It’s one of the most loved pop culture traditions of summer: the crowds, costumes, and celebrities of Comic-Con International: San Diego (San Diego Comic-Con to its fans), an annual explosion of news, promotional events, and panels, all centered around the comics medium.
But for the first time in 50 years there will be no SDCC this summer, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since Chicago’s C2E2 convention was held in late February there have been no major comics events or book festivals. And though New York Comic Con in October is still technically on the schedule (as is Dragon Con in Atlanta), it’s doubtful whether anyone will be holding or attending crowded events in enclosed spaces in the foreseeable future.
Going conless is a huge disappointment for fans, and it’s also an economic blow to comics publishers and creators, as well as to the economy of San Diego. In recent months the comics industry has had to focus on shoring up comics retailers financially undermined by lockdowns, but less attention has been paid to the drying up of the critical revenue stream generated by live comics events.
It’s clear, however, that strategies are emerging that offer new ways to market and sell comics. Organizers are turning to virtual comic cons that are becoming more elaborate and sophisticated. SDCC has announced plans for Comic-Con@Home, which is scheduled for July 22–26, the original dates of SDCC, with a full slate of online programming—including fan-favorite film/TV panels from Hall H.
David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer for Comic-Con International, the nonprofit organizer of SDCC and Anaheim’s WonderCon event, said that even after being forced to cancel WonderCon in March, there was hope that events could be held in the summer. But the spread of the pandemic dashed that hope.
Canceling SDCC, Glanzer says, was a gut-wrenching experience for CCI, but in some ways it’s more prepared to handle this kind of crisis than other show organizers. According to IRS filings, CCI has a large war chest. Glanzer says the money was set aside to pay for obligations if the show was canceled and “hopefully have a little bit of seed money for the following year.”
Though CCI will have little or no income this year, there are still bright spots. There have been some sponsorship offers for Comic-Con@Home, and CCI has been able to postpone payments to some facilities and vendors toward a hoped-for return of SDCC in 2021. Though they have been offered ticket refunds, unsurprisingly, many fans are holding on to their highly sought-after badges for next year’s event.
Other show organizers face similar uncertainty. New York Comic Con, organized by ReedPop, is still scheduled for October 8–11 at the Javits Center in Manhattan, though the venue is currently being used as a temporary hospital. According to event director Kristina Rogers, ReedPop is heeding government guidelines and working with Javits on what phase of the city’s reopening will permit events to go on. “We’re planning on moving forward, and planning some solutions and coming up with a plan B, C, D, probably all the way up to Q,”she says.
ReedPop event and sales director Mike Armstrong recognizes that the prospect of attending a pop culture convention during a pandemic may cause anxiety for even the most passionate fans. “I think it’s kind of a split audience at this point,” he says. “Half the people are really excited for the prospect of getting back to a convention in October, and the other half think it’s too early. Whatever decision we make, it’s not going to make everybody happy, and we have to be able to live with that.”
ReedPop organized C2E2 in Chicago in February, and the event was a huge success for the company. Rogers’s voice brightens when she describes it: “The publishers made great announcements, and there was great studio content to bolster everything. If the world hadn’t completely changed, we would be looking at expanding further into the anime side of it because that community is so excited.”
But as soon as that show ended, ReedPop faced a tough decision about Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC), which was scheduled to be held just two weeks later, as the pandemic spread. “I just remember thinking, C2E2 is great, but something’s coming,” Armstrong says.
ECCC was canceled, and afterward there was much confusion about how to support the artists who use the con as a platform for their work. ECCC is known as a geeky extravaganza of exclusive new comics and merchandise from all aspects of fandom, and it’s a key show that enables artists to make money and kick off the year. The cancelation of ECCC immediately set the comics community into action. A number of online auctions and events were launched, such as Very Very Shopping Network, a Twitch livestream set up by artist Jen Vaughan.
ReedPop did its best to support these efforts, highlighting individual artists on Etsy or Big Cartel pages on the ECCC website and social media. “It was good for what it was,” Armstrong says. “I think we’ve learned a lot since then.”
