Like most large events, fan conventions including San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon and Dragon Con, have shifted gears this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Some have been postponed or canceled; others have moved their programming online.
While the panels and screenings that take place at these conventions can easily be streamed from one’s home, the meet-and-greets and spontaneous connections made at the events have been harder to translate to a virtual environment. That includes interactions between attendees and retailers.
The artist alley is a hallmark of fan conventions, populated by people selling illustrations, paintings, patches, pins, figurines, comics and other goods that reference popular franchises. Most of those indie artists make the majority of their yearly sales at these events. And this year, all of them are feeling the crunch.
“It’s been tough! From a business perspective, conventions represent a significant portion of our income stream, so it has made me feel less secure generally,” Karen Hallion, 47, wrote in an email this week. She is a freelance illustrator and has produced work for entertainment clients including Marvel and Disney. She started a Patreon in 2015 to support her personal work, which includes character mash-ups (“Doctor Who” meets “Finding Nemo,” for example) and a forthcoming children’s book.
Now that these artists no longer have a captive audience of convention attendees, promoting and selling their work online is a must. Faina Lorah, a painter and illustrator who lives in Cincinnati, said that a few months ago, as it became clear that the conventions would not be taking place as usual, she began “overhauling my storefront and Etsy shop and redesigning my approach with print on-demand services,” such as Merch by Amazon.
Ms. Lorah, 30, began her career as a fine artist but shifted to folklore- and fairytale-inspired work after a few successful convention runs. She also makes fan art, some of it inspired by characters from the Super Mario franchise and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” In a normal year, Ms. Lorah estimated that 70 percent of her income comes from convention sales.
Her husband, Simon Tam, 39, a musician who is a frequent presenter and panelist at conventions including San Diego Comic-Con, Dragon Con, South by Southwest and Sakura-Con, has been hosting virtual events during the pandemic. He has also shifted some of his focus to philanthropy. Through the Slants Foundation, a nonprofit he formed with his bandmates in 2018, he is “providing grants to artists who are using their work to counter hate during the pandemic.”
Jenny Park, an illustrator in Cypress, Calif., whose work references video games like Overwatch and Fire Emblem, has been hosting virtual mini-conventions from her living room alongside other creators. She said she has seen her fellow indie artists band together during this time.
“I think there’s this greater sense of community and wanting to help each other succeed, because Covid has affected everyone across the board,” Ms. Park, 29, said.
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In recent years, fan artists have faced challenges from entertainment companies about intellectual property violations, as many of them use well-known, copyrighted and trademarked characters and iconography in their work. The artist alley is an area where their use of protected imagery can be especially visible, as artists booths appear near corporate vendors hawking their wares. But many of the artists who rent tables at conventions also make original art, using characters and images of their own invention.
Some artists have also made use of social media hashtags like #virtualartistalley and convention-specific tags such as #ECCCOnline (standing for “Emerald City Comic Con online”) to make their work more discoverable online.
In addition to the lost revenue, Ms. Hallion, who lives in Swampscott, Mass., said that she missed the feeling of gathering with other artists.
“I have a little ‘con family’ of fellow artist friends scattered all over the country, and these shows are the only time we get to see each other in real life and spend time together,” she said. “It can feel isolating working in my studio all the time, so conventions always were a welcome break from all of the alone time.”