Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on June 21, 2021 @ 8:45 pm CT
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how people would react to the event. The last 18 months have left a mark. We had to internalize a lot of unnatural practices to make it through the pandemic. Even as things appear to be getting better, at least in pockets of the country, we need to relearn a few of the basics of being out in public – especially in a decent-sized crowd of strangers, and I was expecting some residual skittishness. Instead, I found… a comic convention!
Washington has been doing pretty well on vaccinations and COVID suppression. Pierce County, where the event took place, reported fewer than 20 new cases one day in the past week, and the Governor lifted most restrictions on events smaller than 10,000 people, including masking requirements, at the start of the month.
The show took place at the Washington State Fairgrounds, a big outdoor exhibition space dotted with pavilions, food courts and meeting facilities. The main exhibit hall, a spacious hangar-like structure of about 100,000 square feet, housed the dealer’s room of about 150 exhibitors spaced out across wide aisles. Celebrity photo ops took place in a nearby building, along with a spillover "marketplace" of crafts and other non-collectible merchandise.
June weather in this part of the country can be disappointing, but this weekend was warm and sunny, with daylight lasting until 10pm or later, so all the doors were open wide with plenty of ventilation. Access control was at the central gate of the fairgrounds; once you were inside, there was no need for badges or credentials.
The show floor was well designed to appeal to the same cohort there to see the guests. Anyone making the trip to see the A-list of 70s-80s-90s era creators would find a great assortment of vintage comics, toys and pop culture artifacts from that era to choose from, with little in the way of the filler you sometimes get at smaller conventions.
One amusing sideshow was that both the Washington National Guard and Air National Guard were on hand to recruit, with lots of military hardware on display (I’ve observed this is common at certain shows). It turns out these two service branches are bitter rivals, and the uniformed soldiers around the fairground spent a lot of time talking trash about one another. If you’re going to have the military at your show, it’s good that they were at least entertaining.
Taking the temperature of guests and exhibitors. This was also the first show back for many of the guests and exhibitors. I was curious to know how they felt about the return to live events.
Artist Rick Leonardi flew in from Philadelphia, his first long flight since the pandemic. He sounded cautiously optimistic about the return of conventions and hoped the fans would as well.
I asked writer Peter David, who travelled to the Northwest from New York, if he had any misgivings about taking a long flight or being in a large event. "No," he replied, “why should I be?”
For vendors, the relief was palpable. Dealer Harley Yee set up with his usual assortment of high-grade comics, hoping fans were ready to start spending again in person. Yee said he’d gone to several shows already this year and was glad to see conventions starting to come back. He’d managed to weather 2020 through online sales and his extensive network of collector-customers but clearly prefers the opportunities of doing business face to face.
Author D.K. Fraser was on hand to promote his debut novel, The Dead Rise, which was published a few weeks before COVID shut everything down last year. He said he’d been hoping to promote it at comic shows, horror conventions and other live events but had to put his plans on hold. He observed that we had to re-learn some of the social skills of striking up conversations with strangers, but hoped that our pent-up desire to socialize with fellow fans would quickly overcome the muscle memory of social distancing that we’d built up.
The same was true of a bunch of other local exhibitors I spoke with, some of whom had business plans that involved frequent convention appearances.
Of course, the Summer Con crowd was a biased sample: anyone who was worried about coming to the show probably stayed home. And if a show like this can’t pull them out into public, it’s hard to see how more crowded, fully inside events with limited ventilation held later in the summer or fall will convince them, especially if COVID-19 remains a looming risk to the unvaccinated and especially vulnerable.
Nevertheless, it was busy enough to be counted a success, especially during the more crowded Saturday session. Here’s hoping this is a harbinger of better things to come.
Click Gallery below for pics from the convention!
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
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