To a soundtrack of pumping rock music, Sebastian Stan emerges onto the stage in a darkened auditorium. There are whoops and cheers and flashes of blue and orange light. The Hollywood actor, dressed in a black leather jacket, grey T-shirt and jeans, waves his microphone aloft like it is an Oscar statuette to take the 1,200-strong crowd to crescendo.
“You’re all very, very nice,” he drawls in an unfamiliar voice, admonishing himself as he settles onto a black leather sofa: “God! I wish I could do a British accent.” The audience doesn’t care. Fans have come to hang on his every word – and record many of them on their phones - no matter how odd the delivery.
For the last eight years Stan has played Bucky Barnes in the blockbuster Avengers movie series based on Marvel Comics’ family of superheroes. Bringing to life the soldier and ally of Captain America makes the Romanian-American akin to royalty for attendees at MCM Comic Con London, the biggest pop culture convention of its kind that welcomes more than 200,000 comic book devotees over the three days of its May and October shows.
They are as interested in the psyche of the character as much as the actor himself. There follow questions on time travel, the length of Bucky’s hair, memories of playing opposite Chris Evans and whether Stan prefers Captain America’s shield to Thor’s hammer. “The shield because I probably couldn’t pick up the hammer.” One cheeky query is even beamed in from Spiderman actor Tom Holland.
Towards the end of the 45 minutes, an 18-year old girl with long dark hair and wearing a white T-shirt with a college logo makes it to the front of microphone queue and begins speaking in a hard-to-comprehend language. Then, to Stan’s amazement, she elaborates: “I have been learning Romanian because of you since July last year.”
A few hours spent at Comic Con are enough to realise that nothing is too much trouble for these fans who will later queue for autographs at £70 a time. Milling around the vast conference halls of the ExCeL Centre in London’s East End is Joanna, a 24-year old animator who has been attending since 2011. She has come dressed as Sinon, a character from the Sword Art Online series of Japanese anime books because “she’s got a bit of sass”. Her costume - green cape, armour breastplate and furry cat ears – is topped off with an archery bow made from her mother’s spare curtain poles. “It is a two-way thing,” she explains. “It is amazing to see other costumes as well as show off your own.”
So-called costume play - or cosplay – in which fans dress as their favourite characters, has made the Comic Con crowd more female. At least half of attendees have come dressed for the occasion, so the hall is a melee of latex, wigs, horns, hats, gowns, armour, plastic weapons and makeup. Lois, 24, a podiatrist from South London, is processing regally around the 44,000 square-metre site as Queen Amidala from the Star Wars movies in an elaborate velvet red dress and bejewelled headgear that took four months to assemble. “I loved the dress and I got to a level with my cosplay-making that I wanted to give it a try,” she explains. Sessions on prop building, applying makeup and painting with an airbrush encourage fans to go one better on the next visit. For now, they can spend time on some old-fashioned shoot ‘em ups in the games arcade, kick back with an origami class or marvel at a 24,000-brick Lego version of London's iconic Shard building.
The mood is warm, with fans praising and photographing each other, but there are tolerance guidelines clearly displayed just in case. “It takes a special kind of courage to wear these outfits on the way to Con and everyone here appreciates that and respects each other for it,” says Phil, 28, a quality manager for a health and safety training company in Surrey who has paid up to £68 to attend. Today he is the support act to his friend, Peter, 27, a warehouse operative, who is dressed in the blue latex and black fright wig of Vegeta, a prince from the Dragon Ball anime series. Tomorrow Phil takes centre stage in a more intricate costume. “It’s got limited visibility so Peter is essentially going to be my carer.”
Lance, 42, a security guard who lives in Croydon, is one of the 575 volunteers working at the event. The comic book fan has been to conventions in the US but this is his first in the UK. In between checking tickets for an author signing, he has bought original drawings and vintage ThunderCats and He-Man figures to add to his collection. As he lists his purchases, a mother and daughter pair of Princess Leias dash by and, down the hall, a choir of Disney princesses burst into song.
“Geek is the new chic,” says David Lilley, UK events director at organiser ReedPOP. “And we are riding along with it. The making of giant movies has really changed the landscape. Comic books have become a much more mainstream thing.”
Lightsabres clack with the intensity of a face-off on Star Wars’ Death Star. Luminous arcs form over the combat zone as a cluster of would-be Jedis are put through their paces. The eternal battle between good and evil is no longer a celluloid preserve. In the centre of MCM Comic Con’s conference hall, a steady stream of eager students in either oatmeal robes or foreboding black garb take up arms with surprising panache.
Putting them through their paces is Faisal Ahmed Mian, the head instructor at Silver Sabres, a North London academy that blends ancient martial arts with a dollop of movie theatrics. “This language has been canonised through the films but it has existed for centuries,” says Mian, whose training sessions led by 15 staff are already booked up for the day. “In this environment, we're teaching people how to hold not just the sabres but themselves.”
Mian is not the only entrepreneur to have found an ingenious way of catering for the Comic Con crowd. Down for the weekend from Peterborough is Colin Ward, a former store manager for the Game retail chain whose stand is adorned with brightly-painted covers for video games controllers.
“It started off simply by designing a blood splatter controller and it has grown and grown,” he says. Ward now attends every MCM Comic Con event – there are six during the year that take place in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow - and estimates his firm, Undead Gaming, will sell 200 covers this weekend, plus controllers on top. He is one of 750 vendors and exhibitors to set up shop here. They range from nerdy comic book memorabilia to the giants of Hollywood. A stand plugging the next X-Men movie lets fans record themselves in a short GIF animation at the heart of one of the story’s most memorable explosions.
