Column: Comic Con Can Help You Sell … Everything

Costumes and branding and sales, oh my!

"Looka that guy!" shouted a New York City construction worker on the corner of 35th and 11th. "It's fuckin' Optimus Prime!"

Sure enough, a gentleman walked by clad in an astonishingly elaborate do-it-yourself Optimus Prime costume, decked from head to toe in carefully painted PVC and cardboard with metal accents, recreating the look of the character from the Michael Bay movies. The hard hat was so impressed he almost tore his eyes away from a girl in a backless, low-cut vinyl cat suit and high heels with a modish '70s-style belt around her waist. She was dressed as Black Widow, the Avengers' super-spy, from the comic book, not the movie.

New York Comic Con was in full swing on Saturday afternoon at the Javits Center, where every company from Marvel Comics to Sony was evangelizing everything to hordes of fans. As a frequent attendee, I was surprised by the specificity and variety of the costumes on display this year—I'm not used to seeing comic book characters I can't immediately identify. One of the biggest events of the weekend was the Firefly reunion panel, held by the show's cable syndicator, Discovery Communication's Science channel, at which Nathan Fillion (who played Mal on the short-lived Fox series) was accorded a level of admiration usually reserved for deities and dictators.

The vibe was weird and fun—many people attended as ultra-popular superheroes (there were so many Batmen hanging around that it was like being in a superhero-themed remake of Spartacus), but a surprising number simply dressed up as the character they look the most like. This included several impressively fit guys in Superman outfits, quite a few slave Leias (at least one trailing a boyfriend in a black vest and white T-shirt), and a fiftysomething dude who looked exactly like the Penguin, purple top hat, monocle and all. Two guys dressed as heroes from the same anime, who'd obviously never clapped eyes on each other before, shook hands and grinned in mutual, wordless admiration before walking away. A girl in what could have passed for club attire strode along, carrying a mammoth pink assault rifle. A guy drifted over to the Lego booth in a masked bodysuit that would probably have qualified as bondage gear if it hadn't been sea-foam green. Jesus strolled by.

"We do both Comic Cons," bellowed Denny Chiu, senior manager of marketing communications for video game publisher Namco. "It's a geographical thing. We get people from up and down the West Coast at San Diego but want to see our fans on the Eastern seaboard as well." Chiu and a few co-workers were valiantly manning one of the most popular booths on the convention floor, at which conferees could play this holiday season's big gaming hardware release, the Wii U, in advance of its release date. Half of the booth's dozen consoles were equipped with the latest iteration of Namco's long-running Tekken franchise; the other half were presenting Tank! Tank! Tank!, a multiplayer game in which guys dressed as Doctor Doom were shooting huge robot spiders off the sides of buildings. "We work with different booths and vendors out here, and you never know what kinds of contacts you can establish," Chiu said. "But for the most part it's an opportunity to come out and see our fans."

All right, video games. Sure, they're not comic books, but we're in the same neighborhood, right? That doesn't explain the presence of toolmaker Craftsman. "We're looking to target a slightly younger and more alternative crowd, and we know that these are creative people who are actually making their own costumes and stuff," said Cristina Cordova, Sears' manager of community engagement (Sears owns Craftsman). And do people care? "We've had non-stop flow," she said of the crowded booth. "It's been fantastic." To get into the spirit of things, Craftsman commissioned its own comic book, featuring Technician, a branded superhero who saves the Hall of Justice from actual DC supervillain The Key, who breaks in while the Justice League is away.

The irony, of course, is that Comic Con has become so successful that you couldn't find most of the comics' artists on the show floor. Artists Alley, the few rows of folding tables and chairs that used to be called, you know, a comic book convention, was down a long hallway separate from the rest of the show. "Ordinarily I'd worry about an Artists Alley that was completely removed from the main room, but having been in the main room, I'm very happy to have our own place," said Mike Mignola, who would normally be carried from booth to booth on a palanquin toted by adoring fans. Mignola is the writer and artist who created Hellboy, a series praised for both the depth of its artwork and the intricacies of its storytelling that was adapted into two popular movies by director Guillermo Del Toro. Granted, Mignola seemed to be available only by coincidence—by the time he'd given a two-minute interview, there were four or five fans waiting in line for autographs—but it was surprising to see one of the biggest artists there chilling out several hundred yards from the action of the show.

Then again, maybe it's all relative to the way people treat artists in the comic book industry. "Everybody's super-nice," Mignola enthused. "Very un-New York. In the old days, you'd get a guy waiting three hours in line to tell you that you suck. That guy was probably from New Jersey."