Comic Conventions and the New Normal

2023 found the convention circuit returning to the way things were, one way or another.

2023 may not have been when comic conventions returned in the COVID era, but it was the first year they felt back. It was full steam ahead after a stretch of understandable (and necessary) restraint during the peak of the pandemic, with this year seeming normal relative to 2021’s slate that was a rolling tumbleweed away from a ghost town and a 2022 that was still dialed back. The aisles were packed, guest lists were robust, and panels were hopping, with most creators, exhibitors, and attendees operating like it was just another year.

That isn’t my take, either. It’s what comic creators saw themselves.

“It feels like the pandemic never happened, to be honest,” writer Amy Chu told me.

“It’s back to normal except that back to normal feels weird,” cartoonist Wes Craig added.

It seemed like business was once again usual for 2023’s conventions. But seemed isn’t the same as was. So, with the unofficial finale to the year’s con season hitting in mid-November with the renowned Thought Bubble Festival, 7 it felt like a good time to explore the year that was for creators at conventions and what “normal” even means these days. Naturally, the answer was simple: it really depends on who you ask!

Kyle Starks at New York Comic Con 2023

One thing was consistent no matter who I talked to, though. Attendance was there in a way it hadn’t been in the past couple years. Writer Kyle Starks believes that much of the hesitancy people felt about going to conventions has “diminished.” The writer noted that even though “it’s (not) quite back to what it was pre-pandemic,” attendance seemed “healthy,” especially in comparison to an “anemic” 2022.

Artist Karl Kerschl returned to conventions this year and had a similar experience. He reported that “the three shows I attended this year were largely equivalent to the ones I went to pre-pandemic in terms of the energy, excitement, and sales.” New York Comic Con and HeroesCon led the way in that regard, which is no surprise, as both are considered epicenters of the comic convention circuit, albeit in dramatically different ways.

It isn’t just the major conventions, either. Chu went out of her way to mix up the events she guested at this year. She saw a surge in the crowds wherever she went, saying, “Convention attendance seems to be at an all-time high for many shows.” Part of that is likely a chicken or the egg situation. It wasn’t just fan attendance that was up. Plenty of comic creators and media guests made their return to the convention circuit in 2023. There was more to draw the attention of fans this year than in the past two years, whether it was luminaries like Ewan McGregor and Chris Evans or an artist alley filled with A-listers. But as Chu noted, it wasn’t just guests driving attendance. It was also what cons were doing to draw people in.

“I think many shows have gotten savvy about appealing to different fandoms outside comics,” the writer told me. “Con goers seem to be getting younger and more diverse.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but manga and anime are major focuses at comic conventions these days. Drawing those fans in has buttressed attendance and enthusiasm. It’s also resulted in a change in what attendees are interested in, according to artist Robert Wilson IV.

“I think the biggest difference, at least at the big shows, is that there is a continual stream of new young attendees going to a convention for the first time,” Wilson said. “With that, you see a shift of what they are interested in, both in terms of what series and creators they are a fan of and what type of items they are most interested in buying.”

Maybe that’s part of the reason that while attendance was up, sales were a bit all over the place. Most said earnings were back to pre-pandemic standards. Others were up in comparison. Some, like Starks, said regional conventions were at previous levels while the biggest shows were “way down.” There was incredible variance in what creators experienced. That makes sense, of course. Each convention is different, as is each creator. More than that, much has changed in the past few years, including the stature of the creators I spoke to and what they’re emphasizing.

Starks is a perfect example of that. He shifted away from his Rick and Morty work as a convention focal point, with his recent Peacemaker Tries Hard! series acting as its replacement. The writer told me with a laugh that his DC series was unable to “do similar heavy lifting” for him at shows. So, even though his popularity has surged in recent years, the lack of Rick and Morty meant he had less to hook casual fans with at the biggest cons. Pair that with the fact that he worked with a rep for several larger shows and he found that his profits finished below his decreased expectations for the year. It wasn’t just him either. The writer said, “(I) heard similar things from people generally around my level.”

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  1. There are more conventions to come, of course, but those are largely smaller, regional events that most travel limited distances for.

  2. Several actually reported this. It seemed clear that the economic environment had an impact on sales.

  3. Sevy wasn’t the only one who mentioned this. Artist Liana Kangas noted how difficult it is to separate whether they saw more success at cons this year because the return to normalcy or if it was because they’ve become a much more popular creator in the years since the pandemic. It’s tricky!

  4. As Starks said, “Considering time away from home and away from working on a book, I made comparable if not better fiscal value at the smaller two day shows than I did the larger multi-day shows.”

  5. I’m not counting Marvel’s presence. It was more like halftime at an NBA game than an actual booth.

  6. At a four-day convention last year, the cartoonist said he got COVID and his brother Drew — who was with him all four days — was perfectly fine.

  7. There are more conventions to come, of course, but those are largely smaller, regional events that most travel limited distances for.