Building a Better Comic Con: A Discussion on Improving One of America’s Biggest Cons

By and | June 11th, 2014
Posted in Columns | % Comments

With New York Comic Con Special Edition this weekend and San Diego Comic Con International on the horizon, the con season is in full swing, and Multiversity is all over it. Today, we’re looking at the burgeoning world of comic conventions in a series of three pieces, one from a fan perspective, one from a sheer numbers perspective, and then a discussion piece on how to we think one of the biggest cons could stand to improve. Take a look, and make sure to share your thoughts on the world of comic conventions in the comments.

After discussions of comic conventions from both the fan and the numbers perspectives, we thought it would be fun to wrap up our day of convention chat with talking about how we would improve one of the country’s largest conventions, New York Comic Con.

Please note that this was completed before the announcement of “New York Super Week,” not that the announcement changes anything we discussed.

David Harper: After two pieces looking at where comic conventions are at, both from a fan and a financial/success standpoint, Brian and I decided we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to envision what we think would help make cons even better, and to do that, we’re specifically going to look at what is considered one of the more problematic cons and one that Brian and I have both been at multiple times: New York Comic Con.

You talked about this already in your fan piece, but before we jump into what our best case scenario would be, I wanted to see what your thoughts on NYCC are already. So, Brian, what do you think of NYCC as it currently stands?

Brian Salvatore: Well, let me start off by saying this: I think, for its size and its location, NYCC does pretty well for itself. Many of the problems stem from the fact that, quite frankly, it is too successful. It has outgrown its current space, the Jacob Javits Center, but has no logical place to move to – the next best options are either in neighboring New Jersey, or the outer borough of Queens, and neither of those make as much sense, in terms of convenience, cache, or feasibility.

That said, the con has a number of areas it could clearly improve upon, from capping its number of participants to arranging the building in a way more conducive to thousands of people traveling to the same destinations. I think Reed Pop, the parent company, does a good job of bringing in top-notch talent, of providing a diverse convention experience, and using comics-adjacent pop culture to enhance the size, scope, and presence of the con (whether or not that is ultimately a good thing can be debated).

I have been to NYCC four times in its current state, and each year has grown bigger, although not necessarily better. My first year, almost every panel was accessible to all who wanted to check it out. Now, most “big” panels fill up hours before they even start, while smaller panels languish with just a few participants. Artist Alley continues to be superb, with artists and fans praising the set up, as well as the remarkable number of artists that manage to be a part of it. In fact, NYCC’s Artist Alley is bigger than many cons around the country.

So, when you take the sheer size of the convention, I think it does about as well as it could.

What is your opinion on the NYCC experience?

David: I’ve only gotten two runs at it, and both times – I must admit – were thrown off a bit by things not related to NYCC itself, but I have to say, more than any con I’ve ever been to, I feel like I’m part of a herd. There are times where you basically just have to give up and just be one with the herd, but for the most part it’s a hell of a slog to fight through. Part of it is overcrowding, like you suggested, and part of it is poor design and management of crowds, I fear. That’s my biggest issue, besides the fact that it apparently is not humanly possible for their escalators to keep working throughout the weekend.

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The biggest issues I’ve heard from others are from creators and from other attendees. On the creator side, I’ve talked to several who look at it sort of like they look at SDCC – comics second, everything else first – and have mentioned things like ReedPop letting exhibitors in before the start, but they can’t get in to get to their tables first. That’s crazy if true, and honestly, creators should come first at these things.

The other comes from the uproar about the mistreatment of women at the con. While ECCC is progressive with their handling of harassment and SDCC is scrutinized heavily, but there hasn’t been much said on the negative side as to how women are treated there. NYCC? There have been some pretty high profile incidents of dudes being really damn sketchy, harassing cosplayers, running embarrassing as all hell interviews, and generally acting like the skeevy losers many people think male comic fans are. That’s a substantial issue.

The magnificent Artist Alley at NYCC 2013

But overall, the Artist Alley set up at NYCC is maybe my single favorite thing at any con, the staff from ReedPop is endlessly helpful, and it really is a lot of fun even once you get through the madness. So it’s flawed, but like you said, it does pretty well for itself.

