Food for thought making the rounds in my online circles this week was an essay titled “Denise Dorman Asks — Is Cosplay Killing Comic Con?” The author is the wife of Dave Dorman, a renowned painter with a career spanning over two decades. Their table is a common sight for us at C2E2 and Wizard World Chicago, and doubtlessly a staple at comics and entertainment conventions in other cities. His covers grace several late-’80s comics in my collection and a few items in my wife’s Star Wars library. We’re not talking about an art-school sophomore with iffy talent and no business acumen. He’s a pro.
In the essay, the Dormans reveal the total intake from their first day-‘n’-a-half at Wizard World Chicago 2014 was a whopping $60.00. Their results from this year’s San Diego Comic Con, ostensibly the convention to end all conventions, were technically worse once you factor in the thousands of dollars spent on the experience.
The Dormans’ experience isn’t a singular oddity. The ensuing site discussion, in which Denise herself has participated and clarified some points, has touched on a number of factors that may be contributing to the decline of convention civilization. However, what prompted the most outraged responses — and why I saw a few friends linking to it while rolling their eyes — was the essay’s focus on one theory in particular:
I have slowly come realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, cosplay is the new focus of these conventions — seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches, and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place. I’ve seen it first-hand — the uber-famous artist who traveled all of the way from Japan, sitting at Comic-Con, drawing as no one even paid attention to him, while the cosplayers held up floor traffic and fans surround the cosplayers — rather than the famed industry household name — to pose for selfies.
I read a few similar complaints in the days following Indy Pop Con back in May (and talked to one of the vendors recently), a new convention where attendance didn’t meet projections and vendors of all sizes were dissatisfied with the results, but the cosplayer turnout was quite strong. At least one artist guest later took to social media the following week and disparaged the cosplay community for the sins of that weekend, as if thousands of Indianapolis residents had walked up to the Convention Center, saw three Harley Quinns walk by in a row, freaked out, burned their Pop Con tickets, and left to go shopping instead.
Cosplay has its ups and downs. So do all the other popular con activities do. Everything at a con is a distraction to someone. Anyone who’s read this site for any length of time knows my wife and I are cosplay fans. Don’t look to us for impartiality. But we wouldn’t be cosplay fans in the first place if we thought they were a menace to fandom and ruined everyplace they walked.
Honest confession, though: I’m personally not spending as much at conventions as I used to. And it’s not because cosplayers mugged me, or tackled me whenever I whipped out my wallet, or bedazzled me so deeply that I totally forgot to buy stuff. From a commerce standpoint, I suppose I’m part of the problem.
Why are some exhibitors reporting poor convention performance? Why have some local cons felt emptier than they should’ve been? Why can’t we all just get along and exchange money for goods and services? Here are some of the ways in which I’m being unhelpful:
* Staggering expenses. Just arriving and entering the doors can consume 60-80% of your budget. Some smaller comics shows will go as low as $25-$30 per one-day ticket, but a single day at one of the grander entertainment expos can land you near the three-figure price zone. Count on that price level for a full weekend pass (especially if ticket-vendor fees are extra) or a ritzy “VIP” pass that offers as many as two useful perks and a dozen disposable features. If you don’t live near the con, then you also have to figure in travel, parking, and overnight accommodations. Don’t forget food and drinks, because you are human, and they’ll be overpriced everywhere nearby. And then you can approach the fun things and see what they cost.
* We’ve already met many of the guests. Part of my fun is meeting creators whose work I really like and buying something from them in person. Now that we’ve attended C2E2 and WWC several years in a row, the same names are popping up on the guest lists again and again, and we’re not seeing a lot of new and different pros joining our Midwest rosters. There’s one artist in particular I’ve met quite a few times and bought a different comic from his assortment each time, but sooner or later he’ll run out of backstock to sell me, and then what can I do for him? Just leave a tip? I’d think it would be tough for artists who attend the same cons repeatedly to discover new customers that way.
* I can’t give all the artists my money. Among the hundreds of Artists Alley dwellers, someone’s not getting my money. I’d love to help everyone and see a lot of winners, but I can only stretch so far. So I have criteria for winner/loser triage. The following are least likely to spur me into spending:
* Any rack where the prevailing themes are zombies, breasts, or zombie breasts.
