poor attendance, canceled events, and disappointed fans.
“The number of cons has really exploded over the last five years,” says Martha Donato, president of MAD Events Management, which puts on the Long Beach Comic Con every September, along with other shows. “It’s [become] every city, every weekend, all year, globally.”
Even for a location such as Long Beach, Calif., close to many West Coast comics publishers, the competition for guest artists and publisher-exhibitors has become fierce, she says. “A much bigger percentage of our time, energy, and resources are now devoted to getting exhibitors to attend,” she adds. “Talent and their publishers have many more offers than they could ever accept, even if they wanted to.”
Donato’s show gets support from publishers in Los Angeles, including Top Cow and Aspen, but even loyal exhibitors have to pick and choose. “Publishers are facing a deluge of opportunities and they can afford to be choosy,” says Donato. “There’s a lot of saying no.”
San Diego Is King, But…
Despite the con explosion, for most publishers, SDCC is still a must-do. Portland’s Oni Press will exhibit at SDCC this year, and editor-in-chief James Lucas Jones says the show is still an essential stop on the Oni calendar. “It’s still the big show, and while it’s not the same kind of comics focus that it once was, comics are still there. I know everybody complains about it being a big headache, but that’s just because it’s the easy target,” because of its size and logistical demands.
Nevertheless, competition from other pop culture events is making some publishers reconsider whether they need to go to San Diego. Manga house Yen Press (a joint venture between Hachette and Japanese publisher Kadokawa) and its publisher, Kurt Hassler, will break a 17-year streak of going to SDCC in 2018, but given that the biggest manga/anime show of the year, Anime Expo, held in L.A., is only a few weeks earlier, it made sense.
“There is a glut of conventions, and now AX has grown so much that I can’t ignore it,” Hassler says. “Whereas if Yen is missing from San Diego, fewer people are going to notice. We’ve got to be practical about it.”
While the number of manga/anime shows hasn’t quite had the boom that regular comic cons have, they are growing, too. “Shows that used to have 10,000 attendees now have 30,000,” says Hassler, but like other publishers, he has to carefully consider which shows to attend.
Hassler also wants to focus on getting more international exposure: “We need to build our international presence as we expand to be the worldwide distributor for the English-language versions of our books. We’re looking at shows in England and Canada, and possibly beyond, to Saudi Arabia or Malaysia.”
Cartoonist Spike Trotman, owner and publisher of Iron Circus Comics, has grown her business from a small one-woman house that adeptly utilized crowdfunding, to an indie press distributed by Consortium Books with multiple award-winning books, such as Melanie Gillman’s As the Crow Flies, which recently was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the ALA. She’s going to San Diego this year, but not as an exhibitor.
Trotman says that exhibiting in a lot of shows early in her career helped build an audience and sell her books. But now she has to take a hard look at the economics of each show. “It’s strictly monetary and return on investment,” she says, about how she decides which shows will be on her schedule as a publisher exhibitor. “We might spend $4,000 for a table and to fly in our authors for the American Library Association meeting, but over the next few months I get book orders for $40,000.” Although she still loves small comics festivals like CXC in Columbus, Ohio, and SPX in Bethesda, Md., currently she’s focusing on building relationships with distributors and retailers. “We want to become part of their buying routine, and that means getting out there and shaking hands.”
San Diego remains an important place for business meetings and making connections in the media world, but “it hasn’t been a place to sell books for publishers of my size for quite some time,” Trotman says. “The point [of exhibiting now] is to meet the right people and get your name out there, not sitting behind a table and selling books.”
More Kinds of Shows; More Decisions
For the literary comics publisher Drawn Quarterly in Montreal, a variety of different kinds of shows compete for its attendance. DQ attends San Diego as well as comic arts festivals, library shows, and book festivals. But for every segment, the press has been forced to become more selective, according to publisher Peggy Burns.
“We still go to San Diego because we make money and it’s a very supportive show,” she says, adding that SDCC is responsive to their needs, which many other shows aren’t. “They’re willing to do whatever it takes to support the comics publishers.”
DQ has attended SDCC for many years, commands a prime location on the show floor, and has built up a loyal fan base. “There’s always a core group of fans who are just very happy to see us there,” she says, but every show brings a new mix. “Two years ago Lisa Hanawalt (Bojack Horseman) was a guest, and we had a posse of fan girls in their 20s who would come up to her and freak out.”
DQ has a busy schedule of smaller comics arts festivals as well. But the rising number of shows in the small press literary space has also taxed its resources, and the company has even cut back on book festivals. “I think we felt the fatigue probably quicker than most publishers because we are located in Montreal and it’s just expensive for us to fly anywhere,” she says.