While it’s hard to get an accurate picture of how much money really changes hands at comics conventions, there are some indications. Glanzer says SDCC does not have an estimate of how much money is spent inside the convention center by fans, but according to the San Diego Tourism Authority, the show’s cancellation means a loss of about $150 million to the San Diego economy. Armstrong estimates that millions of dollars could change hands on the NYCC show floor.
Experts say large conventions like ECCC or NYCC can average $300 spent per attendee. With 65,000 con-goers, that’s almost $2 million. Profits from exhibiting can range from a few thousand dollars at a typical Artist Alley table to $5,000–$20,000 for a major creator. With more than 100 creators setting up, and a hundred exhibitor booths selling pricey original art, back issues, exclusives, merch, and more, it can add up.
Publishers look for new ways to market
Comics publishers are also missing the revenue cons provide and the vital contact with their creative and fan communities. “It’s such a connected ecosystem,” says Chris Ryall, IDW president and publisher. Many artists have seen initial spikes in commissions, he adds, but they’re worried about the economic uncertainty around the recovery. “People are already starting to be a little more cautious spending money.”
IDW primarily exhibits at SDCC and NYCC, and the company is known for offering an array of exclusive editions of its books and periodical comics. “It’s really a good way to help offset the exorbitant costs of a show like New York or San Diego,” Ryall says. “We’re never going to break even at a con in New York.”
Ryall notes that IDW is planning to participate in Comic-Con@Home with programming and online exclusives. He says that virtual events are “starting to take on almost a comfortable rhythm,” though he acknowledges that “the spontaneity and just being in the room with everybody is missing.”
Jacq Cohen, director of publicity and promotions at Fantagraphics, a highly respected indie graphic novel publisher, has similar thoughts. “With most of the shows, we put them in our marketing budget and considered them more like a wash because of the travel and exhibiting costs,” she says. “Sales were always great at SDCC because of the hype, but it ended up being a break even.”
Cohen doesn’t see the cancellations as having a massive economic impact on Fantagraphics, but she does see a shift in the way it markets its books. “We’ve seen our web store double in sales,” she says. “And over the next three to six months, we’re going to probably triple our digital marketing effort.” The company is also relaunching its website, and it recently hired a new e-commerce and digital marketing person to focus on web sales.
For Henry Barajas, director of operations at Top Cow (a publishing unit under the Image Comics collective), the cancellation of SDCC is particularly disappointing. This year, he was to be a special guest artist because of his own book La Voz de M.A.Y.O., an acclaimed graphic biography of his grandfather, an Indigenous/Latinx union organizer in Arizona in the 1970s—an honor that he says floored him. La Voz de M.A.Y.O. was published in late 2019, and he was slated to be a guest at a dozen comics and library shows this year. The economic impact of losing all these platforms just as the book was released has been huge for him.
“People in the library and educational spaces are begging for something like my book, and the demand kept growing,” Barajas says. “I felt like 2020 was going to be the year I was able to tour it every month. It is a horrible, horrible disruption for the upward trajectory of the book.”
Barajas has also felt the impact in his role at Top Cow, which is very active on the con circuit, often exhibiting at two or three shows per month. “We often meet people who only buy comics at cons,” he says. At SDCC, Top Cow could make in one day what it normally makes over an entire weekend at a smaller show. The company is now using many different models to make up the shortfall, including digital retailers, crowdfunding, and sales through Humble Bundle.
Artists look for new ways to connect
Andrea Demonakos, owner of White Squirrel, a boutique agency that helps comics artists market their products via online stores, conventions, and crowdfunding, is a former show organizer herself, having been festival director of the VanCAF Indie comics festival in Vancouver from 2016 to 2018. She notes that though publishers already have alternative sales channels set up that they can expand in the absence of cons, individual creators might not. Creators are also hit by the cancellations on a personal level. “A lot of freelance artists and writers don’t see each other except for at conventions,” she says. “And now they haven’t seen each other for six months, and eventually it’s going to be a year.”
Demonakos says different products are selling now than had been prior to the pandemic. “We’re selling way more prints than I would have expected, because I think people are just tired of staring at their walls,” she says. “But an artist who sells T-shirts isn’t going to be selling as many, because everyone realizes they’re wearing the same three items of clothing over and over again.”
