We are fast approaching the one year anniversary of when the WHO assessed COVID-19 to be a pandemic event, and it’s no exaggeration to say the last twelve months has been one of the most tumultuous and unpredictable in living memory, with everyone having to re-evaluate pretty much every aspect of their lives and priorities, including those of their extracurricular interests.
We’ve all had to adapt and adjust in order to cope with the stresses of the New Normal, with art, music and creativity becoming more important to keep our spirits together. Fandoms have taken their love of comics, illustration, publishing, collecting, cosplay and much more into the digital realm, with digital conventions and live streams becoming the manner in which we still come together as a community and celebrate.
From the bigger mainstream convention organisers, such as MCM Comic Con, Wales Comic Comic Con, Thought Bubble Festival, The Lakes International Comic Art Festival and San Diego Comic-Con, from massive entertainment companies such as DC Comics and Warner Bros., to smaller homegrown events such as Mainframe Comic Con and Macc-POW!… online comic cons have become the primary manner in which properties and creators have shared content and updates about upcoming (or even postponed) projects. These events have also allowed these organisations to continue to interact with their community of fans – with varying levels of success.
DC Comics‘ DC FANDOME may have been the slickest and most content-filled event of 2020, with incredible visuals, plenty of headline-grabbing reveals and a stunning array of talent from films, comics, animation and more. However, as a pre-prepared, pre-recorded and heavily produced video, – streaming directly from the Warner Bros. servers over a 24 hour period, with no ability to rewind or revisit – it didn’t include any live interaction from fans and personally came off as a rather sterile affair. For all of our griping about Q&A’s at comic cons, it sure became noticeable when they were gone!
Conversely, Mainframe Comic Con was a very DIY affair, borne out of the desire by fans to fill the void and create online convention content, and used streaming and multi-platform technology that had come into its own over the last few years. From their first effort involving a simple single-channel stream to the latest Mainframe (teamed with Baltimore Comic Con) involving multiple ‘rooms’, partner relationships and the generosity of incredible talent, the ambition and reach of Mainframe was exciting to watch, the team always making sure that the audience was at the centre of the interaction. A high-wire act which could fall at any time – sure, it stumbled on occasion but through pure force of will and good humour, it always made it to the other side.
In the middle, events such as San Diego Comic-Con, ReedPOP’s Metaverse, Thought Bubble Digital and Lakes Festival Online took streaming tools readily available – YouTube, Twitch, Facebook Live and more – and then struck their own paths, often learning from the event held before and with varying degrees of success. Scheduling, fan interactions, the manner of pricing and charitable donations – the integration of all of these elements ebbed and flowed throughout the year… and yet, one year on, I still don’t think anyone has found a fully successful middle ground.
Perhaps it’s because virtual comic cons are simply not what fans want – as my wife Caroline so succinctly put it, on admitting that she hadn’t seen a single second of any of the output by shows she has even been directly involved in helping put on, “I haven’t seen my friends. It’s not a comic con to me.” A perfectly valid point of view – I get it.
For myself, I think the main problem has been the message that our leaders have been putting out during this global pandemic: that a solution will be found ‘sooner rather than later’, that normality would be achievable by May, by June, by the end of summer, maybe by the end of the year… The end result was that virtual conventions were considered more of a temporary ‘band-aid’ rather than something that could be learned from and perhaps even eventually integrated into shows, post-pandemic.
One element in particular that I feel has not been successfully transported into digital comic cons is the fan interaction with actual creatives that would usually rely on the income and connections made at shows. Some cons have posted pages ‘artist alleys’ (SDCC even went to the extent of posting a point-and-click version of their Exhibition Floor Map, to really rub salt into the wound), putting lists of weblinks to online stores, but I still feel that organisers have not spent enough time trying to solve this problem and hoped that just putting up panel content is enough – and it really isn’t.
I’m hoping that, as 2021 moves forward, the harsh reality of the global situation becomes more apparent and virtual conventions inevitably start back up again, that more organisers reach out to those creatives willing to sell themselves in a virtual marketplace and come up with a solution. I still think a ‘shopping channel’ feed, running alongside the panel info dumps, isn’t the worst idea in the world!
For myself, 2020 will be the year that my regular livestream, TALKIN’ CON: A CUP O’ TEA WITH AN ENGLISHMAN IN SAN DIEGO, turned from being a ‘con news and updates’ podcast into pretty much a weekly comic con of its own with some of the industries most illustrious personalities joining me to talk about not only their love of comic conventions but also their work and careers in general. The sheer level of talent that came to speak to me exploded throughout the summer, ironically due to that talent finding themselves more at a loose end and available to talk during enforced lockdown!