For now, Burns says, she looks at how every show DQ is invited to fits with the season’s forthcoming books. Even if it doesn’t set up as an exhibitor, it’s willing to work with smaller festivals such as Comic Arts Brooklyn (CAB) in New York and CXC in Columbus to send specific authors. Part of DQ’s decreased exhibition schedule is due to how it tours authors. “In 2017, we sent out 10 to 12 authors, most of them on full-scale tours,” Burns explains. “We would much rather send our authors on the road, which can be much more valuable then exhibiting at a con.”
Because so many DQ authors are high profile, they also get invited to many international shows, and it’s a balancing act to decide when authors are available to travel. Any change in the timing of convention schedules can also make it more difficult on the authors. Thought Bubble is a highly respected comics art festival held in Leeds, England, but the show moved from November, a relatively light month for conventions, to September, “right in the middle of the convention season in North America, which makes it harder for us to attend,” Burns says.
On the Road Instead of Drawing and Writing
The wear and tear of traveling over what has become a yearlong convention season also affects how publishers work with their talent, since conventions have become a separate revenue stream for many artists. For instance, famed, well-known comics artists can sell sketches, and equally acclaimed comics writers are starting to charge for autographs. Some artists can make thousands of dollars from setting up at cons, and as these shows compete for their attendance, comics creators are beginning to demand guaranteed appearance fees. More cons are also starting to offer modest per diems for creators. (San Diego Comic-Con is run by a nonprofit and does not pay appearance fees, although the show does pay per diems and travel expenses for guests.)
Donato confirmed that many creators are beginning to ask for appearance fees, so they can weed out the convention organizers who aren’t serious. “But it also changes the economics of the business,” she says. While it adds to her expenses, she’s philosophical about the changes. “I think it was inevitable. And until there’s a different business emphasis, that’s the way it’s going to have to be.”
Even for the biggest comics publishers, the ever-increasing number of shows has become an exhausting concern. DC Entertainment publisher Dan DiDio says, “we struggle with conventions almost every day here, both where we attend and who among our talent is attending. With the demand being placed on so much of our talent, it’s starting to impact a lot of our product.”
DC’s other publisher and chief creative officer, Jim Lee (who is also one of DC’s most popular artists), has even more experience at conventions in his long career, first as one of the most famous artists in the comics business, and now as an executive. His insight is unique into how the convention scene has changed.
Lee agrees that generating revenue at comics and pop culture shows has become the standard for many of his creator peers. “They aren’t drawing comics, but they’re selling on the con circuit. It’s become a viable platform for revenue,” he says.
Convention organizers are increasingly paying to bring in the top comics creators, and offering services like that of the company CGC, which certifies the condition of collectible comics, making them much more valuable on the secondary market, and VIP packages, as well as show-exclusive variant covers. “It all feeds into the convention ecosystem,” says Lee.
Lee is well aware that the allure of the convention circuit is taking creators away from the drawing table. However, publishers are “not their parents or their business managers. But I think it’s shortsighted to think that this explosion of shows and demand for collectibles will remain the same. Creators will figure out what the water level is and how to manage their time.”
Lee is drawing on personal experience. When he cofounded Image Comics in the 1990s, comics sales were at a modern high, and million-copy print runs of traditional periodical comic books were the norm. That period resulted in a speculator/collectible bubble and ended with a comics market crash. “I remember looking around in the ’90s and thinking, ‘Wow, this is crazy!’ And it ended very dramatically and quickly.”
DiDio notes that the worldwide nature of the business is also influencing creators’ work rate. “We see our talent from Brazil or Spain coming to the U.S. for conventions, and that takes them away from work for an extended period of time.”
It’s an ongoing balance for DC. “We’re trying to work much more closely with our talent,” DiDio says. “We’re not trying to discourage anyone from doing shows, but we just want them to use some common sense about how many shows it’s really feasible for them to attend.”
DC currently exhibits at only three comic cons—SDCC, New York Comic Con, and WonderCon—although editors and publishers may attend many other events. “Personally, I believe we should be at the shows where our talents are to help support [creators] and show the connection between what they do and our product,” DiDio says.
DC will still have one of the biggest booths on the exhibition floor at SDCC, a traditional anchor-exhibitor to the comics side of the show. “We want to make that connection between creators and our product,” says DiDio. “That’s priority one.”
Conventions still provide a great means of promotion, Lee says, but with the competition for media attention at the three major shows DC attends, “we have to be very judicious in what we decide to launch and promote.”
