Comic-Con Africa 2019 has come and gone.
I’m currently sitting at my desk wondering what to do with my life, I’ve gone through my haul (still posting some of it up on my Instagram, for those interested), I’ve kept a sharp eye on social media (the Friends of Comic-Con Africa Facebook group has been incredibly active since early last week; by comparison to the group’s usual state of busyness) and I’ve been watching all the videos and reading all the reviews to do with the event while I continued to formulate my own thoughts – last night, the only way I could describe the event to my mother was ‘absolutely fantastic’ and it was at that point that I’d realised I had used ‘fantastic’ to describe a few too many things throughout the convention, so let’s see if I can find another word while I write this.
First off, for those who don’t know, this is our second Comic-Con Africa (owned by ReedPop, for those interested). Last year we were treated to a three-day event at the Kyalami Race Track and Convention Centre, which can hold about 40 000 people (although the convention did sell out beforehand, we never got close to that number, as the stalls took up space, less than 20 000 at a time could be on the convention grounds).
This year, Comic-Con Africa took place at Gallagher Convention Centre, which can supposedly hold in the range of 80 000 people at any given time – but again, space taken up by exhibitors brings that number down substantially. I don’t know exactly how many people were in attendance each day, but total attendance for this year’s four-day event came to around 71 000 attendees.
As with last year, there were celebrity cancellations; in 2018, Jason Momoa cancelled due to reshoots and Anthony Mackie’s flight was grounded by a hurricane; this year, Mackie promised to come and planned to visit in between shoots for Falcon and the Winter Soldier (an upcoming Disney+ series), but due to a production delay, he couldn’t leave the set; Brian Azzarello is currently working on a large event within DC Comics and had to cancel due to a shift in his production schedule as well; Isaac Hampstead Wright, who played Bran on Game of Thrones, also had to cancel, due to a contractual obligation to attend the Emmies (as I understand it, most actors are invited on short notice, otherwise his agent wouldn’t have double-booked him); our final cancellation this year was from Jason Masters, who had a family emergency.
I understand that for many people, the celebrities are a huge drawcard, but there are some out there who seem to think that’s all Comic-Con is about – the celebrities. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most conventions are essentially gigantic markets; panels, talks, competitions and celebrities are addons. This is one of a few occasions a year when the entire community comes together, to one place – geeks and gamers, video games and merchandise, cosplayers and cosplay competitions, collectors and comic book stores; they’ve all been brought together from across the country, some even crossing continents and oceans to be there (many under their own steam, no less); and for R160 you have access to it all for ten hours – or for R500, you get it all for 40 hours across four days.
There is so much more to a convention than just the big names in attendance, but, if you choose to only focus on one aspect of something, you will, more often than not, find yourself disappointed – there’s a bigger picture here, I know you’re only there for that one piece but maybe try taking a look at the rest as well; you never know, you might actually find the experience enjoyable.
Between this year’s 300 or so exhibitors and roughly 26 000 square meters of convention ground, I constantly found myself discovering new stores and people throughout the weekend (yes, I could have just checked the map against the exhibitor directory, but where’s the fun in that?), even on Monday I was finding stalls I hadn’t been to (or noticed) earlier in the weekend – apparently I also missed the LARPing, wherever the heck that was.
Comic-Cons across the globe usually focus in on one or two things – art; video games and tech; comics and film; cosplay, etc – then we have Comic-Con Africa; with its equal showings of all aspects of popular culture; film, video games, tech (though there was a lot less tech this year), comics, art, cosplay, television series, literature, anime, manga; it’s all there. Speaking to people who have attended Comic-Con Africa, Emerald City Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con, a number of people have told me they prefer CCA for that very fact; the diversity of popular media on offer. Sure, New York Comic-Con might get you a chance to meet a huge Hollywood name, but you might be missing out on Artist Alley or esports.
Speaking of esports, the total prize pool for this weekend was R1.3 million, which I believe is on the high end of the scale when it comes to esports in South Africa.
Then there was KidsCon; a convention for kids, by kids (literally, CCA had a board of eleven children come up with fun ideas to keep kids occupied). LEGO activations, NERF battles, a kids-oriented fashion show, the chance to play Mario Kart, Supersmash Bros Ultimate and Splatoon – KidsCon was a great time for the little people, but, of course, LEGO will also occupy adults for hours on end (and so will video games).
Okay, now to discuss the major improvements over last year’s CCA.
The first thing I noticed was wheelchair accessibility; Kyalami’s convention centre had one elevator (granted, it was specifically for use by disabled people, but good luck getting to the elevator when people are blocking the doorways in an attempt to get up and down the stairs) and the bridge, which made for easier access to the first floor – one could say it is wheelchair accessible, but people often had to take roundabout routes just to get to a place that they could already see from their current position. By contrast, Gallagher is very much wheelchair friendly, there are two sets of stairs on the premises, one was indoors and took you to Hall 1 (which was a very quiet restaurant, although you could get there from outside the building as well) and the other one was situated near the main entrance, taking attendees to the Cosplay Karaoke Café and to the Tabletop Gaming Hall (the ballroom) – just a little further down from the main entrance was a ramp leading up into Artist Alley (which was connected to the aforementioned café and Hall 5 via two large doorways/corridors, from there you could get to the ballroom and to Hall 6), you could also get straight into Hall 5 through Entrance 2, which had a ramp. Halls 3 and 2 (the Gaming Hall and KidsCon) were also accessible via a ramp (said ramp was actually the only way in, but it was very wide and could easily accommodate large groups of people moving in either direction).