* Any table where I can’t figure out who you are or what you do because your “display” is papers shuffled around a table.
* Ditto anyone whose “display” is a laptop turned at me. Period.
* Any vendor who’s paying more attention to their phone than to potential customers.
* The same few hucksters whose books I bought at previous cons and regretted ever after.
* Art that’s an obvious, jokeless carbon-copy of a famous work by someone else.
* Novels. (WWC had several in Artists Alley. Interesting idea, but a really hard sell for me given my never-ending reading backlog.)
* Artists who, um, aren’t ready for prime-time. Including but not limited to any local kid with a credit card who bought space on a lark (because some cons really can be that affordable) and is just selling doodles on printer paper.
Basically I’m looking to buy the awesome comics and graphic novels that you wrote or drew, the kind that provide a reading experience, and the kind I can leave lying around the house without having to hide them when we have family visiting. I don’t think that sounds like a narrow target, but when I amble down entire aisles without pausing once to browse, I have to wonder.
* No interest in higher-end items. We middle-class collectors are finicky in our art patronage. Our house currently has very little wall space to display prints or large paintings, and I don’t see the value in accumulating a permanently unseen portfolio. I rarely buy sketches because (a) price, (b) I dislike standing and staring at an artist drawing for minutes on end like a creepy stalker, and (c) if I wanted to be added to a weeks-long waiting list for a commissioned piece, ordering one online would’ve been much more efficient, and could’ve been done without attending. I don’t do that either, though. Hobby spending limits.
(My least favorite story from this year’s WWC: my wife and I saw one couple whose table was in a corner — correction: facing a narrow, dusty, abandoned corner — segregated from everyone else like a schoolkid in a dunce cap. They were easy to miss unless you were vigilant in walking down every single possible aisles, even the wall spaces that looked from a distance like unpopulated storage space. We crept through a narrow passage and there they were, tucked away from all humanity, driven into hermitage by unkind convention planners. I felt sorry for them…but all they had for sale were large paintings.)
* That darn online convenience. This won’t affect my Artists Alley behavior, because I’ll cheerfully buy cover-price items directly from the writers and artists who made them (remember, it’s why I’m there), but if you’re a comic shop owner who’s brought graphic novels to sell at a con for cover price or higher, good luck with that. I already have comic shops near my house, and Amazon robot minions practically perched on my windowsill, buzzing and waiting at all hours for me to click “Add Cart”. I need a reason to buy it from you and not Amazon. “Because Amazon is large and therefore evil” is not a persuasive salesman’s tactic. I realize your job is hard and you have the bills and the booth costs and the mouths-feeding and whatnot, but again: my powers of donation are limited, too. Blame capitalism.
* My interest in your back issues is waning. While I’m thinking about dealers: my long-standing back-issue want-list largely comprise two kinds of comics: issues that were part of storylines from previous decades that mean nothing or make no sense if read today; and the really obscure stuff you’ll never, ever bring to sell at a con because no average customers would want them. To this very day my run of Alan Weiss’ six-issue Marvel/Epic miniseries Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool is one issue short. I would pay double cover price to buy the last several issues of Steve Moncuse’s Fish Police in person instead of online, and finally find out whatever happened to Inspector Gill. But when I’m surrounded by bulk supplies of Spider-Man and X-Men and Avengers and DC’s New 52 and dozens of Marvel Ultimate trades going for a dollar a pound, I know better than to waste my time searching.
Related note: I also haven’t bought an action figure or an old piece of licensed merchandise in years. At a con or otherwise. I’m at that un-magical age and state of mind where I find myself surrounded by accumulations of cool-looking crap that’s become unwieldy and overwhelming and 90% packed away and tucked out of sight. I’ve drawn a line on how many boxes I’m allowing to pile up in the garage. I’m no longer in the market for collectible leftovers, and that’s what takes up three-fourths of any dealers’ area these days.
* The local Midwest convention glut is threatening to kill us all. My wife and I have attended five cons so far in 2014 and have two more to go. Earlier this year we’d discussed the possibility of trying one of the other cons within driving distance and broadening our jurisdiction in a sense. Five cons later, the money and desire to diversify our portfolio are long gone. We can handle a few shows a year and keep our finances on track, but new cons have been sprouting up around here like dandelions. For years our only annual geek experience was a tiny, fan-run Trek con. Today, we’re now in the midst of a genuine market. We have options, and those options have competition. That temptation to indulge in that strange new sensation has drawn us up to the edge of convention burnout. Something’s had to give. For WWC 2014, it meant spending less on the show floor and coming home with a much smaller reading pile than usual. Past a certain point, I just could not bring myself to browse anymore. And it didn’t help that Gen Con was the previous weekend.
