How Losing My Job Turned Me Into A Con-Artist

NOTE: If you missed seeing us at any of these shows, you can order all of our books by visiting our web site, Deans Family Productions, and clicking the Store link.

Not long after Heroes Con 2014, but just before the second anniversary of my web comic Crass Fed, I was laid off from my job as manager of a Northern Virginia comic shop, a position I had held for several years. It didn’t pay well at all, but the job afforded me the ability to tailor my schedule to my child’s needs. It also gave me a number of regular customers that I regarded as friends. My position also allowed me to help certain creators with promotions and a chance to broaden their audience.

I was laid off with a Monday morning phone call, and the rest of the day left me slightly stunned. The next day started the inevitable, “what now?”

Late that night, in the shower, “what now” turned into “why not?” (I should explain that, since my back injury made it difficult to stand for longer than a few minutes at a time, I took to showering at night. By showering just before bed, I could recover from any spinal stress during the shower with a hopefully good night’s sleep.)

On the drive to Heroes days earlier, I was doodling while my wife drove the second leg of the trip. I happened to draw my daughter’s favorite toy, a cow, in a space suit.

In the shower, a title came to me like lightning, and an idea began to form into something that could be a very big thing for me. I quickly had ideas for a handful of stories that could be silly for young children, include facts and information from various areas of learning, and feature puns (of course).

Crass Fed Kids was born, and the first book, Moo Thousand and Pun, was forming…quickly.

For the next couple of hours the first draft of the story flowed faster than the coffee that helped me write. I turned in, even though I wasn’t sure I could get to sleep, I was too excited that this could actually be something…worthwhile.

I did manage to get to sleep, and a few hours later I drove Kidlet to camp, and got back home quickly to call my wife and tell her all about my new idea. And, true to her wonderful nature, she simply told me to run with it, because what did I have to lose?

The next few weeks were spent refining the text and working up preliminary art for a basic first draft. I sent copies out to a few friends – both artists and parents – for feedback. My wife kept telling me how good the book was, but she’s biased. My friends all said it was worth doing. One friend expressed that he was impressed because so many people say they are writing a book, and never do it. I had, and done so quickly. Another friend read it to the children she sat as a nanny, and they had made her read it three times. In a row.

With that confidence, I began work on the final version, and research into printers. Between a basic part-time job to help pay bills, caring for Kidlet, and other family stuff, the next few months were quite busy. But, I was able to get lots of research done while also finishing the book.

I also picked the brains of several creators I admired who had also self-published their books, like Bloop creator Steve Conley and Roboy Red & Buzzboy creator John Gallagher, for ideas on what to do next. Unfortunately, nerves set in. Was I wasting my time? Instead of chasing a dream, should I be finding a better paying job?

And, what would I do once I was finally done with the thing?

After Christmas, I started to push more towards getting the book actually made. I started researching Kickstarter, and talking to suppliers about support material to offer as rewards. I ordered proofs from two different printers, and chose the best proof to determine which company would print my book.

The campaign launched on February 19, 2015. In no time at all I had my first backer, and over the next few days, friends and family piled onto the udderly ridiculous bandwagon I was hoping to launch. I even did an interview with the Comics DC blog, and appeared on the children’s variety web-show, The Chris-O-Matic Show, to promote the book and campaign.

The list of folks started with friends and family, but soon complete strangers were backing my vision. A welcom and unexpected re-tweet from Mark Waid led to admired creators backing the book, and several former customers added their support, humbling me with their generosity and faith. One friend, Erica Schultz, went so far as to back the book twice!

It took a lot of self-promotion, but on March 21st, the project was fully funded. I was going to get to launch a cow into space!

Provided I got over the panicky feelings.

Money for the Kickstarter campaign came in and immediately paid for UPC codes, printing of support products, and three versions of the book, including a version just for people who backed the initial campaign which included all of the promotional cartoons and images I created for the campaign.

Our savings were used to buy table space at Awesome Con (D.C. in May) and Heroes Con (Charlotte in June), and signage. We had become regular attendees at Heroes, but Awesome Con would be a test run, not only to see if there was an audience for my ideas, but to test our ideas for displaying and exhibiting at a convention.

While waiting for Moo Thousand And Pun from the printers, I helped my wife organize and print her own book, Con Grub, a cookbook of recipes to be made in advance of attending a convention to provide healthier options than concessions over long and exhausting convention weekends. I also finished up a comic with my Kidlet, The Mighty Hippofartamus. Hippofartamus was an idea she came up with one morning before school, and I helped her structure it into a story, and I did loose layouts for her to ink.

By the end of May, we each had a book to sell at our first convention, less than a year after I lost my job. Awesome Con in D.C. was my first show as exhibitor, and I doubt we will ever look back.

