Early in 2018, the Comic Cons Research Project launched a cultural mapping survey in an effort to find out more about the growing and increasingly diversified sector of “con events.” By this, we mean the field of comic cons, comic art festivals, and other media-oriented fandom events, broadly conceived. In the absence of other sector-wide data sources, our goal was to collect as much information about as many events that took place in North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico) during 2017.
Drawing on previous work done by PopCultHQ, Cosplay Convention Center, Conosaurus and others, in addition to our own furious Googling, our team built a list of 1 341 separate events and manually collected publicly available email addresses for 543 of them. The “long list” of events, which has been both geocoded and time coded, can be seen on the map below (an interactive map is also available on Carto):
Invitations were sent out to those 543 addresses using the Qualtrics survey platform, and respondents were encouraged to share the survey link within their professional networks. In the end, we received responses from 62 organizations that mounted 91 separate events during 2017.
A larger response would enable us to do more sophisticated analyses, and larger, multi-market con franchises are a notable absence from our data set. Nonetheless, the results we have paint a picture of a much more complex, internally differentiated field than previous accounts by journalists and scholars.
In fact, only 28.5% of the events in our survey data set were run by for-profit event companies. Most were organized by non-profit fan societies, though respondents also included libraries, cultural and heritage organizations, and chambers of commerce. On average, these organizations had 44 on-going staff positions, whether full- or part-time, paid or volunteer; however, a handful of larger organizations (particularly, the public libraries) inflate this average.
Organizers completing the survey mounted an average of 2.63 events in 2017, with the Durham Public Library’s Durham Comics Fest, which comprised 8 separate events in 2017, having the most.
Organizations derived revenue from a range of sources, including exhibitor fees (according to our results, the most common source of revenue), admission, cash and in-kind sponsorships, grants, and miscellaneous other sources, such as fundraisers and private donations. Approximately one third of the ninety-one events represented in our study were free to attend. Of the remaining events, we asked organizers for their highest single-day admission charged at the door. Thus, this number does not include multi-day passes or “VIP” ticket packages that include autograph sessions or photo ops with quests. Excluding free events, the average cost of admission for a single day at the door was US$25.47.
We asked organizers about whether formal policies were in place regarding a handful of specific issues or practices. Sexual assault and harassment was evidently perceived as an important issue, as nearly nine in ten organizations had one regarding sexual assault and harassment. Policies concerning costumes and props (71%) and weapons (69%) were the next most common, while while slightly less than half of organizations had a defined policy regarding intellectual property. Finally, one-third of the organizations selected an option for “other significant policies,” which included general codes of conduct, photography policies, alcohol and controlled substance policies, and policies set by the venue or sponsoring organization.
The 91 events organized by our survey respondents are mapped below, with the size of the marker scaled to their reported attendance (the interactive map is available on Carto):
The largest and most prominent conventions now regularly publicize attendance numbers in excess of 100 000 people. None of the events included in our survey data set was that large, but they did show a great degree of variability. The smallest event, a networking night for local cartoonists, attracted six people; the largest, San Juan’s Puerto Rico Comic Con, 42 000. The mean attendance across all 91 events in our survey was 4260, while the median event attracted 1 000 people.
Asked to explain how they derived their attendance counts, respondents provided a wide range of answers. Some organizations performed a headcount of varying degrees of formality, while others relied on reports from ticketing platforms like TicketMaster and EventBrite or counted the number of wristbands or stickers they used up. Some figures included special guests, exhibitors and volunteers in their count of attendees, and others did not. Tampa, Florida’s METROCON reports three different attendance figures (unique paid attendance, passholders / ‘warm bodies’, and turnstile) on their website, explaining the differences between the methods used to produce each number, while another organization admitted they don’t track attendance at all and the number provided on the survey was “made up.” For free events held in public spaces, distinguishing people attending the event from ordinary patrons proves challenging, if not impossible. As a result of all these factors, true comparisons remain difficult, though it is notable that the population of the host community (i.e., census divisions for Canada, counties for the United States, and municipios for Mexico) does not appear to predict for event attendance.
Organizers make use of a range of different facilities to host their events. Hotels are the most common venue for events within the survey dataset, followed by convention centres, community and recreation centres, and libraries, galleries and museums. Hosting organizations that do not have their own spaces (e.g., public libraries or museums) are typically faced with trade-offs in selecting a space, in that larger venues are typically more expensive or may be located in more remote neighbourhoods with fewer amenities.
Estimates of walkability were retrieved from the Walk Score website for the 91 events in our survey dataset. They ranged between zero (for events held at campgrounds, in national parks, and the like) and 100 (for events held in the downtown cores of major cities), with an average score of 60.62 (“somewhat walkable”). Transit Scores were available for fewer locations, subject to the data provide by public transit authorities, but the average for those events that had an assigned Transit Score was 57.18 (“good transit”). Areas with lower walkability or less access to public transport can impose constraints on how many – and which– people attend an event.
Fandoms and Features
On average, organizers ranked 6.42 items for each event. Despite hand-wringing that comics’ place in so-called comic cons has been usurped by the film and television industries and their celebrities, cosplayers, and so on, comics and graphic novels were ranked as the most important fandom for 32 of the 91 events – no other option was selected anywhere near that many times – and 58% of the events ranked them within their top three spots. After comics, the most highly ranked media forms and fandoms were crafts and merchandise, cosplay, fine art and illustration, and genre- or franchise-specific fandom.
Survey respondents were also asked to indicate whether their events included any of eighteen pre-defined features, which were drawn from the project committee’s previous experience with con events. The most common were dealers and exhibitors, which were features of 73 and 65% of events included in the survey, respectively. This is unsurprising, given the primacy of the “convention floor” or “exhibit hall” filled with booths in representations of con events; cons may be many things, but most of them feature buying and selling as an integral activity.
Slightly more than half of the events in the survey data set had a dedicated Artists’ Alley, making it the fifth most common feature. The third and sixth were closely related to one another: special guests (63%) and autograph sessions and photo ops (44%). Sixty-five of the events represented in our survey data set included guests – the average event featured nine guests – and 28% of organizations listed attendee fees other than admission, which would include paying for autographs and photos with guests, as a source of revenue.
While future research needs to better account for the large, for-profit conventions than we were able to at present, our survey data nonetheless allowed us to examine organizations and events that are less frequently profiled by journalists and academics. The category of the “con” embraces a wide variety of events that are organized for different audiences to meet different goals: a library-based con designed to excite young people about reading comics and graphic novels is operating in a different space from a show intended to bring vendors and consumers together or one that connects fans of a single property with one another and the stars of their favourite TV series.
We have posted a public Carto map with the survey data. In addition to information about each event (its dates and venue for 2017, as well as website and social media links), the map can display and filter events by organization type, venue category, admission charges, and the existence of a sexual harassment policy (as of 2017). Please feel free to explore our results.
This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by contributions from our project partners. Kirsten Bussière provided assistance collecting and organizing our data and building the maps presented here. Our findings are discussed at greater length in our paper “Theorizing Comic Cons” (Journal of Fandom Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020).
The CCRP Research Team would also like to gratefully acknowledge the con organizers who took the time to complete our survey. Thank you for taking the time to share with us.