This isn’t about backhanded compliments though. This is about us – two average Joe’s who double as press and con goers – taking a look and thinking about how we could make things better. So let’s start with number one: what do you think the most important fix for the con would be?

Brian: Before I get to my fixes, I want to comment on two things you said: first of all, I’ve actually heard a few creators really praise ReedPop for two things: they say that at their cons, they have ample space to display their work – one creator told me that a con he was just at only gave four feet per artist in Artist Alley – and that ReedPop actually attracts one of the most art-friendly crowds, and that original art sells very, very well at their cons.

Secondly, I think the treatment of women at NYCC is incredibly despicable, but I don’t know how much of that is an NYCC problem versus a “what happens when too many people are confined to a space that isn’t built for that many people” problem. Not that crowds instantly lead to sexual assault/creepiness, but when there is that throng of people, it can be harder to effectively police the area for all sorts of bad behavior, sexual or not. Of course, that isn’t an excuse to do nothing, but rather another reason that capping the number of visitors at a lower number might be a prudent action, for the safety and well-being of all involved, or come up with a better system of policing the group.

To me, the most important fix for the con would be one that deals with the constant start/stop motion of the crowd: a dedicated place for cosplay photography.

I know cosplay can be a controversial subject, but I think that anyone who goes to enough cons knows that cosplay it is an integral part of the modern con experience. The dedication and artistry of the cosplayers is truly something to behold. That said, people stopping and asking for photos delays just about every walk you take through a convention floor. It is disruptive and frustrating, both to the people trying to get around and, I would presume, to the cosplayer who is trying to get to a panel or over to a booth for a signing.

My solution is one that both celebrates the cosplayers and allows for folks to get photos of them: the cosplay red carpet. Dedicate a portion of the convention center, get a nice sponsored backdrop (or get creative and have various fun backdrops to choose from – Gotham City, Atlantis, etc), and give the cosplayers a place to be the stars of the con. Let them walk the red carpet like models and celebrities, and let fans act as paparazzi, snapping photos along the way. Perhaps even set up a different backdrop in different areas of the con, and limit photos to those areas. This will do two things – first of all, it will cut way down on the creep factor, as everyone will know their photograph is being taken, and it will give the cosplayers a chance to enjoy the con on their terms.

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What would be your first change?

David: My first change would tie into something we’ve already mentioned a good bit here, and that’s something to curb the harassment issues. Emerald City ComiCon seems to be the place to emulate, as in 2014 they took a highly public and lauded zero tolerance approach to harassment of any kind. As you said, with the volume of people at NYCC, it’s much more difficult to police, but drawing a hard line and asking attendees to report anything would be a big step. Honestly, I think if you say “get busted once, you’re banned for life” you might get a different response, and for those guys who were using press passes to be creepsters on cosplaying women? I wouldn’t just ban them from my con, I’d pass their information onto all the other cons and events in the area to make sure they are globally 86’d.

It’s extremely hard to police these things, but I think attendees need to feel like there will be some sort of sanctions against those who make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. A hardening of harassment policies is important for ReedPop’s reputation, for the safety of their attendees, and for the overall health of con culture, and I would not be the least bit surprised to see a strong move in that direction with this year’s NYCC.

What do you have next for something you’d like to see?

The crowd at NYCC in 2011

Brian: I would like to see the publishers and exhibitors use the 100,000+ people as guinea pigs for some really fun stuff, or at least use that as breeding ground for new fans. DC and Marvel should be giving every person walking through that door a free sampler, a code for a pack of free digital comics, something! It is amazing how many fans of comic culture aren’t really fans of comics – use that forum to change that.

Or, give them the novel ability to do something fun. Marvel can set up a booth near the front with three big buttons. “Which character would you most like to see get their own NYCC mini-comic next year?,” and let all the attendees push the big buttons, each with a sound effect from each character, and make it totally fun.

Basically, I want the folks that go to the con for everything but the comics to have a true comics related experience.

David: I love the idea of the free sampler or the digital codes! That’s a great idea! They could even incorporate the code onto people’s passes, with each level of pass getting a different amount of comics. One-day pass? You get 10 great comics from Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc. Two-day? You get 20. Three-day? 30! I think they did some sort of variation on that last year, but every big publisher AND comiXology are at the con. It seems like that’s a huge miss that they aren’t doing something like that.

