In early 2020 my friends and I were a few days away from booking accommodations for Comic Con Cape Town when lockdown was announced, promptly beginning a day or two later.
All events were postponed indefinitely, most were eventually cancelled in their entirety, whilst others moved into the following year.
And now, in 2022, we finally get a large convention. With nearly three years of uncertainty between CCA 2019 and CCA 2022, no one really knew what to expect.
We knew the space was bigger. We figured vendors would have higher prices. We figured the event itself might cost more to attend. We hoped the food situation would improve.
But above all, we wanted to just get out there and have fun.
Well, fun was definitely had. The space certainly was bigger, the walkways were much, much wider than in previous years; and the food situation definitely did improve (though there is yet room for improvement in that area).
My thoughts surrounding Comic Con Africa 2022 are complicated, to say the least.
I enjoyed the event, greatly, had a fantastic time of it; got to hang out with friends I hadn’t seen in years, made new ones, met with vendors, bought all the merchandise, etc; all the good things you expect from a convention – I won’t spend multiple paragraphs on this stuff like I did in 2019.
But I also nearly had a meltdown on Day 3 (Saturday); and there were a host of issues I’ll get into over the course of this article.
Space, Crowds & Heat
I don’t know if it was ever explicitly stated by the organisers (it probably wasn’t), but somewhere along the line the community (myself included) got it in their heads that CCA would utilise the whole of the Johannesburg Expo Centre.
This was not the case.
I don’t think it would even be fair to expect an events company to use such a large space right out of a three year long pandemic (and certainly not in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis; business has gotten expensive too, afterall), but I think the organisers definitely could have stood to use more of the space than just three halls and some of the outdoor areas.
As a caveat, I’ve only ever been to the Jo’burg Expo Centre once before in my life, that was years ago and I don’t actually know how much outdoor space they have; a fellow media human had been to the expo centre more recently and claimed CCA was utilising maybe half of the outdoor space at most.
This rings especially true when you see just how many people attended on Saturday.
As of writing this Comic Con has yet to publish the exact attendance numbers, they’ll need to wait on an audit before they can do that; but, between vendors and other media humans, I heard a variety of conflicting numbers.
I won’t bore you with the details of said conflicting numbers and where they all came from, but know that they ranged from twenty five thousand to thirty thousand, to even thirty five thousand tickets for the day. Bear in mind that whatever the total, a sizeable portion of that would be weekend passes, not just day tickets.
However many tickets Comic Con ended up selling for each day of the event, come Saturday it became evident that they sold far too many tickets for the space they were using.
I get that there is a balancing act to be had, what with floorspace not being free and Reed Expo being a business at the end of the day; but it is also an event, with human beings attending. I don’t want to kinkshame but I suspect most people aren’t fans of pretending to be sardines as they get packed into cans.
On Saturday, movement came in two forms; you either couldn’t move at all, or the crowds were shoving you along; either way, getting to any of the vendors was a mission and took far longer than it had any right to, and when you eventually got to the stand you were looking for, there was nowhere to stop and look at the vendor’s stock, if you could even stop at all.
To make matters worse, Saturday saw Nasrec reach twenty seven degrees Celsius – which isn’t abnormal for Johannesburg this time of year, but when you’ve got thousands of people packed into one building, all warm bodies giving off heat and humidity… it becomes unbearable; borderline dangerous, as one friend put it.
While attendees were allowed to bring water with them (the rule is one bottle per person, if I’m not mistaken; this has been the case since CCA 2019, because the water situation in 2018 was atrocious), I’ve heard at least one report of security taking a water bottle away from an attendee at the entrance.
While bringing a water bottle in is one thing, refilling it is entirely another, and there weren’t any water stations or taps for attendees to make use of.
I feel like this could be fixed relatively easily with water coolers at regular intervals (which would, of course, need refilling themselves), but I get the sense that there is a disconnect here between Comic Con’s organisers and the expo centre’s management; often an expo/convention centre will provide certain things to the event at a cost, but these things are limited – in 2019, anyone with access to the media room got free coffee, but there was a limited amount per day, the coffee sachets (and milk) were provided by the convention centre, as was the water in the water cooler, but if we ran out two hours into the day then that was it and we’d only get a refill the following day, it was up to the convention centre, not the organisers.
I get the sense that water stations would be something the expo centre insists on providing themselves (anyone with more knowledge on the matter is welcome to correct me if I’m wrong; I’m just thumbsucking based on what I already know of events like these, which isn’t really all that much to begin with).
Either which way, something has to be done about the water situation, because it is never actually ‘good’, its always been ‘terrible’ or ‘passable’ – the same could be said of rAge and many other events.
I don’t know how many but I know for a fact that at least one person (and probably many more) passed out on Saturday, most likely from heat stroke; one such person was nearly trampled; and a friend of mine keeled over puking from heat stroke as well.
