I thought I knew the answer to this question pretty clearly. It certainly wasn’t a question I lost sleep over in the past seven years of attending multiple comic conventions a year.
If the question was multiple choice, the answers would read something like:
a)When there are people slowing down your movement through the show.
b)When there are people supporting agendas and beliefs you don’t like.
c)When the Fire Marshall says so.
d)There can never be too many people at a comic con. It’s one big party!
In other words, though people may give many answers to this question from a place of emotion, frustration, or bias, there’s one clear answer. When the Fire Marshall says it’s unsafe, that means too many people are at a show and it needs to be corrected in some way.
I’ve been attending New York Comic Con since the year 2010, and it was the show that converted me, not only to comic conventions, but to writing about comics. I started that show, however, hyperventilating in the Food Court area, not only because I was about to be a speaker at the first comic con I had ever attended, but because of the crowd situation. I had never seen so many people in one place outside of a stadium concert, and the prolonged exposure was getting to me after only a couple of hours.
Things changed pretty rapidly for me–I became a professional at handling the challenging aspects of conventions and they became my favorite thing. I’ve been going to NYCC for 7 years, SDCC for 5, and many other conventions in between. This year’s New York Comic Con, which just wrapped up, was a different experience for me. It was the first time I felt unsafe due to crowd conditions multiple times and for prolonged periods throughout the show.
The thing is–and many of my professional friends and colleagues would agree–we got spoiled. Reed POP has put on a fabulous show for years, a show that made working at the show fun, no matter how hard it might be. It was a lovely show. Fans were lively. Artists were having fun and making solid sales on their wares. Publishers were using the setting as a grand spectacle to spread the word about their books. And though the attendance at the convention has noticeably gone up over the years, this year’s show was a big leap into the high-density population issue I’m talking about.
There were obvious factors that must have contributed to this change in 2017. The two main factors that I assume were involved were 1. The construction on the Javits Center which meant reduced floor space in the main hall, and the full migration of Artist’s Alley to the lower level of the convention center, changing the flow pattern of human movement in the show. 2. The switch over to selling single day passes instead of four day passes (which used to be quite normal) at the show.
If you think about the former point, that will cause the same number of attendees to be gathered within a physically smaller space. And due to changes in the flow of people, there could be problems with access and with crowds building in open areas. Without knowing more about convention planning, and how the geography of the Javits Center works, it would be hard to comment on this specifically, but we can make some guesses below.
In the second case, we see a really big potential change in the number of attendees at the show. When someone has a four day pass, they might choose to skip a day of the show, or only come for part of the day since they have other options to come back. When someone has a one day pass, they are likely to maximize that experience by staying at the show, spending their budget on geek items, and making sure they go home satisfied at the end of the day.
To get back to the change in the convention center’s layout this year, if you’ve attended NYCC in the past few years, you’ll remember that Artist’s Alley was held in the “hangar” at the end of a long, fairly wide walkway that held a massive number of people, really. It could get extremely congested, but people had one main goal–to reach the end of the hallway, so movement was fairly brisk.
The access to Artist’s Alley this year consisted of two escalators from an open area sub-level and same-level walking access from the mezzanine on the same lower level as AA.
I’ll give you a beat to think about the two different access strategies. In previous years there was a hallway many meters long holding hundreds of people at a time to access AA, whereas this year, there were two escalators and a narrow access point below.
So, the most obvious point this year at NYCC was that the access to Artist’s Alley was not workable for the number of people trying to get in and out. It caused massive congestion virtually the entire show. Made exponentially worse when the escalator going “up” broke on Sunday, and everyone had to climb. Huge backups set in that flowed backward into the open areas of the mezzanine level.
Fortunately, this did not mean that Artist’s Alley didn’t get its share of visitors. In fact, it was very overcrowded, too. So much so that at times you couldn’t see the artists or even their banners well. And there was the heat index to go with the overcrowding. That’s a separate issue from the air conditioning actually breaking on Thursday, leaving AA and the artists tabling there in oven-like conditions.