This ties into the spacing issue, but one thing I’d love to see is more designated rest areas. The NYCC experience sometime reminds me of going to a really busy mall sometimes, where you have all the mall rats sitting on the floor randomly because why not, except in this situation they are dressed up as an anime character. When you go to NYCC, there just aren’t that many places a person can really relax for a little bit, and it’s a pretty exhausting experience. Having some designated chill areas with real seating I think could be important to improving the overall experience of attendees, and you could even tie that into your designated cosplay areas. I know for me personally, I love pairing my relaxation time with people watching. Cosplay people watching is apex people watching, and this way you could get the best of both worlds: relaxation time for one side, attention time for the other.

I feel like I could go all day with this Brian, We need to start our own con, apparently.

Brian: Rest areas are a great idea. My final big idea would be to showcase the artists at Artist Alley a little more. As you mentioned, the NYCC Artist Alley is basically Mecca for comics fans – a stunning array of talent inhabits that side room, and I could easily spend ten thousand dollars in an hour on original art.

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But, sadly, many fans never even make it over to Artist Alley – so, let’s entice them. Put a table near the front of the Javits Center, or the front of the show floor, and every hour, let a different Artist Alley creator display their work, do a sketch or a signing, and point out that, after that hour, the creator will be in Artist Alley for the rest of the weekend. Use the crowd’s time in line or going up the escalator (which, as David points out, is probably already broken) to get a glimpse of where the hear of the con is, and to entice them over there.

David: I like that. I think encouraging more people to make it to Artist Alley is a great idea, although sometimes you can’t really force it, sadly. I think it’d be really cool to have more art related functions in the halls, like have a live art show where top artists from Artist Alley create their work live in front of everyone, and use that as a way to say, “Like this? Check out Artist Alley!” It’s super crowded at NYCC, but having gone to a live art show at ECCC in a packed to the brim bar, I know it’s possible to do these things in condensed spaces, and it would be a super cool and unique way to encourage people to check out comic art.

Besides that, there are a few things I think they could do to improve. Cut the shenanigans in forcing tweets on celebrity and press accounts about how excited they are about NYCC (I still can’t believe they did that). Really take a hard look at the data they supposedly collected with the new chips in their passes to help streamline routes and cut down on bottlenecks. Find more ways to put the comic back in the comic con. Give more food cart options in the area in front of the Javits Center (and I don’t mean the sketchy meat spots).

There are lots of issues, but as you pointed out, it’s already well run – generally speaking – and it’s clearly hugely successful. That success causes many of their issues, but like with anything, they just need to figure out ways to clean up those problems and turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Brian: NYC hasn’t quite become a food cart mecca yet (due to some weird draconian policies, as well as some well-intentioned ones, like making the carts easier to obtain if you’re a veteran), but I can concur with all of this.

A thought hit me, David, as I was reading your last response: how lucky are we as fans right now?

Sure, these cons are far from perfect, but I can’t imagine how excited 12 year old Brian would have been if I got to go to the current day NYCC. I grew up going to comic shows in VFWs and hotel ballrooms – to see people walking around in great-looking Iron Man costumes and getting to meet George Perez, shit, that sounds like something from my 1994 dream journal.

Sure, we can work to create better cons, but what we have is pretty astounding, isn’t it?

David: You’re telling me, man. Think about it: new cons are popping up like crazy, the big cons are bringing in tens of thousands of fans and millions in economic impact, and con culture is a vibrant, perpetually evolving thing. When I was a kid, I went to Orlando MegaCon and did just that – met George Perez – and it blew my mind! Now you can go to a con and there are so many options of people to meet and see, you could come across a legend like Perez with no one at his table. One has to wonder if it’s a bubble, but that would be like saying fandom is a bubble, and I’m not sure you could make a very good argument for that.

All of this gloriousness, and I live in Alaska where we don’t have a con of any variety. Maybe I need to make that happen? I might need to go into the con running business, Brian. Would you come to The Great Alaska Comic Con?

Brian: For you, David? I’d Skype in.

Kidding – let’s do it!

Brian Salvatore

Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).


David Harper

David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).