Comic Cons

I’m getting those email notifications for the big C2E2 Comic Con happening this coming weekend in Chicago. C2E2 is the official launch of the mega con season, San Diego Comic Con is probably the best known comic con with all its celebrities and Hollywood panels and teasers. New York Comic Con is the biggest for sure and Fan Expo Canada is the big one I set up at every year (an 864 sq. ft. island set up that hurts my head when I think about the costs).

The email notifications got me thinking about these mega-events: are they still viable for comic book dealers and collectors? I can tell you from personal experience that they get tougher and tougher each year. The problem is I find myself hoarding comics for Fan Expo because the cost is so large I want to have strong sales, but the more I analyze it the more I realize I’m just padding the numbers. A good amount of these books I hoard for the show would most certainly sell in the shop, at the smaller local one-day shows we do, and even on eBay yet I keep them back so I can boast about making the numbers I need to justify my con expenses. I’m thinking this whole process needs to be reviewed.

Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics famously quit the San Diego Comic Con a few years back citing that back issue sales can’t justify the costs. It must be a frustrating thing watching thousands of people with no interest in collecting comics walking past your booth at a comic con you spent thousands of dollars to set up at. A prudent man like Mr. Rozanski made the right decision.

Don’t get me wrong, Fan Expo is a fantastic show; it draws in over 130,000 participants and for the most part, these people have money to spend and they spend it. If I can’t sell back issue comics then I should be figuring out what they are buying and bring that along. But I’m a comic book dealer and I want to sell comics! It seems those purist days are long gone and those dealers not willing to adapt need not set up unless losing money is in the business plan.

Fan Expo Canada

How about these super cons through comic collectors’ perspective? It seems each year there are less and less comic book dealers at these big shows and thus less and less selection for the comic book collectors. I remember the early big shows in the 80s and 90s, the Wizard World Chicago show every August literally had hundreds of comic dealers with over a million quality comics ranging from the hard to find Golden Age to the hot modern books. It was worth the wait in line and the price of admission because you as a collector really had endless options and selection. Today the line waits are twice as long and the admission fees are three times as much yet the selection, unfortunately, is a fraction of what it used to be. Why still come? Old habits maybe or maybe your love of the hobby makes your big con trip a calendar event not to be missed; you are still years away from being priced out of your cherished pilgrimage.

I know comic collectors that no longer attend the Fan Expo, they choose instead to go to the one-day comic cons that are now springing up in every major city in North America. I’m wrong when I say springing up, they’ve always been around but I can tell you that in Toronto they’ve grown into excellent comic book shows that are proving cost-effective and delivering a good selection of comics.

Do these big shows even need comic book dealers any more? I’m sure there are waiting lists of dealers waiting to get in and even bigger waiting lists of pop culture companies looking to set up fancy displays from where they can give away samples and show off their new products. I must be old fashioned because I just can’t see these things continuing to be viable if they abandon the very thing that gave them their start. If anything I think these big cons should be working to make sure that the collectible comics component of the show is worth the price of admission, not only would this keep the comic con label from being false advertising it would also shore up the one pillar of their customer base that is not fickle. Comic book collectors are tried and true: give them a reason to come and they will. All cons I’m sure have attendance projection meetings, make the cons comic book collector friendly and those meetings will have at least one stress-free point to discuss.

Are you still attending the big comic cons? Do you go to the smaller one day show? What are the best comic cons for comic book collectors?

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Walter Durajlija
Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.
Articles: 1589

18 Comments

  1. Being located on the east coast, we have very little in the way of cons, particularly anything in the size and scope as Fan Expo. The few we have are modest, at best.

  2. Walt, I think your picture of what is happening is correct, but I disagree with your thoughts of your penultimate paragraph. To first answer your questions:

    – I try to go to one big con a year.

    – I don’t think any cons are too great for collectors, but I think the shoestring ones are by and large more fun. I used to go to these and hope to in the future as my weekends become less occupied.

