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.”