There were emergency medical teams on site but I never actually found them, a media friend claimed to have found one of at least two teams on Sunday morning, apparently they were tucked away in a corner where people couldn’t really see them. Said team comprised of three people (I imagine the other team was the same size), and they said the medical staff on site the previous day had been given the day off, as they had been overwhelmed to exhaustion on Day 3.
On the Johannesburg Expo Centre’s webiste, they boast a maximum capacity of over one hundred thousand attendees but I’d like to know how they came to that number, if it was some quick math on how much space the average person takes up or if it was actually tested in a real world environment.
I know CCA wasn’t using all the space, but I don’t think there are too many conventions and conferences that actually reach the same attendance levels for an equivalent amount of floorspace, one wonders if the expo centre was actually built for tens of thousands of people on a practical level.
Either which way, Saturday was hell, too many people in too small a space.
Someone among Comic Con’s organisers told me they wanted to go bigger next year, specifically referencing attendance numbers in their statement; I hope they were referring to floorspace too.
Speaking from an attendee’s point of view, we really could have used an extra hall this year, even if it meant spreading things out further, I’m confident people would be more than willing to go the extra distance if it meant actually having space to move.
Speaking of moving around,
When a convention or expo centre boasts wheelchair accessibility (or even just disabled access in generall), I am now skeptical, because far too often it seems like the bare minimum was done in order to tick a box.
At CCA 2018, Kyalami Convention Centre featured an elevator specifically for the physically disabled (there may have been a second one, though in my article from back then I only mention one), but it was so small only one person could actually fit in it at any given time. The only way to get from the ground floor of the main building to the food truck village required either using the elevator, moving halfway down the length of the building and taking a bridge, or moving through the crowds in a roundabout manner.
Technically wheelchair accessible, but not practical in any way that mattered.
Gallagher’s idea of disabled access was a massive improvement, what with ramps at the entrances to each hall (most of these ramps were quite wide, though the two main entrances to the main hall featured the long, thin sort you’d see at a mall) and the connections between halls featured no stairs.
The Jo’burg Expo Centre’s idea of disabled access is… something else.
Each of the entrances to the halls has stairs, with one ramp running alongside them; the ramp is nowhere near wide enough for two wheelchairs, two prams, or two people to move along in opposite directions. There are stairs between halls, as some of them are connected, but none of these connecting stairways have ramps; meaning the only way for someone physically disabled (or for parents with children in prams) to feasably get from one hall to another was to find a main entrance, go outside and then find one of the entrances to the hall they’re looking for.
Again; technically they have disabled access, but it’s not great.
Then there are the stands themselves.
While throngs of people generally don’t make for great disabled access, some of the vendors/exhibitors had stalls that attendees could move into/through, at least one of these stalls was definitely not accessible to anyone in a wheelchair, on crutches, or with a pram; and that was before the crowds of Saturday arrived, once that happened even I made a point of avoiding these stalls.
On another note, noise levels; I’m autistic, and one of the upsides (and sometimes, downsides) of this is my hypersensitivity.
OK, conventions are loud, this is to be expected, I can mentally prepare for that and I often carry earplugs to events; but what I can’t prepare for are the speakers at the panels – because they were incredibly loud.
Just about the only way I could comfortably attend a panel was to stand ten to twenty metres away and make use of a pair of earplugs; at one point someone offered to sit directly between me and a speaker at a panel, it is amazing what a difference to the volume that made for me, but the fact that even the average person could still hear a panel on one end of the main hall while standing at the main stage says something about just how loud these panels were – I am not the only one to complain about panel volumes this weekend.
Though I suppose there is just no winning here for Comic Con, in 2019 people complained the panels weren’t loud enough.
I have nothing to say here other than that the cosplays this year were spectacular. I saw loads of new faces in Cosplay Central, and I look forward to seeing the cosplays they come up with next for the next event.
To the winners of the various cosplay competitions, huge congratulations, you all came back to Comic Con with a vengeance, some of the best cosplays I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in person were present this weekend.
However, on behalf of my cosplayer friends, I do have one gripe; cosplayers get little to no privacy at Comic Con. They were promised Cosplay Central as a space to relax, but the lack of separation between cosplayers and general attendees means the cosplayers are continually inundated with photo requests, even while trying to relax and rest.
To CCA’s organisers, please, give them that space and give it to them properly, give them the privacy they’re asking for; the average attendee neither knows nor cares that Cosplay Central is meant to be a space for cosplayers to relax, leaving cosplayers feeling like they’re on display in a zoo.
Comic Con messed up here, big time.
Speaking as media, I understand that the communications team receives hundreds of emails a day, but the fact that I sent two emails, one in late July and another in early August, only one of which got a response (and only a few days before the event itself), I am more than a little disappointed.