    Before I go further, I think that you are pointing to the “worst” examples (e.g. San Diego and NY). I have been to Baltimore a couple of times and the atmosphere is different. I think this is partially intentional and partially because the entertainment industry folks don’t have much interest in Baltimore. I have read that some other big cons (I think Tampa was mentioned) are also still very much comic book focused.

    I do think you are “old fashioned because” you “can’t see these things continuing to be viable if they abandon the very thing that gave them their start.” Let me draw you a parallel: Mickey Mouse. You wrote recently that nobody cares about Mickey Mouse. Certainly nobody is looking for more Mickey Mouse short films or comic books. The former are “the very thing that gave” Disney its start. I think Disney is quite viable. I don’t think Disney still using Mickey Mouse’s image is “false advertising” – it is a trademark acknowledging the roots of the enterprise. Calling an event a “comic con” is now more like a noun than a description, and it signifies something very different from a “comic show” (see below).

    Regarding the attendee base, the con operators are simply business people. They are going to cater to people who spend their money. The comic collectors _might_ spend their money on back issues. The other attendees are going to spend their money on everything: blind boxes, t-shirts, autographs, photo ops, “limited” con souvenirs, overpriced food and drink, etc. I don’t think that the con operators would hesitate to cater to the collectors if they would spend their money – but they don’t.

    Now – to get to the heart of the matter – why don’t they spend their money? Two reasons:

    – It is in their nature. The classic comic collector does not want something presented to them on a platter with a 50% markup. They want to dig through bins in a basement and find a hidden gem for half price or less. The cost of a large con means that dealers are mostly going to only bring their best (i.e. unhidden) material and look to make money on each sale. The classic comic collector gets burned by this once or twice, and then just stays away.

    – Prices and selection are just better elsewhere. Just like for most other businesses, the internet changed the landscape. The collector has constant access to dealers and auctions internationally, and these are in constant competition. The same dealers are at the cons, and it is not like they are giving any discounts at the cons. You might get something out of a dealer if you are willing to take a bunch of run books, or push hard on a Sunday afternoon, but the cost/benefit of these tactics generally isn’t there, especially given the limited selection.

    My conclusions from this are:
    – There is nothing wrong with the big, high-dollar “comic cons” going forward with little relevance to the collector market.
    – Collectors have little to gain from these big, high-dollar “comic cons”.

    I think the collector and back-issue dealer community should stop worrying about this and move on. As you point out, there is already a perfect, retro alternative that works for everybody – the low budget “comic show”. I think most of the deep pockets collectors would almost prefer to poke around in a musty Holiday Inn conference room than have to fight through the uninterested crowds at the cons. I also think that these shows should face up to reality that most of these collectors are not there to shop for high-end material. They are there first and foremost to connect with the community purely socially and also from a market intelligence perspective. This is like most industry conferences, where the deals get done later, after the connections are made at the conference.

    The second reason collectors are there is to look for the hidden gem. Therefore the dealers should try to haul in that stuff from the back room, the stuff that their usual clientele has passed over. The only books I bought at NYCC this year were _Four Colors_, because they were unusual and as you know I had recently acquired an interest in this soft corner of the market. I realize that the meat-and-potatoes attendee might be looking for the usual keys, but if dealers make an effort to bring unusual material that is priced to move, I think they will see some long-time collectors emerge, because there is now a real reason to attend.

    No attendee is going to pay a high admission price for the chance to chew the fat and look at some odd old books, so cut the bells and whistles and focus on keeping the venue tight (but not too tight) and modest, and don’t try to soak people for peripherals. People need to eat – so give them reasonably priced food and drink – they will stay at the venue instead of wandering off to look for something cheaper. Focus on building an attendee base by pitching what they simply can’t get anywhere else: face-to-face with dealers, expert collectors, and many other folks sharing their interest; lots of unusual and aggressively-priced material right at their fingertips.

    These are not going to be big money-making events. Not quite loss-leaders (hopefully), but with the same intent – connect for future business, and expand/enhance the marketplace by maintaining/raising interest. I think both dealers and collectors will benefit far more from “forking” rather than fighting the tide of the giant “comic cons”.

