PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

Five Months

The PopCulteer
July 24, 2020

Five months ago today was the first time I used the word “Coronavirus” in a PopCult post.

It was in a February edition of Monday Morning Art, and I was explaining that the Haversham Recording Institute programming on The AIR would likely be disrupted as our British friends took on more freelance reporting jobs covering the then-incubating pandemic, along with other stories like Brexit. I thought it might be time to look back at the year that seems like a decade already, but isn’t finished yet. Think of it as a post-apocalyptic status update.

I’d been aware of the virus since late December. I forget whether it was before or after Christmas, but my contacts in the toy industry were already well aware that supply lines were going to be disrupted and 2020 was going to be a huge question mark in terms of production and delivery of goods from Asia.

Mel and I had big travel plans for 2020, but we began having second thoughts. I made the decision in early January that would not be attending the International Toy Fair in New York. The thought of mingling with tens of thousands of people from all over the world while I’ve got a compromised immune system suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea.

We did manage to fit in a late-February hit-and-run theatre trip to Chicago. We saw two shows in two days and made it back home in time for Mel to perform in one of the last live theatre performances in Charleston before the shutdown, Titus Andronicus.

By this point, I knew that a lockdown was inevitable, and to be honest, I was surprised (a bit) that international travel restrictions had not been put in place back in January.

I found out about the potential scope of the pandemic in late December, and we now know that the adminstration had been warned at least as early as November of last year that this crisis was looming.

On March 11, things got real and within days events started shutting down. ToyLanta had to pull the plug on short notice, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. With Broadway shut down, our planned trips to New York City fell by the wayside, and as bleak as things looked there in March and April, we didn’t regret it one bit. Within a matter of days the whole country had pretty much been put under lockdown. With the supply of toilet paper in doubt, the end of civilization seemed very possible.

Major sporting events were canceled, and are only now starting back up without any fans present. For the first time in its 50 year history, Comic Con International at San Diego was canceled. It’s going on virtually right now. Most major pop culture and toy conventions and shows have been canceled this year.

Most television and movie production was also shut down. Live concerts and theatre were shut down, as were most movie theaters. Major motion pictures were either delayed or re-routed to Video-on-Demand or streaming services. Toy lines based on blockbuster movies, though delayed a month or two, are hitting stores months, or even a year before the movies will be released. Hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing plans and advertising campaigns have been tossed out the window.

Movies theaters had planned to reopen about a week from now, but with major movies like Tenet and Mulan being pulled back by the studios, most are delaying reopening until August or September at the earliest.

With almost every comic book shop in the country closed, Diamond Distribution shut down for several weeks and the comics industry went into a bizarre hibernation. When it emerged, the landscape had changed considerably. Output had been greatly reduced as printers slowly flickered back into operation.

DC Comics exited Diamond, helping create two new distributors to carry the load, and they shifted their new comics on-sale day to Tuesday from Wednesday. Several other publishers bolted from Diamond, opting to sell directly to stores and customers. Free Comic Book Day didn’t happen, and the books produced for that event are being doled out weekly throughout the summer.

Record Store Day was rescheduled from April to June, then divided up into three monthly dates, with the first being August 29.

Magazines and print media in general are in dire trouble as advertising dries up. That’s also hurting websites and television. There is way less money to go around to pay for fresh content.

Halloween is looking doubtful for this year, as the idea of sending kids door-to-door during a pandemic is even more ridiculous than the idea of sending them back into schools. Costume makers have already started dumping costumes, selling them as “cosplay” or “dress-up” sets. Zulilly is practically choked with this stuff. Candy makers are scaling back production, as are beer companies, who see Halloween as a big drinking holiday.

I have no idea what Christmas will look like, but I suspect it will involve way less caroling and way more Amazon. 2020 may wind up being the year without a Black Friday.

Pop culture has been disrupted.

Feeling a bit stir crazy, Mel and I went out of town in June. We met with some friends in Wheeling during what would have been The Marx Toy Convention and did our best to keep our masks on and not get too close to anyone. On the way home we veered West and did some shopping in Columbus, also trying be as safe as possible.

It was fun, but we spent the following two weeks expecting to get sick. It was great to get out and be responsibly social, but I’m not sure it was worth the anxiety after we returned.

The Kentuckiana GI Joe and Toy Expo is happening this weekend in Louisville, and we had planned to go this year, but I just can’t justify the risk. It would be great to see so many of my friends, but so many are traveling from Covid-19 hotspots that it’s not wise for me to go there, even though the Kentuckiana crew is going above and beyond to promote social distancing and responsible mask-wearing. This one hurts, but this is the world in which we now live. Hopefully, next year we can make it.

The key word there is “hopefully.” Some events scheduled for next year are already being delayed or postponed. Due to the ineptitude of our current leadership, we have not yet managed to flatten the curve nationwide on the first wave of this pandemic.  It’s happened regionally, but the ill-advised rush to reopen caused the virus to spread in areas that had not been heavily hit back in the late winter and spring.

At this point, a second national shutdown seems unlikely, but several regional shutdowns seem inevitable. With economic aid to tens of millions ending after this weekend, the economy looks to be on the verge of a major disaster. Over thirty million people will suddenly see their income plummet to next to nothing, and that will have a ripple effect on the economy that will seem more like a tsunami.

Retail is going to go from being shut down to wishing that they were still shut down, as consumer demand drops far below profitable levels.

And we are not yet through the first wave.

There is some reason for optimism. Conventional wisdom among epidemiologists has been that the second wave may coincide with the start of flu season, which comes with the winter months. However, reports from the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s winter now) indicate that the precautions taken to curb the Coronavirus have had the side benefit of reducing the number of flu cases to less than 5% of last year’s totals.

If we take the same measures here (that means wearing a mask and restricting travel), then we may have an almost non-existent flu season, which means that our hospitals are less likely to be overwhelmed. If everybody started wearing masks now, we may be able to avoid, delay or reduce the size of a second wave.

And that could mean getting back to something close to normal. If we can pull together and stop politicizing common-sense measures like wearing masks or schooling kids remotely, maybe in a year we can all look back on this time and…not laugh…but maybe at least breathe a sigh of relief that we got through this.

We need to write off 2020 in terms of life going back to normal. We need to listen to the doctors and scientists and do whatever is necessary to find a new normal, with luck, in 2021.

That we are just a few months in is more than a bit daunting. It seems like a lifetime ago, and it seems like yesterday–at the same time. It’s hard to believe it’s only been five months since I first wrote “Coronavirus” in this blog. This year can’t end fast enough.

And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for fresh content every day. It’s not like I have anything else to do.