By Heidi MacDonald | Jun 15, 2013 | Publisher’s Weekly | Subscribe

Photo: Jody Culkin

If you can’t join ’em, build your own. That seems to be what’s happening everywhere as nerd friendly comic-cons in a variety of North American cities are growing in scope and attendance, even as the grandest and gaudiest of them, Comic-Con International: San Diego—held July 17-21— remains the ultimate in nerd-vana.

Attending Comic-Con, as it’s called, remains a lifelong dream for passionate fans nationwide who long to experience its unparalleled brain-warping panorama of top moviemakers, cartoonists, and cosplayers. Unfortunately, the event threatened to outgrow the San Diego Convention Center years ago, and attendance is now capped at 130,000—it sounds like a lot of people but each year tickets sell out faster and faster.

With so much interest, it’s not surprising that attendance at comic-cons across North America is also growing. Regional shows from Seattle to Denver have seen marked growth in 2013, with hordes of attendees sometimes overwhelming expectations.

It’s all part of the worldwide spread of nerd culture, says Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and a veteran convention road warrior, as well as a steering committee member for several smaller shows. “Cons are a reflection of what’s happening in the larger entertainment world,” he tells PW. “Comics and comics media are at the heart of our entertainment, and cons provide an incredibly attractive environment to enjoy what’s happening and to understand what’s coming up next.”

The last two years have seen a surge in comic-con growth, with several now drawing in excess of 50,000 people. While the San Diego Comic-Con remains the biggest (see sidebar), and the New York Comic-Con is coming up close behind, newer shows in Phoenix, Denver, and Seattle have all seen explosive growth—sometimes too explosive.

The Denver Comic-Con is only in its second year, but a strong guest list and what many called pent-up demand in the region combined to draw a surprising 61,000 people (up from 27,700 in 2012.) Unfortunately, the huge crowd caught organizers unprepared, and thousands of people with tickets were left waiting in line for hours to get in on the first day. By the second day, things were running more smoothly.

The incident was only the latest example of overcrowding. Earlier in the year, the Motor City Con in Detroit suffered similar crowding issues and long lines. Last year’s Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo saw ticketed attendees who had driven 12 hours to get in turned away as a massive crowd forced fire marshals to shut down the hall.

Fire marshals are nothing new for the San Diego Comic-Con—they’ve been out of space for a while, and this year’s show has pretty much settled into a pattern of growing off-site attractions, said David Glanzer, v-p of marketing and public relations for CCI, the nonprofit organization that puts on the event. “I say that Comic-Con is a river that is always there but always changing,” he tells PW. Although details are still being hammered out, he promises more interactive activities as displays spread to surrounding parks, parking lots, and hotels—this year the Manchester Hyatt Grand will house events, joining two other hotels already enlisted as venues.

Hopes of getting more room for more fans depends on a long-planned, $520-million expansion to the San Diego Convention Center. While the city council and new mayor Bob Filner are behind the move, opponents are fighting it with a lawsuit over the various tax increases that are helping fund the expansion. Although the matter is still in the courts, observers expect the expansion to be approved, and if all goes well, groundbreaking could take place as soon as the end of the year, with an eye to opening in time for the 2016 Comic-Con. “The city wants the expansion,” says Glanzer. “It’s not just for Comic-Con—the city will be able to attract more large conventions and hold concurrent smaller shows.”

Another show run by CCI, WonderCon, has had its own venue problems. held in the Bay Area for more than 20 years, construction on San Francisco’s Moscone Center forced the show to move south to Anaheim in 2012 and 2013. “The Anaheim show was pretty successful,” said Glanzer. “We had a great turnout and strong feedback from pros and exhibitors.” Attendance was up, and CCI plans to keep it going even while working on a return to San Francisco—however, show dates at the Moscone are still unavailable.

That makes San Francisco the only city that isn’t clamoring for its very own comic-con—various con promoters are planning new shows around the country, including such underserved areas as Newark, N.J., and Grand Rapids, Mich. Glanzer feels that the explosion in regional shows is great for fans who want to get the comic-con experience. “If attendees are enjoying themselves and exhibitors are getting their money’s worth, it’s good for everybody.”

Photo: Jody Culkin

The exhibition floor at the San Diego Comic-Con International.

But the glitzy image of the traditional comic-con—with “nerd-lebrities” and throngs of super-fit costumed fans—is being joined by a parallel track of what one might call “CAFs,” or comics art festivals. Focusing on literary comics and individual cartoonists, these events put an even bigger spotlight on book format comics—graphic novels—and the people who make them. In recent years, established shows including the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., MoCCA in New York, and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) have been joined by a growing number of indie-focused events in cities from Portland, Maine (MeCAF) to Seattle (Short Run). Some CAFs have also seen steady growth: TCAF director Chris Butcher says it has grown from 600 people in 2003 to 18,000 in 2013.

Brownstein says these indie shows speak to an audience that’s enthused for “handcrafted personal comics and the people who make them.” And they’ve become vital book fairs for graphic novel publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, who time important debuts around the schedule.

While the fan experience at all these shows is driving enthusiasm for comics-based properties, the big show in San Diego is no longer the news center for the comics industry, as it once was. Marvel and DC, the two biggest publishers, now make their announcements weeks in advance to avoid competing with Peter Jackson talking about the new Hobbit movie or the cast of How I Met Your Mother actually meeting the mother on a panel.

Image Comics, the third-largest comics company and publisher of the hit The Walking Dead, is taking it a step further with it own event in San Francisco, the Image Expo to be held July 2. While it will primarily be a media event with announcements from selected Image creators such as Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Brian K. Vaughan (Saga), tickets are available for fans who want to go to signings and panels. Image’s director of business development Ron Richards says putting on a smaller event grew out of his experience with 2012’s MorrisonCon, where 600 people made the journey to Las Vegas to mingle with writer Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman) and his colleagues in a more intimate setting.

But Image remains part of the spectacle at Comic-Con, said Richards. “San Diego is still the place to celebrate comics. It’s a great opportunity to connect with fans, with a lot of creators signing and selling their books.”

The proliferation of cons and CAFs has made it harder for comics companies to exhibit at them all. Image sat out WonderCon and DC declined to set up at C2E2 in Chicago this year. “Because of the cost of setting up and shipping the booth, we have to pick and choose,” said Richards. “I would love to be at every show, but it’s a balancing act.”

The CBLDF is a smaller organization that raises money by setting up, so they’ve actually increased their show attendance. The organization went from 14 shows in 2011 to 27 in 2012 and a planned 24 this year. “More shows are viable because of new fans coming in” via media properties like The Walking Dead, said Brownstein.

The San Diego Comic-Con remains the Super Bowl of nerd culture, and its bizarre, exciting nexus of entertainment makes it essential for those who can get in. Brooklyn cartoonist Meredith Gran goes every year to promote her Web comic Octopus Pie, but as she’s branched into animation and writing licensed comics like Adventure Time, Comic-Con has become a networking opportunity. As she tells PW, “Even with all the craziness, you might meet anyone there.”