The Year without a Comic-Con

Framing the Covid-19 pandemic's impacts on fan conventions

Benjamin Woo

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Emma Francis

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Kalervo Sinervo

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Some initial findings are presented from a media monitoring project on the Covid-19 pandemic's impacts on comic cons and other fan events during 2020. We analyzed a sample of 77 items from a corpus of 813 articles, identifying story lines and themes that framed this moment of upheaval and uncertainty.

[0.2] Keywords—Comic cons; Discourse analysis; Frame analysis

Woo, Benjamin, Emma Francis, and Kalervo Sinervo. 2022. "Framing the Covid-19 Pandemic's Impacts on Fan Conventions." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2022.2323.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fan conventions were already known as superspreaders of ailments and illnesses before the pandemic, a phenomenon known as "con crud" and "con flu," among other slang terms (Fanlore 2022). Cons bring people together—sometimes from quite far away—in a convention center, hotel ballroom, or other venue to touch the same things and breathe the same air, often while failing to eat or sleep. It's no wonder people get sick. So when epidemiologists and public health authorities warned us all to avoid crowded, close-contact, and confined spaces to limit the novel coronavirus's spread (WHO 2021), they might as well have said to avoid comic cons.

[1.2] Despite stories emerging from early hot spots in January and February 2020, many of us in North America didn't appreciate how significantly the pandemic would upend our lives. When someone asked the Friends of Comic Cons message board in late February if they thought the San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) might be canceled because of the pandemic, they were met with skepticism. ReedPop's Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo went ahead the next weekend, with organizers actually reporting higher attendance than in 2019 (Alverson 2020; Jennings 2020), but some exhibitors and guests pulled out of Emerald City Comic Con, originally scheduled for the weekend of March 12. ReedPop initially seemed committed to moving forward, as they had in Chicago, but eventually postponed the show until the summer (Grunenwald 2020a; Romano 2020). They were soon joined by other events, large and small, and many of those postponements later turned into cancellations. By early April, more commentators were asking the question one fan had posed back in February: what if there's no SDCC this year? (Lovett 2020; Wilson 2020; Pulliam-Moore 2020). Things were finally settled on April 17, when SDCC's organizers announced that the world's most prominent comic convention would be canceled for the first time since its founding in 1970 (Dixon 2020).

[1.3] All of this was unfolding as Woo planned to launch a collaborative ethnography of SDCC. With no Comic-Con to attend, it obviously had to be put on the back burner; but what about this flood of reporting, speculation, and commentary about conventions and the pandemic? Woo contacted Francis, who has professional experience in the live events industry, to assist with a media monitoring exercise in spring 2020. By the end of the summer, they added Sinervo, who was interested in the pandemic's impact on transmedia industries more broadly, to the project. The resulting archive of articles, blog posts, and press releases captures a particular moment in time: convention season, or roughly mid-February to late October, during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

2. Methods

[2.1] Our data corpus contains 813 items from event organizations, mainstream and subcultural media outlets, and some social media posts. Broadly speaking, they address postponements and cancellations (Cancellations), their consequences (Fallout), virtual events (Alternatives), responses from attendees and fans (Reactions), the return to in-person events (Reopening), and other subjects (table 1). Early on, we worked backward to reconstruct a record of what had already transpired between February and April; however, the bulk of material was assembled through active media monitoring. Items were located through a series of Google Alerts supplemented with targeted web and database searches. We decided to stop data collection after New York Comic Con at the end of October 2020 (figure 1). NYCC is usually one of the last major cons of the season, we couldn't continue monitoring indefinitely, and, at the time, it looked like things would be mostly back to normal by the 2021 season.

Table 1. Crosstab of corpus items by source type and primary subject
Source type Subject
Cancellation Fallout Alternatives Reopening Reactions Other
Event Organizer 65 3 73 6 1 5
Mainstream–Local 46 19 63 35 19 6
Mainstream–National 13 7 25 8 8 3
Mainstream–Trade 2 4 23 2 1 4
Subcultural 63 35 174 14 39 23
Social Media 5 4 19 6 15 3
Other 0 0 4 1 1 3

A bar chart showing post counts over time, with spikes in late April, mid-June, and late July

Figure 1. Dated corpus items published per week (February 10 to October 25, 2020), with three-week rolling average. The counts range from a minimum of 1 (the week of February 10) to a maximum of 50 (the week of July 20, when the San Diego Comic-Con would traditionally be held). The trend line, a three-week rolling average, shows three distinct spikes: late April, mid-June, and late July. The counts then steadily taper off for the remainder of the year until data collection ceased.

