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Nationwide popularity of comics confabs spawns new event

Most superheroes fly, swing and crawl through the streets of New York City — or a city very much like it — because it is home to the industry that created them.

But until last year, the lack of a major comicbook convention in the field’s backyard seemed a glaring oversight. These days, with more than 100,000 fans flocking to Comic-Con Intl. in San Diego (which leverages its proximity to Hollywood to attract major-studio presentations) and shows around the country racking up record attendance, such conventions are big business.

Enter New York Comic Con, which organizer Reed Exhibitions (a sister company to Daily Variety parent Reed Business Information) debuted last year to intense buzz and overwhelming crowds. While its attendance of 33,000 was but a fraction of what the San Diego event draws, the high interest in the show catapulted it to the upper echelons of the growing comicbook convention scene.

Reed Exhibitions group VP Greg Topalian says the show originated while he was running Book Expo America. With graphic novels the fastest-growing segment of the book industry, it seemed natural to host a comics show that serves fans and the trade, and New York was the obvious place to do it.

“The advantages of New York are manyfold,” he says. “One is the sheer population size. You can get good attendance numbers just because of the size of the city. The comic publishing world and the book-publishing world are there. It allows an element of book publishing business to occur at the show. And it is a huge media market.”

As a major trade-show organizer, Reed brought resources that the comics industry lacks, and the latter enthusiastically received the company’s proposal.

“Having a New York show is a great thing for the medium and for the industry as a whole,” says Marvel Comics publisher Dan Buckley.

“It was a no-brainer and something that should have been done a long time ago,” adds Chris Staros of indie publisher Top Shelf.

The first show was arguably a victim of its own success. On Saturday, typically the busiest day of any convention, ticket sales were suspended and hall access restricted. Hundreds of fans, exhibitors and media waited in long lines to enter. Many who had bought tickets left, unable to get in.

This year’s exhibit floor will be twice as large, and the confab has been carefully watching ticket sales to help control crowds and limit lines. The con stopped selling Saturday-only tickets early this month.

New York demonstrates how strong the demand is for comicbook shows. San Diego is the unassailable king of the hill, followed by a circuit of shows including the four-city Wizard World tour; Comic-Con Intl.’s sister show WonderCon; independent shows such as MegaCon, Baltimore Comic-Con and HeroesCon; local fan-run shows; and events focused on the small press.

Wizard’s Chicago event is the second largest in the business, drawing 58,000 attendees last summer, while its Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles shows attracted 127,500 in 2006. Rob Felton, Wizard Entertainment VP for business development, says Wizard’s shows are part of “a continuous conversation” between its audience and its business partners, furthered by the company’s magazine and Web-based ventures.

Wizard shows have been criticized recently for repetitive programming focused almost exclusively on Marvel and DC. A 2005 Boston show was discontinued after one outing, and efforts to set up an Atlanta show have not materialized. Felton says the company has heard those criticisms and plans to address them in its upcoming shows.

WonderCon was taken over by the nonprofit management of the San Diego show in 2002 and moved from Oakland to San Francisco. The show drew 18,500 last year but faces a problem common to all shows: securing venue dates that don’t conflict with another such con.

“It’s really up to the convention center what days they make available to us,” says David Glanzer, spokesman for Comic-Con Intl. and WonderCon. “The most frustrating thing for us, especially in San Francisco, is we can’t block out dates as far in advance as we’d like to, and there’s a whole convention circuit out there that we have to be aware of.”

(Smaller conventions and themed events, such as “Star Trek” gatherings, fill a different niche. Bruce Schwartz has been running the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Conventions since 1977. His shows offer a more intimate experience, he says: “It’s more the acoustic version of a show.”)

Industry giants Marvel and DC are used to attending cons to interact with fans, bring their creators together and do some business. DC Comics president and publisher Paul Levitz says he hopes the New York show can one day live up to the reputation of the Comic Art Conventions of the 1970s.

For smaller publishers, conventions are essential venues for selling books. “It’s kind of based on the simple principle of ‘They don’t call it the small press for nothing,’ ” says Staros, whose indie outfit Top Shelf exhibits at more than 20 cons a year. “You tend to make your fans one at a time.”

While most Hollywood studios save their biggest presentations for San Diego, Lionsgate has been prolific in using cons to promote its slate of genre film and DVD releases. Observers such as Marvel’s Buckley predict more studios will come to New York as the show establishes itself.

Many comics creators find cons invigorating, but attending too many can be expensive and takes time away from writing and drawing. “Can it be a challenge for popular creators who are being invited to a dozen conventions? Absolutely. But that’s where you pick and choose,” says veteran comics writer and novelist Peter David.

Topalian says that while he is unsure when the New York show will turn a profit, Reed has long-range plans for the event, which will move to April in 2008. “It’s something we definitely look at as a long-term investment,” he says. “If it’s helping the business, and the people who participate are successful, then we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”

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