‘Ground zero’ for germs: How comic-book conventions are dealing with ‘con crud’

Conventions are a key source of sales for writers and artists. They’re also notorious for spreading sickness. So how is Ontario’s con community adapting to COVID-19?
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jul 30, 2020
Thousands flocked to the 2015 Fan Expo, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. (Justin Chandler)



Artist Mike Rooth really misses comic conventions. The St. Catharines-born creator lives in Oakville and, for the past decade, he’s been driving to every local show he can and flying to some farther afield. Since 2016, he’s limited himself to four or five local shows per year, but 2020 was supposed to mark a big comeback. Rooth had a cross-country tour planned with online comic retailer Big Country Comics to promote Dodge, a new book he drew, and other projects, including work Rooth did for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. Everything was paid for, including plane tickets and hotels, but, he says, “one by one they fell” after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March.

“I was going to have a whole table full of books for sale,” Rooth says. “I finally get a Turtles gig; I'm 45 years old; I finally climbed the ranks. And now they're sitting at my business partner’s house in Shilo, Manitoba.” 

In Ontario, convention season starts around March and lasts until fall, but many of the biggest shows take place during the summer. Of course, none of them has been able to proceed as normal this year. Comic cons are known for their packed halls and crowded “artist alleys” in which creators sell their wares. These features made them untenable under strict physical-distancing measures. With nearly all of Ontario in Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan, some convention organizers have looked to the fall with an eye toward saving what’s left of con season. Toronto’s Fan Expo, usually Canada’s biggest convention, is scheduled to run as a much smaller event in November; other conventions, including ones in Barrie and London, are scheduled to run in the fall. But, as convention dates near, other organizers are choosing to postpone. Just this week, conventions in Niagara Falls and Hamilton, scheduled for September and October respectively, were pushed to 2021. 

There’s good reason for that. At the best of times, conventions are ripe for the spread of germs — so much so that there’s a slang term for a cough or cold one picks up at such events: con crud. “Anytime you put thousands of people in one room together, it's inevitable that it happens,” says Chris Dabrowski, president of the Niagara Falls and Hamilton conventions, who also sits on Niagara Falls city council. Rooth agrees. “Con crud is real,” he says. “It’s common, and I’ve been hit with it many times over the years. It can be brutal and as short as 24 hours or last a whole month.”

As it stands, the rules for Stage 3 (which currently apply to every Ontario region but Windsor-Essex) allow indoor gatherings of up to 50 people, so long as those people keep two metres apart. “It's theoretically possible [the province] would lift that restriction on gathering sizes, but I think it's quite unlikely,” says Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s medical officer of health, adding that the convention exhibitors alone would likely add up to more than 50 people. As the COVID-19 virus can easily be spread among individuals in close quarters and crowds, he says, the only way to hold a convention safely would be to have a small number of exhibitors and limit the number of visitors. And at a small convention, he notes, that might not be a success: “I think what conventions probably need to be doing is to plan virtual conventions. Maybe you convene some of your guests there to hold your panel discussions, but you're not having any audience there,” 

That’s the option San Diego Comic Con (the world’s biggest fan convention) went with this year, and it’s also what the Mississauga library plans to do for its annual Comics Expo, which is scheduled for October 23 and 24 (more details on the event will be coming mid-August). 

Mississauga comic artist Megan Huang will be participating in a video sketch challenge hosted by the virtual Mississauga convention. Like Rooth, Huang was looking forward to going to in-person conventions this year: she was planning to show off her latest work, a graphic novel called Jia and the Nian Monster. It was released in March — that should have been just in time for Toronto Comicon, but the event was cancelled. “That meant no sales and no meeting people who would potentially want the book,” she says. “So, a bit of a bummer.” 

Conventions are a key source of sales, especially for independent artists. Printing, marketing, and distributing comics can be time-consuming and costly. For Rooth, convention sales typically make up the bulk of his income. “It's how I feed my cats and pay my bills,” he says. “Shipping in Canada is very expensive, which makes it difficult to do comic-book business online. Shows are a home run when it comes to launching new projects.” 

Since they can’t sell at conventions right now, Rooth and Huang have been focusing on earning money through commissions and other projects. To connect with readers, Rooth has been participating in online sketch challenges that see artists draw together over video calls.

Individual artists aren’t the only ones struggling because of the lack of conventions: comic-book retailers are also hurting. Big B Comics, a retailer with stores in Barrie, Hamilton, and Niagara Falls, usually does great business at conventions, according to Hamilton store manager Dylan Routledge. But Big B won’t be attending any conventions in 2020. “As much as I love them,” he says, “they’re ground zero for lots of germs and lack of cleanliness.”

If conventions were somehow to return this year, Huang says she’d probably go. Rooth, though, is pretty sure he wouldn’t. “I'm absolutely fine to wear a mask, screen, shield, magic spell, whatever it takes,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, I have to take someone's book out of their hand and sign it and hand it back to them.” He and his wife have elderly and immunocompromised people in their lives, he says, and he wouldn’t feel safe in a crowd of people: “It's marvellous to see that kind of connection with the fans, but that's a hard thing to imagine happening again anytime soon. And that sucks.”

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