  3. I have never really been much for the expense of HUGE Cons anyway, but when my sons and I go to a smaller one, they are looking for figurines and merchandise, plus the occasional book. I get absolutely irate if there aren’t a LOT of comic booths, because, yes, that is why I’m going. I have money in my pocket and that’s what it is for. And sure, could probably go online to get most of it, but where’s the fun in that? That’s like reading your favorite novel on Kindle. IT JUST AIN’T RIGHT.

  4. I exhibited at San Diego Comic-Con from 1970 to 2017 – 48 consecutive years. I went from sharing an 8-foot table in 1970, to ten booths and two cash registers (1500 feet including the aisle, five booths on each side) in the 1990s and 2000s, right inside one of the main doors. I ended my run with ten booths in 2008, six in 2009, 3 in 2010 on, and finally one lone table in 2017. Rather than high end stuff, I sold multiple copies of what I brought…two, five, ten, even 20 copies of books. Chuck Rozanski used to also concentrate on graphic novels…selling them at a discount, directly competing with me, then he switched to back issues.

    I sell comics-related stuff…you know, that “affordable” material like Archives and Masterworks, “Art of” books, books about pulps, graphic novels….and I started talking vintage comics at the end. But in 2008, things went south and never recovered. Before the movie studios, my booth was one of the biggest attractions at the show. People would meet friends there, all the pros would roll through, we did signings… But we had less sales each year. People stopped buying new books at retail, or even discounted. We use to dedicate a booth to vintage stuff, out of print illustrated and art books…that softened up also as the audience changed.

    There are still a core of high-end (and a couple mid-grade) comic dealers at the show, but the number is ever dwindling. As Chris and Walter point out, they MUST concentrate on their high end material to make ends meet. I know them all, since I have been buying Golden Age at every show for every year. As Chris says, it’s still a good place to find the top books and, honestly, you CAN get deals of a sort…but based off often-higher priced books. Dealers will work with you, up to a point.

    But the lower end guys, that sold comics for $1, $5, $10, $20….those guys are mostly gone. Can’t pay the rent. The gist of this is the attendee base HAS changed, as you guys point out. And I agree, there are LOTS of other venues to buy vintage comics–I use them myself all the time, mycomicshop, Jim Payette, Bunky Brothers, Heritage. You admittedly can’t deal face to face, but you don’t have the pressure at the show either.

    Buying old comics in San Diego is like Heritage Sunday NIght (or more so, the Signature auctions…you have to be prepared to pay more, mostly over guide, but you CAN find those elusive books that are not so common elsewhere (I don’t use EBay, so I can’t speak to that). And I still see many “fans” or investors, looking for silver age “keys,” and willing to pay for them.

    The San Diego folks have once in a while given a comic dealer priority getting back in, but I don’t find them lasting. And they very willingly let go of former big exhibitors like Chuck (he had ten booths up to the end) and myself. No special deals ( did get offered a no-extra charge endcap, but it was too little, too late. No one was talking either Chuck or I into staying, for the good of the show.

    Another big factor, that I can personally attest to, is what Walter alludes to–the anxiety level for the dealer….the complex logistics and extra work, dealing with teamsters, lining up for hours in your truck, waiting to get out after packing up. With the ten booths, we had to deal with a semi trailer and a commercial driver, ten employees, massive hotel and travel expenses or co-ordination. Even in the best of times, making a profit was iffy.

    More recently, with three booths, I was taking a 26-foot truck and eight pallets there, driving myself, and it sucked. For San Diego, it was seven full days from leaving town to getting home. And I finally got a priority pass to get the truck to the loading dock, but it was still hours making that happen.

    And the long days and pressure to talk to everyone and still make your nut, was just no longer worth it for me. Nor was it paying off. Brian Peets from A-1 Comics in Sacramento just bailed out last year, at last…his excuse was the time it takes, period. He can sell the same books through his store or on EBay without a week away from home, and other dealers all trying to beat down his prices.