The Endless Convention Season
Adding to the pressure, DC is also looking at attending more shows outside the traditional comics convention markets as the publisher launches new graphic novel imprints aimed more at the bookstore market. In an effort to reach new readers in the changing North American comics marketplace, DC has announced the launch of the Black Label imprint for adult readers, and DC Zoom and DC Ink for the middle grade and YA markets, respectively. DC will be going to many events to decide which are the most effective to reach new readers and buyers, says DiDio. “We’ll attend as many shows as possible and do a postmortem to see what’s the best bang for our buck.”
Oni’s James Lucas Jones echoes the concerns about the wear and tear on staff and freelancers. “The hardest part is that there’s no end to con season,” he says. “It just goes on forever. With our expansion into related markets, like tabletop gaming, we’ve added even more shows, and now our last show of the year is December and then we’re back in it for Emerald City at the beginning of March. There’s no downtime anymore.”
Jones is also concerned about creators who become road warriors. “Obviously, going out and meeting fans to increase awareness of your project is a big deal. Even with the internet, it’s a big opportunity to make connections with people and to find new readers. But at the same time, if you’re sitting behind a table [at a comics show] you’re not drawing pages or writing scripts. That’s not great.”
Creators increasingly have to set priorities. DQ artist Lisa Hanawalt is an example of a creator who has to juggle her time, says Burns. Although her new graphic novel, Coyote Doggirl, will be debuting at this year’s SDCC, she won’t be attending because she’s busy working on Tuca Bertie, an animated TV show she’s producing, which is set to debut on Netflix.
For some publishers, the revenue stream from selling books at shows is another consideration. Top Cow, an Image Comics studio, located in Los Angeles, is notable for the huge number of shows it attends. Top Cow exhibits both as a company and with its president/COO Matt Hawkins, who often sets up individually in the artist alley; Hawkins also writes a number of Top Cow’s bestselling titles, among them Postal and Swing!
Hawkins echoes industry concerns that there are just too many comic cons, citing a recent three-week period during which Top Cow exhibited at five shows, including three in a row himself. “It’s exhausting, but we do really well on the road and it helps build our fan base,” he says. “I feel there is more noise and competition online. When you’re standing there at a show, you can have a conversation with someone and make them a long-term fan.” Hawkins finds that targeting smaller and midsize shows can be more effective than going to all the biggest events. “At Denver Comic Con, our team sold 600 books,” he says.
But he’s still open to adding new events. Hawkins cites the Three Rivers Comic Con, a relatively under-the-radar show he attended in Pittsburgh, as a pleasant surprise. “I had a good time, sold some books, and a lot of new talent turned up.”
Is a Convention Shakeout Coming?
So what does the future hold for the convention business? Everyone PW talked to agrees that there are too many comics shows. A few events are cutting back—Phoenix Fan Fusion, renamed from Phoenix Comic-Con, recently announced it is shutting down a fall show, and some conventions are finding that they are on shaky financial ground as fan dollars are stretched thin and attendance is cannibalized by an ever increasing number of shows in a single market. But the expansion still hasn’t stopped. Pop Culture Classroom, the organizers of the Denver Comic Con, just added a show in Reno, Nev.
Donato believes that a new model for pop culture events will take shape over time, but warns, “Some of the shows are going to have to go away. We’re beyond oversaturation at this point.”
Yet, while warning that a crash may be looming, Donato is still focusing on expanding into other areas of pop culture presentation, including C3, the Comic Creator Conference, a creator-focused business conference that offers career development. “Right now the creative community seems to need a place to go to meet with other like-minded people, and that can’t happen in a public show/consumer environment,” Donato says.
She notes that at the biggest shows, it’s the increasing media presence—whether movies, TV, or video games—that is changing the pop culture convention model for good. “I don’t think that a standalone comics-only show is going to exist in the future, which is unfortunate. That’s why I’m trying to bring in the creator [business] side.”
And with continued reports of substandard events—the incidence of new, often poorly organized shows that fail, leaving fans and creators in the lurch, is also increasing—Donato foresees the establishment of some kind of “better con bureau” that can validate which shows and organizers are financially responsible and competently organized—although this remains only theoretical.
David Glanzer, CCI chief communications and strategy officer, hasn’t heard of any movements for a professional convention organization, but tells PW it’s an idea worth exploring. “With our two shows [SDCC and WonderCon], we try to produce a show that we would want to attend, and we [try to encourage show runners] who have that same mind-set and are striving for a certain amount of quality.”
Although the convention market crash Donato predicts may be coming, the market’s not quite there yet. Indeed, for many artists, publishers, and fans, attending comic cons has become a lifestyle. Hawkins jokes that when his youngest son eventually goes off to college, he and his wife may get an RV and just travel to conventions year-round. “I’m a writer,” he jokes, “and I can still work on the road.”