But the overcrowding at NYCC went far beyond the access issues posed by Artist’s Alley. The public spaces where people could usually take a breather from the show floor, gather their strength to go back in to the events, were dangerously choked. I say “dangerously” as a personal judgement. Situations where people couldn’t move ahead, behind, or to the sides for significant periods of time were typical. The heat index in those public spaces was also very high at times. The mezzanine area and the upper walkway area in front of the escalators to the show floor, which typically have a lot of people, but reasonably brisk movement, were areas where you could become trapped and unable to move. Any cosplay posing that happened in those areas during congested periods brought an end to all movement.
The main show floor at NYCC has been incredibly crowded in recent years to the point that attendees and pros have come to expect that. Especially on Saturday. But imagine a situation where it’s Saturday-levels of crowds on that floor every day of the show, and you begin to understand the situation this year. Movement was restricted or impossible in many locations frequently throughout the day. The point of the floor–which is to view and sell products–must surely have been compromised by this as attendees could not get to the booths where they wanted to spend money.
I’d be very remiss if I didn’t mention the food access and bathroom access issues that arose this year, too. Both of those are challenges typical of NYCC, but just as in all these other cases, it was substantially magnified this year to the point that it simply became inhumane. Human beings come to comic conventions and they need basic access to health options like bottles of water, lunch, and the toilet. During peak hours of the show each day there was a 25 minute minimum wait for women trying to use a restroom, a surprising 20 minute wait for men (whose lines usually move faster) and a 25 to 40 minute wait for food. Even the incremental change from 15-20 minutes for bathrooms and food in previous years is enough to push past the humane level in these conditions.
Regarding access to water, this was a severe problem due to the heat issues in the convention center. If a person was feeling faint and uncomfortable from the heat, and tried to find some water, the delay waiting in lines to buy water could cause further problems. And there are some water fountains, of course, in the Javits Center, but in the crowd conditions of this year’s show, that was not an easy option to reach, either.
This article is getting long, and may seem like it’s only presenting the negatives of the show. That’s not my intention. I can say without any hesitation that the comic professionals at the show predominantly had a very positive experience. And the experience of the show will have varied depending on your level of activity during it.
If you were an exhibitor working at a booth, you may have realized the show was “crazy” due to sales and fan flow, but only really come across the troubling aspects of this overcrowding when trying to get to and from the bathroom. If you were an artist or creator tabling in Artist’s Alley, you had to deal with the heat, the bathroom, and food access issues, but if you stayed at your table most of the time, you might not have had to deal with the traffic problems as much.
For anyone working at the show who had to move around consistently between panels, the show floor, and Artist’s Alley, like myself, you bore the brunt of this overcrowding every day, hour on hour. And for you, as for me, it may feel like you worked several shows in one weekend. The physical toll of this kind of experience is huge. It takes much more energy to spend an hour held up, waiting, and sweating in the heat, getting from A to B than to spend twenty minutes briskly walking.
Talking to other people about the show, which I did throughout NYCC ’17, I heard that professionals had a wonderful experience in terms of interacting, encouraging each other, and spending time talking about their chosen medium. In fact, the atmosphere was unusually productive and friendly this year. And I can confirm that from my own experience. But most of that interaction happened outside of the show or normal show hours.
To come back to the opening point: When are there too many people at a comic con? Surely when the Fire Marshall says so? And yet I witnessed scenes of intense crowding that went way beyond an ordinary sense of safety at the show. I witnessed it continually, multiple times a day. I’ve seen plenty of photos taken by others that show the conditions I’m talking about here. So why wasn’t a Fire Marshall concerned?
The fact that no Fire Marshall called out these conditions deeply concerns me. In fact, it undermines my certainty in answering the question. Maybe the only answer to the question is, “When you feel unsafe. When you feel you are in an unhealthy situation”. Unfortunately, that’s something we have to decide for ourselves. It’s just surprising, and a shame that the limits set by the show this year went past the ordinary human limits many of us would set for ourselves, in terms of what we can physically endure at a comic con in order to take part in what should be a gigantic celebration of pop culture with reasonable accommodation to human needs.
Reed POP, who run the show, faced many challenges this year—the construction at the Javits Center was no doubt a maddening thing, and we know that it required a complete restructuring of elements of the show. And we also know that things have to get worse to get better. Someday we will have a double-sized convention center to lounge around in at NYCC. But that day is not yet. And if the conditions at the convention this year were supposed to be “normal”, that’s hard to accept. And maybe impossible to accept given the extreme conditions attendees faced.
Attendees should not have to have marathon endurance to experience New York Comic Con.