Eight years ago, Long Beach Comic Con held its inaugural show with the likes of the legend himself Stan Lee. Through a down economy and one weird name change, the show continues its steady growth as 2016 brought it to the edge of the uncanny valley of growing a convention.
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to LBCC 2016, so let’s start with getting in the building. Long Beach Convention Center is such a strange place. Not only does the show have to deal with the building’s divisive architecture; but when you don’t get to have the same space every year, it can feel like you’re sending your attendees to different places all the time. A problem which greatly affects familiarity along with the way a show can plan check-in/ticket sales. The same plan that works great for the front of the building doesn’t fit the architecture in the back. Even with the long lines outside the entrance, it didn’t seem as though people waited long. The longest time I’d heard from convention goers was 25-30 minutes. After which the show put out a statement promising to improve the process even more in the future.
Once you got through check in, the massive show floor greets you with publishers like Aspen Comics, Space Goat, Storm King, and Top Cow. To LBCC’s credit, over the last eight years, it’s remained one of few conventions to keep publishers up front in the prime traffic real estate whereas most shows now sell that space to the highest bidder. Tons of vendors selling comics, toys, and everything else you can think of surrounded its Artist Alley center piece. It’s easy to gauge how popular a show is becoming by taking in how much its vendors shift from the simple pipes and curtains swapmeet look to large attraction booths. While most of those come from big sponsorship deals, smaller companies like Stylin Online and Mystery Box vendors have upped their presentations to draw the same type of attention.
There were definitely more attractions here than previous years on the show floor. The returning Space Expo brought VR experiences for people to try out along with being able to get up close with several robot tools of destruction from ABC’s hit series Battlebots. Where the floor seemed to scale down a bit was in the Cosplay Corner part of the show. While it still remained a staple for LBCC, it looked like the room was carved out to place celebrities like Phil LaMarr and Susan Eisenberg who wanted to be accessible at the show all weekend. LBCC’s exhibit floor is quickly becoming one you can’t do everything in one day, but that’s really a good problem for any show to have.
Where the show expanded and made its marquee was the celebrity presence, headlined by the cast of Firefly. Fans could purchase autographs and photo ops with the likes of Summer Glau and Sean Maher, while also meeting Sam “Flash Gordon” Jones, voice actor/singer Troy Baker, and THE voice of Batman Kevin Conroy just to name a few.
With all the attraction addition, I’m glad to see the Artist Alley hasn’t suffered. It remains one of the most spacious and easy to navigate on the west coast. This year, the alleys were anchored by local creators such as Todd Nauck, Kris Anka, Livio Ramondelli, and Dustin Nguyen. While they aren’t creators you can’t meet anywhere else in southern California; they are creators who draw attention to any event they attend even if it’s just down the street from them. This year’s special guests included like likes of comics great Peter David, Mike Perkins, Joelle Jones, Brett Booth, along with Jimmy Palmiotti and Frank Tieri who were on hand to show their support for the weekend’s Darwyn Cooke memorial, the creative genius who tragically passed away in May.
Really the only issue I saw with the floor was the double edge sword of its convenience. When you walk onto the exhibit floor, attendees, who only bought tickets to see celebrities, had the option to make an immediate left to go to celebrity row or walk the entire floor before heading over. It’s simply a fact of life for conventions now…celebrities bring in people. The trick is giving vendors a chance to sell to them by making attendees set on meeting Nathan FiIlion walk around most of the floor to get to him. The floor traffic seemed very U-shaped from the exhibit floor entrance to celebrity row (which was located near the exit) and the size of that U varied for everyone depending on how much of the floor you wanted to see. The response from vendors was the typical mix you hear at every show, ranging from “great” to “broke even”. Very few keep track of their year-over-year numbers and say different things depending on who’s asking. So take all that with a grain of salt. The challenge for this show going forward will be converting those who buy tickets simply to line up for the likes of Fillion or a Barrowman panel then never walk the convention floor, into fans of other parts of pop culture. While it’s a small percentage, a show that hasn’t reached what it’s capable of in attendance needs every fan it can get for vendors.
Where Long Beach Comic Con really showed strong in 2016 was with programming. To simply put it: this year’s Long Beach Comic Con panels were second only to San Diego Comic-Con and PAX West. Saturday saw panels celebrating Batman: The Animated Series, Firefly, and Con Man while still retaining much of the quirky character programming that made the show great. Girl Scouts learned how to create comics, NASA and JPL employees talked about the influences comics and science have on each other, comics were read live in the style of an old radio program, a Joker even married a Harley Quinn for-realsies. They put a lot of care into a complete experience, which for me was capped off at the Wonder Woman drink&draw where I practically stole this from Dan Panosian.
While other shows across the country have very limited resources to build programming. Los Angeles is a bottomless well of entertainment and interest, it’s good to see diverse and engaging subjects finally get how easy it is to do panels.
You might see a few other reviews on-line talk about programming crowd control missteps during the show. Specifically, during the string of the biggest crowd panels; Batman, Con Man, Firefly. While there were more people who got into those panels than were left out; that minority was very vocal about line cutting and unfairness.
Most of the people who found cause to complain have never had to coordinate and execute crowd control for things like this. You make plans on top of plans and if you’ve done it right; one of them will work. As attendees, all we can do is look for the easiest thing to blame…the show. It’s only a fair judgment because ultimately it is the con’s hill to die on. Though what happened hardly had anything to do with LBCC’s planning and was more of an unexpected schedule circumstance arising. There will be contingencies in the future to alleviate or prevent such fiascos. As the show grows this will not be a problem, it simply can’t be, and not with the experience LBCC has.
Overall 2016 proved to be another fun year for Long Beach Comic Con, but it also presents questions heading into 2017. Have we seen the last of the informal charm that made this show feel personable for so many years? The move to add more celebrities and multimedia names to the headline was a natural one. It’s just good business in a star-obsessed culture. Now the challenge will be cultivating the new audience that comes with it to buy into comics like LBCC did at the beginning of the Cosplay craze. Can the show balance celebrities and comics? It would make for a better show if someone found a way to blend the mediums for every aspect of the show. The expansion of Spring’s Long Beach Comic Expo into a full sized weekend show makes LBCE and LBCC almost identical. How do you make two full sized conventions feel unique to each other while competing with the rest of the Southern California convention scene which includes: Comikaze, Wondercon, Designercon, Monsterpalooza, Anime Expo, Vid Con, Gamestop Expo, D23, along with three new small shows set for 2017? Sure some of those shows seem to be in different spaces of pop culture, but ultimately everyone competes for the coins in the same fountain. It’s a race for attention, existing resources, and getting things people haven’t seen into your show. Long Beach has proven to be the most resourceful of all the above, and if anyone can thrive among the competition it’s this show.
As someone who attends conventions all over the country, coordinated events for some of the coolest companies around, and even booked a few LBCCs in my day; it’s exciting to know that as good as 2016 was, Long Beach Comic Con still hasn’t put on their biggest show ever. I can go out on the limb and say that will happen next year when everything that’s gone into building the show really culminates.
Long Beach’s next show will be the return of Long Beach Comic Expo in February while Long Beach Comic Con returns Memorial Day weekend.
PS: While at the show, I got to moderate a panel called the Intersection of Science and Comics on Sunday. It was a great hour with JPL designer Joby Harris and comic book creators Livio Ramondelli and Dave Crosland. The first person to shoot me a great photo of that panel @bouncingsoul217 gets a STEAM key season pass for Batman: The Telltale Series on PC which just released episode two. My laziness to comb social media is your gain.