For years I had advocated a philosophy of saving a little of one’s convention budget for trying out, and ultimately supporting the dreams of, new talent. Now, and somewhat suddenly, I was that new talent. (Talent being used with tongue in cheek.)

AWESOME CON, May 2015, Washington, D.C.

For our first show, we were lucky to exhibit close to home. We could Metro in to the show, making travel expenses minimal. And, if we sold a lot we were close to replenishments. We would also have some friends nearby, like Cuddles and Rage, Amy Chu, Jamal Igle, and Carolyn Belefski should we need encouragement or advice.

Awesome Con is a media show first, comic show second. Artist Alley isn’t very structured, but we were lucky to get placed near the stage for Kids Love Comics, a convention-within-a-convention featuring some of the best creators of All-Ages comics. Deftly run by John Gallagher and brothers Mark & Chris Mariano, Kids Love Comics draws a large family crowd that’s usually open to trying new things.

We were situated between two interesting tables: one featuring an artist duo creating prints, mini comics, and pins, the other featuring…well, we weren’t quite sure.

Our neighbor was constantly giving us advice on how to exhibit, and what we should charge. This advice was offered without request between his numerous trips to the concession stand. Based on our observations, our neighbor spent every dollar earned on food. Also, we found out that he had never exhibited before…and Awesome Con was also his first convention ever as attendee. We weren’t giving his advice too much weight, and when we found out his history with conventions, his advice suddenly was carried away with so much hot air.

It didn’t help his case that the clothing item he was selling was being offered to try on to everyone who should stop by his table…without being cleaned or sprayed with disinfectant between wears.

Several of our visitors were friends, but a few strangers came up and checked our stuff out. We only sold two books, both Moo, that first day. However, the very first sale was to Thom Zahler, the creator of Love and Capes and Long Distance, and someone whose work I have enjoyed for years. I had heard that my first sale would be a big deal, but to have it be a creator I admire made it all the more special.

Our friend Sean Von Gorman zipped by like a whirlwind, dropping a small handmade sign onto our table that read “Free Eye Contact and Smiles!” That goofy little sign stopped several people enough for them to take a look at our books. In no small part to that sign, Saturday was huge, with friends and strangers alike buying our books. Several former customers from my shop, who didn’t know we were there, also bought books.

Con Grub was the big seller, with Moo a close second. The ephemera created for the Kickstarter (prints, buttons, coloring books) barely sold.

By the end of the show, we were exhausted and invigorated. And, we had sold enough books to pay for the table, and enough notes to change things a bit for Heroes.

We ordered a couple of different display items, and planned for our trip south.

HEROES CON, June 2015, Charlotte, N.C.

Heroes has become, along with Baltimore and SPX, the family reunions we never want to miss. Our first trip to Heroes had afforded us the chance to finally meet in person two of my favorite people, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction, and spend quality time with other great creators like Corinna Bechko, Gabriel Hardman, Jamie Cosley, Dave McDonald, Todd DeZago, Criag Rousseau, Matt and Suzanne Wieringo, Drew Moss, Bob Frantz, Joey Ellis, Hoyt Silva, and many, many more.

With every visit to Charlotte, our comics family grows larger and more enriching. And now, we were joining the fold. With our car packed to the gills, we set out with hopes that this would be a great show financially as well as a fun family time. The latter would be a given, with the chance to finally meet Evan Shaner in person, and sharing the table with old friend Bob Frantz, tabling for the first time as an all ages creator.

Being farther from home insured that we would get a fair amount of strangers buying our books, especially when the families started shopping. While Moo earned the most money, Hippofartamus was the winner at Heroes, thanks in part to its price point, and part to Kidlet’s marketing throughout the show. Even though the fewest copies sold were of Con Grub, my wife felt she was the winner, as an executive chef of a nearby winery and restaurant bought her cookbook, and upon sampling one of her cookies, said he felt it was good enough to be served in his restaurant.

It took days for my wife to come down off that cloud.

I also drew my first commissions at Heroes, for a father and daughter pair who asked for me to draw Shakes the Cow in their respective sketchbooks. In the father’s book I drew Shakes as the Adam West Batman, hanging from the Batladder in the famous scene with the shark in the 1967 feature film. For his daughter, I drew Shakes as Clark Kent, pulling open her shirt to reveal the iconic “S.”

Unlike Awesome Con, Heroes sales were steady throughout the weekend, with few slow periods for me to take advantage of and go visiting friends.

One friend, Scott Fogg (creator of the upcoming Phileas Reid adventure comic) asked me to take part in a special video presentation for his adorable daughter. By being posted on YouTube, the video made me cooler in Kidlet’s eyes. I think.

