Zombies in cages, R2-D2, Chewbacca. Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Harley Quinn, Batman, the Flash and Deadpool. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. "Trekkies" and Game of Thrones loyalists. Last year’s inaugural Comic Con Africa was arguably the largest cosplay event in SA to date, drawing 45,000-odd fans over three days in September. It was sold out before the doors even opened.

This year’s edition is gearing up to outdo that. The organisers have added an extra day to the event — running from September 21 to 24 — and moved it to Gallagher Convention Centre to accommodate growing demand.

The event will feature twice as many international comic book artists as before — 13 in total — as well as nine local artists and international celebrities such as William Shatner (Captain Kirk in Star Trek, TJ Hooker and Denny Crane in Boston Legal), Daniel Gillies (The Originals and Vampire Diaries) and Anthony Mackie (the Falcon in Avengers).

Convention attendees will be able to participate in competitive video and computer gaming events including Overwatch, League of Legends, Apex Legends and Mario Kart, among others.

The event will also feature KidsCon for younger fans. It’s a welcome development, says financial planner Zinzi Buthelezi, who attended last year’s event. "There is a lot of children’s stuff, and it’s good that [the organisers] are putting us in a separate section. That way kids don’t have to get in the way of adults and aren’t overwhelmed."

The popularity of comics and related media has exploded worldwide in the past few years, largely off the back of publisher Marvel’s success with its cinematic universe.

Comic Con is for everyone from all walks of life. It’s an event where you can be yourself and hang out with like-minded people. It’s about embracing and celebrating diversity
Carol Weaving

The company’s movies have broken box office records: Avengers: Endgame beat Avatar out of the top earnings spot, making $2.8bn on its release earlier this year and crossing the $1bn mark within five days of its global debut. It proved no slouch in SA either, taking in R34m in its opening weekend and drawing an audience of more than 377,000 to cinemas around the country.

So it’s no surprise that Comic Con — with events in cities such as London, New York and Paris — is tapping into the local market, and looking to draw crowds from beyond SA.

Clair Wright, head of marketing for Reed Exhibitions Africa, which organises the event, says there was a notable number of fans from Mauritius and Zimbabwe last year. This year, she says, "we have interest from all over Africa, especially our neighbouring countries and Indian Ocean islands".

It’s interest that could see the event grow beyond SA’s borders in time. Already, other countries schedule similar events — Nerd Con Accra, for example, has been held annually in Ghana since 2016.

Reed Exhibitions MD Carol Weaving says the company is conducting market research to see which African countries would be open to the Comic Con brand, "considering the size and readiness of the market".

And once the organisers have more detailed visitor statistics available from this year’s event, they may consider expanding the convention, according to Wright.

While there are "no immediate plans" to go into the rest of Africa, Weaving says it is "absolutely on our list [of things] to do once the time is right".

For now, though, the focus is on this weekend’s event and a Cape Town convention scheduled for 2020.

Weaving says she is hopeful recent xenophobic violence in SA and perceptions of a lack of safety in the country won’t weigh on foreign interest in the event.

What it means

If there’s sufficient interest, the event could expand further into Africa in coming years

"Comic Con is for everyone from all walks of life," she says. "It’s an event where you can be yourself and hang out with like-minded people. It’s about embracing and celebrating diversity."

It’s an outlook that seems to have ensured a loyal return crowd this year.

"I went to check it out last year and didn’t know what to expect," says IT specialist Riaan Nirhoo.

"This year I’m going with a crew."

For programmer Matthew Henderson, "this is more than a geek convention. It’s a party. Who wouldn’t want to be dressed as Chewbacca [with drink in hand]?" he asks.

Nonetheless, Comic Con Africa is not yet at the point where it’s built sufficient momentum to fund itself. "It’s an investment we are currently making, but hopefully by year three we can start to make a profit," says Weaving.

"The international talent is really expensive, especially with our exchange rate. It’s critical that we put on a world-class event for the benefit of our fans, but that it is sustainable, which we believe it is."

Comic Con Africa will run from 9am to 6pm from September 21 to 24 at Gallagher Convention Centre. Tickets are available through Computicket