There’s been a lot of confusion in the New York area lately; when you say “Comic Con,” do you mean New York or Big Apple?
Aren’t they the same thing?
Big Apple Comic Con is kind of a long-standing, low-rent stalwart, a biannual collection of dealers housed in an empty church or on a pier or like this year’s edition, at the Penn Plaza Pavilion. It wasn’t anything spectacular—maybe a special guest or two signing autographs—but it was what it was, a place to pick up back issues at low cost and a lot of other media product, like toys and posters, at possibly inflated cost. A standard convention mix, though I’d be hard-pressed to call it a proper “convention” despite the name; it wasn’t really a social event.
New York Comic Con is a lot newer, and it started out with grand ambitions—to be an East Coast Comic-Con International. They rented out the Jacob Javits Convention Center, filled out the programming slate with tons of programming, and got lots of major companies from various media to exhibit in their “exhibition hall.” And for the most part, it’s worked—the first year broke fire codes and led to a near-riot outside the convention center as people who had pre-registered and people who had not tried to crowd their way into the at-fire-capacity building.
When things started to get really interesting is when Wizard World decided to expand its convention empire to New York City. They had decent success running conventions in Chicago and Philadelphia, buying already-existing conventions in those cities and re-branding them with the “Wizard World” name. Gareb Shamus has been on a real tear lately, buying up shows across the country in places like Connecticut, New Jersey, Nashville, and Cleveland.
When Wizard bought Big Apple Comic Con, it promised to lend a new veneer of respectability to the show. The location was moved to a larger venue at Pier 94, the guest lineup was expanded greatly, and actual programming was added, taking a wider view on pop culture. Last year’s edition might have had its bumps, including bad weather, a hard-to-reach location, and a slate of guests that really only appealed to a small subsection of fandom, but it wasn’t outright bad. At the least, the shopping selection was good, with aisles and aisles of back issue bins at fantastic prices.
What did the greatest service to last year’s Big Apple was that New York Comic Con was in state of dormancy, with 19 months to wait between their last convention in February 2009 and this coming weekend in October 2010. Not only was there no competition, but there was actually a need for something to keep fans occupied in the interim. But then came the shocking announcement, listed on the Big Apple Comic Con program book: the 2010 show was scheduled for the same weekend as New York Comic Con #5. Everyone was stunned, as it was kind of obvious which convention would win the big showdown. Eventually Wizard blinked, and a new date was announced, along with a new location.
So, Big Apple Comic Con 2010. The date change was sensible, and almost sneaky, as placing it a week before the “main event” of New York Comic Con 2010 has led to a lot of confusion between the two. They might have picked up a few extra attendees just based on that confusion alone. But what about the venue change? While hard to get to, Pier 94 was at least clean and spacious, even if the dealer’s room was essentially housed in a warehouse. After walking around the dealer’s room this past weekend, the answer seems obvious: they just wouldn’t have been able to fill the space. Many dealers are saving their time and energy for next weekend’s show, leaving mostly the smaller guys (who probably couldn’t afford NYCC) to fill up a smaller space.
Moving the convention to the Hotel Pennsylvania (a previous location for BACC and frequent site of many other fan events) allowed the programming use of the hotel’s ballrooms, but it also forced the dealers into the Penn Plaza Pavilion, a tight space with low ceilings, made even more unbearable by cramped aisles and the eventual stench of nerd.
As for the dealers themselves, it feels like Big Apple was clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel and then turning a blind eye to their activities. There were a handful of decent back issue dealers, including the surprise presence of Midtown Comics, selling back issues for $0.50 a pop, something I’ve never seen them do before. Most of the dealers traded in trade paperbacks instead, and there were the usual number of toy and poster dealers. Then there were the bootleggers.
Bootlegs aren’t an unusual sight at conventions, though they are becoming more rare as conventions attempt to form good relationships with media producers in order to procure better guests and “sneak peeks” at upcoming product. Even then, what you’ll see are only small selections of things not available legally anywhere, the better to justify selling them. There were at least two tables of that kind of product we spotted, one of whom was also giving away copies of fan films with purchases of $50 or more. It’s an odd moral justification there; we can sell these copyrighted shows because they aren’t available on DVD, but we can’t sell these fan films because they use trademarked characters?
Unfortunately, all moral justification goes out the window when things are available legally, and the most egregious violation I saw was a dealer selling burned discs containing every Super Nintendo game, or every Game Boy game, or every Sega Genesis game. Not only are they selling product that I could probably easily download at home on my own, but they’re selling something I can download legally, for a price. This is exactly the type of illegal commerce companies would like to see a stop to, but at the show Wizard didn’t seem to be lifting a finger to stop it.
It wasn’t just the product that made the dealers sketchy as hell; there were numerous examples of dealers behaving badly. One bootleg DVD dealer was smoking behind the partition at his booth. Smoking in a crowded room full of flammable stock? Even putting aside the fire safety issues, how about just the risk of contaminating other dealers’ merchandise with cigarette smell? Though given the overall sketch factor, maybe few would have minded. One dealer I purchased from had no idea what product he even carried because he purchased the entire booth from someone else. Another dealer snapped at Ian, not because he was blocking the aisle (a legitimate concern), but because Ian and a friend were blocking the table, and in the dealer’s words, “I’m paying rent here!”
Perhaps I’m being unfair by only talking about the dealer’s room. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything in the programming that interested me. Almost all of the programming focused on guests, instead of the more topical panels you’ll find at other comic conventions like San Diego or New York. The programming was held in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which is at least a lot nicer than the Pavilion, or the dark basement where we found the Artist’s Alley.
You had to go downstairs and through a hallway that probably was never meant to be open to the public in the heyday of the hotel—grey and barren and pretty depressing—before you reached the “alley,” a dimly-lit room where you could completely miss Joe Madureira, stationed in the corner by the door, where Jim Shooter had little to do except rearrange the pens on his table, and where the most popular table was Rob Liefeld. It was such a surprise to see such an impressive collection of talent gathered in one dark, dreary room and have almost nobody paying attention to them.
I wasn’t happy about Pier 94 last year, but now it almost seems like a paradise compared to the Hotel Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania has been the location of many fan events throughout the years, and it has historical significance: it was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, designed by the same architects that designed the original New York Penn Station and the James Farley Post Office, and claims to have the oldest New York phone number in continuous use. However, the company which owns the hotel, Vornado Realty Trust, wants to raze the Hotel Pennsylvania and build an office tower there. While I lament losing a piece of New York history, there were moments this past weekend where I looked at the hotel and thought, “You might as well; this place is a dump.” It can be argued that Vornado might be letting the hotel disintegrate to bolster the case that it should be demolished, but at the same time, it is clearly no longer up to task of holding major events.
It is unlikely that Big Apple Comic Con will ever be a major event; Reed Exhibitions already has a head-start, and just looking at this past weekend, it doesn’t feel like Wizard is even going to try.