In 2018 we were given a heads up during the media pass application process on when we could expect responses by depending on when we’d applied, but this year (and in 2019) we were given no such grace, just a few weeks out from the event itself and I still didn’t know whether or not I needed to buy a weekend pass.
But enough about communication between the event and media, what of communication between the event and the public?
Outside of the advertising, it seems somewhat nonexistant.
In 2019, something Comic Con got so very right was the signage; I’ll admit I had no idea where the medical teams were then, but at the very least we had signage pointing us from one location to another; if one needed a medical team, I have no doubt those signs would have pointed you in the right direction.
But we didn’t have such great signage this year. The main entrances to each hall had signage that read “Pop Culture Hall” and such, but no one knew where ‘Black Eagle Conference Room 1’ was – not even Comic Con’s on-site staff and volunteers; from what I’m hearing (and reading online) seemingly the only thing staff could reliably point attendees to were the toilets and the main stage, security didn’t seem to know where anything was either.
As an aside: whoever was managing CCA’s socials wasn’t doing a particularly good job answering messages, between myself and many others it seems Comic Con’s social pages often took days to respond to messages.
Continuing on with the communication of information, the Visitor Guide. Normally these are handed out at the entrance each day of the event; but almost everyone I’ve spoken to didn’t receive one – neither did I; I found an unattended copy on a chair before the gates opened on Day 1 and used that for the rest of the weekend; if that was your copy, I am sorry (also, I have zero regrets).
There are two maps within the guide, the first shows a general layout of the expo centre and the halls being used, this one is great, simple and easy to read; the second map, showing the internal layouts of each hall, is designed as a visual graphic, and upfront it looks fine enough, but practically… not so much – the font is too small to read in some places, I often had to find a quiet corner and use my phone’s camera as a magnifying glass to read it properly.
The expo centre itself had maps on some walls, but more than once I heard the sentiment that “The maps outside are useless”, this is because these maps show the general layout of the expo centre itself, not the event currently taking place – I get that these maps can’t be changed but a large poster of the first map from the Visitor Guide ought to suffice, one could even use stickers to add labels to the existing maps.
Moving on to
There were problems this year.
From people telling me they weren’t properly tagged in, to security not checking bags, to security checking bags and throwing out water bottles (which, as mentioned earlier, are allowed), security was spotty this year.
As I understand it, cosplay props are explicitly not allowed to look like actual weapons, this is especially true for prop guns – which are both required to not look real and have orange caps on the ends of their barrels.
I saw airsoft LARPers this weekend with very realistic-looking props and no orange caps in sight.
I’m pretty sure actual chains aren’t allowed either but I know of at least one cosplayer who wore chains on his Day 1 cosplay, he says security didn’t bat an eye at his chains. Prop weapons are also not allowed to be hard (though metal and PVC props are allowed ‘at the discretion of security’) but it seems none of these rules were enforced by on-site security.
In a conversation elsewhere, at the Blades & Stitches stand (they sell knives and swords), an attendee standing nearby asked about knife-related rules, and admitted to having one attached to his belt when he arrived – again, security didn’t take issue.
One honestly wonders how security could be so dismal; in previous years we’ve had issues with security enforcing rules unevenly, but this year it doesn’t seem many rules were enforced to begin with.
Rules exist for a reason, security exists for a reason, medical staff exist for a reason; the first two are preventative, the third is punitive; but none of these mean anything when they aren’t adequately put to use – more measures could have been put in place, simple measures; fewer people could have been allowed in at any given time, water stations could have been set up, etc.
Had something gone wrong (more than just people passing out from heat stroke), it feels like Comic Con wouldn’t have had the resources and capabilities on site to deal with it.
When your medical staff are overworked, that should tell you that you’re doing something wrong, because ideally they shouldn’t have to do anything.
And when you don’t enforce prop weapon rules, anyone can walk in with an actual weapon and do some very real damage.
For all my qualms with Comic Con 2022, I genuinely enjoyed it, I may take issue with how some things were handled this year but in reality I had a great time. The variety of vendors was surprising, sure a few vendors didn’t really seem like they belonged at a geek convention, but they were friendly enough and it would be a lie to say their stalls didn’t attract some amount of interest.
I got to hang out with friends, spend time connecting with vendors, buy some amazing merch, learn a thing or two from various panels over the course of the weekend (I even co-hosted one!), I enjoyed making my wallet cry and I love that I was even able to attend a convention at all.
I’ve had COVID three times since the pandemic started, there were times when it looked like I might not be here for the next event, and there were times when it looked like there might not be a next event.
And for that, for there being an event at all, I thank Comic Con.
Also: the coffee stand The Shire brought with them had the best butterbeer ever, I’m going to have to drive down to Durban to visit their store if I am to get my hands on more of it.