How to Be a CON-Artist

As convention season wraps up, there is still one BIG East Coast comic convention left to go, this weekend’s New York Comic Con (NYCC).  NYCC is one of these giant hybrid-cons, in that they have almost as many film and TV guests as they do comic creators.  While I have no truly valid complaints to the development of the full-blown entertainment convention, I still think that the conventions solely for comic creators are the best.  Comic creators go to shows to meet their fans and, evoking the days of Bartles & Jaymes, thank those fans for their support.

One big misconception about these conventions is that the creators are paid to be there.  Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case for 95% of the creators.  That’s really only the case for big names like Stan Lee, or maybe a Geoff Johns or Jim Lee.  Even then, they don’t get a stipend, only their rooms and airfare are comped.

Creators attend several shows a year, and pay for their own travel expenses, hotel rooms, food, and in many cases, they even have to pay for their own table rental, not to mention the cost of producing all of the materials they have with them, from their books, supplies to sign items or sketch, banners to (hopefully) draw traffic to their tables.

One big word of advice: unless you are talking Stan Lee, don’t assume anything about lines or wait time when seeing your favorite creators.  One of my all-time favorite comics is Usagi Yojimbo, a fun and clever (and beautifully drawn) comic combining anthropomorphized animals and feudal Japan.  The main character is a Ronin rabbit named Usagi, and its creator, Stan Sakai, is considered a genius talent in the field.  I took an Usagi comic to Baltimore a couple of years ago, “just in case,” but I assumed he’d always have a ridiculously long line.

I was wandering with my wife and Kidlet and turned around and there he was, sitting at his table, just people-watching.  NO ONE was at his table.  I was flabbergasted…here was a man I had idolized for ages and I was sure he’d be swamped with an overabundance of love and appreciation.  Nope.  So, there I was, with a few moments of one-on-one with one of my idols while he very kindly drew me a couple of sketches while I babbled like a brook.  When the silly euphoria of the moment wore off, I was a little upset that he wasn’t busier, considering he was practically a living legend of comics.  You might think that’s silly, but when I looked behind me and the flavor of the month (and a real jerk to boot) had a line around his table just for signatures (that he was charging for, mind you), it made me more mad.

That show kind of solidified the early version of this odd little list of rules I have been developing for convention attendance – a Con-Ifesto, if you will.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, per se, but the result of observations of conventions, and discussions with many creators at various levels of success.  If you can think of any additions or modifications, let me know, and maybe we can establish a set of protocols for making conventions fun and successful for everyone, not just the convention organizers.

Before I begin, however, forgive me a moment’s indulgence.  If you are attending NYCC this weekend, I would like to suggest you visit a few friends, all of whom are wonderfully nice folks and equally talented:

  • Jim McCann and Janet Lee (creators of Return of the Dapper Men and Lost Vegas) at table X-7
  • Joe Endres (creator of Megazine) and Jesus Marquez (creator of Man of the Hour) at table O-5
  • Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman (creators of Heathentown and Star Wars: Legacy II) at table (wait for it…) K-9
  • Julian Lytle (creator of the web comic Ants) at table W-3

Say HI! to them all, and even better, check out their wares.  As I said, they are all wonderfully talented, but they are even better people.

On to the CON-IFESTO!

 

THE ICRVN GUIDE TO SUCCESSFULLY

ATTENDING A COMIC CONVENTION

1:  PURELL

I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT BE PATIENT ZERO!  If you have kids, then you are already familiar with the “classroom-as-petri-dish” truism we all have to deal with when our kids bring home a new cold from their school.  A typical comic convention, especially one of the magnitude of Heroes, San Diego or NYCC, will be attended by thousands of people, anywhere from ten to twenty times more than the number at a typical grade school.  I think you get the idea.  Avoid Colds (or as they are commonly referred to by creators, “the Con Crud”) by washing your hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer regularly.  I recommend taking one bottle for every day you plan on attending, plus one extra.  This way if you lose one or more, you have backups.  And if you don’t lose one, you have an extra to give a creator who forgot their own.  Trust me, a creator will NOT be offended if you use the stuff just before shaking their hand…in fact they may thank you for looking out for their health as well as your own.