Kidlet also got to spend a few minutes with one of my idols, Brian Stelfreeze, as he gave her a quick tutorial on drawing.

As with Awesome Con, prints, buttons and coloring books barely sold. However, we made enough book sales to pay for our table, but Heroes was more valuable for many other things that reinforced it as our favorite time of year.

VIRGINIA COMIC-CON, August 2015, Richmond, VA

I would love to say that my hometown convention was another success. However, in an ironic twist, the convention with the lowest table cost was also the only show at which we did poorly.

Our close friends the Cosleys were our table neighbors, and while they did better than we did, it was a bad day of sales for both. Thankfully, we did the show more to spend time with them, and my godmother who still lives in the area.

We only sold one copy of each book, and none of the extras.

In the weeks between VA and Baltimore, I was able to put the finishing touches on my second book. The Bear From A.U.N.T. is a parody of the 60’s spy genre for the tween set. With influences ranging from the obvious Man From U.N.C.L.E. to James Bond and even Jack Ryan, Bear quickly became a platform for another series. Also, by using the “graphic journal” format popularized by the Wimpy Kid books, I was able to play more with dialogue and longer gag setups than is afforded in a children’s storybook.

I also created more eye-catching signs for our books, and played again with the display setup. We were going to be directly across from the Kids Love Comics pavilion in Baltimore, and at the end of Artist Alley, along one of the main thoroughfares. We had a chance to catch the interest of lots of potential customers.

SPX, September 2015, Bethesda, MD

We didn’t exhibit at SPX, but it gave us the chance to show friends the proof of Bear, and share a meal with a couple of our comics kids Tara O’Connor and Claire Connelly. We also added to our Cuddles and Rage collection, which is about to take over our refrigerator.

BALTIMORE COMIC CON, September 2015, Baltimore, MD

Baltimore is a lot like Heroes. It is focused on the craft more than the marketing, and as such the number and quality of talent at the show is huge. It’s another show that allows us to catch up with friends and is our second family reunion. We got into town Thursday, and had dinner with good friends Nicky Soh and Eryk Donovan, two previous winners of the Wieringo Scholarship at SCAD.

Bear debuted at Baltimore, and it was the first sale of the show. And, as with Awesome Con, my first sale was to an admired creator and friend, this time it was Eryk. Friday ended up being a good day, both for friends and sales. I finally got to meet Ken Marcus (creator of Super Human Resources, a book I championed at my shop when it first released years ago), who just happens to be a mutual friend of Matt Wieringo and Jamie Cosley. I also reconnected with a trio of old customers I had dubbed the Three Amigos, despite their unwillingness to learn the salute.

We also got a welcome visit from Cuddles and Rage, who always brighten our day, whether or not we’re harassing them to sell us more of their stuff.

One of my longtime favorite creators, Jeff Parker (Flash Gordon, Batman 66, Interman) was going to be at the show Saturday and Sunday only, and I was hoping to find time to introduce myself. However, he surprised me completely by swinging by after arriving in Baltimore to introduce himself to me. To say I was flustered is an understatement.

Another Friday highlight was when Tom King, writer of Omega Men and Grayson for DC and Vision for Marvel, stopped by and bought a copy of Kidlet’s Hippofartamus. Being friends, Tom and I chatted for a few minutes about various topics before he left to get back to his own table. After he left, I reminded Kidlet that Tom writes her favorite character, Dick Grayson…and her jaw hit the floor.

Saturday was bizarre, as it was very busy, and very crowded, but with few sales. Thankfully, the carryover from dinner Friday night with the Three Amigos and our friends at Vitamin M Studios and zombisaur Bags was so fun and entertaining that it made up for any feelings of malaise from the lack of sales the following day. (Plus, trading smart-ass texts from across the aisle with our friend Joe Endres didn’t hurt.)

My wife had to return to D.C. Saturday morning for a memorial service, leaving Kidlet and myself alone for much of the day. Visits from a couple of friends, including one of the convention photographers, helped pass the time. Saturday looked bad until the last hour when three quick sales helped us at least equal Friday’s take. A short but enjoyable dinner led to an early evening.

Because of my wife’s trip, I wasn’t able to take Kidlet to see Ming Na Wen’s panel Saturday afternoon. My friend Christy Blanch, moderator of the Wen panel, did thank Wen for me for providing girls like Kidlet with a fantastic role model of a smart, clever, kick-butt female hero to admire. Kidlet was bummed to miss the panel, but when she literally ran into Wen near the restrooms, she forgot all about that.

Sunday was, well, amazing. First, we had an amazing breakfast of low country fare with the Wieringo, Dezago, and Rousseau families. After a slow start, a handful of big sales led to the day almost equaling Friday and Saturday’s sales combined. We also sold books to Mike Rhode of the Comics DC blog, and Cleopatra In Space creator Mike Maihack (who knows a fun cow book when he sees one).

