Kel McDonald figures she probably lost a sixth of her annual income when organizers postponed Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) last week due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The scary thing is she’s not sure that’s the end of it.
“ECCC’s obviously the big one, but cons are half of my income,” said McDonald, a Portland-based artist. “So the question then becomes, well, is the next show going to get canceled? And then the one after that? And then the one after that? Because part of the reason why the convention scene is so important for comics is it is hard to get distribution as an independent, self-publishing person. So a lot of times, these conventions are the only place people can get my books.”
There are thousands of artists and artisans, writers, T-shirt vendors, small-business owners and service-industry employees in the same situation as McDonald, turning what’s usually the happiest time of the year in the Pacific Northwest’s thriving comics industry into one of great concern. ECCC organizers say the convention will go on this summer, at a date to be announced later, but the damage has already begun and there’s no guarantee the later date will be as financially viable.
“I feel like all of my friends are now in the same boat of, well, how are we going to pay our next two months’ rent?” McDonald said.
Efforts to help are under way. A number of people and businesses are opening online pop-up stores, helping aggregate lists of creators who were planning to attend, and spreading ideas about how to recoup the cost of airline tickets and prepaid hotel and Airbnb deposits. Creators are spreading the word on Twitter through hashtags such as #ECCConline and some fans are vowing to still spend their money this month regardless.
It’s impossible to calculate how much the thousands of creators, vendors and exhibitors affected will lose, but it’s an impact that will be felt beyond Seattle. Creators from all over the country had been planning to fly in and thousands were expected to come up from Portland, considered the capital of comics these days.
“It’s pretty much a given that everybody from down here is going to go up there,” Portland-based writer Christopher Sebela said of the annual event.
The blow is a pernicious one for creators because most have to outlay a significant amount of cash beforehand to participate. They not only have to pay travel and housing expenses, but also for space in Artists Alley (refunds were given) or the exhibition hall (refunds were not). And there’s also money to be spent on preparing prints, buying books from the publisher or printer to sell and creating the knickknacks and souvenirs that make cons such a fun experience.
Like McDonald, Sebela fears ripple effects. Even if the con schedule goes on unchanged, there’s no question creators will be making hard decisions in the weeks to come. ECCC is one of the first major cons of the year, and its proceeds are often used to fund other ventures.
“I try not to assume that I’m going to make money — it’s just easier on my heart and my head,” said Sebela, author of “Crowded” and “Shanghai Red.” “But there are artists from the industry who do well at shows and they make a really good amount of money for four days. This is totally screwing their lives up this year. So, yeah, it sucks all around. I’m glad they did it. But when this year started, nobody was like, ‘Oh, I better brace for the concept that Emerald City isn’t going to happen this year.’ ”
People like Seattle-based comics creator, internet host and video-game narrative designer Jen Vaughn and her network of colleagues and friends are stepping into the void, trying to help.
Vaughn has organized a sprawling QVC-style livestream on her Twitch channel (twitch.tv/VVSPA) from 2-8 p.m. March 12-14 during ECCC’s originally scheduled run, facilitated by her gaming company Very Very Spaceship’s streaming studio.
“We’ve created a little set and bought rotating displays,” Vaughn said excitedly.
More than 60 creators from Seattle, the Pacific Northwest and beyond are scheduled to present their wares in person, via live feed, telephone or other creative ways. Fans can ask questions via chat and buy directly from participants. Large indie publishers like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press and Vault Comics also will be appearing to talk about new releases and will be giving away copies. (Oni has its own pop-up shop at onipress.com.)
The lineup is expected to be diverse, very much like the con floor.
“That’s everything from a lot of comics and art, but also someone that makes stuffies, someone that makes art for role-playing games, people that make role-playing game accessories like dice towers and stuff,” Vaughn said. “And we also have a couple of panels as well, from your writer’s panel to one on Dungeons & Dragons and one on narrative props in comics.“
Efforts are being undertaken across the region as well. A coalition of six Portland comic-book stores are holding a pop-up con (#PDXPopupCon) from March 15-16 where creators can have free table space in shifts of four hours to display the creations they were planning to sell in Seattle.
Members of the comics community have begun listing resources at creatorresource.com. These include a network of folks with cars who are willing to pick up packages already shipped to hotels or rental spaces and prep them for return, advice on how to make an online pop-up store and other helpful ideas.
The next big decision for all those creators will be whether to return this summer.
“Personally I love this show so much that I’m going to do whatever I can to make it there,” Sebela said. “And I think a lot of people are not just financially invested, but it’s become a thing that you do every year and, for all the hassle of spending four days of trying to sell yourself to strangers, it’s just a very nice (experience). … All your friends from all around the world are all there.”