With the New Jersey Comic Expo (NJCE) coming up in two weeks, I thought it would be a good time to talk about the show and the state of conventions in general. I chatted with Martha Donato, the woman behind MAD Event Management. They’re the company that puts on both NJCE and the Long Beach Comic Con and Long Beach Comic Expo in California.
DAN WICKLINE: How did you get into the business of running conventions? What did you do prior to running MAD and had you wanted to be in the comic/pop culture industry when you started out?
MARTHA DONATO: I got my start in the comic book industry in 1994 when I went to work for Wizard Entertainment. I got into the convention business in 1997 when Wizard acquired what was then known as Chicago Comic Con. We rebranded that show to Wizard World Chicago and I ran it until I left Wizard in 2008. Along the way, I launched comic conventions in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston and a press event in NYC.
In early 2009 I formed MAD Event Management LLC and produced the first Long Beach Comic Con later that year. That was followed by Long Beach Comic Expo, New Jersey Comic Expo and C3: Comic Creator Conference. There have been many other events along the way, but those are the three that have staying power! I recently counted how many event launches I’ve done in my career and it was 24, so I think it’s safe to say I’m a serial event entrepreneur!
DW: You have conventions in Long Beach, CA and New Jersey. Those seem like very different places. Why these locations, and what do they offer fans?
MD: The Long Beach shows were developed as a result of a close relationship I had developed with the team at the convention center, as well as the beautiful setting and passionate base of comic book lovers in the area. Plus, as a New Yorker, I had the added incentive of being in LA when the weather was rough at home! Both Long Beach shows cater to the hard-core comic fan and we have kept that central to our mission there.
The New Jersey Comic Expo show developed through a close relationship with the convention center in Edison, plus that one is a home game. It’s nice to have family and friends be able to come to an event. With mega events like New York Comic Con happening nearby, we offer a more intimate and friendly experience at NJCE, one that’s fun for the whole family.
DW: Tell me about the New Jersey Comic Expo. What are some of the unique things this year’s event offers? What are some of the things you are excited about?
MD: New Jersey Comic Expo has an amazing relationship with the Liberty Science Center, who will be bringing out a great display of STEM-related activities for kids of all ages. We also work closely with Cosplay Culture magazine, who will have fun activities throughout the weekend and support the Cosplay Contest on Saturday evening. We are also fortunate to have a premier publisher, Dynamite Entertainment, in the neighborhood, so they are great supporters of the show and have an exciting weekend lined up for fans.
DW: These conventions have grown from a comic book focus to all of pop culture. How do you balance all of the different fan bases and make sure everyone is covered? Do you have guest quotas for each area or anything like that?
MD: We always start with the comic book talent and build from there. We don’t have quotas; I would describe it more as expectations, so we’re flexible. Fortunately, there is a healthy pool of creators and cosplayers who are willing to support the large pool of comic conventions around the country.
DW: The number of conventions have been growing a lot over the recent years, and more and more companies are throwing their hat into the ring. Is this a positive thing, or are we nearing a saturation point? Can the industry and the fan base continue with there being multiple cons almost every weekend?
MD: To my earlier point about the creator pool, I think there is potentially a tipping point where there will be more events than talent to support them. But we haven’t reached that point yet. I’m a believer in survival of the fittest, so I think we’ll see the stronger shows thrive and the weaker ones will fall away.
DW: What is your favorite convention memory, whether from this show or another? Who has been your favorite guest and why?
MD: Wow, I have so many great memories, it’s hard to choose only one. But since you asked, I’d say at the last Long Beach Comic Expo, we had Jason Momoa as a guest and he was so friendly and approachable; it was great to see him interacting with the audience. But my favorite moment was seeing him work with the Girl Scouts and take selfies with them. There was a pure joy from him and the girls that was so refreshing.
DW: What’s next for you and MAD Event Management? Will you be expanding to other areas of the nation?
MD: We’re working on expanding our C3: Comic Creator Conference profile. That’s a personal passion project for me, and fortunately, I’m surrounded by a team who see my vision and are here to support it. We hope to grow the conference and become a resource for creators and publishers by generating great educational programs that help the entire industry.
Check out more information on the New Jersey Comic Expo, running November 18th and 19th, here.