Some of the briskest trade takes place at the brightly-lit concession run by Funko, a billion-dollar business headquartered in Washington State that more than most epitomises the boom in pop culture. Funko’s range of collectable figures has made over everyone from Harry Potter to Cruella de Vil as four-inch figures with outsize heads and cute features.
Staff rush to replenish shelves and the queue snakes down the hall as consumers wait to get hold of an exclusive Darth Vader with a gold chrome finish or a 10-inch version of Marvel’s villainous Thanos. “The majority of fans don't actually take the product out of the packaging,” explains Eva Dawes, Funko’s head of strategic marketing and sales for the region, who hopes to shift 50,000 items across the weekend.
Gauging what sells is a delicate balance. It is something that occupies the mind of MCM Comic Con’s core team of 15 all year round. An additional 43 crew members are brought in for show time. Seven trading standards officers discreetly patrol the hall to ensure there are no fake goods. Even though it is careful with the fans’ property, ReedPOP freely admits to making mistakes – and quickly correcting them in consultant with diehard show-goers.
“We changed our voice and we changed the marketing,” confesses Mike Armstrong, ReedPOP’s vice president who oversees many of its US shows. He is talking about Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle which wobbled in the year after it was acquired. “We felt we knew better in some instances and we didn’t keep some of the things that made that show great.” The event is now back on track.
Bigger brands want to be part of the pop culture movement. For some there is an obvious connection, such as the SyFy channel showing off its virtual and augmented reality platform Eleven Eleven. Others have to be more creative to get in the door. Car insurer Progressive has carved out a benevolent presence at some of the North American conventions by offering free locker space and dispatching an army of unicorn-headed Protector-Corns to stand in line for fans while they wander the exhibition.
When the doors were thrown open on the first New York Comic Con on a cold February day in 2006, few expected them to be closed again quite so quickly. A single hall had been hired in the basement of the Javits Center, a conference facility next to Manhattan’s Lincoln Tunnel, with no more than 6,000 people due. Twice that figure turned up. Unimpressed, the fire marshal ordered a shutdown and instigated a one in, one out policy for the crowd of excitable fans.
“It was clear we didn't know what we were doing - how to manage queues or how to accredit people,” says Lance Fensterman, the global head of ReedPOP, the organisation that eventually emerged from the fracas.
Running the giant BookExpo America (BEA) trade fair, Fensterman knew there was potential. The sales data showed that DC and Marvel comic books, plus Japanese manga and graphic novels, were outpacing all the other categories. BEA’s parent company, Reed Exhibitions, was looking to give other event formats a try and backed a hunch that the type of comic convention run since 1970 in San Diego could operate just as well in New York.
They were right – eventually. “We felt strongly that we needed to say we’re sorry, we won't do it again,” says Fensterman, who joined the team in time for the 2007 event. “We gave people discounted tickets if they would come back and we really tried to atone for the situation.” The fans stuck by them. These days, New York Comic Con still uses the Javitz Center but it has become so big it needs to run from seven sites including Madison Square Garden and the Hammerstein Ballroom and features almost 1,000 exhibitors.
Starting as geeky fan-led events, comic conventions were given a shot in the arm when Hollywood became interested, supplying celebrities and sneak previews of upcoming releases to generate buzz. “In a trade show, it is about stands. You sell a booth, you sell square metres,” says Fensterman. “What we saw were ardent fans, communities of people that were there for self-expression. It became clear that that's the currency we were trading.” He gives the example of “Bronies”, the male fanbase of My Little Pony. “You tend to have your tribe and our job is to build enough things for each of them. Where it gets fun is when the tribes start to interact.”
As a Lego fan, he is well used to piecing together opportunities. His CV – running community websites, restaurants and independent book shops everywhere from Ohio to Connecticut and his home state of Minnesota – is a collection of entrepreneurial building blocks. It could explain why Fensterman was quick to explore what else would work in this world, adding an anime show and acquiring Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), a small video games event. First contact with Lucasfilm, which led to a deal to run the Star Wars Celebration, came when Fensterman approached the company’s booth at San Diego Comic Con to find out who was in charge. “And when I found out, I bought her a hotdog.”
Dressed in T-shirt, hoodie and scuffed sneakers, he eschews corporate clobber. A decade ago, the ReedPOP division was formed to acknowledge that Fensterman’s events were run differently to the rest of Reed Exhibitions, right down to how his team looked. But he is clear that the business could not have grown without the bigger enterprise behind them. “It took the entrepreneurialism of fandom but it also took the credibility and the might of a company like Reed Exhibitions, and its parent RELX, to make ReedPOP.”
Two years ago, ReedPOP expanded again. To gain scale in Europe, it bought MCM Comic Con – the initials stand for Movies, Comics, Media – which had been in running since 2002, plus Gamer Network, the owner of the UK’s largest games event. Today ReedPOP generates revenues of $100m from 44 shows a year. Fensterman tries to get to half of them. It is never too early to get into pop culture: his two young daughters have attended every New York Comic Con they have been alive for.
From a scrappy beginning, events now range from Jakarta to Mumbai, Sydney to Vienna. There is regional variety – merchandise featuring “yinz” sells well in Pennsylvania where it is slang for “you”, for example – and the rules also differ. In Australia, there are high walls built around some stands to obey strict age rules on video games.
What comes next? ReedPOP is already tapping into the revival in board games – or tabletop games as they are now known – with PAX Unplugged in Pennsylvania. It is also involved in ComplexCon in Chicago where a street culture that revolves around sneakers, graffiti art and hip-hop music is celebrated. Fensterman, laid back yet obsessive, is content to follow the fans.