Compared with the frenzy of the rest of New York Comic Con, the lower level of the Javits Center was almost preternaturally still. While thousands of attendees buzzed around upstairs, several hundred remained downstairs in an area that resembled a bus terminal, under signs that declared: “AUTOGRAPHING.”
The autograph seekers filed into lines and planted themselves on the concrete floor. There they would wait for hours, flicking through smartphones and occasionally checking for any movement behind the curtain.
In corral No. 4, the wait on this day was for Felicity Jones, an English actress who plays Jyn Erso in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Anthony Yip and Teddy Ng, both die-hard Star Wars autograph collectors, were among the first dozen in line. A couple ahead of them had arrived at 6 a.m.
All were waiting to pay $200 for Jones’s signature.
“We call it herding cattle,” Ng joked.
Welcome to the modern world of autograph collecting, a passion that has evolved into a highly choreographed commercial endeavor. It’s rare these days to write to a PO box and receive an autographed headshot or to bump into a famous figure on the street and ask him to sign a napkin. Increasingly, getting an autograph requires a fan’s time and money.
Despite this, autograph seeking has reached a fever pitch for the Star Wars fandom, a reflection of the series’s hold on popular culture. In 2015, Fortune magazine estimated the Star Wars franchise was worth $42 billion, more than the Harry Potter, James Bond and Lord of the Rings franchises combined. Star Wars-branded merchandise includes bedsheets and a line of Nissan cars.
It’s little wonder, then, that Star Wars actors command the highest fees at conventions, with some of the most punishing lines. Mark Hamill — who plays Luke Skywalker, of course — charged $295 per signature, cash only, in New York. Jones, a relative newcomer, can charge $200 because she rarely appears at conventions, fans say.
And, like the universe itself, the Star Wars franchise seems to be only expanding, with new movies (“The Last Jedi” opened Thursday), story lines, characters and actors — and thus new autographs to obtain. But how far can Lucasfilm push the boundaries of the Star Wars world without alienating its core fans?
Like many autograph collectors, Yip and Ng said their hobby began simply: Growing up in New York made it easy to attend shows. As teenagers, they each got their first Star Wars autographs from Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca in the original trilogy. (Mayhew has long frequented the convention circuit.) Soon, they were traveling farther afield — New Jersey, Connecticut — to conventions and Star Wars Celebrations.
“You build up slowly, and then you realize, ‘Hey, I can start getting everyone,’ ” Ng said. “I’ve always been a completist, so when you have one thing [out of] a whole set, you look at it, and you’re like, ‘No, I’ve got to get everything.’ ”
The two became friends on RebelScum.com, an online fan forum, and then migrated to Star Wars Autograph Universe, a Facebook group. About 8,000 members strong, these folks have been bitten by the autograph bug, hard. Recent posts include questions such as: What should I get signed next? Where should the signature go? Will Dave Prowse (the original body actor for Darth Vader) do private signings in 2018?
Before long, Yip and Ng were among those obsessing about things like which markers they should use. At Comic Con, Yip carries a case with two blue Vis-a-Vis permanent markers, the kind originally used for overhead projectors. Dedicated autograph seekers say the “blue Vis” produces a darker and richer signature than a blue Sharpie. It’s just one more detail that can factor into the value of an autographed piece.
“You can tell who an old-school pro is if they have the [Vis-a-Vis] markers still or if they just use a regular Sharpie — or if they use the table markers,” Yip said, with a pause indicating that table markers are the last resort. “We always bring our own markers.”
The only problem? Vis-a-Vis doesn’t make those markers anymore, prompting a run-up on old stock. A search on eBay turns up one marker selling for $25 and another box of “Ultra Rare Blue Vis A Vis Permanent Markers” starting at $415. In some circles, a “blue Vis” is as coveted as a Carrie Fisher signature.
Ng and Yip acquired their “blue Vis” markers from a friend. They had helped him get Fisher’s autograph, and to their surprise, she had sketched a little drawing on the poster.
“He was so happy that he sent me and Anthony two blue Vises,” Ng said. “We were on top of the world when we got those.”
It’s also because of the Star Wars Autograph Universe group that Yip and Ng have 11 items for Jones to sign. Over the years, friends unable to attend conventions have sought them out, mailing “unfinished” cast pieces, for instance, if they knew a certain actor was going to be there. The manila envelopes and poster canisters piled up in Yip’s apartment. The night before, he checked each item, making sure it had a sticky note marking exactly where and how Jones should sign.
“You have to be super organized,” he said. On the day of the signing, Yip and Ng worked out a strategy, dividing the 11 items in such a way to minimize the number of “marker changes” Jones will have to do. It’s a lot of preparation for a meeting that will last a few minutes at most.
“A lot of things have changed. Back then, you would meet the star, actually chat with them for a few minutes,” Ng said. “Now . . . basically you wait in a line that’s, like, endless. Some of them are signing to the point where they don’t even look up at you. You’re lucky to, like, get a hello or get an eye contact.”
It wasn’t always this way. Just ask Yip’s father, Anthony M. Yip, who grew up in Queens and frequented his local comic shop in Rego Park, which was owned by one Mike Carbonaro. The elder Yip remembers the thrill of buying a comic, tearing it out of the plastic wrapper, then sitting at his third-floor window, flipping through the pages.
“I would buy from him all the time,” the father said. “Back then, not everything had to be pristine. Now people just buy it, put it away, thinking it’s an investment.”
