Saturday, February 17, 2007

How to survive a comic book convention.

By Elijah Brubaker

I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist my entire life. Like most aspiring ink pushers I've had ample opportunity to attend comics conventions both as a fan and a minor "professional."
Those of you unfamiliar with the world of comics shows might have some preconceived notions about these strange dens of sequential iniquity but I’m here to set the record straight for you. A little luck will afford me the grace to advise both fans and table humpers alike.

the small mainstream convention.
Example: Eugene comics and collectible show
Most larger cities have a comics convention somewhere in their midst. These shows are usually billed as a comics and sci-fi convention, comics and toy fair, comics and (fill in the blank.) The point of billing a show as comics AND something else is that the people putting on the show are trying to appeal to nerds of every stripe. These shows are generally for collectors and people who like superhero comics, you can probably pick up a nice bust of the Hulk while you’re at it. These shows are usually put on by older collectors and fans. There’s a quaint nostalgia at work at shows like these. You can usually pick up old superhero books for pretty cheap and reflect on how much the industry has changed.
Fans should be polite and patient, this is generally good advice anywhere. I’ve seen people fighting (literally fighting) over a long white back-issue box. I think the scuffle involved some rare old copy of phantom lady or something… Trust me; no issue of phantom lady is worth a black eye.
At small mainstream shows a fan can expect to see some local superhero writers and artists (superhero comics are generally written and drawn by separate people.) who have been offered twenty bucks to come and sell their books, sign autographs and do sketches. Many fans don’t know how to relate to pro’s. The biggest tip I can give is that these people are here to promote their work. No one wants to see your poor drawings of Catwoman. I once met Mike Mignola at a small show like this, I asked if he had any advice on becoming a cartoonist and he told me I should have brought a portfolio… so maybe people DO want to see bad drawings of Catwoman. If there’s a line to see this person please keep your visit brief.
Professionals who have the opportunity to sit and sign autographs should count their blessings that people read their work. I’ve heard all kinds of complaints about comics shows and it always boils down to cartoonists not knowing how lucky they are to be able to draw little pictures of people punching each other and get some recognition for it. Take a vitamin, drink some coffee, stay in a good mood.

The small indy convention

Example: STAPLE, Portland zine symposium, local craft fairs.
These small venues are where comics take on the feeling of folk art. Where zines and minicomics and hand made beaded seat covers all compete for the attention of vegan, bike riding, anarchist, pregnant lesbians. It’s at these shows that a photocopied minicomic can really be appreciated. Often the line between creator and fan is blurred at shows like these, the point being that everyone can make art so everyone does. The point of these shows is to support your peers and trade. Commerce is a little shaky when every single person at a convention is a cartoonist trying to sell their book.
Any fan that wanders into something like this is probably a librarian or someone who read about it in the local weekly and decided to check it out. Be prepared for these shows to be insular and cliquish. It’s pretty difficult to horn your way into a group of minicomics creators. It’s like walking into an AA meeting and saying “Hi, I’m not a drunk.”
Fans should do a quick walk through the convention hall, noting what looks good to you and what doesn’t, this way one can avoid spending all you’re money before you get to that one priceless artifact. Zines and minicomics are not collectible, there is no minicomics price guide that I’m aware of but they are rare and special. Everyone should have a shoebox full of mini’s and zines.
Cartoonists shouldn’t worry so damned much about sales, we’re all poor as dirt otherwise we’d be at the mainstream comics conventions. Be open to trades, and be open to those that walk by your table. It always seems like these small shows attract cartoonists who either put on their ‘hard sell’ face and talk their book up like it’s the second coming or they sit moping behind the table talking with their buddy about the war.
That’s another thing I’d like to rant about. Comics are apolitical, the last thing a bunch of left wing anarchist bandana wearing Che Guevara’s should be doing is arguing politics at a comics show… leave that shit to the bar later that night. If that guy over there wants to put out his skin-head manifesto then he should be allowed to sell it if he wants as long as he’s polite about it… you don’t have to buy it or trade with the guy if you don’t want.