[2.2] This corpus is too big for us to tackle immediately, so we decided to begin at a smaller scale, by reporting results of a random stratified sample. We sampled by source type—randomly selecting 10 percent of items published directly by event organizations; by national, local, and trade sources in the mainstream press, respectively; and by subcultural media (largely geek-culture websites)—hoping that they would show distinct points of view. Other source types were too heterogenous to enable useful comparisons, so we have bracketed that material for now. The final sample contained 77 items comprising 15 from Event Organizers; 6 from Mainstream–National; 18 from Mainstream–Local; 4 from Mainstream–Trade; and 34 from Subcultural (note 1).

[2.3] All three of us initially reviewed the whole sample, paying attention to framing, structure, linguistic and rhetorical choices, and multimodal features. These observations informed our preliminary code book, which was further refined during coding in the cloud-based qualitative data analysis software package Dedoose (https://www.dedoose.com). We began formal coding by dividing the material among ourselves, and we reviewed and recoded each other's work. We created a word cloud of all codes from the sample, scaled by frequency (figure 2). Except for embedded media artifacts like photographs or social media posts, codes were generally applied at the paragraph level.

Word cloud of codes

Figure 2. Word cloud of codes applied to the corpus, scaled by frequency. Relatively speaking, there is not that much variation in scale evident. Of the codes present, the most frequently used include Film/TV; Fans, Geeks, Nerds; Public Health Story; Business Story; Comics; Cosplay; Proactive Framing; and Event Organization (Staff) Quotes. Some of the least used include Youth; Identification with Industry; Wrestling; Subcultural Celebrity Social Media; and Expert Social Media.

[2.4] As we read through the sample, four major frames emerged. We initially thought of these as genres of story, but we quickly realized that individual articles frequently evoked multiple registers. We started talking about them as story lines, like the A, B, and C plots that weave through episodes of serialized TV dramas. The story lines were Public Health, Human Interest, Business, and Arts & Entertainment. Figure 3 shows their distribution across the five source categories, and vice versa.

2 side-by-side bar charts

Figure 3. Distribution of story line by source type (a) and source type by story line (b). These charts show how often each story line code (Public Health; Human Interest; Business; Arts & Entertainment) was used by stories belonging to each source type (Event Organizer; Mainstream–National; Mainstream–Local; Mainstream–Trade; and Subcultural), and vice versa. Subcultural sources dominate across all story line categories, followed by Mainstream–Local, with the exception of Human Interest, where the order is reversed. The Public Health and Business story lines are most common across source types.

3. Public Health and agency

[3.1] The Public Health story line places the events and actors in the context of the pandemic itself. It made up the largest proportion of Event Organizer and Mainstream–National items, and, with 82 applications, it was virtually tied with Business as the most used frame. Many articles mention local case counts, death rates, epidemiological models, and public health restrictions. For example, an article discussing ReedPop's initial decision to hold the Emerald City Comic Con as planned notes that the announcement came just "hours after Washington governor Jay Inslee declared an emergency in the state, following the second coronavirus-related death in Seattle's King County" (Grunenwald 2020b). Others introduce terms like "social distancing" (Brooks 2020) and "enhanced cleaning measures" (Badasie 2020) that became part of our pandemic vocabulary. Still others weighed the wisdom of returning to previously postponed or canceled events, such as a cluster that went ahead in Florida in summer and fall 2020. As one commentator put it, "Then there's Tampa Bay Comic Con screaming 'Leeroy Jenkins' right into the disease vector that is Florida" (Schenker 2020). Heidi Macdonald (2020) cautioned readers to wear a mask if they go, though she noted they were "controversial locally," and a blogger reported that Orlando Toy Collectors Summer Pop-up Show staff expected people to "manage themselves" (Croom quoted in Johnston 2020), foreshadowing the new normal of the pandemic's later stages.

[3.2] A June 24 Facebook post by Tampa Bay Comic Con's (2020) organizers addressed to their "nerdy brethren" belatedly announced the event's cancellation: "Due to the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, the City of Tampa does not feel comfortable featuring Tampa Bay Comic Convention 2020 (and we share their sentiment)." Thus, TBCC portrayed the City of Tampa as ultimately responsible even as they (parenthetically) concurred. This statement combines what we term reactive and proactive framings of agency. On the one hand, organizers and commentators foregrounded external constraints through passive language, like "had to cancel its in person convention" (Valdez 2020) and "forced to go fully on the Internet" (Molnar 2020) or, like TBCC, by attributing decisions to local, state, or federal authorities. On the other hand, many organizers presented their pandemic response as decisive action going above and beyond public health rules: "We will react appropriately to any directives from government and our global group, but the safety of our visitors is paramount so we will be taking extraordinary steps to manage this" (Badasie 2020). A few even tried to put a positive spin on disruptions. For example, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival rejected a "do nothing and ride the storm into next year" approach. Instead, "seizing the moment and making an opportunity of adversity," they made "a clear and positive decision" and asked stakeholders to see the virtual festival as "an opportunity rather than a threat to LICAF" (Lakes International Comic Art Festival 2020). We imagine these decisions—not only what to do but how to communicate them—were agonizing and would have become even more so as mask and vaccine mandates became increasingly caught up in political posturing.

