Comic-Con Struggles for Its Brand Identity and Nonprofit Provenance

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Comic-Con

Image Credit: San Diego Comic Con, Kevin Dooley

June 29, 2015; New York Times

Yes, this author has been there. Well, not to the San Diego Comic-Con, but to “cons,” sort of, as an observer: for example, watching the line of distinctively costumed people snake around the convention center in Baltimore trying to get into Otakon, or sitting in a coffee shop while people paraded back and forth to Katsucon at the National Harbor resort in Maryland just outside of D.C. No, it wasn’t being a weirdo, just a task in monitoring a daughter who was one of the aspirational cosplayers.

The best-known avatar of the genre is San Diego’s Comic-Con, which held its first comic book convention in 1970. The upcoming Comic-Con in the beginning of July is sold out, with an expected attendance of 130,000. According to Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes in the New York Times, Comic-Con takes in about $15 million in revenues and spends about $12 million annually. Probably of surprise to most observers and maybe participants, Comic-Con is a nonprofit.

In fact, some of the “cons” devoted to comics or anime are also nonprofit. In the Maritimes, the Society for Atlantic Fan Cultures, a Canadian nonprofit, sponsors the three-day Animaritime convention in New Brunswick. The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation runs Anime-Expo and other events in California, though it is registered as a 501(c)(6). Anime USA, which runs an East Coast Anime EXPO, is a 501(c)(3) public charity. Based in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the New England Anime Society holds an annual convention. The Wasatch Regional Anthropomorphic Arts and Entertainment, which runs the Furry Unlocked convention in Utah, says it is a 501(c)(4), but only as of 2013, which may be why it doesn’t show up in GuideStar. Others look sort of nonprofit, describing themselves as members-organizations or volunteer run, but their exact status isn’t always clear. Katsucon Entertainment, which runs an annual program at National Harbor, self-identifies as a nonprofit, but GuideStar notes that its tax-exempt status was pulled by the IRS after three consecutive years of missing 990s (the last one posted on GuideStar is from 2009).

The Times article about San Diego’s Comic-Con suggests that the annual convention is a huge lure for media companies and marketers aiming for this pop culture world. Comic-Con itself has a number of challenges that are in some ways pretty typical nonprofit concerns:

  • With the proliferation of “cons” across the nation (sites such as Geek Calendar and GraphicNovelReporter maintain long lists of scheduled comic, anime, and multi-genre conventions), has Comic-Con lost control of its “brand”? According to the article, Comic-Con is suing and being sued for control of the “Comic-Con” identity, brand, or trademark.
  • To what extent is Comic-Con a public benefit nonprofit? With its corporate sponsorship and tie-ins, one might think that it could be a bit of a shell for corporate marketing. For the Comic-Con 2015, the list of sponsors includes Amazon Prime, AMC, Baby Tattoo, Fox, FX, HBO, Marvel, MTV, Nintendo, Showtime, and NBC, just to name a few of the corporations that would revel in access to the generally young Comic-Con acolytes. The Times article notes that Comic-Con is negotiating or has closed on a deal with Lionsgate for a video-on-demand service. However, to be fair to Comic-Con, there are plenty of well-known and well-recognized national nonprofits whose annual conferences have many more corporate sponsors for interests of marketing and sometimes politics. Comic-Con, report Cieply and Barnes, protects its nonprofit status by holding educational panel discussions during the conference on a variety of topics geared to promoting and preserving comics as a form of art and literature. At this year’s Comic-Con, panel topics include a discussions and workshops on the 75th anniversary of the premier of the Superman radio series, a number of “Comic-Con Film School 101” sessions, an irreverent retelling of the Bible by the authors of “God Is Disappointed in You,” crowdfunding as a means of connecting to audiences, teaching history and social studies through graphic novels, and archiving and coding comics—and that’s just a snippet from the first day (not including celebrity sessions such as William Shatner reading from his autobiography). However, other panels themselves look like corporate marketing stops by Disney, CBS, DC Collectibles, and many more.
  • To some extent, the nonprofit status of Comic-Con has allowed the convention to get a 65 percent bargain rate for renting the San Diego Convention Center and reduced rates at hotels. Both the City and the hotels seem to be pushing back on the discounts. But that nonprofit status could be important to cost-containment. As WRAAE noted on its website describing its effort to obtain nonprofit status for Furry Unlocked, the organization’s tax exemption “allows us to negotiate better pricing and offer lower convention rates with hotels and other venues.” It raises the question of whether the nonprofit status is more focused on getting discounts on hotels and conference sites as opposed to delivering an educational public benefit.
  • The Times reporters indicate that the nonprofit Comic-Con “has a longstanding reluctance to discuss its affairs or even, for the most part, to share more than rudimentary details about its leaders.” Although Comic-Con’s director for marketing and public relations agreed to give the Times a seemingly unprecedented interview about the organization and its structure, Comic-Con’s president and its executive director both declined interviews. The reporters described the PR director, with over three decades at Comic-Con, as an expert in “polite reticence.” The reluctance toward transparency seems to extend to the City, whose agency in charge of managing the convention center contracts with users like Comic-Con declined to discuss the convention center’s offer to Comic-Con for revised rates. Too many nonprofits, however, not just Comic-Con, lean heavily to the side of opacity rather than transparency, so Comic-Con isn’t alone, but transparency might be helpful so that the public can better appreciate Comic-Con’s nonprofit provenance.

The appearance of so many deep marketing connections to the corporate sector makes it questionable as to whether Comic-Con is a nonprofit benefiting from corporate largesse or simply a convenient instrument for corporate America to market, regardless of any educational or public benefit that might be involved. Again, that is a criticism that could be issued broadly for many nonprofits. Comic-Con is hardly the only and perhaps nowhere near the worst in getting cozy with corporations whose benefit interest is hardly that of the public’s.

