New York Comic Con tries to get back to normal in a world changed by Covid

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Cosplayers dressed in Mandalorian armor and Black Widow pose for a photo during Day 4 of New York Comic Con 2021 at Jacob Javits Center on October 10, 2021 in New York City. (
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images

NEW YORK — New York Comic Con isn’t quite what it was before the pandemic. But it’s getting there.

The four-day event, which begins Thursday morning at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, is expected to feature guests from across the pop culture spectrum, including “Dune” and “Star Wars” star Oscar Isaac, “Outlander” author Diana Gabaldon and celebrity couple Ice T and Coco.

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About 200,000 visitors are expected to attend the convention, where they’ll catch screenings and panels, and rub elbows with the artists and writers behind their favorite characters. That’s a big boost from last year, when Covid restrictions kept the capacity reduced to 150,000 people, and higher than the 130,000 people typically drawn to San Diego Comic-Con each summer. But it’s still a way off from the approximately 250,000 fans who attended the New York event in 2019.

ReedPop, the company that owns New York Comic Con, is fine with being conservative two years after the coronavirus forced organizers to make the event entirely virtual. The virus is still around, so Covid masks will still be required at all times indoors this year, although fans won’t need to present proof of vaccination. The event used to include happenings at the nearby Hammerstein Ballroom and Madison Square Garden, but now it’s mainly confined to the sprawling Javits Center.

“We don’t feel the need to push,” said Lance Fensterman, president of ReedPop.

Warner Bros. Discovery‘s DC Comics is looking to make a big splash with several experiences, including a truck on Friday that will give away breakfast sandwiches, cupcakes and swag to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Harley Quinn, the clownish antihero known from the Batman and Suicide Squad comics, shows and movies.

Margot Robbie stars as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. “Birds of Prey.”
Warner Bros.

Disney‘s Marvel will be out in full force, too, with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” promos and events to mark Spider-Man’s 60th anniversary. “We love being a part of these events,” said Brian Crosby, director of themed entertainment development at Marvel. “That’s in our DNA.”

ReedPop, which represents a relatively tiny corner of global conglomerate RELX’s empire, is still learning — and recovering — from Covid. It now operates live pop culture events in just three countries — the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia — after licensing the intellectual property for several other events in Europe and Asia to third parties. “We will go back when the time is right,” Fensterman said.

Revenue for live events hasn’t quite bounced back, either: Fensterman said it’s about 70% of what it was before the pandemic, in relative terms. ReedPop doesn’t disclose revenue in dollar figures. It also had to lay off about 30% of its live events staff, he said. Overall, ReedPop has about 160 employees, compared with the roughly 190 it had before Covid.

But, Fensterman noted, the company’s digital business did grow, particularly as it bought video game channels on YouTube and websites including the U.K.’s Gamer Network. ReedPop is about three years into a five- to six-year effort to integrate its live and digital businesses, he said. That means more QR codes to connect in-person fans with online features and streams to give fans who couldn’t make it a chance to get in on the buzz.

That’s especially important as major brands such as DC and Marvel also expand their digital reach. The two longtime funny-book rivals, who have been pillars of fan conventions for years, have had to adapt, as well.

“The silver lining, if there is one, is that it gives us an opportunity to think about all the different ways to get our fans excited,” said Anne DePies, senior vice president and general manager at DC. “Be flexible, be fluid.”

Women in costume pose together at the 2021 New York Comic Con,at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., October 7, 2021.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

New York Comic Con also comes as DC and Marvel establish more direct pathways to fans. Disney has its D23 Expo and Star Wars Celebration events. This week, DC will hold a separate event featuring creative chief Jim Lee and other talent a few blocks away from the Javits Center at Hudson Yards.

But there isn’t much incentive for the major players to bail on conventions run by third parties. Fensterman, the ReedPop president, said his company has a license to exclusively produce Marvel merchandise sold at conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con, which is operated by a nonprofit.

Marvel also likes returning to New York, where it was founded and many of its heroes live, from the depths of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen to the heights of Avengers Tower. “It’s kind of our home turf,” Crosby said.

DC, which also claims New York heritage, isn’t budging, either.

“I don’t see us going alone any time soon,” DePies said.

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