Earlier this year an artist I know through Tumblr asked me about anime conventions in the United States, and I ended up sending them a long email based on my experiences and a bit of gossip I’ve picked up here and there. This information is aimed at a professional artist who has already exhibited at a few regional conventions and has enough experience and polish to start aiming big, and I thought it might be useful to reproduce my message here, if only to preserve a snapshot of what the American convention scene looked like to someone like me in early 2018.
Youmacon (in Detroit over Halloween weekend)
From what I hear, this con can occasionally be a bit of a dumpster fire in terms of its administration, but I’ve always had a good time there. Rooms at the convention center hotel are relatively inexpensive, and the attendance is always well over 20,000 people.
Katsucon (in National Harbor right outside of DC over Valentine’s weekend)
With around 15-18k attendees, Katsucon is a bit smaller than Youmacon, but it’s always run very efficiently. I’ve heard that the people who manage the Artist Alley are extremely professional, but the deadline for application is a bit early. The Gaylord Resort where the con is held is absolutely lovely, and the staff will take care of you if the con gets snowed in, which occasionally happens.
MAGFest (also in National Harbor right at the beginning of January)
A gaming convention that’s also held in the Gaylord. The focus is on indie games, but there is a relatively large Artist Alley, and I’ve heard that people can make a killing on commissions at this con. MAGFest is also an excellent place to make professional connections, not in the least because of all the industry people who hang out here. It’s also a really fun event if you love games, because the exhibition space is all about people showing off their playable demos. A word of warning, though – most people generally behave themselves, but there is some hardcore drinking that happens at this convention. If it makes a difference, there’s always a diverse crowd at this con, and it’s not just a sausage fest.
PAX East (in Boston during the first weekend of April)
This used to be a sausage fest of truly epic proportions, but then the anime fans got their grubby hands on it and now it’s much more inclusive of all genders. Attendance is huge (way over 80,000 people), but I hear that the Artist Alley isn’t that competitive. They’re always looking for fresh talent!
Sakura-Con (in Seattle at the beginning of April)
Around the same size as Youmacon, but in Seattle! In my experience, Sakura-Con is a great way to make connections with the West Coast art scene, as the con is both well run and relatively laid back. Also, Seattle is gorgeous in April, and it’s not as expensive as you think it’s going to be, especially if you stay in one of the smaller (but much trendier) hotels a few blocks away from the convention center. My recommendation is Hotel Max, which will make you feel like a rock star. If you’re interested in spending time in Seattle, GeekGirlCon (in October) is a decent alternative, although with only 2,000 attendees it might be too small to be worth your while.
Otakon (in DC at some point during August)
The big East Coast anime convention, generally with around 25,000 attendees. It used to be in Baltimore, and you would always hear news reports about cosplayers meeting terrible fates, but it recently moved to beautiful downtown DC. The Artist Alley was huge in Baltimore, and it’s even bigger in DC. There’s always a wide range of artists who table here, from experienced professionals to students who are just starting out, and people seem to have a lot of fun.
Anime Expo (in LA over the 4th of July weekend)
This is the big one, and it’s always absolutely insane. You’ve probably heard stories about how crazy AX is, and they’re all true. Because the Artist Alley is so enormous, I hear that it’s not particularly competitive, and I also hear that people make a ton of money at this con. There’s none of the pressure or industry blitz of the San Diego Comic-Con, which I think is a good thing, and it’s worth mentioning that artists from all over the world (especially from Asia) table here. Since most of the American anime companies are located in Southern California, there are also a lot of freebies floating around, as well as free world premiers of various shows and movies.
Toronto Comic Arts Fest (at the main Toronto library during May)
Generally clocking in at around 5-6k attendees, this is a good size for a comic convention, and it’s especially welcoming to artists in their twenties. Even though there’s a very strong focus on comics (as opposed to merch like prints and stickers), a lot of people show up with zines that they obviously photocopied and stapled themselves the week before the con. There are always a lot of good people here, and it generally has a relaxed atmosphere.
Small Press Expo (right outside of DC in September)
This is the holy grail of conventions for people who want to be professional comic writers and artists outside the DC/Marvel studio system. This is where the Ignatz Awards happen (basically, you nominate yourself and then there’s an open ballot over the weekend, so it’s incredibly low pressure despite being such a big deal), this is where people get discovered, and this is how you get your first book deal. Because it’s relatively small, it’s extremely competitive, but the lottery system guarantees that even newcomers have a chance to get in. What most artists do is piggyback alongside a friend who gets accepted and then share their table, so it helps if you can convince other people to apply. The staff, the artists, and the industry professionals are all super friendly and supportive, and the bonds that people form here tend to result in high-profile comic anthologies that make tons of money on Kickstarter and launch people’s careers. SPX is definitely a goal to aim for!