    The San Diego folks (or any mega-show) COULD give a priority to the comics dealers. But they don’t/ And as Chuck has pointed out, repeatedly, they SHOULD have given priority to the hardcore older attendees who now can’t or won’t come, because tickets sell out in hours on the internet. So the comic dealers, and I, lost the customers who used to buy from us. They can’t or won’t come any more. I talk to these guys all the time. “I used to do the show but….”

    But…the little shows, while the material is a bit more limited, are the way to go for a collector like me. Here on the west coast, there is Terry O’Neill’s Cal-Con, Berkeley Con, OAF, Rose City in Portland, and I hear good things about larger Baltimore and Charlotte Heroes shows back east. So yes, the mega-cons are not for many of us anymore, dealer or comics fan. I skipped San Diego entirely in 2017, then they made me a guest in 2019 (50th Anniversary celebration) and I had a great time, just hanging with friends and buying way too many comics. Far more fun than balancing being an exhibitor and fan. It was really nice being treated so well, at least for that one year!

    But I’m not sure yet if I will go back, the crowds and all being as they are. I might do Torpedo Con, a week before in LA, and maybe take the opportunity to go to Pulp Con or another show that might be more fun… Once I gave up on SD, its hard to get on that horse, even as a fanboy.

  5. I lived in California in the late 70’s-80’s and kick myself for not going to San Diego the… now I have no interest. Went to NYC roughly 15 years ago when you could still buy a ticket at the door and they still had some nice back issue vendors… but it was a zoo to go thru!
    Been to several small shows and prefer them. Less cost to get in, active back issue vendors, nice chats with dealers. I do like panel discussions which is rare at smaller shows but I mainly go to buy comics I can see in the flesh so to speak.

  6. I have spoken with Walt about this at length on a few occasions. I think after having attended some of the big shows, I actually prefer the medium sized ones. I have been to NYCC, Fan Expo, etc. But based on conversations I had or articles I have read (including this one) it seems as though the bigger shows just aren’t for “collectors” any more. The big shows have become showcases for “new” anything. Movies, toys, tv shows. etc. I remember hearing even 10-15 years ago that if you went to San Diego and you wanted to get away from the crowds, just visit the comic dealers.

    When I was younger, I used to save up all I could to go to the big shows and have money to spend. Now, the internet has made it easy to buy books online now and with CGC, CBCS, etc, you know what kind of graded books you are going to get. The risk is less than it used to be. So If I want to buy something immediately, and i happen to have a few extra dollars to spend, no waiting. No lines. No admission fees.

    However, there is an intangible feeling about comic shows that I love/hate. I think every time I go to a show, I get so excited about it and then once I’m there, I say to myself “Why did I come here?” Then I do it again in 6 months. Having said that, I don’t usually feel that way about the smaller or medium sized shows. Motor City Con is a great example. Generally runs for 3 days, lots of smaller dealers you can haggle with. Bigger dealers will be there too so if you want your high end books, there are usually some there. Those kinds of shows are my favorite. Shows that are not necessarily exclusive to comics but have enough comics and professionals to make it fun.

  7. Chris O., your experience exactly parallels mine. Was excited about NYCC 2018 and 2019, then felt like I had fought crowds of non-comic collectors all day for little purpose. On the other hand, went to Baltimore in 2016, then went for two days in 2017 because the previous year hadn’t been enough time – and if I had had the chance I would have gone all three days. Lots of dealers in Baltimore with dollar bins and stuff that you would never see at NYCC and the like. Also none of the nonsense overhead about activating badges, monstrous entry lines, feeling like you are semi-imprisoned. I’m hoping to find some smaller, closer, even lower-end shows near my home to attend just for fun and to pick up the odd book or two for the collection.

  8. So much good feedback here from everyone, a lot to process.

    You had quite the run Bud and it is obvious you made the right call and by the looks at it the options are endless in Cali. I know I’m wrong but it still bugs me that San Diego did not work with you and Chuck to keep you guys there because I see value for the show in you guys being there.

