When he was interviewed for Fast Company’s story on his upcoming Marvel Cinematic universe course at the University of Baltimore, adjunct professor Arnold Blumberg told a funny anecdote about a father who had taken his son to see the movie The Amazing Spider-Man. Afterwards, the man suggested they hit a comic book store to learn even more about his son’s now-favorite hero.
The boy responded: “They make comic books about Spider-Man?”
By extension, the Comic Con itself has gone from a rare chance for like-minded members of a fringe community to gather and exchange information (usually held in motel ballrooms or church basements) to massive, multi-million-dollar events where, like during this week’s New York Comic Con, A-list stars like George Clooney happily stop by to promote their new films. All of which has given the Con a type of identity crisis. Are they for the hardcore? Are they for new fans indoctrinated by Guardians of the Galaxy? In short, who is the Comic Con for?
“We try and stay true to the core,” says Lance Fensterman, head of pop culture event production company ReedPOP, the primary ringleader of New York Comic Con. “We have more comic guests than any other type of guests, but it is branching out into all kinds of genres of popular culture that are more mainstream. So we want to please that core group, but we also want to grow our community.”
According to Fensterman, the absorption of comic book and “geek” culture into the mainstream isn’t killing the cult, it’s bringing more people to it. “Last year, 40% of people who came to NYCC had never been here before,” says Fensterman. “So we are reaching a new audience. And that’s great for the industry, that’s great for our exhibitors, for the publishers–they’re going to reach those who have not yet been converted.”
Andrew Cohen, the marketing events coordinator for Midtown Comics in Manhattan, says their stores definitely see a positive “Con” impact. “We’re pretty close to the Javits Center, so we actually see a lot of flow from the Con coming into our Times Square location,” says Cohen. “On the Con side, you get more people who are curious about comics, maybe they’re not too into it yet but want to learn more about it so they come and pick up books. So it’s the introduction phase into comics for a lot of people here. People ask, ‘Where should I start if I want to get into Spider-Man? The X-Men?””
Actress Susan Heyward, who will be starring in the upcoming PlayStation original comic adaptation series Powers, sees the Cons as being a vital part of pop culture’s circle of life. “It’s about creating an umbrella or a way of communicating to the entire industry,” says Heyward. “We go, ‘Yo, guys! Over here! There’s something happening over here!’ So that we’re all talking to each other as opposed to forgetting that entire portions of the population just aren’t being served by another.”
However, if, as Fensterman puts it, the Cons are meant to be “a big tent that welcomes all,” many worry that the increasing emphasis on cosplay threatens to turn the big tent into a literal circus. Denise Dorman, wife of comic book artist Dave Dorman, recently posted a controversial rant on her blog Comic Book Wife blaming cosplayers for creators’ inability to make money at these events. “I have slowly come to realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, COSPLAY is the new focus of these conventions,” writes Dorman. “Seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches, and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place.” She goes on to complain that artists and creators are little more than “background wallpaper against which the Cosplayers pose in their selfies.”
If there’s a constant through the history of comic books, it’s of creators being poorly served. Behind most billion-dollar heroes in tights, you’ll find a line of writers and artists who defined the character but retain no rights to their work. While Dorman may not be getting a boon from the increased cosplayer traffic, the Cons and their host cities are. The attendees pump an estimated $178 million into the San Diego economy during their visit, and an estimated $50 million into New York City.
When asked by Fast Company for his take, Brian Michael Bendis–a writer and artist who went from indie comic darling to the one of the most powerful creative leaders at Marvel Comics, takes a more inclusive approach to cosplay. “The conventions now become this expression where you can come dressed as anything you like, and you show up and let your flag fly,” says Bendis. “And you get to do that with no judgment? It’s fantastic. I think it’s a goddamn miracle. I think it’s amazing. And it just happened. No one said, ‘Now we’re going to do this.’ They just slowly did it more and more. “
Dorman isn’t the only worried about the type of attention cosplayers get. As cosplay became more widespread, so did reports of inappropriate behavior as well as photographers and “journalists” flocking to the Cons solely to feed “Hottest Girls of Comic Con” galleries. Cons were getting a bad reputation, and Fensterman was determined to save NYCC’s soul.
“We created an intense, brand-new campaign called ‘Cosplay is Not Consent,’” says Fensterman. “And we partnered with a female-focused geek news site called The Mary Sue and crowdsourced our policy through them. So we have a strong commitment to creating an environment that is safe and fun for everybody, and our policy reflects what our fans have told us helps them feel safe.”