4. Human Interest and Emotional Impacts

[4.1] The Human Interest story line focused on the experiences of individuals or small, representative groups. Profiles of cosplayers who worked as nurses (Kunawicz 2020) and teachers (Elderkin 2020) or who made and donated personal protective equipment (Bear 2020; Elderkin 2020) are good examples of this framing. Overall, it was the least used of the four story lines. Event Organizers and Mainstream–Trade sources never used it, though it constituted roughly one quarter of the story line codes applied in Mainstream–Local sources. Nonetheless, Human Interest stories underlined the emotional toll of the pandemic on conventions' stakeholders, a theme we also tracked separately.

[4.2] The Emotional Impact code appeared most often in Mainstream–Local sources, followed closely by Subcultural, then Event Organizer, Mainstream–National, and Mainstream–Trade. Authors often positioned themselves as fellow fans to demonstrate sympathy with congoers: "Geeks really look forward to their events. Being in quarantine and away from our gatherings makes us feel like travelers in a different country missing the sound of our native tongue" (Kunawicz 2020). Interviews with cosplayers, artists, exhibitors, and retailers further emphasized affective dimensions of a disrupted convention season. However, Event Organizers were the only source type that used the emotional frame more than the economic one. Their statements used explicitly affective language: "we are as disappointed as we know you are" (Phoenix Fan Fusion 2020); "It is with extreme sadness that we today announce the cancellation…We are heartbroken" (ReedPop 2020); "It is with great sorrow" (Winnipeg Comiccon, n.d.); and, "For over 30 years we have put our heart and soul into creating a special place" (Jirak 2020). Interestingly, these excerpts all came from cancellation statements, perhaps suggesting an instrumental use of affect, interpellating attendees and exhibitors as part of a community or family to contain the backlash to bad news. However, when looking at cases where event organizations, their staff, and event stakeholders like vendors are quoted in articles, they talked about economic impacts twice as often as emotional ones. When speaking to the press, rather than directly to their customers, affective language is drowned out by the business of geek culture.

5. Business and Economic Impacts

[5.1] Whereas the Human Interest story line drew attention to the emotional impacts of a disrupted convention season, the Business story line focalized its economic costs. Discussion of cash flow ("Revenues per virtual event were not large, totaling $737,446 over the 60 events, but gross margin was higher on the virtual events than on the company's live events"; Griepp 2020) and contracts ("most big contracts […] will include what's called a Force Majeure clause"; Elderkin 2020) are hallmarks of the Business story line, as is management speak:

[5.2] That said, we have been prudent with our risk management and are well capitalized to survive in the longest of down periods […] Our advice for content presenters and suppliers alike is to do all you can to optimize for the current downturn, and prepare for the flood of (good) work that will come once we turn the corner.

[5.3] The Economic Impacts code was used most frequently in Mainstream–National sources, followed by Subcultural, Mainstream–Local, Mainstream–Trade, and Event Organizer. While a similar number of items in the sample discussed economic and emotional costs (21 and 22, respectively), within those items, we applied the codes 53 and 35 times, respectively. In other words, Economic Impacts were discussed 1.5 times as much as Emotional Impacts. Despite this differential emphasis, articles asserted cons' economic importance more than they demonstrated it. Salon's Liz Szabo (2020) cites an estimate of the broader conference and meetings industry's economic footprint, but authors, commentators, and experts more typically took cons' role in propping up local hospitality and tourism businesses, retailers and dealers, and individual creatives on faith.

[5.4] When they did get into details, Business stories focused on livelihoods: "Many creators rely on con sales to make a living" (MacDonald 2020); "we have a responsibility to the local artists and vendors who make their living at events like ours and the partners and employees who depend on local companies like ours for their livelihood" (Phoenix Fan Fusion 2020); "finding new ways to support these artists, many of whom counted on fan conventions as part of their income before coronavirus derailed that plan, is now more important than ever" (Trumbore 2020). Indeed, there is substantial overlap with Human Interest story lines—for example, a lengthy io9/Gizmodo piece on professional cosplayers struggling to make payroll, navigate government support programs, and find alternative revenue streams (Elderkin 2020)—because the "humans" at their center were frequently a business.