2:  CASH

Sure, bigger convention halls will have WiFi, or decent cellular signals, but don’t rely on that for potential credit card transactions.  Remember the days of getting a discount on gas for paying with cash?  Sometimes, the same applies at a convention.  While you won’t always get a deal, transactions are much easier and safer with cash.  And, if you have the means, take more than you expect to use, and split it up into three funds: Dedicated (for use with creators you know you want to buy something from), Discretionary (either for buying stuff from folks who just happen to catch your eye that you didn’t plan on meeting or visiting), and a “petty cash” fund for basic spending cash for food, supplies, transportation, tipping, et cetera.

3:  EARLY ADMISSION

This might seem so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning, but I will anyway.  Invariably, there will be one or two creators who have developed such a following that they will have a long line regardless of when you get there.  Look into VIP badges sold early online by the convention organizers.  For example, Baltimore this year had a VIP badge available for $100.  Included in the cost were tickets for both days (normally $20 each day), plus a tee shirt ($20), commemorative art book ($25; the theme of which was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Usagi Yojimbo), and special convention-exclusive variant comics.  Also included was the right to enter the show 30 minutes early.  That alone was worth the extra $15, as I was going to get the book and shirt anyway.  It enabled me to get in early and introduce myself to Chris Samnee, a favorite artist who doesn’t get to the East Coast very often.  You also get to miss a lot of the mad rush that happens when the doors officially open.  And, if you have a Kidlet with you, that is another argument for the extra admission cost.

4:  SNACKS

Don’t go nuts here…or actually…DO go nuts!  You can easily get dehydrated, and you will lose track of time and before you know it, you’ve spent 8 hours wandering the convention hall and your body will want to collapse.  Take a Ziploc bag of pecans, almonds or peanuts, and a bottle of water.  Always buy water before entering.  Convention concessions charge three to ten times the normal cost of food and drink at these shows.  Plan on spending the whole day, and allowing yourself a lunch hour where you can leave the show for a nearby restaurant and get off your feet a while.  Also, mint gum is a good idea, for obvious reasons.

5:  PLAN AHEAD

Conventions often publish a floor plan and location list well in advance.  Print these out and really try to plan with three categories in mind: The MUST list (who would you be heartbroken to miss?), the LIKE list (who do you like and want to see, but will be okay seeing them next time), and the VENDOR/PUBLISHER list.  I almost never go to a convention and spend time – ANY time – at dealer tables.  I run a comic shop, and know that side of the industry all too well.  I know what these folks really pay for those books, and would rather spend my time meeting the people who created those stories in the first place.  That said, I am also not a collector, I am a reader.  If you ARE, then plan ahead as you would for meeting the creators, and research the vendors a little online.  Once you know who will be at the show and where they will be located, you can plan out your day(s) around when they will be at their tables, or in panels, or signing at a publisher booth.  (For example, our MUST list always starts with the same three names: Jamie Cosley, Francesco Francavilla, and Drew Moss.  It isn’t a fun weekend unless we’ve seen those three amazingly nice and talented fellows.)  Be prepared, as you attend more shows and meet more folks, to have that list grow.  A lot.  And, for every two or three folks you list, make sure to budget exploration time.  Plan on walking the floor just taking a look at everyone’s table.  You never know who you might meet or run into.

