The 90-year-old Hotel Pennsylvania is something of an ancient structure, by midtown Manhattan’s standards. The columned building rises up 22 floors from seventh avenue, just across the street from the imposing mirrored exterior of Madison Square Garden. At 3:00 in afternoon on a Saturday, in the middle of an uncharacteristically wet June, the lobby of the hotel buzzes with the rolling of wheeled luggage and the chatter of new arrivals and late checkouts.
Things, in turn, are equally hectic just through the 18th floor elevator doors, at the entrance of the show that prides itself on the very specific claim of being, “the oldest and longest running comic, art and toy, sci-fi show in New York City.” At check-in (registration, it bears mentioning, right off the bat, is completely free), a woman sitting behind a laptop asks two questions.
The first, simply—and abstractly—enough is “what kind of comics do you like?” It’s a question, I suspect, many attendees struggle with, a bit like filling out the paperwork at the pediatrician, only to have the woman behind the counter ask you which of your seven children you’d least like dead. “Marvel” would have been an acceptable answer, I suppose—so too would have “Batman” or “Manga” or “anything by Jeff Loeb.”
I answered as simply and honestly I could muster, stating only, “indie comics,” and by doing so somehow managed to hit upon the broadest answer would could possibly produce while still managing to miss the point completely. “All comics?” she attempted to repeat my answer back, entering it befuddled into the computer. Sometimes you have to go with misheard answers. Sometimes they’re better than your own.
The registration woman’s second obligatory question was the more bizarre—and perhaps revealing—of the two. “If Big Apple Con added a casino, would you stay and gamble?” I’m not really much of a gambler, and as such, this was far and away the easier of the two questions. Neither, it seems, are the organizers of Big Apple Con. Both of whose questions are clearly geared at shaping future iterations of the show based on this small bit of mandatory audience participation.
The show, after all, is free now, and money must be made–somehow. It’s a good deal smaller—and far less showy than many of counterparts. And even more so than other shows, what’s available behind its doors is largely based around spending yet more money. Granted, retail is a major aspect of all comic conventions, but there’s little spectacle unfolding inside for curious parties—or, at the very least, not the sort that people would necessarily pay to see. The costumed attendees are minimal, as is the representation of publishers, gaming companies, and other manufacturers of product.
There are two primary rooms that comprise the interior of Big Apple Con. One is devoted to retailers—comic shops primarily hocking back issues, tables selling t-shirts, dealers with random assortments of garage sale-like collectables, and booths selling the sort of non-comics related DVD and VHS bootlegs that pop up indiscriminately at nearly every retail convention in the free world. I’d be lying if I suggested that I didn’t considering purchasing a handful of things in this room, but rarely, if ever, were those products actual comics.
The second of the two rooms is devoted to autographs. It’s an odd mix, to be sure. There are the men and women of wrestling, “actresses” whose most prominent roles tend to revolve around the relative tastefulness of a Playboy spread, and comic artists of yesteryear happily sketching characters on demand. There are also exhibitors whose presence seem even more at odd with the rest—like Pandora’s Box artist Ken Wong, who seemed much more at home amongst the DIY minis of last week’s MoCCA Festival.
The two rooms are connected by a small walkway, where that new mainstay of geek gatherings, the New York City Jedi School, had a set up a recruit booth. Each time I walked past, its robed-clothed staffers seemed engaged in yet another heated genre debate.
This was my first Big Apple Con. In previous years, its organizers’ tendency to schedule the show the same weekend as MoCCA had struck me as strange. Surely it wasn’t in everyone’s best interest to schedule two big New York comic events against one another. A few minutes inside, however, it occurred to me why “indie comics” was the exact wrong password for entrance into the show. Save for some sketches of various Watchmen, behind these doors there lay a world where alternative comics just don’t exist.
This, in a sense, is a show for those unknown exhibitors that pop up in places like New York Comic Con’s Artist Alley, tirelessly sketching pencil drawings of Wolverine for eager young fans—indie artists who don’t know that they’re indie, who don’t know what it means to be alternative, who can only define themselves by not yet having cracked comics’ mainstream.
And while there were certainly several female attendees who were at the show by choice, it was hard not to pick out the disinterested girlfriends in the crowd, waiting as partners flipped through ever last back issue in an exhibitors bin. Big Apple Con doesn’t try to be everything to everyone. The resources to expand the net beyond a fairly concentrated sub-cultural focus, much to the chagrin of parents attending with armies of children, who may soon regret their decision once they happen upon the second room, half occupied by women seated behind tables sporting looks of general disinterest and little more.
That said, Big Apple Con is certainly a show that knows how to cater to its audience. The one-day con was well-attended, leaving little room to navigate its aisles, especially when excited fans held up traffic by posing for photos, sweaty heads nestled in the bosom of one of said actresses.
Big Apple Con isn’t a show for everyone—it’s certainly not a show me, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a place to pick up gaps in your Detective Comics collection, screen bootlegs kung-fu movies with your own commentary, buy swords based on Star Trek story arcs, and argue about fallacies in the extended universe with a fellow attendee dressed as their personally invented Jedi. And judging from the healthy numbers flowing in and out of the show’s doors, there are plenty of folks in this city who want to do just that.