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