My wife got to have her own brush with celebrity when Paul Blackthorne (Arrow) passed our table while my wife was elsewhere. She returned shortly thereafter, and when I told her she had just missed Blackthorne, she scooted off to “just happen past him” and tell him she loved his work. He smiled at her, said “thank you, Darlin’,” and moved on.

I got to get away from the table to talk with friends, and finally meet the amazing Ramona Fradon, creator of Metamorpho, and a legend in comic art. Unfortunately, Kidlet wasn’t with me and every time Kidlet tried to visit Fradon, she had a line. I was able to get Kidlet a Fradon sketch of Captain America, though.

We had a strong final day, and we not only made enough to make up the table fees, we made enough extra to make up for the shortfall of the Richmond show. Once again, we didn’t sell any prints, but buttons and coloring books were at least more popular items.

As Baltimore wrapped up, I got to spend a few minutes with Christy Blanch and Mark Waid, presenting them both with gifts of Moo and Bear. Christy is a huge Man From U.N.C.L.E. fan, and Mark helped make Moo happen. I then sent my wife over with her cookbook, which also happened thanks to Mark, who was encouraging of the idea at last year’s Heroes.

After packing up, on our way out we ran into Blanch and Waid again, and my wife and Blanch were able to finally meet in person. Much like Heroes, Baltimore began and ended with good friends, and people we still can’t believe have accepted us into the community of creators.

Comics are a fun escape from the world’s problems. An art form combining the best of the written word and the flowing line. Comics can bring a lot of joy to their readers.

But you can never be prepared for the tremendous warmth and encouragement and friendship their creators can bring to your life when they accept you as friends. My wife and I, and even the Kidlet, are only children. And yet, we have found people that we feel have become our children, our siblings, our elders, and have brought us so much happiness that we can only begin to appreciate or reciprocate.

Our first year exhibiting was a roller coaster of stress and joy, made possible and successful by these and many other people far too numerous to mention without forgetting someone.

I can’t imagine we will ever be able to repay all of these amazing people for everything they have done…for everything they have made possible.

Simply put, they allow me to say with conviction that we have one hell of a family. And it is huge, and powerful, and grand.

Thank you all.

“TL;DR”

BEAR FROM A.U.N.T.: The Honey Don’t Case is available for preorder.

-Place your order by Sept 7 to get your copy before mid-October.

-Normal ordering available in October from the DFP webstore.

-A PDF preview is available HERE.

Yesterday I ordered the physical proof for my second book, THE BEAR FROM A.U.N.T.: The Honey Don’t Case.

Second book.

Suffice it to say, I never expected to write one.

And yet…here we are.

Bear From AUNT Book 1

CFK Book #2

THE BEAR FROM A.U.N.T.: The Honey Don’t Case is as much a love letter to my wife as MOO THOUSAND AND PUN was a love letter to my daughter. BEAR is an adventure story for young readers ages 7 and up. It is a 204-page prose book in the “graphic journal” genre (ala “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) with almost 140 supporting illustrations, many in my usual “Crass Fed” style.

BEAR features Stanley, an agent of A.U.N.T., reminiscing about one of his early cases, the “Honey Don’t” case. On this case, Stanley and his new partner Marco try to solve the mysterious disappearance of so many of the world’s bees. (Being a bear, Stanley has a vested interest in honey, so as a result he and Marco are well motivated.) In the book, readers are introduced to many of Stanley’s friends within A.U.N.T., and maybe even learn a little about what it takes to make honey.

If there is a good reception for this book, there will be more BEAR FROM A.U.N.T. books…in fact the second one is already starting to form.

But, before I can write the second one, I want folks to check out this story…and tell me what they think.

I am now taking preorders for BEAR FROM A.U.N.T. at the Deans Family Productions homepage’s store.

Copies are $20, which includes postage. (Send a message via social media or the DFP contact page when you order and I will personalize the book, draw a quick sketch, whatever you might like.)

Barring printer issues, preorders placed by September 7th will be available for pickup at our table (AA280) at the Baltimore Comic Con, September 25-27th or delivery by mail shortly thereafter. I Apologize for the tight schedule, but the delivery date on printer orders placed by midnight the 7th is between the 22d and 24th, so I cannot guarantee pickup or delivery for Baltimore on orders placed after the 7th.

Books will ship in the days following Baltimore, and beginning in October, BEAR will be available to order normally from the DFP shop.

If you want to read a couple of pages before buying, click here to download the preview PDF, which is the first six pages of the book.

If you have any questions, find me on Twitter or email me via the DFP contact page.

Thanks to everyone for their support and patience.

Cheers!

JRD