6:  BE SPECIFIC

When you meet a creator you like for the first time, don’t just say “I like your stuff,” or “you’re awesome.”  Be specific.  Each creator got into comics for two reasons: they love the medium, and they want to tell stories.  (Thought I was gonna say “riches” and “hot girls/guys” didn’t ya?)  You may feel like you are coming off like a clod, but it’s totally cool to tell someone what their story from last month, last year, or earlier meant to you.  And, even if you don’t have a specific reason for why a story they did touched you, there is something in their work that made you take notice of their abilities and style.  Let them know as best you can what that thing was.  Creators love to find out that their work is reaching someone on a level more than just “hey, you drew Spidey. That’s cool.”  I had the pleasure of talking with Matt Wieringo, brother of the late Mike Wieringo, and telling him just what his brother’s art meant to me.  Mike had a style in his work that had pure joy dripping out of the page, a true essence of the fun that comics can capture, a feeling and style that is sorely lacking in many artists these days.  I know some part of me came across like a gushing doofus, but I also know that in a small way Matt appreciated hearing that.  His brother died far too soon, and I would hope that hearing that he left a legacy of joy in print that could (and would) be remembered for a long time brings a modicum of comfort.  These people are at their heart storytellers, and every storyteller likes, needs, to know that their audience “gets it.”

7:  BE A GOPHER (WITHIN REASON)

The creators more often than not are glued to their seats all day, with little chance to get up, stretch their legs, and explore or reconnect with friends.  Not all conventions provide any kind of lunch or drinks, so if you have the time and are inclined, a coffee or bottle of water is a HUGE gesture to these folks.  Even if they don’t take you up on it, a quick “do you need anything” goes a long way and will be very much appreciated.

8:  PERSONALIZE

Ebay has made conventions a resource for the greedy and unscrupulous to get creators to sign stuff that will show up online for sale in no time.  Some creators combat this by charging for signatures.  While I personally don’t believe in that practice, I will cave on certain occasions.  For example, Roy Thomas and other creators considered legends in their field who still have a sense of fairness, will ask for donations to a given charity (ranging from comic-specific charities like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or the Hero Initiative, to more general causes like the Red Cross or St Jude’s).  If they do, be generous as your resources will allow.  When you DO get an autograph, ask that it be personalized.  That is a huge deal to a creator, because they know immediately that you are not someone trying to boost the selling price of a comic, but a fan of either that particular story or of the creator.  Your gesture is immediately that much more valid, and appreciated.  If you just have to get every single comic that creator has ever worked on signed, for whatever reason, offer to make a donation to that creators’ favorite charity as a gesture of appreciation.  Also, if you are getting more than a few books signed, be nice to everyone else in line and either split the stack with friends also in line, or offer to let the person behind you step in every few books to allow the line to flow.  Those of us in line behind you will appreciate the consideration.

9:  PAY ATTENTION

Comics SHOULD be for kids, even though they haven’t been for some time.  I take my daughter to shows and there are a lot of kids that attend the conventions.  There are also people with varying degrees of ability (mental or physical) all around.  Don’t wander aimlessly blocking aisles, or forget that you aren’t the only person to want to stop at a given person’s table.  Flow is hugely important to a convention, and paying attention to what you are doing and where you are will go a long way to making it a better experience for everyone.  One wrong move, intentional or not, by one person could easily separate a child from a parent, and even in mild congestion it doesn’t take long for two people to get away from each other in the confusion.

If you cosplay, be aware of the “footprint” of your costume.  If you carry accessories and they are even a little large, be aware of how you carry said accessory.  If you just HAVE to dress up as Hawkman, for example, be aware of the way in which your wings will hang from the costume and try and imagine how they would impact other convention goers.  Also, keep in mind that there are kids around you.  I appreciate the skill and enthusiasm cosplayers bring to these shows, but if you decide to dress inappropriately, I have no qualms about giving you my scorn.  One young woman attended a show in an outrageously tiny bikini and batgirl mask…and that is all.  She planted herself in front of my daughter and myself as we sat eating lunch, and proceeded to flaunt herself for the cameras that were quick to capture her image.  I was not at all happy, to say the least.  If you are going to intentionally dress in a skimpy outfit, be cognizant of young children.  This goes for men, too, especially “Tarzan.”  If you’ve been to Baltimore, you know of whom I speak.  (It doesn’t hurt to test your costume beforehand too, by the way.  Another year at Baltimore, one young woman dressed as the Wasp had a problem with her…stingers constantly falling out.)

