NEW JERSEY COMIC EXPO REVIEW
AMBER LOVE 24-NOV-2015 I attended one day of the first NJ Comic Expo run by MAD Event Management, the outfit behind the already successful Long Beach Comic Con. I was only interested in this show because I had heard good things about Long Beach from friends in the comic business. I wasn’t excited about it for other reasons that I’ll explain. Overall, I give the show a “C-” because I had a good time, but they need to make some major improvements if they want people like me to promote it.
When I heard that MAD Event Management was owned by a woman, Martha Donato, I had hope that this would be a different approach to comic cons for the east coast which has gone through a decade of stagnant “boys’ club” operations like Wizard World and to some degree other shows like Baltimore and ReedPop. At least Baltimore and ReedPop try. They get some female guests who are creators and if you backtrack through the years, you can see that they have made improvements.
THE NEW JERSEY CONVENTION SCENE:
As for New Jersey, we didn’t even have medium sized shows a few years ago until the East Coast Comic Con (Asbury Park originally) and Garden State Comic Fest came on to the scene. We had porn/fetish shows like Exxxotica, horror shows like Monster Mania and Chiller Fest, and Steampunk World’s Fair. There are also some shows better known for anime/manga fans than western comics. Then ACBC in Atlantic City came along which got rave reviews, but I’ve heard rumors won’t be back.
ECCC and GSCF landed and gave New Jersey what it needed: cons focused on celebrating comics. The problem is that ECCC had to relocate from south Jersey’s reality TV hotspot Asbury Park where there was rockabilly culture left like random surprise appearances of Springsteen at the Stone Pony. The weirdness of Asbury Park was really all the ECCC had to separate it from any other show. Moving up north to a generic expo hall didn’t keep fans’ attention. I personally don’t like how that show centers itself on the coattails of Kevin Smith’s cronies as if there’s no other celebrity comic creator in the state (hello, we have the Kubert School right here and people like the Simonsons). I was particularly annoyed at their ban on blogger press passes. They don’t need them because the Smith crowd has their own podcasts and TV shows which are recorded at that show.
That brings me to my loyalty of GSCF, a truly comic centric show run by people who love the fans and the creators. It moved from a hotel to a hockey arena which sounds bizarre, but works really well because there’s plenty of floor space for vendors and seats for anyone needing a rest. It’s also near much nicer towns than Secaucus. Morris Plains and Morristown are scenic, historic, and have fantastic eateries and are easy to get to.
So why wasn’t I immediately interested in this new show, NJ Comic Expo? Because I felt like we didn’t need it. With two other successful shows (three this year if you count the defunct ACBC), a fourth show was overkill. And yet another smaller one was in Newark not long ago, but to be honest, I don’t know anyone who even attended it so I can’t imagine it was any good.
NJCE GUEST LIST HAD A MAJOR PROBLEM:
I kept my eyes on the NJCE guest list and let me tell you, the disappointment I felt was heartbreaking. For months, they had one female creator on their guest list. ONE. They had only hot chicks as cosplay guests. It sent a crystal clear signal to me that MAD Event Management’s Gabe Fieramosco who booked their guests, saw women fulfilling only certain roles: cosplay and acting. Whether con organizers see themselves as part of the problem or not, they are part of the industry gatekeeping that tells female creators and fans that women need to stay within defined gender roles.
They actually had a panel called “How to Talk to a Hot Cosplayer” which I guess was supposed to be about etiquette but the title sounds like some shitty pick up artist workshop I’d expect an asshole like Sam Pepper to host. I say this time and again, the way you title your panels is important! Whoever approved that panel could have bounced the approval back to the panelists stating that the title was inappropriate.
Eventually, they added a second female writer. By the week of the show, they had one female artist bringing their total to THREE FEMALE CREATORS. Mind you, they had no problem taking money from women who wanted to pay for booth space. They eventually added a couple of male Back to the Future impersonators to their cosplay list and big all-gender groups like the 501st and Mandalorian Mercs.
Since I’ve interviewed several people who work behind the scenes at conventions like Jeff Mach from Steampunk World’s Fair, Dave O’Hare of GSCF, and Elsa Henry and Avonelle Wing from DexCon, I know that scheduling guests is a massive challenge. You have to be able to pay for their expenses; you have to get them on a weekend when they aren’t already booked or fighting deadlines; and you need to find people that you think the fans want to see. If I could have Kelly Sue DeConnick at a NJ show instead of the Comic Book Men, you better believe I’d make sure to be there.
The entertainment news site, Comics Alliance runs features all the time about women in the industry that fans, publishers, and con organizers should know. Some of them might be out of the realm of possibilities to have as guests because of geography; but seriously, only some. Pay attention to their “Hire This Woman” column. Besides that, they also post columns which echoed my already published thoughts about getting women and minorities as guests.
And that doesn’t even get into the growing landscape of female fans who start sites like Women Write About Comics, I Like Comics Too, and Feminist Sonar.
I GOT TO MODERATE A PANEL:
When someone from Twitter surprised me with an invitation to moderate panels at NJCE, I was so thrilled! First because someone knew I existed at least on the fan level; I don’t think they knew I was a writer or cosplayer, if so, it wasn’t mentioned. Secondly, because I had some nugget of hope that by being a moderator, my name would get the attention of the programming staff and maybe get me onto the guest list whether or not I had a table or only shared a space with someone to sign books.