The second major improvement is a point of contention for some: food.
Last year, a wide variety of food trucks were set up on the convention grounds, but many had issues with service – myself and a number of others found ourselves in the same queue for nearly an hour, even though we had placed our orders upwards of 45 minutes prior (the queues were quite long at times, so getting to the food trucks was often a bit of a struggle), food was also on the expensive side. This year the catering was provided by Gallagher Convention Centre itself; unfortunately, the food was still expensive (especially the drinks) – there were some areas where queues were a little long but Gallagher had ‘restaurants’ (four of them, plus a café) spread throughout the convention grounds, although I think the one in Hall 1 could have been marketed better, as there was very little signage leading towards it (on the plus side, this meant the restaurant was virtually always quiet and never had any queues).
The final improvement is seating. Last year, the majority of the seating was out in the sun, which wouldn’t have been too much of an issue had the convention been held in winter, but September is our transition from spring to summer and South Africa is known for it’s hot sun for a reason – because it’s damn hot. Fortunately, this year all the seating was either indoors or in well-shaded areas. There was also loads of extra seating; there were small ‘side-areas’ with beanbags, the café had it’s own seating and the outdoors areas also had a lot of seating – for once, it seems a convention managed to organise enough seating; now, if only I could tell myself to sit down and rest once in a while, that would be great.
Now… things that could be improved.
The walkways in many areas were a lot wider than I’d expected them to be, but I think at least a meter on either side would be a really good idea; because the large amounts of people filled those walkways up and attendees often felt incredibly cramped because of it. This wasn’t just an issue for someone trying to get from one hall to another but also for someone trying to look at exhibitor’s stock and perhaps buy something, as the crowds would just force people to shuffle along, leaving you with fewer opportunities to actually buy things. Perhaps a fix would be designated ‘walking space’ and ‘buying space’, I’m not entirely sure how this would be implemented, possibly with bright tape on the ground and lots of labels; while it might not work entirely, it should at least allow people the space to stop and look at stock.
Another area sorely in need of improvement is the price of food and drink. I understand that Gallagher has bills to pay and that food costs money to make, but I also feel it shouldn’t be as expensive as it was this weekend. I am well aware that expensive food is basically a convention staple at this point, but I think people would welcome it if someone broke that tradition.
Something I really appreciated this year was the signage. Most of the doors leading to other areas had large signs above them telling attendees what was on the other side of the door – but I think the signage could have been a little clearer on some things. Content Zones (for panels and talks) are simply marked as ‘Content Zone’ and there is nothing to tell you the difference between ‘Content Zone 1’ and ‘Content Zone 2’, both of which were in Artist Alley. The Friends of Comic-Con Africa Meet-Ups were held in the Cosplay Karaoke Café each day of the event but many still had trouble finding the café, even if they’d already been there, part of the reason for this seems to have been due to the signage, as the signage in Hall 3 (Artist Alley) pointed towards the ‘Auditorium’ and the ‘Tabletop Gaming’ areas, but the Karaoke Café (which was right next to the auditorium and on the way from Hall 3 to the tabletop section) didn’t get a mention on the signage. The Gaming Content Zone took me forever to find, because it wasn’t marked on the map, I eventually found out from a fellow media pass holder that it was in between KidsCon and the Gaming Hall, but by that point, the two panels I’d wanted to get to were already over.
I’ve seen some people complaining about the ‘distinct lack’ of panels and talks, but as you’ll note, I just discussed them, so there definitely were panels and talks – but, aside from the signage issue, I think they could have been better marked on the maps (especially the larger ones that could be found across the convention grounds).
I understand that the books we are given on entrance tell us everything about who is where and they have far more detailed maps in them as well but perhaps make things easier on the people who either lose track of their books or forget to actually look in them (I know many people just stick it in their bag and carry on with their day) – personally, I almost forgot I had one and then realised I’d left it at the house I was staying in, so I couldn’t check without going onto the Comic-Con Africa App; which would be fine, if the app would let me create an account and log in without crashing.
My final point is the community (no need for improvement, like, at all).
I met with old friends, bumped into high school classmates, spoke to fellow media and content creators (there is almost always an interesting conversation going on in the Media Room), taking photos with cosplayers, talking to exhibitors – South African con-goers have this energy about them, this energizing factor that keeps you going regardless of how tired you are, there are always antics and there is always fun to be had.
This weekend, I finally got the chance to put faces to names – many of us admins of the Friends of Comic-Con Africa Facebook group had never actually met in person before, some live in Durban, some live in Johannesburg (like me), some live in Bloemfontein and others just seem to drop off the map when they go offline. Comic-Con Africa brought us together before we even met, the same goes for many members of the group, most of us met in person for the first time this weekend. Sure, the group existed months before last year’s con, but herding people is harder than herding cats and having a time and location on the schedule for us to meet-up really helped things this year.
And for that, I thank Comic-Con.
For my media pass, I thank Comic-Con.
For the absolutely fantastic weekend, I thank Comic-Con.
My feet still hurt, my wallet is still very much empty, but my walls are covered with prints, my shelves are lined with Funkos, my comic boxes are fuller, and my heart is filled with love & joy and I’ve got some amazing new memories – and for that, I thank Comic-Con.