Last weekend was Baltimore Comic Con, a show that was fairly pleasant by my standards and expectations of a comics convention. All in all it was a laid back, fun experience. A good time with friends and fellow creators and a good opportunity to talk to those of you who stopped by the table.
But towards the end of the show I had a couple of encounters that have got me thinking about what my expectations of a show are and how those have largely changed over the years. Granted I’m in a much better, slightly more privileged place these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that cons were a really torturous experience. I really do still understand what it feels like to attend a con hoping for a leg up, only to find yourself face down.
The conversations I had this weekend were with a few folks in that position. Some successful pros, others maybe not so fortunate yet. They inspired me to write down my thoughts on attending comics cons as a creator, which is something I’m really an old hand at. The philosophies I largely abide by are in a state of constant evolution. Honestly they’re the by product of far more error than trial. But of late they’ve really seemed to make attending conventions a much more rewarding experience and and have in no small way been beneficial to the career I’m trying to build and art I’m trying to create.
So with that in mind here’s what this thing isn’t:
It’s not how to nail a portfolio review or get an editor’s email.
It’s not what magic pen to use in order to ink like Wally Wood.
It’s not how to get rich at a comics show.
If that’s the kind of stuff you want advice on there are plenty of better folks to get it from. What I have to say MIGHT lead you to people who do know how to do all of the above and more. But I can’t promise you that. All I know is what has and hasn’t worked for me, and to some degree why. It should go without saying that ultimately it’s up to you to determine what that’s worth.
Still with me? Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you...
The worst kept secret in comics is that comics are about relationships. Human interaction. The kind that, by in large, aren't formed over the phone or the internet. These relationships are formed over con tables and dinners and beers and arguments and laughs. If you want to work in comics, it’ll save you a lot of headaches to learn that now.
Because the honest truth, little comics star-- is that past a point no one really cares how good you are. Sure you might hit the scene with the freshest new gangster lean, you may walk in off the street and find yourself the prettiest girl at the ball. No one is denying that these things are possible. But if you want to last, if you want your time in comics to be put towards making art and telling stories and not just scraping by to do your next con, well-- you’re going to have to form relationships. Real ones.
It doesn’t matter if you make indie comics out of yarn or write “The Avengers vs. Batman”--
if you’re not spending a significant part of your con time being an active part of the comics community, if you’re not reinforcing and re-igniting these relationships-- then you are probably wasting your time.
Want to know why? Because that creator who you think sucks. The one you can write circles around or draw under the table. Well, they’ve got people who are actually invested in whether or not they eat tomorrow, in if they ever create again. They’ve got friends who will call them up and let them know when a job that might fit them. Publishers and editors who know they can be trusted or what to expect of them. Collaborators who would walk through fire for them. Friends who like their jokes or folksy insights and are more than happy to buy them a beer, or set them up with a hotel room or con space. An entire support system who will make this absurd dream just a little more plausible. These folks will hold the doors open, the same way other people held the doors for damn near every single creator in the history of comics--
All that, or any, creator really owes anyone is to give it their all once the threshold is crossed. To prove that those folks were right to hold that door, and to hold those very doors open for some other deserving creator someday.
THERE IS NO BOTTOM LINE
As both a comics professional, aspiring or otherwise, and as an artist there are plenty of reasons to attend a Comic Book convention beyond building relationships. But the reason I’ve found to offer far and away the most diminishing returns is that of putting cash on the barrel head.
That’s not to say theres not money to be made, because there is-- or at least there can be. But if we’re operating under the assumption that building relationships is the most important goal of any comics convention, then your sole goal monetarily should first and foremost be simply not to lose your shirt. Cover your costs. Once your flight, hotel and maybe your food is out of the way, the rest is is gravy. After all how can you really interact and engage with an audience and a community if you’re holed away in your hotel room alone doing sketches?
And yes, it’s true that you could form a community around that. But if you’re an artist, doing commissions can be a real bag of snakes. To the naked eye it’s an overhead free way of covering the expenses I mentioned. It’s also a great way to challenge yourself and improve your grasp over your craft. But in reality there are psychic costs. It’s a time consuming pressure cooker of a practice that can easily leave you a human husk. The kind of behavior that can significantly reduce the energy you have to spend with friends, collaborators, readers and employers.
My advice is to tread lightly. Don’t over extend in terms of volume. Trust me I have and continue to be unable to determine how much I can do. But I’ve learned that a well done, reasonably priced sketch, is going to win you more hearts and minds than a thousand dollars in sketches that leave you unable to function. Take a look around-- convention floors and the bars and dinners that surround them are full of awkward, brain dead pauses, a lot of which is probably largely exacerbated by folks who broke their mind and spirit toiling away for that “easy money”.
Beyond that-- what happens when you get home and have real work to do? Be honest with yourself, you probably work harder at a big show than you do at home. Most of the time you’re only creating vicious a cycle, and before long it’s easy to find yourself looking to make your “easy” bank (or worse supplement the income lost by going to a con) off of another show. Soon it’s a monthly thing and then you’re drowning in a sea of commissions or spending a little too much time polishing your original art for the secondary market .
Save your energy for what you got into this business for-- making comics.
It’s the comics that make the readers stop by your table, that your friends will be in awe of and will make your employers swoon. There really is no way to make it by nickel and diming. Sure some people have made good livings doing commissions, it is possible to supplement a lot of income. But these are largely, diminishing returns. Comics and published work are the long money, the real investment. The things you can sell at your table without breaking a sweat, or can hand to an editor or friend or new reader. They’re the only thing about this business and artform that stands a chance of being perpetual, of actually renewing themselves over time. Well, other than the relationships that is.
If your comics career is going well or is productive, you’re probably going to spend a lot of your time working. Most of your time in fact. Comics are often times a lonely business. After toiling away in the wee hours for a month or two it’s really easy wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life. Unless you’re extremely lucky most of the people in your day to day life are only going to have a passing interest in your passion. Even if they do love the stories or the art, it’s unlikely they live and breathe the politics of it or understands the inner workings of the art form like you.
And that leads me to my favorite part of comics shows. The broad philosophies above generally leave me in a position where a comics show actually becomes rewarding creatively. Think about it for a second-- how often are you going to be in a room with that many creative people at once?
That bar, that lunch table, that portfolio line-- they’re all humming with imagination and passion and real honest to god love for what you want to do. So take a moment and realize how damned great of a resource that is.
Bounce your ideas. Argue. Challenge and be challenged. Make a damned fool of yourself arguing about X-Men (tread carefully there). Be humbled. Get your damn swagger back. And when all that’s said and done-- go home. Take a long nap, maybe watch the Breaking Bad episode you missed-- and then sit down, refocus and turn that crackling energy into some amazing lines on paper.