Those are just my reasons for comics convention spending cuts. Maybe I’m eccentric and these are limited to me and only me in America. Some of them aren’t. As for why other attendees aren’t spending more, here’s a couple more factors that shouldn’t be overlooked:
All those expensive celebrities, and the invading armies of the general public dying to see them.
The conventions want to draw more and more attendees, but that means bringing in people that will attract large crowds. For better or worse, millions of people may flock to Marvel movies, but a fraction of them are buying the books. With mainstream audiences fascinated by press coverage of San Diego and the overall circus atmosphere of costumed fans on the streets, the conventions are bringing in celebrity guests to attract those mundane fans.
And they aren’t comic fans.
Yeah, they know who Superman is, but not who draws him. And especially not who drew him five, fifteen, or thirty years ago. While you can buy merchandise or take a free photo with, say, painter Dave Dorman, few people beyond us hobbyists know who he is. It’s not a personal slight. The mainstream audiences just have no idea or interest in any comic creator/artist/writer outside of Stan Lee. Sure, Dave Dorman painted some Star Wars covers, and people like Star Wars. That doesn’t mean a mundane attendee will be willing to drop $50 or more on a copy of one of his works, as opposed to paying the same amount for Billy Dee Williams’ autograph.
And economics are a determining factor here, arguably even more for mainstream attendees than for those of us who’ve been in The Game for a while. They’re still wrapping their minds around the basic concept of celebrities charging for autographs. The sticker shock of admission, gas, parking, food on top of that will severely limit budgets. My wife and I do a decent job of mixing celebrity encounters with talent purchases, but that’s our compromise. Some people don’t.
To the extent that people wear costumes in order to be noticed is a no-brainer, but they’re part of that mainstream draw now. After dropping that $50 on Lando Calrissian, after paying for getting there, eating and the privilege of walking through the door, non-fan attendees are looking for something free. Taking photos of cosplayers is free. We know the benefits of taking those photos, too. It’s something to show to people who weren’t there. Sometimes it’s a fun, free service for cosplayers who attend alone and have no one to take a photo of them on the floor. And, okay, fine there’s a certain appeal for that ecstatic fan who showed up to meet Matt Smith to be able to also have their photo taken with a hot Loki.
Any of us who don’t run a convention would probably agree that convention planners ought to ease up on treating the creators as just another, higher level of customer to fleece. Certainly some things cost money to provide to hundreds of people — electricity, tables and chairs, internet, etc. — but gouging the talent so that they’re losing money before even showing up seems a lousy answer.
What would be a useful answer, then? What should the factory showroom model of the 21st-century comics convention look like?
Should convention companies settle for smaller display fees, give creators a fighting chance to break even, thereby cutting into their own profits and eliminating their interest in the business? Should we hold our breath waiting for a philanthropic showrunning saint to implement that magical paradigm?
Should the burden be left on the creators to steer their own fates, and leave them to abandon the convention scene if they can’t make such trips financially feasible? Are we prepared for a future in which the guest lists continue dwindling until all we have left to meet are celebrities, actors, and a tiny Artists Alcove that’s just three college kids drawing zombie breasts?
Should we settle for smaller shows? Do we revoke the celebrity invitations, make it All About The Comics, return to the field’s insular beginnings, and turn gatekeeper until the general audience retreats and takes their dollars with them? Can we afford to lose their bankrolling?
Which genie do we put back into the bottle first?
We haven’t made any firm commitments to our 2015 convention schedule, but I’ll be shocked if we attend the same number of shows. We still have our 2014 schedule to finish. Next up is the inaugural Awesome Con Indianapolis, October 3-5, 2014. Any creators game enough to buy in and show up are more than welcome to try prying my dollars from my warm, lively hands.
Trust me: if anything holds you or me back, it won’t be the cosplayers.
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[Special thanks to my wife Anne for cowriting portions of this entry. Her company and invaluable input are my favorite part of any convention experience.]