The year is 2020, and it’s the 157th day of March. There’s a stack of homemade face masks next to your keys by the door, you’ve finally adapted to your work-from-home setup, and even your pets are seemingly tired of the never-ending staycation. For nearly all Houstonians, this is the new normal. And though this normal might be safer than sitting side-by-side at the River Oaks Theatre or playing board games with your friends at Tea + Victory, it can get lonely. 

The very nature of the entertainment industry brings people together. As the pandemic drags out, so do the stateside release dates for not-so-summer blockbusters, leaving studios, journalists, and devotees starved for connection as much as they are for content. “It is important to find your people, in all walks,” Randy Yarbrough of local movie podcast Cult 45, says. “Fandom and clubs are a great way to find friends, and sometimes family, coming together in their enjoyment of the arts.”

There are many questions regarding fandom and entertainment this year with answers expectedly up in the air, but there are a few virtual bright spots that might help to feed your hunger for all-things-geeky and help you to connect with like-minded fans. This week, San Diego Comic-Con International, the granddaddy of American pop-culture festivals, took its panels, cosplay masquerade, and artist alley online for the first time in its 50-year history (and it’s free to all geeks, with or without those impossible-to-nab badges).

In limbo alongside everything else are the timelines for some of Texas’ favorite comic conventions. Big Texas Comicon in San Antonio officially announced its cancellation last week, following in the footsteps of other major events of every shape and size. Meanwhile, Greater Austin Comic Con has postponed until the first weekend in October. Yarbrough, a self-proclaimed hermit, has enjoyed the comforts of home these past few months, but does admit to missing Houston’s own comic-culture extravaganza, Comicpalooza. “The panels are my favorite bit, but most people just walk past those.”

The Bayou City-based convention cancelled its Memorial Day weekend dates back in March over the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but that doesn’t mean organizers have abandoned their cause completely. “We expanded our online presence to better support our exhibitors and to provide an outlet for fans in the face of these difficult times,” explains Michael Heckman, president of Comicpalooza and senior VP of Houston First Corporation.

Voice actor John Swasey discusses his career with Erica Echlin via YouTube

Houston native and voice actor John Swasey discusses his career with Erica Echlin during an episode of Comicpalooza's YouTube series, CP Presents. Swasey has voiced more than 300 characters for anime and video games, including villain All for One (center), during his almost 30 years in the business. 

Almost as soon as the cancellation was announced, Comicpalooza began encouraging fans to support the convention’s artists and merchants, most of whom rely on fan expos to make a living. Most recently, the Houston convention launched CP Presents, a YouTube series of interviews covering all areas of geek culture. Available now are videos featuring voice actor John Swasey discussing his career in anime, moderated by Erica Echlin, host of local Raging Nerds Podcast.

Another popular Texas con has also thrown its hat into the virtual ring, exciting fans across the Lone Star State; Dallas’ Fan Expo has been programming virtual experiences of their own. On July 27, author Claudia Gray, known for her fantasy and science fiction novels, will talk shop and all things Star Wars, and the cast of Smallville will be saving us from boredom on July 30.

Seasoned attendees have taken to the internet to reminisce over conventions past, posting photos and sharing memories of better days, while folks who once watched the fun from afar are now on an equal playing field, since we’re all printing our badges at home and reveling in the fandom from the comfort of our couches. “We don’t give the arts credit enough,” Yarbrough says. “They have been the constant in all of this.” 

While it’s too soon to see if the big-wigs like Comic-Con will incorporate this virtual outreach into future convention programming, Comicpalooza organizers expect their online community efforts to remain in place as a natural extension of their in-person events. Says Heckman, “Whether someone is drawn to the justice provided by superheroes or the progressive approach to inclusion and diversity addressed in iconic TV shows like Star Trek, the spirit of support and community has been an underlining current for decades and is still important today, as we’ve seen recently.”

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