Among people I talk to about cons and comics, about half won’t bother to go to Wizard World Cons, about a quarter might go, but usually have mediocre things to say about them, and about a quarter haven’t ever been to one but haven’t totally ruled it out. This is because Wizard cons are known for their overriding pop-culture focus, which gives place to comics, but not focus to them, and at least half of the focus of any Wizard cons seems to be on celebrity presence and autographs. When Wizard announced a return to NYC this year and dubbed it an “experience”, an unusual use of terminology, but in a venue they had never used before at Pier 36, there was some speculation about what it would be like and whether Wizard had changed its tack at all when it came to comics.
I ventured there on Saturday, the biggest day for the con, and found it a little difficult to get to, the nearest subway stop to its riverside location being East Broadway with a bit of a walk from there to the warehouse-like exterior at “Basketball City”. But I found that the use of space was reasonably clever, with booths placed outside for tickets and a large fenced in courtyard area containing its largest events tent, a plethora of food trucks, and shady picnic tables for ticketholders to use. The portaloos were a little less appealing, but good as back-up for interior restrooms. The space wasn’t quite what I expected. It was smaller than the Philly Wizard Con I’d been to before, substantially smaller, but it was very clean and well presented with newish carpeting, a strong attempt at air conditioning on a hot day (a little challenged once crowds built up), one large main floor area, and an upper, small mezzanine for panel events.
About a third of the floor, running its length and facing the river side, was given over to celebrity booths for signings, with taped off areas for lines. It wasn’t at all surprising that there’d be celebrities at a Wizard World event, but the choice of celebrities at this con were a little closer to the center of geek mainstream, of the type who might actually appeal to comic fans. And placing them in the one central hall did give the place a sense of buzz. Rather than being contained in vast cavernous underground halls where you might or might not ever encounter them unless you signed up for a photo op or autograph line, here you might spot Wil Wheaton, Patrick Stewart, or one of a grant total of 4 Walking Dead actors (Norman Reedus, Michael Rooker, Chandler Riggs, and Laurie Holden), as you simply walked by having a wander of the floor. Let’s not forget Stan Lee, whose presence at a relatively small con was surprising, but probably part of some sort of Wizard World package he had signed up for this summer. One of the big draws for the con was the reprint of issue #1 WALKING DEAD with a variant cover by Neal Adams, free to ticketholders, though it was not available for free or for purchase to speakers, guests, or press in any way, something that several people I spoke to were irked about.
The remaining area of the long rectangular floor was divided into about 1/3 Artists Alley and 2/3 retailers of some variety, and though both could have been beefed up a little to cater to fans, they were reasonably populated with wares and comics folk. Neal Adams had a strong presence in the retailers section (since he runs his own shop), but in Artists Alley the presence of the con in NY had drawn in more of a local crowd of names, something that also influenced the panels run at the con. Amy Reeder, Bob Camp, Danny Fingeroth, Ken Bald, Mike Zeck, Sean Chen, and Stan Goldberg were comic pros who gave the room a New York feel. Though I say that Artists Alley and the retail section could have been a little more densely stocked, there wasn’t a whole lot more room in the hall to accommodate that, so for the space in question, it was fairly well distributed.
The panels running at the three day con were also a little more substantial than you might have initially expected from a Wizard con, and I blame that on New York. Because it was held in NYC, more local comics veterans and scholars got involved and managed to put together some worthy panels to enrich fan experience and generally raise the level of knowledge of those who attended and stopped by. Panels and events were held in the large outdoor tent, which posed its own problems. Firstly, it was a tent, which made some fans laugh, and assume that was a step down from normal con professionalism. However, the tent structure ended up working pretty well. It had plenty of seating, reasonable air conditioning, and enabled celebrity events to be open to normal ticketholders rather than just those with special passes. This meant you could just slip in and hear Stan Lee or Patrick Stewart chatting in Q&A, a possibility almost extinct at big cons due to numbers and the endless careful sequestering of celebrities to help negotiate crowds and the various levels of expensive badges that go with big cons. Combined with the open access feel of the celebrity booths in the main hall, this made every fan feel that the celebrity presence was simply part of the show rather than an exclusive thing only those buying pricey tiered passes could be part of.
But aside from celebrity events, the panels running in the main tent and on the mezzanine were appealing. On Friday Annie Nocenti and Alex Sanchez talked about collaboration in comics, Stan Goldberg spoke about his life in comics, and Amy Reeder led some comic art instruction. On Saturday, Stan Lee held his Q &A (energetic as usual), Neal Adams led a panel, Hip Hop and Comics drew a crowd, and some pretty intellectual subjects came up in two panels hosted by Danny Fingeroth, one on the Golden Age of Marvel Comics with Ken Bald, and one on Will Eisner’s CONTRACT WITH GOD at 35 years featuring experts Paul Levitz, Denny O’Neil, and N.C. Christopher Couch. Sunday’s features included Visual Storytelling with Ken Steacy, a Wil Wheaton Q&A, and one of a couple panels on sci-fi writing and publishing. The only thing that events and panels wrestled with was the sound system. Fans could hear panellists and speakers just fine for the most part, but panellists often couldn’t hear each other, which made it less comfortable for them to interact in discussion. For panels happening on the mezzanine, there was also increasing noise from the floor as Saturday drew bigger numbers, which made things a little more hectic.
Numbers were handled well; the longest line fans had to stand in were for photo ops and autographs, and though those got crowded on Saturday, there was never a sense that things were hitting a holding crisis. It was a hot day with some intense sun, so having most of the seating areas outside meant that it got a little steamy if you wanted somewhere to rest. There was an underlying representation for cosplay, though it wasn’t as emphatic as at many other cons, possibly because the con was a little difficult to reach for public transit. Staff were on the whole helpful and professional, though there were hints of a “people are numbers” mentality often typical of Wizard events that could use a little work. That extra touch for ticket holders to feel that they are guests rather than a logistical figure to keep a handle on would go a long way to make them feel valued. In discussions leading up to the con, I heard complaints about the pricing for tickets, and while it was a little on the high side for a relatively small show, it could be that Wizard justified that by the kind of access general ticketholders would have to celebrity talks. If that’s the case, they’d do well to emphasize that more in the marketing to offset initial reactions to the price of their passes.
For a con that dubbed itself an “experience”, which may reflect Wizard’s understanding that in some ways this was a scaled down best-of approach to a Wizard event, there were quite a few comic con options to choose from presented in a showcase style. What Wizard seemed to pick up on in planning this con, and something that contributed to its success, was that rather than simply bringing Wizard to New York and acting like they were doing the city a favor by representing, they were clever enough to try to bring New York’s own pop culture and comics history into the con and take advantage of the great comic creators and enthusiasm for pop culture already present in New York. Generic shows are not the wave of the future when it comes to con, as the explosion and spread of local cons in the past 18 months shows, but rather tailored experiences that give fans a sense of a locale’s place among cons and in the media. As long as Wizard keeps their “New York Experience” as New York as possibly, they’ll be doing themselves, and fans, a service. That’s a smart use of local resources and will keep people coming back.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.