Artists are finding innovative ways to reach fans. Aldrin “Buzz” Aw used to go to as many as 40 shows per year, because income from selling prints, sketches, and exclusive covers at cons far exceeded what he could make doing a monthly book. He had already been planning to cut back on the number of shows he attends before the pandemic hit, but the cancellations have been a huge change. “We all realize that nothing will be the same after this,” he says.
In order to be successful at shows, Aw says, he has a very active social media presence, and that has helped him transition to online sales and interaction. When ECCC was canceled, he quickly transformed his work area in his studio into a booth, which he uses when livestreaming from his home. He says he plans to expand his website in the coming weeks to offer a better virtual experience.
Aw isn’t alone: legendary Batman artist Neal Adams is offering regular livestream appearances on Facebook, as are many others. “I see videos of my friends doing art on my feed all the time,” Aw says. “It’s a wonderful distraction and it’s therapeutic for the person because they’re reaching out.”
But many of the vendors who set up at comic cons to sell T-shirts and other merchandise don’t have online storefronts, Armstrong says. “I’ve talked to a lot of dealers, and some of them are just saying, ‘Oh God, I have to go get a real job now.’ This has really impacted the group of people who make their living going from show to show.”
The future of comics conventions
The larger question of how comics conventions, festivals, and other public events will operate in the future haunts the minds of everyone PW spoke with. The public health issues will remain until there’s a coronavirus vaccine. And recently renewed allegations of sexual harassment at comic cons means that there will be even more changes when these events are able to operate safely again.
“People still crave the content and exclusivity and the community,” Armstrong says. “But I think the con of the future is reduced in capacity with a physical and a digital ticket. I think you’re going to start to see a lot of hybrid online/offline events. We provide an escape for people, and I think people need that escape more than ever now.”
Rogers has an even more concrete assessment: “You’ll see a reduced con for as much as the next three years, and then you’ll see a gradual growth again as we have treatment, vaccines, and precautions in place for the next outbreak.”
One part of con culture that may come back even more slowly than others is celebrity autographs and photo ops. “It all comes down to the individual talent and what they want to do,” Armstrong says. “But yeah, I would imagine that the photo op with your arm around the celebrity, the handshake, the hug—that’s all going to change.”
ReedPop is looking into different approaches for virtual events. “We can’t give you the camaraderie or agony of standing in line waiting to get an exclusive,” Rogers says. “But what we can do is curate really excellent announcements with very cool content from top talent and creators. And we’re trying to take a very unique take on it and be a little bit different.”
Armstrong adds, “We’re recognizing that a zoom call with five faces is not compelling. There’s only so much that you can watch of it. How do you recreate the commerce, the community, the hustle, the feeling of being in that building? There’s some interesting ideas and tech coming in. We want to create something that is best in class.”
Barajas sees the entire con economy shrinking as people drop out. “A lot of people’s marketing came from being on the road,” he says. “That’s going to hurt for a lot of people, especially for artists.”
Demonakos notes that convention organizers will need to give increased attention to the safety of attendees and will have to make arrangements for wider aisles, more sanitation stations, and more frequent bathroom cleaning. “I do know people who are so reliant on convention income that they’re going to Dragon Con” despite the pandemic, she says. “Even though they’re worried it’s going to be terrible, they’re still going anyway in the hopes that they can make some money.”
But in spite of all the lost business due to the cancellations, many feel the personal losses most acutely. When asked about what they will miss about SDCC, everyone PW spoke with became emotional.
“I love the Eisner Awards so much,” says IDW’s Ryall. “I love being in that room with all the talent—it’s just exciting. And as exhausting as it is, I always make a point every year to walk the convention center at around midnight, and there are still fans in line or just sitting outside playing card games. I like just walking around and soaking up their enthusiasm.”
Cohen says, “I love going to Comic-Con and spending time with my publisher friends. A lot of partnerships between publishing houses get started over the conversations that you have when you’re decompressing in the hotel lobby after a 13-hour day on your feet.”
Glanzer hopes that Comic-Con@Home will make SDCC more accessible to all, given that, unlike the in-person event, there’s no cap on the numbers of fans who can attend. “We see this as an opportunity to spread some joy and strengthen our sense of community,” he says. “It gives me hope that some good will come out of this.”