Con season is upon us officially, and this weekend’s AwesomeCon in Washington D.C. is set to begin tomorrow afternoon. Exhibitors and con guests have begun arriving today, though, and questions have begun to arise about the con’s relationship with a certain U.S. government agency.
It started this morning when Oni Press publisher James Lucas Jones shared this photo, with arrowed emphasis added:
wait whut pic.twitter.com/fqJBeIjvVh
— JLJ – Up Next: AwesomeCon (@jameslucasjones) April 25, 2019
“Wait whut,” Jones writes, pointing out that “Presented by CIA” graces the bottom of the signage for the con’s Information booth.
As the photo circulated, more indications of a relationship between AwesomeCon and the CIA began to surface. A trip to the con’s website reveals ads for the agency on both the main page and on other pages of the site:
CIA promoted their own presence at the con earlier this week, with a tweet featuring CIA-themed comic book covers (it’s unclear if these are actual comics they’ll have at the show or just mock-ups):
— CIA (@CIA) April 23, 2019
CIA also has a booth on the con floor. It’s front and center, one of the larger booth spaces on the show floor (circled red in the photo below), and is included in the Future Con block:
AwesomeCon bills Future Con as “highlight[ing] the intersection of science, technology, and science fiction.” The page for Future Con lists panels related to Future Con; while most of the panels are NASA/STEM-related, only one of the panels appears to be CIA-related:
A look at AwesomeCon’s full programming schedule reveals many more panels that appear to be CIA-themed, scattered throughout the weekend:
There are other panels on the schedule centered around the U.S. State Department and even Lockheed Martin, though none of those has as many sessions as CIA.
It’s the last panel listed above that catches my attention, as there are no fewer than four instances of that session throughout the weekend. An “interactive session” in which audience members put themselves in the shoes of different CIA officer roles sounds like fun; it also sounds like a chance for CIA to identify and recruit people who might be inclined to those roles.
It sure seems like recruitment is what CIA has in mind, and that AwesomeCon is helping them out. Earlier this month, AwesomeCon’s official Twitter account tweeted a promo for CIA’s presence at the con, with a link to the organization’s Careers site:
Talk about superheroes! Employees at the @CIA may not have acquired their abilities from a radioactive spider or a benevolent wizard, but they do have remarkable superpowers to protect America.
— Awesome Con (@AwesomeCon) April 12, 2019
(It’s been pointed out that the person appearing in that CIA ad is from a stock photo. Using stock photos for ads is pretty standard practice, but specifically using a photo of a woman in a hijab for CIA recruitment purposes seems questionable at best.)
AwesomeCon and CIA have partnered in the past, though this is the first year that it’s gotten much attention. A tweet from last year reveals the same Information sign that Lucas posted, with the same CIA branding. A skim through the 2017 programming schedule doesn’t reveal any CIA-specific panels, though.
The troubling part of all of this is that it’s unclear what exactly the relationship between CIA and AwesomeCon is. Removing my tinfoil hat for a moment, it’s most likely that CIA is just a sponsor—the con is in Washington D.C., after all—but the level of the agency’s presence, and the clear focus on recruiting both from CIA and from AwesomeCon in terms of marketing and programming, is somewhat alarming. It’s also strange, and potentially misleading, that what appear to be sponsored panels, either by CIA or other organizations, are not clearly marked in the programming schedule.
Whatever the nature of the relationship, reaction on social media has been…poor, though only a few comics industry pros have commented on it so far:
This is so disappointing.
— Nate Powell (@Nate_Powell_Art) April 25, 2019
— Mr. Tyler Crook (@MrTylerCrook) April 25, 2019
— Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) April 25, 2019
I’ve reached out to AwesomeCon for comment on what the full extent of the con’s relationship with CIA is, and will update if and when clarification is received. AwesomeCon begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday.
UPDATE 4:03 PM Eastern – A CIA representative has provided clarification on the agency’s presence at the convention and the nature of their relationship with AwesomeCon:
- CIA views AwesomeCon both as an opportunity to connect with the community and as a recruitment opportunity. The representative called attendees ‘creative’ and ‘tech-savvy,’ and said those are the types of people the agency is looking for.
- The agency is not a sponsor of the convention as a whole; only of the information booth.
- The ads that appear on the AwesomeCon website are paid ads.
- The “Einstein as an asset” panel is being run by a CIA historian. The representative said the panel was included to appeal to con attendees who are interested in role-playing games.
- Regarding the ad that AwesomeCon tweeted featuring a woman in a hijab, the representative reiterated that it’s common practice to use stock photos in advertising. In particular, they stated that CIA uses stock photos as they can’t use photos of actual employees who may be undercover. The goal of the ad is to recruit a diverse workforce, they said, hence the use of that specific photo.
- The comic cover images that CIA tweeted are not for actual comics, but they will be available as posters at the convention. The agency will also have trading cards available.
The representative also clarified that one of the panels listed in the program, about wargaming, was not one of the CIA’s. That panel has been removed from the article above.
UPDATE 5:17 PM Eastern – A representative from AwesomeCon has provided further information on the panels CIA is presenting, as well as the nature of the tweet AwesomeCon posted for the agency:
The CIA is doing a series of panels. These are not paid / sponsored panels. These are panels that were submitted, and we approved them as part of our normal curatorial process. Panels are not pay for play at Awesome Con. Any panels from comic publishers are the same in that they are not paid for or sponsored. They are submitted, and we’ve chosen to accept them. No money changes hands.
The CIA is doing a paid booth and social media campaign. These are both paid for. So they are a paid exhibitor and paid social media sponsor.
The relationship with them is very similar to most professional organizations and comic companies we work with every year.
Joe Grunenwald is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He’s taller than a lot of people but not as tall as some people.