Carbonaro, a pioneer in this world, liked to organize gatherings for comic fans, “renting out any place he could get in Manhattan,” he said. Often, fans would gather at an Elks lodge or in the smallest ballroom of a hotel. “Carbo,” as he was known, would start the Big Apple Convention in 1996 in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle Church on the Upper West Side.
The elder Yip remembered those shows being fun and laid back.
“Usually, they were free to get in, and you’d just rummage through stuff,” he said. “Over the years, you’d meet the same people, same dealers. I’ve seen some of these guys maybe 20 to 30 years now.”
He has embraced New York Comic Con in all its excess, having attended each one since it started in 2006. He has attended Star Wars Celebrations with his son, which has been a priceless bonding experience. But occasionally, he is nostalgic for the church-basement gatherings of yore.
He bristles at the prices celebrities are charging for autographs these days but doesn’t blame the stars.
“It’s the fans that make you, and you’re charging this amount of money,” Yip said. “If I was a celebrity, I would care. I don’t want to have these people who made you famous or love you to spend $300 on an autograph. . . . But that’s the way it is. It’s supply and demand.”
A stroll around the Comic Con floor hints at the expanse of the Star Wars licensing world: Star Wars-inspired footwear, kitchen appliances (toasters that will brand Yoda or Darth Vader on your bread, lightsaber immersion blenders), costumes (for pets and humans; a decent stormtrooper kit starts in the $400s) and, of course, Star Wars prints and action figures.
The franchise has increased its control over how stars’ autographs are sold — particularly now that Disney owns Lucasfilm.
Last December, to coincide with the release of “Rogue One,” Lucasfilm partnered with Topps, known for its baseball cards, to launch StarWarsAuthentics.com for “official” autographed photos. Before, the value of an autograph was measured loosely by eBay results. Now, the Star Wars site forces some parameters on the value of signatures: A framed 8x10 photo of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, signed by the actor in silver ink, was recently going for $299.99. A 16x20 framed print of Rey and Finn at the Niima Outpost, signed by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, was $1,049.99. None of the prices includes tax or shipping fees.
“We identified a hole in the entertainment industry, a need for certified authentic pieces for the Star Wars brand, and with this collaboration we are able to meet consumer demand,” David Leiner, a Topps vice president, said in a release. Paul Southern, the senior vice president of Star Wars licensing, added: “A quality, authentic experience is something we always strive to deliver for our fans.”
But that hole never really existed; it had simply been filled by third-party authenticators and a cottage industry, not by the Star Wars franchise itself. (Lucasfilm and Star Wars licensing declined requests for interviews.) Prices on StarWarsAuthentics.com are not as exorbitant compared with what’s available on eBay, and there is some comfort, collectors say, to knowing they aren’t fake. And, yet, there is something about the “quality, authentic experience” that is lost when you can order an autograph online or pick one up from a Disney World gift shop.
Autographs also have new competition. Like many conventions, New York Comic Con has strict rules against selfies or pictures with actors while autographing. To take a picture with Hamill, for instance, one must pay an additional $286 and wait in a separate long line.
Hamill did not respond to requests to be interviewed about how the autographing process has changed over the decades. In a recent profile by the New York Times, however, he said he frequented conventions and marveled at those he had dubbed “UPFs” (or “ultra-passionate fans”).
“The passion of it all is just astonishing,” Hamill told the Times. “The way it’s become part of the fabric of their lives — ‘I met my wife at this movie; we named our child Leia’ — it’s moving.”
In 2014, Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, mentioning that, more and more, fans were eschewing autographs for selfies with her. (That, of course, was Old Taylor.)
“The selfie turns this notion on its head,” Luke O’Neil wrote for Esquire in 2015. “Instead of proving the existence of the celebrity in our world, it proves our existence in theirs. The singer or athlete hasn’t climbed out of the television like a demigod cavorting among the mortals, but we’ve ascended into the clouds. Behold!”
At noon, there is at last movement behind the curtain at table No. 4. Felicity Jones settles into a chair at the far end of a table, and the line creeps ahead.
When they reach Jones, Yip and Ng are ready, handing her markers and switching out posters like a well-oiled machine. Each transaction takes seconds. Jones is friendly and accommodating, even adding “Jyn Erso” to one piece and the character’s signature line — “Rebellions are built on hope” — to another.
Ng and Yip are thrilled. When they leave the table, they reconvene at a column, pointing out how nicely the “blue Vis” signatures turned out. (Yip made sure to get his marker back.) They text pictures to the friends who had asked them to get the autographs.
After Jones appeared, there were no more mentions of how things used to be or her $200 fee — just genuine excitement.
“It’s keeping your childhood alive,” said Keith Goss, a Staten Island resident who lost most of his collection during Hurricane Sandy. “After about the third autograph, it becomes an obsession.”
“It’s just one of those things you do for the experience,” said Steve Reilly, an IT manager from New Zealand who had flown to New York the day before. “The people you meet in line are genuine. I’ve got friends all over the world now because of the Cons.”
The memory of Carrie Fisher looms large. Her death unsettled Reilly. He had just seen her at New York Comic Con the month before, where she had thrown glitter in everyone’s hair for good luck.
Goss agreed. Last year, he eschewed Fisher’s autograph when she appeared at New York Comic Con, thinking her price was a little high. It was $80 at the time.
“Then she passed away,” he said. “Now it’s at the point where, if an actor’s at a show, I go. I’ll never do that again.”