    Chris M. I think you are right, I have focused too much on the big shows and compared them to the small local shows but like Chris O. says there are many other shows along the spectrum in between, your example of Baltimore is good as is Chris O’s example of Motor City.

    Matt, I don’t think the one day shows are for you because they are almost pure comics, those mid sized shows the guys talked about above are your best bets.

    Tony, isn’t the Halifax show decent?

    And Gerald, looks like you have things figured out – come to the Montreal Comic Con in July, I’ll be doing a comic collecting panel there!!

  9. Hal-Con isn’t too bad, but I find it puts a big emphasis on cosplay. There is another at the local forum but it’s mostly serviced by local dealers who have more new stuff and not much golden or silver age. We have a pretty small population here so the dealer turnout is understandable. It’s easier to visit the various stores instead. You get better deals that way too.

  10. I used to go to SDCC in the 90’s, and had a blast seeing Stevens, Simonson, Rogers, Wrightson, Barry Smith, and Bud Plant. I remember seeing Al Willamson sitting at a table and I frantically ran to Bud’s aisle to pick up a book to get signed. Now I regularly go to CAB, CXC, and TCAF.

  11. Montreal 4th of July weekend eh… its a 4 hour jaunt for me… I could probably make it for one of those days and be home that night!

  12. Glad I was there for you with the Williamson book, Donny. I used to see who was a guest and do my best to bring plenty of their books, so people could go get them signed.

    Another genre that was really popular for a long time was how-to-draw books. Artists like Kaluta and Dave Stevens would drag other artists over to my booth and point out Burne Hogarth’s anatomy books, things like that. I used to have a very good selection of how-to books there and it was really popular. Then interest in those trailed off. Bill Stout always came by, usually informing me of new European art books I should know about, but I usually had a few things for him, too. The actor that played Sam in Lord of the Rings turned out to be a customer…my guys pointed him out as he was leaving, with his entourage, and and went over and introduced myself. Turned out he was a mail order customer of ours…who knew?

    One of the issues, and I think others agreed with this, was as the booth and room expenses went up, dealers and artists displaying in artist alley were more pressed to stay in their spots and make their nut. Less time to go out and shop. My partner Anne used to sell children’s and vintage illustrated books to wives and more wide-ranging artists/collectors (like Stout and Kaluta and Charles Vess), before she moved her wares into my booth in the last few years. But again, these folks stopped having the time to shop, or could not get tickets, or just stopped coming, like Kaluta and Vess.

    One year she was next to Kinuko Craft and they’ve been friends ever since. Kinuko is a fan as well as a fine artist. I turned Charles Vess onto an obscure children’s artist, Herman Vogel, the German language Walt Kelly of fairy tale books in the 1890s. Then Charles went out and found several stunning, lovely prints by Vogel at Century Guild’s booth, before I got the time get over and see their offerings. Ha!

    It makes me think of meeting Ramona Fradon and picking out pencil sketches she had spread across her table, for $25, $50, $75 each. Aquaman of course, Mera, Plastic Man, I should dig those out!! She was a sweetheart and so very approachable.

    And Sergio Aragones, bless his heart. He always made it a point to come by and say hello, every single show. He is a big fan of Sam Glanzman and bought several copies of Sam’s U.S.S. Stevens–chronicling Sam’s WWII experience in the Navy–to give to friends. Now I make sure to go see Sergio in his spot. He was at Comic Fest (the alternate San Diego con in April) last year as their top guest, and very accessible, telling stories of his first days at Mad, sitting in the hotel lobby. Very old school! The Mad staff used to let him spend the night on Bill Gaines office couch…as long as he was up and back in the bullpen before Bill, who knew nothing of this, would amble in in the morning. Sergio had a rented room elsewhere the size of a closet.

    So, yes, you guys are right, we just need to pick the right shows and we can still have those great experiences with pros and fellow collectors, and get those good old comics, too.

  13. Bud… its YOU who need to write a book about your life in the history of comic collecting! I know I would read it and I bet plenty of others would as well!

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