That fantasy didn’t come true and I went from possibly being on three panels to moderating only one. I even offered to go against my better judgment and be on a “women in comics” panel if they needed to fill the chairs. That panel never even made it onto the schedule from what I saw.
As Jesse Parrino reminded me, you can give a type of “Bechdel-Wallace” Test to conventions:
- If there are two female guests
- that talk on a panel
- not about Women in ____ Industry.
As far as the rest of their scheduling, NJCE seemed to do an okay job. They had some cool spotlight panels (again, only male creators) and an entire track dedicated to making comics like the Inking one I moderated. They had more than “hot cosplayer” workshops including one on armor building.
What’s ironic to me is that I was there during peak Saturday hours and the cosplay guest area didn’t have any fans there other than people walking through the aisle to go around the corner. There were stellar costumed fans walking around though, but basically, the attendance was poor. It made it super easy to walk around! The aisles were wide and the headline vendors like Dynamite Comics, NECA Toys, and Jinx clothing had big booth spaces. The creator tables were like Swiss cheese – there were pockets of empty tables where creators didn’t show up or maybe were only attending Sunday. It looked sad to see lone creators off in these uninhabited spaces like they had the plague.
There were opportunities for charitable causes which is always a pleasure to see. There was a massive pirate ship set up in one corner with some cosplaying pirates who were donating their photo op money to a children’s charity. And the Mandalorians and 501st were both running fundraisers at their spaces on the opposite side of the convention hall.
The expo center is nothing to speak of. I’ve been there for Exxxotica. There was hardly any carpeted area (vendors/creators would have had to pay a lot to it in their spaces) so walking on the hard concrete floor was brutal. My back was screaming after only a matter of minutes. I couldn’t wait to sit down in a panel. That brings me to another complaint…
TO CLEAR OR NOT TO CLEAR BETWEEN PANELS:
I understand when large shows need to clear the rooms between panels to try and make it fair for fans to find seats, but this was weird. As I said, there was hardly anyone there. Attendance was dismal. There were tons of empty seats in every panel I sat through or caught a glimpse of through opening doors. The rooms were much nicer than what Exxxotica uses where they only curtain off areas; these were real presentation rooms down a hallway. And the bathrooms down there were clean and never had more than one or two people in them (again, super low attendance).
HOWEVER, in their program book, there is a highlighted section with minuscule print that states they do not clear rooms between panels:
I arrived at the room where the inking panelListen to the Panel was scheduled and went inside to sit in the back so I could get an idea of the setup: see how the audio sounded, check for projection/laptop, and the size of the room. It was a TINY room that sat maybe 25 people tops. My guest and I were asked to leave by someone in charge of the (unnecessary) queues for that room. I explained why I was there and it didn’t matter. We had to stand out in the hallway.
Honestly, if there was a big line to get in or a filled to capacity audience, I could understand being asked to go back out, but it wasn’t the case. I felt like garbage as if the Principal wouldn’t let me see the end of the school play. It was a Kubert Spotlight panel with Toby Cypress, so it would have been nice to hear even a few minutes of another creator speaking and of course, not go through the embarrassment of being asked to leave.
I had already sat through Garth Ennis and Action Lab panels, both of which had pathetic attendance as well and where attendees were free to come and go. I normally see an Ennis appearance get a long line, but there were less than ten people in his audience (who weren’t there with the publisher) which looked really bad in a big room. So getting two more butts into chairs for the Toby Cypress panel, even for 15 minutes, should have been welcomed to beef up the otherwise empty seats.
The show also had a strict weapons policy which included a ban on prop firearms like we have for our charity event at Comic Fusion. They did specify in the program “replica firearms (including reproduction, fake or toy guns that can be confused for real firearms)” and “metal-bladed weapons (including axes, daggers, hatches, knives, kunai, shuriken, swords, sword canes and switch blades)” among several other banned categories. They stated that they allow prop weapons of foam or cardboard only; barrels must be covered in brightly colored caps; soft tip arrows allowed for prop bows.
My question about the weapons policy is the same as what Kate the Geeky Redhead said regarding New York Comic Con: If you have a weapons ban, why do you have weapons vendors? Maybe the vendors were selling props, but I couldn’t tell from looking at them. Some of the katanas certainly looked real enough.
The program itself was designed well with a big map of the show floor and schedule in easy to read fonts. I didn’t check out the food there because it was in Edison where we knew we could find great Indian cuisine.
Handicap accessibility seemed fine since there were so few people and wide aisles. As I said, the panel rooms were great. Check-In was easy. Tons of parking spaces which was another sign of low attendance.
It didn’t take me more than half a day to go around the entire show and say hello to the creators I wanted to see. I had a wonderful time moderating the inking panel (recorded for the Vodka O’Clock podcast posting next Monday). I love chances to speak about comics, entertainment, or other areas of interest. I certainly don’t regret going because I loved that opportunity. But if someone were to ask me if the table price was worth it, my answer would be no. You wouldn’t break even no less cover your travel expenses.