On a chilly October day in 2012, Annie Stoll collected her portfolio, filled with CD package designs and poster art for several indie artists based in Buffalo, New York, as well as Star Wars fan art, and ventured into a portfolio review for pencil and ink illustrators at New York Comic Con.
A month later, she was working for Lucasfilm.
In just seven years, she has gone on to design "ugly" holiday sweaters for Lucasfilm, illustrate "Star Wars Rebels: Sabine: My Rebel Sketchbook," provide artwork for a compilation book called "Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy" and even won a Grammy for her design work on the packaging of "Squeeze Box: The Complete Works Of 'Weird Al' Yankovic."
"I had legit like $20 left in my account," Stoll said of her 2012 trip to New York Comic Con. "I spent my money getting prints and tickets."
Stoll is just one of many artists who have reaped the benefits of New York Comic Con's Artist Alley, a space within the convention where approved artists and writers can sell their prints, pins, books and stickers, as well as meet fans and sign autographs.
During the four-day convention this year, more than 200,000 people ventured through the Jacob Javits Center in New York — and that's not counting the hundreds of industry professionals roaming the halls between panels.
Almost all the major comic conventions have a dedicated location like Artist Alley for creators. While the area may get overshadowed by panels for "The Walking Dead," "Watchmen" and "Star Trek," it's a massively popular destination for fans.
"Artist Alley has always been one of the most popular features of New York Comic Con," said Mike Negin, global comic talent manager at ReedPop, the company behind the convention. "Fans look forward to spending their time walking up and down the aisle either meeting their favorite creators or discovering someone new."
Artist Alley has been a part of NYCC since it began, in 2006. The goal over the last 14 conventions has been to bring in diverse talent, artists who dabble in anime, traditional comics, caricatures or the abstract, and connect them to fans and their peers.
"Over the years, we've had new creators get noticed by editors and other professionals as they go through the aisles of Artist Alley looking for talent, which has led those creators to projects which allowed them to become superstars in the industry," Negin said.
"When placing creators at tables in Artist Alley, we've seen complete strangers meet for the first time and go on to become friends and collaborators on best-selling titles," he said. "Two creators who met in NYCC Artist Alley [have even] gone on to get engaged."
New York Comic Con is, perhaps, the most expensive Artist Alley in the convention circuit. Artists shell out $500 for a six-foot table and two badges to attend the con.
"This show costs considerably more, with other shows ranging from $125 to $375 for a table, and with New York prices in general, it's a hard pill to swallow for us 'starving artists,' but completely worth it," said K. Lynn Smith, a Michigan-based artist. "Connections made alone are worth it, with the majority of the industry under one roof."
Smith has created her own webcomic called "Plume." She sold personalized commissions of people's pets during the four-day convention. Small portraits sold for $25, medium-sized, non-colored portraits were $40 and full-color portraits were $60.
Smith said this New York Comic Con was her best show to date. And she's not the only one.
Karen Hallion, a Massachusetts-based illustrator known for her "She Series," stylized portraits of iconic female heroines from movies and TV shows, also said this NYCC was her best con ever.
"At this show, we did the best we have ever done at any show this year and actually at any show to date, and it was double what we did our very first year at NYCC, which was back in 2013," she said.
At her booth, Hallion sold pins, prints, cards, stickers, coloring books and some original pieces. Not only is the con a solid income driver for her, it also is a chance for her to connect with new fans, meet current and long-term fans and network with other artists and professionals.
"This is our seventh time doing this show and my ninth year working in this industry," Hallion said. "I always cross my fingers to get into this show, because it's such a good one."
NYCC doesn't have a first-come, first-served policy with applications. It hand-picks artists to be part of the convention.
Alice X. Zhang, an illustrator known for her portraits of characters from Marvel, "Doctor Who" and celebrities, spent about $950 to show at New York Comic Con this year. She purchased the booth as well as two additional badges for the show.
Zhang doesn't do commissions, but she sold postcards and prints of her work. NYCC is the only event she does during the year, so there is typically a large crowd around her booth during the convention.
"In the years past when I did multiple events, New York Comic Con [was] by far the most lucrative because of the amount of traffic and the fact that I'm local so I can bring a lot of inventory," she said.
She received a boost in traffic one year when actor Peter Capaldi, who portrayed the 12th iteration of The Doctor on BBC's "Doctor Who," stopped by her booth.
"Cons are a great place to promote and sell artwork whether you're an amateur or professional artist, but remember that it's only one avenue to do so," Zhang said. "A lot of people get discouraged if they don't make it into the Artist Alley selections, but there's lots of cons out there, and everyone starts somewhere. I didn't make it into NYCC the first year or two I applied either, but kept at it and did other events until my work matched up."
New York Comic Con draws artists from all around the U.S.
Brianna Garcia, a California-based artist who has worked with Warner Bros. Animation, Disney Imagineering and Penguin Random House, among others, said this was the first time she'd ventured to NYCC, but the cost of travel was worth the experience.
"This is probably the most expensive con I've tabled at," she said. "The upside is that this has been one of my most successful cons this year. And that's saying something since I traveled from California, and the further east I go, the more costly travel can get."
During the convention, Garcia sold prints, books and commissions from her booth. Coming to New York for this con helps her build and connect with her audience on the East Coast, she said.
"It always helps to break even or make a profit for sure, but it's even more rewarding when I have people come to my booth telling me they had wanted to meet me, or if they had wanted to get a commission from me in person," she said. "New York Comic Con also has some amazing people in the industry, and I got the chance to connect with some of my favorite writers and other artists."
Whitney Leopard, a senior editor at Random House Graphic, attends conventions to find up-and-coming artists for projects.
"It is a great place to find talent," Leopard said of NYCC.
Leopard, who has been attending New York Comic Con for six years, said it is not uncommon for publishers to wander the convention floor looking for artists and writers.
"It's a great place to make the initial introduction and exchange information," she said. "I typically get introduced to dozens of people a day, so it's important for me to keep track of the business cards that I get and to make notes when I can on where I met who, and things like that. In my experience, not a lot of work is discussed on the floor but it will be discussed after the show once everyone's made it back home."
While big conventions such as NYCC are a great way to meet professionals, they can be hard to get into.
"There are so many amazing and talented artists out there," Leopard said. "I would strongly recommend for anyone looking to expand their talent roster to go to more shows, big or small."