The livestream originally began as a weekly show, airing on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube on Sunday evenings but when the lockdowns first came into effect and I wanted to mark more of my time in the absence – if anything else to distract myself but also to bring together my audience that would also be finding themselves lost and adrift – I took the stream to twice a week, airing also on a Wednesday. I also included a number of Incidental Episodes at the discretion of a couple of guests that perhaps weren’t able to join us on the days of the regular shows – pandemic be damned, there were still workloads, deadlines and family obligations to be met!
This year, I have been thrilled and honoured to be joined by industry legends the likes of Matt Medney, CBLDF’s Jeff Trexler, Joseph P. Illidge, Chip Mosher, IDW’s Chris Ryall and Heavy Metal Magazine’s David Irwin, to pop culture commentators such as comicbook.com’s Russ Burlingame, SyfyWire’s Mike Avila and Word Balloon’s John Sientres, and a truly breathtaking line-up of comic artists and writers, from James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds, Darick Robertson, David Pepose, Elsa Charretier and Scott Snyder, to Philip Bond and Shelly Bond, Alex Pakandel, Steven Mooney and Declan Shalvey, Donny Cates and Megan Hutchison, Al Ewing and Cullen Bunn, to personal heroes such as Bill Sienkiewicz and Skottie Young AND SO MANY MORE… It’s been breathtaking!
Highights have included:
- Paul Jenkins, coming on to talk about his career and the show supposedly segueing into a nice Kickstarter promotion segment with Jimmy Palmiotti and Dave Johnson – and instead, turning into a frantic, slightly chaotic and utterly brilliant free-for-all!
- showcases of whole brands and publishers, including IDW Publishing, Heavy Metal Magazine and Vault Comics, where we’ve had publishers, editors and top teams talking about how they had adapted and often thrived throughout pandemic
- Donny Cates and Megan Hutchison – two amazing people at the best of times – taking my self-imposed one hour show time limit and blasting through with an incredible two-hour show which simply flew by – fantastic company to be in.
- convention organisers Lee Wallis (EM-Con) and Jaime Milner (Wales Comic Con), forming a ‘meeting of minds’ at the beginning of summer and being incredibly forthcoming about the pressures and strains of attempting to put on shows and engage with fans in the shadow of Coronavirus – later in the year, Julie Tait of The Lakes International Comic Art Festival also joined me to discuss putting on a show at a wholly different time of pandemic, when we were fully ‘in it’
- my first non-comics, actual on-screen talent interview with the charming, the charismatic, the frankly awesome-as hell Todd Stashwick, who laid his nerd credentials out for all to see and who was a delight to spend and hour and a half with
- helping to promote Kickstarters and crowdfunding efforts, through which creatives were connecting with audiences whilst the comics retail industry was in such a state of flux: Khai Krumbhaar, profiling TRUE WAR STORIES, Philip Bond talking INK, the incredible Scott Snyder on the launch of NOCTERRA (then, NOCTURNAL), John McCrea and his WORLD OF… career retrospective book, David Pepose and THE O.Z.… even launching a Kickstarter live on air with Jordan Thomas hitting go on QUARANTINE, as we spoke!
- a landmark interview for myself, in that it wasn’t one so much in my usual lighter, jovial vein and instead more serious reportage in the wake of serious backdrop: the conversation with CBLDF’s interim chairman Jeff Trexler, talking about what the organisation had to accomplish to start building trust in the comics industry again, following sexual and interpersonal harassment allegations
- and, of course, two interviews with comic artist greats that, if you had told me at the beginning of the year I would have had the chance to organise, I would have laughed in your face – an hour talking frankly and freely with personal hero Skottie Young and also TWO AND A HALF HOURS in the splendid company of the one and only Bill Sienkiewicz
Frankly, each and every conversation has been an absolute blast, not one of them has fallen completely off the rails, despite my best efforts, and I’ve enjoyed every single second spending time with these incredible people. All the interviews can be found on my YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/EnglishmanSDCC and I’ve also been able to upload the audio versions of the interviews to SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and iTunes.
It’s been an incredible opportunity to talk to these people and one that I will never take for granted… However, I’ve more recently gone from a veritable flood of interviews and livestreams to an abrupt halt to my plans, as I have taken on a key worker job in a warehouse – something completely out of my comfort zone! It’s put a serious full stop on my livestreaming career with only some occasional events from time to time to keep me and my audience occupied (such as AN EVENING WITH JOHN MCCREA, a charity livestream that I’m putting together for John in service of The Cartoon Museum, streaming on Friday 12th February An Evening with John McCrea to Support The Cartoon Museum (Friday 12th February, 6pm) | The Convention Collective)
I look forward to when I can return to my chosen profession as a DJ, to when I can return to regularly have a Cup O’ Tea on a Sunday evening and, of course, to when I can see my friends at comic cons once again. Until then, let’s hope that we can all still come together in the digital space – and keep being fans.