The Blame Game

Sometimes even the best laid plans get waylaid by chaos. In this case, as with so many others that rile up the ranks of Geekdom, chaos has taken the form of an internet kerfuffle. Our regularly scheduled post will appear tomorrow so we can chat about the maelstrom stemming from this article: “Denise Dorman Asks – Is Cosplay Killing Comic Con?”
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Wait what? Where’d this come from? What kind of insane claim is this?

Hold up; let’s start at the beginning. This past Saturday, Ms. Dorman, wife of comic/sci-fi illustrator Dave Dorman, wrote this post and published it to her personal blog. Note the title she uses for her post and give it a quick comparison with the header that Bleeding Cool assigned to the same post when they cross-published it (with Ms. Dorman's permission) on their site two days later.

Oh, so Bleeding Cool just turned it into clickbait then? What’s the big deal?

Yes, Bleeding Cool crafted a provocative headline in the hopes of getting the post to go viral. Given how prevalent the article has become since Monday, it would seem that they were successful in that endeavor. However, though the title was designed to incense, it’s not as though that idea (that cosplayers have changed conventions for the worse) was conjured from the ether. Dorman’s essay is a first and also allegedly collective second-hand account of what it’s like to be an exhibitor at a comic book convention. Her contention is that, for the creative minds that comprise the foundation of these events, the act of attending and exhibiting is no longer a profitable venture. She cites her personal experience along with that of her husband at 2.5 events that took place earlier this year: Wizard World, San Diego Comic Con, and GrandCon (which was halfway over as of the time of her writing). At each of these, the Dormans either barely covered their expenses or, in the case of SDCC, lost money. Ms. Dorman attempts to shore up her case by drawing on testimonials from other creatives attending these conventions before drawing this conclusion:

I have slowly come realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, COSPLAY is the new focus of these conventions–seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches, and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place. [emphasis is Ms. Dorman’s]

She then deploys an anecdote about an “uber-famous artist who traveled all the way from Japan” who was allegedly summarily ignored for the duration of SDCC, “…while the cosplayers held up floor traffic and fans surround the cosplayers – rather than the famed industry household name – to pose for selfies.” [emphasis is again Ms. Dorman’s]

Then she launches into the following:

The hard-working artists and creators who are the very foundation of this industry…the reason there even is an industry….those creatives who have busted their asses and spent money they perhaps didn’t have to spare in order to be there exhibiting for–and accessible to–the fans…have been reduced to being the background wallpaper against which the cosplayers pose in their selfies. At what point do you start to wonder if–other than your faithful, loyal regulars who are like family and who find you every time–the general fandom population even gives a shit about the creators more than they care about their Instagram profiles? [emphasis is yet again Ms. Dorman’s]

Ms. Dorman’s frustrations are certainly understandable, no one likes to spend time and money on ventures that are not worthwhile, but her ire is at least partially misplaced. It is no secret that conventions have undergone many considerable changes within the past decade or so. We’ve talked before about how SDCC in particular has grown and morphed into something that barely resembles its earlier incarnations as the impetus for the con has shifted away from comics and towards general pop culture (usually in the form of visual media). The problem that Ms. Dorman describes is also neither limited to comic book conventions nor is it an issue that plagues only exhibitors. Back in February we discussed the repercussions of a convention experiencing rapid growth and the often hard choices that would-be attendees are left with in the face of rising costs and diminishing con resources. Just last week we covered the importance of helping new, independent conventions gain traction and become self-sufficient. In all likelihood, it’s an issue that many of Ms. Dorman’s readers could have readily related to had she kept the scope of her post focused on exhibitor experiences and the painful economics of convention attendance.

Instead, she blamed cosplayers.

When the chips were down in the height of what she has termed 'my fit of rage' her primal, gut-reaction instinct was to blame cosplayers.

She has since attempted to clarify this accusation in this follow-up post, claiming that, amongst other things, “I have friends who cosplay.” Related aside: has the ‘I can’t be a bigot; I have friends who are [insert group being denigrated here]’ line ever successfully convinced someone that the speaker isn’t prejudicial? Ok, so maybe her original post was written out of frustration; that frustration is real and widely held, but that doesn’t excuse the conclusions she so very publicly drew. You lose the right to claim that it's just mutterings on your personal blog when you claim to speak for an industry, then give your content over to re-bloggers in the hope of getting more attention for your cause.

The real issue isn’t the outburst itself, but the sentiments surrounding it. Ms. Dorman conflates egotistic, ungrateful, and ignorant attendees with cosplayers. It’s unfortunately a set of assumptions that cosplayers have had to deal with for ages now. The follow-up post attempts to delineate between cosplayers and the true object of Ms. Dorman’s ire without going so far as to actually term the latter as what we colloquially know them as: fake geeks.

It's the new breed of attendees who are there because someone said it's cool to be there; they are the ones completely unfamiliar with the comics industry. They are the ones who attend any hard-to-get-tickets event just to boast online. They are the people I take issue with.

What a novel argument you’ve crafted! *coughcough*

While it’s good that Ms. Dorman made something of an effort to extricate her foot from her mouth, that effort is nearly as inelegant as her original contention. In her words, “I think the emphasis on Cosplay is symptomatic of a shift in the larger Cons from being a commerce-driven event to being a social gathering-driven event.” She then goes on to blame fake geeks in so many words.

What's baffling is why Ms. Dorman is focusing on cosplay at all. She had an excellent example of the actual problem at hand in her first post when she mentioned that long-time exhibitor Mile High Comics was considering pulling out of SDCC after suffering a $10,000 USD loss at this year's convention (the final figure was a $6,000 USD loss). What she didn't do was take five minutes to read over her source material (or actually cite it correctly, or follow up on the successor posts by Mile High's president, Chuck Rozanski, despite the latter helpfully linking them to one another). Mr. Rozanski's three-part series about being an exhibitor at SDCC 2014 is a succinct and heartbreaking look at what it's like to be a comics retailer right now. He carefully lays out how volatile the industry is and how retailers/exhibitors are largely at the mercy of major publishing houses and convention associations. He employs various anecdotes from his 42 years of SDCC appearances and his emotional investment in the con experience is readily apparent, but there is nary a mention of attendees and certainly no blame being foisted their way.

Mr. Rozanski is almost certainly not alone. The GIR and I have heard similar complaints from artists, craftsmen, and game developers in our travels through various conventions. Their angst is rooted in the dual-pronged offensive of ever-increasing costs associated with exhibiting at a con and decreased awareness of price point foundations from attendees. It's not surprising that, after years of having free 2-day shipping and very low prices from big-box vendors, many people have become bottom-line focused and disconnected from what exactly goes into developing novel content and value associated with that process. You often see this in the FAQs on the websites of artisans were said professional will detail exactly why their wares are 'so expensive.' This is a problem that affects just about anyone in a creative profession and can be remedied by just taking a little time to learn about a vendor's craft then, if you so choose, cast a vote of confidence with your wallet.

Again, it's a very real issue that can definitely cause and foster frustration. It also has absolutely nothing to do with cosplayers. Ms. Dorman has the advantage of an industry insider's view, an advantage she's since squandered with her rants. It's a subject that merits discussion, especially if we're to preserve things like brick-and-mortar comic shops and friendly local game stores, but casting blame and alienating segments of your base demographic is not the way to go about generating awareness.  

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