10:  PATRONIZE

This one is a biggie for me.  It is very difficult for creators to financially break even at these shows.  Yes, the exposure can eventually pay off, but exposure today doesn’t necessarily put food on the table.  I know so many creators who spend the equivalent of two weeks’ pay to attend a show, and hope beyond belief that they sell enough to just pay for their table fee, let alone the hotel and travel expenses.  It’s even harder for writers – no one ever asks them to draw a commission.  Their sole source of income at these shows is selling their books (that they have often paid for themselves) to potential fans.  Try and budget to buy SOMETHING from every table you plan on visiting.  I know that’s a huge commitment, but even a $3 purchase at a creator’s table will make a difference to a creator.

What I do is take one, maybe two comic books for my favorite creators to sign, and then I buy something from every table I can.  By example, I had Roy Thomas sign an X-Men comic from 1968 and an Invaders comic from 1977, two things I was sure he wouldn’t have lying around for me to buy.  But I didn’t take any of Thom Zahler’s Love and Capes, because he is still producing them, and has copies for sale at every show.  I buy one book every show.  It’s only $20, but if nine more people did that, his room and meals for the day would be paid for, which can be huge to these folks.

Keep in mind that sketch lists fill up quickly for the artists, and while you no doubt notice they usually have their head down, drawing, close observation reveals that it takes them anywhere from one to five hours per commission depending on the complexity.  They often take the list back to their hotel rooms and finish their commission list, which means they are drawing for hours instead of sleeping, and starting all over the next day.  So, don’t just get a commission.  Some artists will offer pre-show lists, or offer to do commissions at home year-round.  Factor this into your planning, and if you have other ways to get commissions, or are okay waiting until next time, try to buy a sketchbook (most artists charge about $10 for fantastic chapbooks of 30-40 pages of great art), both to help support the artist, and to add to your growing collection of unique art.

11:  MEET NEW CREATORS

I have a personal rule: wander a bit, and pick five tables/creators that I don’t know, whether I recognize their work or not, and buy something.  Anything.  A $5 sketch card.  A $2 comic book.  A $10 trade paperback.  A $1 button.  Anything.  Comic conventions have been going on long enough that the big name you really want to see was not too long ago a small name with no fans to whom he or she wasn’t related.

In the Artist Alleys of these shows, you will find rows upon rows of tables of creators just starting out, shelling out hundreds of dollars in the hopes that someone sees their stuff and likes it.  These folks may not be young and idealized kids, they could be folks my age, taking a creative leap of faith.  Either way, for every “big” name creator, there are scores of unknowns, just hoping for a break.  That break could be an editor from a major publisher liking their work enough to give them a one-page tryout, or one person trying out their book, potentially becoming their first real fan.

These creators do understand that budgets dictate purchases, or that not every story works for everyone.  They don’t expect you to come and buy everything from their table and become their next benefactor.  For a creator just starting out however, having someone they’ve never met before come up and say HI, and maybe even buy and enjoy something they’ve created, can be as valuable if not more so than selling out or breaking even.  You might discover a new story that will stay with you for the rest of your life from that new creator, or even better, you might make a new friend.

So, if you want to help make a young creator’s day, budget five $5 bills to buy something small from a creator you don’t know or have never heard of whose work appeals to you on first glance.  Trust me, it’s worth it.  That just-starting-out unknown you bought a sketch card from could be the next Jim Lee, and your purchase could be the one that helps convince him or her that the risks they are taking, at both creativity and life, are worthwhile, and appreciated.

12:  BE POLITE

If I have to explain this one to you, then maybe, just maybe, socialization on this level really isn’t something you should consider.

 

These are really suggestions, but they come as a result of attending several cons, large and small, and having talked about them with other fans and creators alike.  We are really all just getting together to celebrate this medium and all the potential it possesses.  Don’t ruin that celebration, intentionally or otherwise, by being rude, or unobservant, or dismissive.  Remember that a lot of the fans you see are attending a show for the first time, and have unchecked (and potentially untapped) enthusiasm.  Don’t squash it, help focus it.  The industry and medium will be better for it.  Essentially (although I feel a little ridiculous quoting them) the best advice I can give comes from Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to each other.”  Have fun out there!

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