For the first time since New York City Comic Con began in 2006, local chain Midtown Comics won't be attending the big event this weekend. 
"New York Comic Con is a big thing for us, and we've been there since its inception," said Gerry Gladston, chief marketing officer at Midtown Comics, which has four locations in the city.  
"We're friends with all the guys there and we have a huge booth every year."
This year, however, supply chain constraints have made showing up with the usual three truckloads of graphic novels, mangas, and other popular merchandise impossible. 
"We've been having issues with the supply chain disruption," Gladston said. "That is our number one problem. Our number two problem is getting enough staff."
While Midtown has continued to stock its weekly comics, which are the bread and butter of the business, other items, particularly imports, are seeing significant delays. 
"They just don't arrive," he said. "I mean, there's hundreds of container ships parked off the East and West Coast that are unable to dock. Our Japanese imports section is very flat right now. Graphic novels are in a transitionary phase and not at all helped by these problems." 
The Superhuman Streetwear booth during New York Comic Con 2021 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City on October 7, 2021. (Credit: Mike Nam/Cheddar)
Meanwhile, apparel vendor Superhuman Streetwear by Volante Design was largely able to stock enough inventory for the Con because most of its production is in-house.
“We had only supply issues with raw materials, so fabric, buckles, things that we can’t make we definitely had some delays with,” said CEO Willow Volante.
Virtual vs. live events 
Midtown Comics wasn't the only Comic Con regular sitting this year out. Major exhibitors such as Image Comics and AMC Networks also won't be setting up booths.
The convention, underway now at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, is back for the first time with an in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic. 
ReedPop, the company behind the event, is requiring proof of vaccination and the use of face masks. It is also capping capacity at a much lower level than in previous years.  
Still, this is a step up from last year, when the convention was completely virtual. 
ReedPop president Lance Fensterman said the online event was successful enough, but fans were hungry for the kind of in-person engagement only possible at a live event.  
He said the company's decision to host the event this year, despite the hold-outs, wasn't informed by financial considerations, but rather on feasibility and safety. 
"The first one back is hard," he said. "The calculus was really about doing what was right for the fanbase and the community. The rest is secondary."
Cosplay during New York Comic Con 2021 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City on October 7, 2021. (Credit: Mike Nam/Cheddar)
But the return of live events is nonetheless crucial to ReedPop's financial future. 
"We're a for-profit entity, and if we do our jobs well and create fun experiences, there's a financial reward that comes with that," he said. "That is our business model."  
The company draws about 70 percent of its revenue from live events, and 30 percent from digital products such as websites catering to the video game and comic book communities. 
In the next few years, Fensterman said, he'd like to see that number shift to 60 percent events and 40 percent digital, if not fifty-fifty in the longer-term. 
Along those lines, the company this month launched The Haul, an online marketplace for pop culture fans designed to connect customers with creators, just like at its conventions. 
Nothing personal 
Fensterman says he's aware of the challenges and concerns that have led some of his best customers to not attend this year and he's not taking it personally.  
The reasons for sitting out the con are varied, he added. Some companies are trying out their own kinds of fan engagement while others are just playing it safe, given the resurgence in cases around the COVID-19 delta variant. 
"If you're a bigger brand and a bigger entity, you're not usually the first in," he said. "You don't have to be, whereas maybe some of the smaller, more independent brands are saying 'I need to get back to the community.'"
The Black Sands Entertainment booth during New York Comic Con 2021 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City on October 7, 2021. (Credit: Mike Nam/Cheddar)
Certainly there were no complaints from Black Sands Entertainment creator Manuel Godoy, whose independent comic imprint has attended for the past three non-virtual years.
“This one’s definitely been the most clean and smooth process,” Godoy said. 
His wife and co-founder of Black Sands, Geiszel Godoy, noted that online sales had surged during the pandemic, but Manuel also expressed happiness to get back out and interact with fans again.
That shift from big exhibitors to independent artists and vendors is already apparent in the layout of this year's convention. Artist Alley, where creators set up individual tables, is taking over both Hall A and Hall B, rather than just one like in previous years. 
Cosplay during New York Comic Con 2021 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City on October 7, 2021. (Credit: Mike Nam/Cheddar)
At the same time, ReedPop's Fensterman expects bigger exhibitors will return once the world gets comfortable with a new normal. 
"Are there brands that won't come back to shows like this? For sure," he said. "They'll find other platforms and their own platform that they've developed, different marketing efforts, different ways to engage with their community, but I don't think that will be a significant number based on the conversations, the data, and the research that we've done."
Indeed, Midtown Comics' Gladston didn't mince words when asked if his company would be attending next year. 
"Hell yes, we can't wait," he said.