6. Arts & Entertainment and the pivot to digital

[6.1] The Arts & Entertainment story line spoke to the perspectives of (would-be) attendees through a "things to do this weekend" lens. Instances of this frame were about as likely to be from Mainstream–Local and Subcultural sources, but they made up a larger share of the Mainstream–Local category. Arts & Entertainment discourses were often distinguished by information, instructions, or imperatives: "Head over to Petersen's Twitch page every day from today until Sunday August 23rd to see some of your favorite artists and their art" (Trumbore 2020); "Attendees are encouraged to purchase their tickets online, as only a small number of walk-up tickets will be available the day of the event" (Tomlin 2020); "To create your own schedule for the online panels, go to comic-con.org and click on the Comic-Con@Home tab" (KPBS 2020). As can be seen from these examples, this theme could be applied to live events and the virtual ones mounted to replace them.

[6.2] We used the term "pivoting" to code discussions of what comes next for an event after being postponed or canceled. It applied to rescheduling—"BUT, we have some exciting plans for the Fall show" (Fan Expo Dallas, n.d.); "we aim to facilitate a smooth transition to the new dates for everyone involved" (Rose City Comic Con, n.d.); "Turcotte vows to bring Steel City NerdCon back when conditions allow" (Kelly 2020)—but over time became increasingly focused on online events, which were reframed as chances to "recreate normalcy" (Elderkin 2020) and "instill those friendly feelings and fun" that people missed (Sutlief 2020). Organizations and commentators worked hard to hype them. A few articles acknowledged that "the experience of being there in person can't be replaced" (Badasie 2020), but we found surprisingly little explicit discussion of this. Rather, the substitutability of online events for live ones seemed to be largely assumed through definitions of cons as bundles of content. Various writers and commentators used this frame to describe many different events, but the undisputed king was DC Comics publisher and CCO Jim Lee, who gave a lengthy interview to IGN ahead of a marquee virtual event, DC FanDome:

[6.3] So, I think it was primarily that need to accommodate the desire of the fans to engage with as much content as we created, and also allow people the freedom to be able to engage with content on any device, any place.

[6.4] It's very interesting contrasting the two and how we're really hitting both ends of the spectrum of how fans look at the content we create and how they want to engage with that content and how we want to engage with them with this content.

[6.5] So I think it just gives us the opportunity to go in super deep with all the content that we create across all the different divisions within Warner Brothers…We've got the comic book content, we've got gaming content, animation content, TV content, even film content, it's all in there. And it's all about showcasing things that might not necessarily get the airtime or attention. (Schedeen 2020)

[6.6] Although traditional cons can be treated as collections of panels, activations, and other consumable experiences, they serve other functions too: they are spectacles, retail marketplaces, educational opportunities, and chances to meet creators or socialize with friends and fellow fans (Jenkins 2012). Conversely, most online fan events organized during the pandemic were basically packages of prerecorded video, with relatively little opportunity for fans to interact or to talk back to industry and creators. In that sense, pandemic-era virtual events may contribute to what Stanfill (2019) has described as the enclosure of fandom.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused so much loss and disrupted ordinary life for so many people, comic conventions were obviously a matter of relatively little importance, but their absence had an outsize impact on some people and communities. Indeed, fan events and their stakeholders provide a microcosm of the pandemic experience, from the depths of its isolating and uncertain lows to the peaks of its in-this-together highs, as exemplified in this statement from one event:

[7.2] Superheroes never lose the fight. We observe, adapt, persevere and overcome. Motor City Comic Con 2020 will be postponed for a later date and we will prevail […] Until then, protect yourselves and your loved ones. Follow the government social distancing and shut-in guidelines so we can kick Covid's ass and get back to our beloved #conlife. (Jordan 2020)

[7.3] Here we have tried to sketch some of the ways that this moment was understood in mainstream and subcultural media, as well as directly from convention organizers. We described four broad story lines—Public Health, Human Interest, Business, and Arts & Entertainment—that we found in a sample of 77 press releases, news articles, and opinion pieces drawn from our Cons & Covid archive. We discussed each of these story lines alongside some other themes they made salient: framings of agency, the pandemic's emotional and economic impacts, and how the suspension of in-person events perhaps changed what we think of as a convention. We have barely scraped the surface of what this material can tell us about fan conventions, for in tracing the edges of the comic con–shaped hole left in people's lives during 2020, they necessarily invoke normative ideas about what cons are, what they do, and whom they are for. We hope to continue exploring this in further research with the corpus.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] This research was undertaken through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council–funded Comic Cons Research Project. An earlier version was presented at the Fan Studies Network–North America 2021 virtual conference.

9. Note

1. The complete sample is available at the Carleton University Dataverse Collection (https://doi.org/10.5683/SP3/UI62YD).

10. References

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