Cosplay is Not Killing Comic Con, and Neither are Selfies and “New” Fans

Denise Dorman, wife of comics illustrator Dave Dorman recently made some waves with a piece she posted on her own blog ComicBookWife.com, which then appeared on Bleeding Cool. She was pointing to a very real problem at current conventions—that creators, writers, and illustrators are no longer making enough money at conventions to justify the expense of going in the first place. Her belief is that a new brand of convention-goer—the sort who worships cosplayers over creative talents—are largely to blame for this issue.

And… no. No, they’re not.

For those who are not in the know, setting up your own booth at a convention is not a cheap enterprise. Conventions, not just comic book cons but in any industry, don’t cover costs with entry fees alone. Beyond admission, cons also charge a serious fee for floor space to vendors. And that space is only getting more dear as the major Comic-Cons get more popular. So how does a vendor like an artist, writer, or Etsy store make money if the upfront costs are increasing? Dorman’s article canvases various friends in the business and the answer seems to be… they don’t.

The same was true for San Diego Comic-Con. Normally, we at least cover our costs. This year we spent $7,000 to exhibit at #SDCC, between the booth space rental, hotel, car rental and food expenses. This year, we came home $1k in the hole. So I started asking around… again, I asked equally famous, equally in-demand artists, writers, and creators. The post-mortem was that everyone either lost money on this show or barely covered expenses, and some very famous artists–household names you would know–are questioning whether they will bother returning next year. Even the biggest comics exhibitor with several booths, Mile High Comics, announced they were pulling out next year, in a much-publicized story in the New York Times–admitting they suffered a $10,000 loss at the show this year. (Their status on exhibiting next year may have since changed – I haven’t followed the story that closely, but it drives home my point.)

More distressing still, Comic-Cons were named that way for the comics they showcased—it would be strange to see a convention without those creatives who are responsible for them. But Denise Dorman has a particular finger to point in this decline: she believes the age of the selfie and fans who find cosplay more impressive than creative talents are to blame.

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.

Which is upsetting to read because “millennials”—often tied to the concept of “selfies”—are a conveniently vague target to blame for everything going wrong these days. (Full disclosure: I am one. I also cosplay at conventions.) From the ruin of the housing and auto markets to the need for First Place trophies in the hands of every little leaguer, what’s being perceived as the self-obsessed entitlement of the “internet” generation keeps taking blow after blow. And now, it would seem that they’re to blame for the rising vendor costs of conventions because they either a) want to be noticed for cosplaying or b) want to be noticed with people cosplaying.

Cosplay has always been a part of comic conventions. Here’s Hugo Award-winning sci-fi fan Forrest J. Ackerman dressed up at the first Worldcon, held in 1939 in New York. And sometimes one aspect of cosplaying is to be noticed in your costume. Sometimes it isn’t. The decision is up to the cosplayer. Either way, considering its history, it’s pretty hard to believe that cosplaying itself is responsible for such extensive deterioration at conventions.

In light of the online backlash to these comments, Dorman wrote another blog post, insisting that she is not blaming cosplay itself for this issue, which should provide a sense of relief. Unfortunately, it only raises more questions:

I think the emphasis on Cosplay is symptomatic of a shift in the larger Cons from being a commerce-driven event to being a social gathering-driven event.

Meaning, if it’s not the cosplayers themselves then we should really be pointing the finger at those selfie-obsessed, Instagramming kids. Right? Sure, maybe people snap more pictures with themselves alongside convention cosplayers because it’s easier and faster than it used to be. But how does that translate to lack of knowledge or interest in the nearby creative names? Or in larger retail vendors like Mile High Comics? And how does that translate into greater monetary losses at conventions? Are cosplayers and picture-takers actually treating creators as background, as Dorman suggests? If so, would the number of purchases at an artist’s booth be lower year to year? Dorman doesn’t provide any data for comparison, so we can only speculate on the possibility.

Additionally, conventions have always been social events for fans. For many, before superheroes films were topping the blockbuster lists each year, before the internet put all sorts of people in touch across the world, conventions were one of the few places where geeks of all stripes could meet. It was where people could make friends who enjoyed the same things they did. The idea that conventions are less commercial and more socially-driven these days—when there’s so much more to buy than ever before—does not ring true. It’s all down to what people are buying, in this case.

