Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Commentary and Features

Will Rising Gas Costs Have A Dramatic Effect On The 2009 Convention Season?
posted May 22, 2008

Both Lea Hernandez and Mark Evanier have noted new policies by American and Delta to charge for checked baggage. As I recall, American augmenting its current fee for a second bag by charging a fee for any bag linked to an economy ticket (the tickets most of us use); Delta right now is on board with American when it comes to charging for a second bag and may soon charge for a first. Other airlines are expected to follow their example. Hernandez makes the point that this could have an impact on the way professionals fly to this summer's convention seasons. Not only do many cartoonists pack enough for a week or more in a remote location, but some take a second piece of luggage along that's devoted to art and supplies and books and other work material.

imageAs traveling to conventions becomes more nettlesome as 2008 passes, it might be time to begin speculation on what a sustained period of high gasoline prices might mean to the next two or three years of comics convention attendance. A general economic downturn marked by higher gas prices and a resulting, significant strain on the personal finances of people in general could certainly find expression in fewer people making a major effort to get to a show, as visiting a comics convention would in that context be seen by most as an easily eliminated extravagance. The always-present notion that gas prices might return to a lower level at some point might cause some people to more easily skip a convention season or two in hope that prices return to saner levels. Those conventions that depend on heavy professional and even fan attendance from places outside the region could feel the impact of increased travel prices as airlines take steps to recoup some lost monies and cut flights, putting a higher premium on the value of remaining routes. I know that from my own experience the biggest difference in post-9/11 travel seems to be a stupendous reduction in number of flights available, particularly from non-top 20 airports. The days of flying to SPX from Seattle for $143 RT by way of Long Island are long gone. Many conventions also fly in guests, so they could feel monetary pressure directly there. Airlines in trouble make it difficult to plan ahead for travel to shows. One of the airlines that went under this year, ATA, reliably served Charlotte (Heroes Con) from Chicago and Indianapolis, and it took hundreds of dollars of at least my own ticket money with it. A weak US dollar may combine with fuel price concerns to take some of the great European shows (Angouleme, Luzern) off the table in a way they weren't just five years ago.

So are there tough times ahead? Perhaps, although it's probably wise not to overstate the case or to dwell on one set of consequences. For one thing, there isn't really a huge network of national comics shows. If you eliminate the wounded beasts that are many of the Wizard World conventions, the majority of which have become local cons in nearly every way whether Wizard likes it or not, what's left on the schedule is maybe two or three shows that depend on a lot of air travel and a half-dozen or so growing, modestly successful regional cons. Most shows attract a vast majority of their attendees from local and regional fans, and could adjust to serving them with a greater percentage of local and regional guests, especially for a season or two. Going overseas to places like Lucca was never cheap, and most people weren't doing that, anyway. A national economic downturn could also have a greater impact on comics beyond conventions, to the point that a downturn in convention attendance may be the least of the industry's worries several months from now. Graphic novels may not be as recession-proof as comics pamphlets traditionally have been, comics pamphlets are priced in a way they might not be as recession-proof either, a lot of publishing fortunes are now tied into a book publishing industry that might see its own problems exacerbated in a tight-fisted economy, and if gas prices continue to rise one would guess there would eventually be some sort of effect on shipping prices for the Direct Market's unique system of widespread last-second distribution to stores.

Still, it's worth tracking just how fragile the outer edge of con attendance might be, and how soaring plane ticket prices and fees driven by fuel costs may bury the notion that one can easily have a convention "season" if only one wishes to take part. I've already canceled plans to attend a show this Fall, and I can't be the only one.