Lots of superheroes, not so many comics: Opening night at New York Comic Con

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Batman, earning his paycheck in plaster. (gluetree via flickr.)
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Stepping into the main pavilion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center yesterday evening left little doubt where you were.

Towering over the elaborate booths and soundstages were oversized banners, tableaux of modern mythology's pantheon: Superman, Spider-Man, and legions of anonymous zombies and clone troopers. Not many vampires, though. Vampires are kind of last year.

It was opening night at the New York Comic Convention.

But, though giant images of superheroes were everywhere, they weren't, by and large, in comics, the format that spawned and nourished them for decades. These convention floors, even at larger shows like this one, used to be defined by rows of the infamous white “longboxes”--cardboard sarcophagi about the length of a full grown man, overstuffed with mylar bagged comic books. Comic geeks would be hunched over the bursting piles of mummified juvenilia thumbing through the books for artifacts to bring home to their collections.

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On the main showroom floor, there was not a longbox to be seen. Instead large polished displays of new merchandise were the norm. The major publisher’s booths didn’t seem to be geared towards comics as much as they were showcases of various products based on the comics themselves. Action figures and collectible statues were the centerpieces of their displays. Legendary Films and Sony Playstation had booths just as grand and elaborate—if not as big—as those center exhibits.

Last year, over 100,000 people from all over the country and the world streamed onto Manhattan’s West side to geek out about pop-culture standbys and obscurities, and the numbers this year are supposed to be bigger. There will be costumes. Pitches will be made. Comic books will be autographed. "News" from the comics companies, television networks and movie studios will be announced and sneak previews will be seen; all will be YouTubed, Facebooked, Flickrd, Tweeted, and, in packages either disparaging or eager but always fanatical, will be spread virally from West 34th Street outward in a matter of seconds to the worldwide geekosphere.

But last night things were still relatively quiet: the opening night is open only to press, industry professionals, and a small number of more enthusiastic convention guests who paid a premium price for a pass that could get them in a night early and case the joint. It's a night for the people here to size up the con and its microculture before the big festivities begin this afternoon.

There were some of the usual cosplayers about, but not in their usual force and, with a mostly disinterested audience around them, less inclined to stage the usual awkward performance-art set pieces that they tend to create around themselves in a bigger crowd.

But interest in the comics business has increased greatly over the six years Comic-Con has taken place here: One convention guest estimated to me that there were twice as many people here on the limited-entry premiere night than last year. Scalpers had already begun to sprout up around 11th avenue, mumbling prices for passes like marijuana peddlers in Washington Square Park circa 1990.

The center of the main pavilion is dominated by two usual suspects and one interloper. There, the three largest exhibition spaces are reserved for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and Lego, the company that's made its own sort of mint distributing themed Lego toys. The beauty of course is that a kid who has the action figures from Batman can still argue a need for the Lego Batman objects; same license, different universe of play.

Like any trade show (and the larger conventions like world famous San Diego Comic Con or the NYCC going on now at the Javits Center are trade shows as much as they are fan-driven affairs) the physicality of the convention hall reflects the priorities of the industry. In the superhero-making industry, the actual consumption of comic books is not where the money is. It hasn’t been for years.

The money in comic books is in the licensing of comic book characters for video games, films and television, and merchandise- especially action figures.

“I came to conventions because I collect action figures,” said Ben, a 29-year-old web designer I met peering at the museum-glass displays of action figures. “They’re not really selling any comics here I can’t get any other time. Conventions are when you can see what waves of action figures are coming out and you can get action figures that you’re not going to find normally. Limited editions- stuff like that. That’s why I come to cons.”

"The Walking Dead," AMC’s monster-hit television series based on the best-selling comic series, is a ubiquitous presence at the show. The plastic badges of show’s visitors are emblazoned with screen shots from the show, and the Oct. 14th premier of the highly anticipated third season is being hyped heavily.

Of course, comic companies don't just sign away the rights; they make synergies. And so, in conjunction with the premiere, the "Walking Dead" comic's 100th issue came out recently. It was one of the comic's best selling books in years, but didn’t seem quite as prominent at Javits as the licensed television property that came from it. The panel and Q&A with the show’s cast and writing staff going on Saturday evening is expected to be one of the convention’s most popular events.

To say that comic books aren’t as prominent as they once were at conventions is not to say they’re absent. They’ve just changed. The comics of the old spinner racks died a generation ago, replaced with the hobby shop, direct-market comic with higher production values aimed at an older audience. Those comics have now been replaced with what isn’t really a comic book at all.

The comics on the Javits Center floor are overwhelmingly trade paperbacks. The monthly comics that still get published in your friendly neighborhood comic shop are collected according to lengthy storylines and published in these bulk compilation trade paperbacks. The result is that the excavations for old yellow-paged back issues that used to the raison d’être of the comic book convention have died off.

One 40-something convention-goer I spotted with an armload of actual comic books smiled when I pointed out the change.

“I don’t shop for comics or buy old back issues anymore. Why would I? I can get the whole story in a trade rather than get it doled out in dribs and drabs over months and months.”

For a moment, he seemed wistful about conventions as he remembered them.

“I remember when cons were like that,” he said. “And those were fun. I miss that. But I still get to enjoy all those old stories and I can read the new ones- the way books are now- they’re better to read this way.”

Then he paused, looked around the cavernous room and said: “And times change. I mean honestly- who buys comics anymore?”

James McGeveran will be filing reports from Comic Con through Monday, Oct. 15.