Dorman does clarify the sort of fan she takes issue with in her second piece, but that does not seem to help the point (emphasis hers):

It’s the new breed of attendees who are there because someone said it’s cool to be there; they are the ones completely unfamiliar with the comics industry. They are the ones who attend any hard-to-get-tickets event just to boast online. They are the people I take issue with. NOT the Cosplayers. Those are the people who care only about their selfies on their Instagram profiles. Those are the people who hijack events like #Burning Man, #Coachella and #SDCC with no understanding of why these events exist, or their raison d’être. Once they show up to the party, the event jumps the shark.

This is perhaps more painful to read. It would seem cosplayers are fine. It is instead down to the people who are only there because someone told them it was awesome to go to Comic-Con. Which is really just another way of making a “fake geek” argument, isn’t it?

It’s one thing to speculate and another to jump ahead and outright blame a specific kind of fan for the reason behind the diminishing financial returns of comic book conventions. For one, it’s shaming people while having little-to-no proof of their investment; there is no reason to think that someone who wants a snapshot with an excellent Doctor Strange cosplay doesn’t care about the character or what went into creating him. In turn, this distracts from the real issue that Dorman presents: that convention costs are shutting out creators. For another, it’s ignoring other ways in which conventions have changed.

Dorman says it herself—the cosplayers and their idolaters tend to stop convention floor traffic to snap photographs. But the only reason why they’re able to stop traffic is because even a small reduction in floor space slows the flow of the massive amount of foot traffic Comic-Cons attract.

The conventions are so much bigger than they used to be, overflowing and still growing in size. They are so large and so hard to navigate and so overwhelming. Getting from Point A to B on your roster is a lot rougher than before. I cannot count the number of times I’ve intended to make it across a convention center to another location or activity and only gotten halfway. And it wasn’t just down to someone in a working Iron Man costume holding up the footpaths. It was because there were just Too. Many. People. Too many things too see, too many panels to attend.

Which brings me to the second (and perhaps more painful) point. Dorman makes note of a Times article discussing the withdrawal of Mile High Comics from San Diego Comic Con as a sign of these changes. But practically every place that covered SDCC this year was forced to acknowledge another serious issue that led to a bevy of coverage: the utterly ridiculous line to Hall H, the hall that houses the panels for all the major film and television properties that come to give sneak peeks and first glimpses to the masses.

The conventions have changed. A huge portion of the convention-going population are now going for other pop media. They are going for films and TV. They want to see actors and showrunners. This is particularly distressing when you consider that much of the comics talent appearing at conventions are in some way directly responsible for the films and television that these fans love. They write Superman and draw Black Widow and create the indie strips that get shared across Tumblr. But ignoring the creator of a character, or the books featuring that character, in favor of the movie starring that character is not tantamount to a lack of respect on the part of these attendees—it’s simply a sum of what they know and what they don’t know. (Which does not make them bad or fake fans, regardless.)

And even if they do know, some fans will always prefer watching movies to the act of reading a comic. But some will see those films and begin to pick up comics. Many already have. Perhaps they won’t come to the booths because they would still rather wait in line to see a panel for a beloved television show. It still does not mean that they don’t care about the people who create the comics they enjoy. It means that conventions are different now because the words “Comic-Con” are no longer quite accurate. They are entertainment and pop culture conventions.

But if you tried renaming them “Pop Cons,” that would be sort of demoralizing, wouldn’t it?

This is a serious issue to consider and there are many ways it could be handled; the conventions could be split off into categories, or the convention powers-that-be could work harder to showcase the professional attendants. More effort could be made to draw a direct line from juggernaut blockbusters to their comic creators. Nothing will guarantee a change, however. It might simply be that the larger conventions are changing, and some evolution is required.

But please don’t blame the cosplayers, new “breeds” of fans, or the selfie-loving kids. They are buying the tickets. They are the fans for whom these conventions were created in the first place. It could be that these events are becoming a new sort of beast, but pointing the finger at the newest generation of enthusiasts is turning a blind eye to the sweeping ways that genre is changing, as the interests of “geeks” become more and more mainstream. And those are the conversations the community should be having.


Emily Asher-Perrin will still cosplay. She’s sorry. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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