The medium sized mainstream show

Example: wizard world
These shows are big spectacles with so much going on that you can’t possibly get to it all. There are panel discussions about industry mumbo-jumbo and Q&A with whatever hot name of the hour. Portfolio reviews and interactive high def video game action on every wall, in other words a circus.
Everything I said about smaller mainstream shows applies here except these are the shows you want to bring a portfolio to. Prospective superhero artist can expect to wait in line for hours only to have their work shat upon by industry bigwigs. The point here is to actually listen to what these guys and gals have to say. No one is trying to crush your dreams. They might be a little unfair at times but most editors are pretty unfair. Mainstream industry people see this stuff as a commodity and if you can’t deliver the right quality yet then you should know that… and if you can’t break into Marvel or DC then you can always make mini’s or put stuff on the internet to get feedback.

Most larger shows have an itinerary they give you as you walk in listing off all the cool events going on that day. Take a little time to schedule the stuff you want to do… remember, if you want to see someone famous then get there early.
Professionals traveling in from out-of-town should arrive the day before and spend some relaxing time in the city. Get a good nights rest, wake up early enough to shave and shower. Get to the show early to pick up your badge and figure out what the order of the day is. Be prepared, arrive early, bring a sack lunch, a bottle of water and maybe some aspirin.

The medium sized indy show

Example: APE, SPX
Here is where the larger independent publishers push their new books and try to get people to realize “comics aren’t just for kids… blah, blah, blah” There’s usually a lot of schmoozing and boozing.

Essentially the same as the above but the portfolio reviews will be a little different. Indy publishers admire craft but generally value uniqueness over composition and anatomy. Most indy publishers nowadays want to hear a complete proposal for a book. If you only do pencils or you only write the script then you’ll probably need to team up with someone on your own.
Fans of indy books will be pleased at the accessibility of some of their favorite cartoonists. The fact that Hollywood hasn’t yet glommed on to most of these people means they aren’t generally surrounded by crowds of admirers, there are some exceptions but at the moment I can’t think of any.
At shows like these there will be a mixture of small press minicomics makers and larger industry names. The general dynamic seems to be the minicomics people trying to get their work into the hands of the bigger publishers. This seems a little foolhardy seeing as most big publishers will go around and actively scout for talent. Minicomics people should just concentrate on being friendly to potential buyers and have a good short pitch ready in case anyone asks (and only if they ask, most people don’t want to hear it, trust me.)
Cartoonists should avoid drinking so much. Most indy people drink like it’s illegal and this usually leads to hangovers and regrettable nighttime trysts and subsequent drama down the road. Please look at this as if it’s your job, don’t come to work hungover, don’t sleep with your co-workers.

Big mainstream show:

Example: San Diego Comic-Con
The bitch-goddess of all American comic shows. This multi-day excursion into collector mania and debauchery is enough to make you want to puke. It’s shows like this one that put images of people dressed like Wolverine into people’s minds. San Diego even has a costume contest. At shows like this you’ll find that a little money will go a long way and everyone in the comics industry is a raving lunatic. You know that part in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas where Hunter Thompson is writing about Circus Circus? Well that’s the San Diego Comic con right there.

Remain calm. Breathe in, breathe out. Buy as many back issues of Swamp Thing as you can, Hit on Julie Strain.
San Diego in particular is a star attraction for Hollywood types, there’s as many movie people hyping stuff in SD as comics folks. Be prepared to see movie stars and people dressed as superheroes. By the end of the weekend nothing should surprise you.
Those that like to meet and bullshit with cartoonists should make a note of the older pro’s that attend shows like these. Not to be morbid but you may not see them there next year. It’s great to shake hands with Frank Miller but you never know what that old geezer over in the corner has done for the industry.
It’s important not to get too high and mighty about shows like this, sure they’re repulsive in a child-beauty-pageant sort of way but since you’re there you should enjoy it. Go to the costume show, go to the award show, and try to remain respectful in the midst of all the crassness. When you get home you can take a long shower and thank god that it only happens once a year. Oh and you know all that stuff I said about drinking too much and sleeping with your editor or whatever… that doesn’t apply here. Drink all you want, I’ll see you in the emergency room.

big Indy show

Example: America doesn’t really have a big comics-centered art festival yet. I’ve never been to Angouleme but I think it’s generally regarded as a big “art comics” festival.

Like I said I’ve never been to a big indy show. I think that’s kind of why we still use words like “independent, alternative and underground.” I imagine Angouleme is a pretty nice yet thoroughly exhausting experience. I have no advice for a show like this. They have a big sculpture of Herge’s head in the middle of town.

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