On the other hand, Comic-Con’s programs aren’t without merit. Just look at its list of Eisner Award nominees, including a political and poetics analysis of the Watchmen graphic novel, an examination of fantasy, mass culture, and modernism, and looking at comics, literary theory, and religion in an exploration of notions of the afterlife in superhero comic books. Last year’s Eisner award winner for the best scholarly or academic work was Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, edited by Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II. Most nonprofit organizations themselves can’t even address the politics of race, but Comic-Con, at least in this award, embraced the topic.

How Comic-Con proceeds as a nonprofit is worth watching, not only for the acolytes of comics and graphic novels, but for the nonprofit sector to understand the reshaping parameters of what constitutes public benefit. In any case, if this author goes to Otakon or Anime EXPO later this year, it will be as No-Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.—Rick Cohen

  • cddiede

    Yes, it’s true that due to an accounting error, Katsucon had it’s
    tax exempt status automatically revoked by the IRS. This revocation
    occurred during a senior leadership changeover. Once current leadership
    became aware of the situation, we immediately began efforts to restore
    our status.

    Based on our legal counsel’s assurance that the process would be successful and that we will likely be able to back-date our status to not having lapsed, we elected not to update the information on our website. As with many legal processes, the situation has taken longer to resolve than we had hoped.

    While working on this issue, as well as having to continue conducting the business of the organization, we simply missed making the change when the process was
    extended. Our current leadership has not made these decisions to mislead or maliciously misrepresent our organization and has been acting in good faith to return to compliance and regain our status.

    I want to thank NPQ for bringing this oversight on our website to our
    attention. We’ve contacted our web team to update it with our
    current status as quickly as possible.

  • Becki Shawver

    I find it sad that the value of this organization as a non-profit is even a question that some feel should be addressed. Yes, people make money at the conference (as do other corporate sponsors at every nonprofit conference/convention I’ve ever attended). But the value of comic books and anime are real.

    Note that I’m not a fan, but two of my adult children are. This type of literature helped them become avid readers as young people. They helped develop their creative sides and to better understand a wide range of social issues. They even had comic book bibles to read. As a result, they now love a wide range of literature and have college degrees – but they continue to love comic books and anime.

    So who is to judge what types of organizations should be deemed non-profits? I personally am not into marathons or little leagues, but they serve a community-wide benefit because they help children form the habit of exercising. A good thing for certain – but not better or worse than reading. So I’m a supporter of Comic-Con as a non-profit organization whose mission may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s fine because they serve a real and value purpose for thousands of other people..

  • Daisy Thomas

    I have been serving the nonprofit sector for over 35 years and am currently the director of a nonprofit that aims to increase self-sufficiency in households living in poverty and provides basic needs assistance. I also LOVE to cosplay and am devoted to Comic-Con. The legal definition of a nonprofit is, “A corporation or an association that conducts business for the benefit of the general public without shareholders and without a profit motive.” I am very disappointed to hear that Comic-Con has nonprofit status. According to Comic-Con San Diego’s IRS Form 990, the “nonprofit 501(c)3” had a 4 million dollar profit for 2014. I agree that Comic-Con increases the knowledge and interest in culture and arts. My life would be so boring without Comic-Con, cosplay, and the wonderful things that come with all of that. I LOVE attending Panels. Is the focus of Comic-Con truly without a profit motive? The Agency I work with provides financial assistance for rent, utilities, back to work required items, offers/requires self-sufficiency classes and one-on-one work between Client and staff, prescription assistance, food deliveries for seniors, a technology lab for people to look for work and take classes online, educational opportunities and so much more. As a nonprofit administrator working in the nonprofit world and feeling the sting of the cuts in funding available in this country, it is difficult to digest that the Agency I have devoted my life to shares the same status with Comic-Con. I will always remain open minded. I am not stating I am right. This opinion comes from someone who is completely devoted to both sides of the spectrum.

  • Sam Fuqua

    Pop Culture Classroom (PCC) is the 501©3 nonprofit that produces Denver Comic Con, as part
    of our mission to use pop culture to promote literacy and the arts. Our total attendance for the 2015 Denver Comic Con was 101,500–the third largest attendance of any Comic Con in the US
    (after San Diego and New York). We offered over 400 hours of educational panels and workshops and dedicated 9000 sq. ft. in the middle of our show floor to a kids and teens area (The PCC Lab)
    that offered age-appropriate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) activities throughout the weekend.

    Denver Comic Con is an important program of PCC, but we also work year-round in classrooms,
    after school programs, community centers and detention facilities. We developed “Storytelling Through Comics”, a 15-day unit of study aligned with literacy curriculum and Common Core standards
    for 4th-7th graders. Earlier this year, we started our LEAD With Comics program in county
    jails. LEAD stands for Literacy Education in Adult Detention. We created the program in response to compelling research linking increased literacy with reduced recidivism.

    We have seven paid staff and hundreds of dedicated, incredible volunteers. It is never easy, but in just a few years we have created one of the largest and most family-friendly Comic Cons in the
    nation as well as reaching over 2500 kids and young adults through our community programs.

    As not-for-profit Comic Cons and other fan conventions work to define, or re-define, their
    mission and service to the community, there is a successful model in Denver producing a first-class event and making a difference year-round. If you’re ever in town, let us know—we’d be happy to show you more.

    Sam Fuqua

    Executive Director

    Pop Culture Classroom

    • EdSadowski

      The Salt Lake Comic Con claims over 125,000 attendance for 2015, which would make Denver the fourth largest for that year.