So dark the Con of Man: webcomics and comic cons
If you’re doing webcomics, is it worth having a table at a comic convention? It’s something I was thinking about when I recently went to a small Comic Con. How small? Well, it only cost $10 at the door ($7 if you order online!), the “convention center” was a tiny building in the middle of farmlands, and the facilities could only accommodate three aisles of vendors, which were mostly local comic shops. There was also a short row of comic professionals at the artist’s alley.
It saddens me to say that I didn’t visit a single one of these comic writers and artists. And it looked like no one else was, either. From what I could see, the invitees were stretching and staring bored into space while convention goers filed past, sorta avoiding eye contact.
This was a little uncomfortable for me. I’ve been to larger cons that have invited more well known comic people. I’ve visited everyone from Dave Kellett to James Robinson. I’ve commissioned artwork from Sam Logan. I’ve had Don Rosa sing a “Mr. Terrific” theme song to me.
I also know I’m an anomaly. I do run a webcomic blog, after all. It’s more or less my duty to know these creators and what they’ve worked on. In the larger context of things, these artists — even highly regarded ones like Kurt Busiek — are sorta forgotten when everyone’s here to see Nathan Fillion. You can’t compete with a person who’s been in TV shows and movies and whose fans number in the tens of millions. I had to wait roughly two hours in line to meet the man behind Richard Castle. I only had to walk right up to the table at artist’s alley with no lines to speak of to chat with Kurt Busiek.
Even then… I know about these guys. I’m not stopping at tables of people for whom I have no familiarity. You might have the prettiest display with giant life-sized stands of your characters. I am probably not going to check it out. I’ve passed the table of the folks behind O Human Star at two different comic cons without stopping. They have a nice display. An yet, it would’ve been really awkward approaching folks whose work I have no familiarity with.
I’m reminded of a time I once had an awkward experience at a Borders. (Which was a bookstore, for all you young people. I know… books sold in a store?!?! One that was bigger than a Forever 21? A weird concept. I blame the 90’s.) One of the employees approached me about an author they’d invited for a book signing. No one showed up, because no one knew who this guy was. The employee pushed me to go say hi to the guy because they felt sorry for him, and I was all, “But… what am I going to talk about?” I felt sorry for him too… but there’s gotta be a better solution than a pity visit.
Brad Guigar, writer of Evil Inc, had written a whole section about how to approach comic cons in his collaborative book How to Make Webcomics. His initial advuce was use comic cons as a primary revenue source. He drew an illustration of himself as a carnival barker. You’re there to hawk your wares like a flashy saleman.
He has since reversed his position. He wrote the following in 2013 on the webcomics.com website.
…for years, I’ve been posting some very frank advice on the topic. In short, I don’t think you should go to a comic convention unless you have a very good chance of turning a profit.
There are only two other serious reasons to go to a comic convention: Promotion and networking. I don’t put a lot of value into the promotion that takes place at a comic convention. What we do is digital. If your promotion isn’t clickable, it’s not worth much. And networking? Again, I think it’s valuable — but not to the extent that I’m willing to go into the hole financially for it.
Comic cons were, for him, a huge expense where the books never balanced out. Now THAT I’ve been to comic cons both big and small, I can see what he means. I’ve seen the crowds marching by, not stopping at any stand unless you’ve got, say, a cute plushie that a convention goer can take home as a souvenir. Now, forget for a moment that a lot of self-published comics creators probably won’t be able to afford a small run of stuffed animals. What are the chances that the folks buying up a cute stuffed mouse will also be a new comic convert?
This year, he provided an update. He had been more serious in taking his own advice. He cut a lot of comic cons from his schedule. It seems he couldn’t be happier.
The fact of the matter is this: I’ve done better financially since restricting my convention schedule.
There are a few reasons for this.
First, as it has become increasingly difficult to turn a profit at many of these shows, I have simply eliminated an expense by saying no to more convention appearances.
Secondly, convention appearances require a significant amount of time — to prepare for, to attend, and to recover from. This is particularly true if the show requires travel. More time doing these activities means less time for the things that are bringing money into my business.
And that brings me to my third reason — Kickstarter and Patreon. I’m currently working on fulfilling the orders for a successful Kickstarter campaign. By the time those books get out into distribution, they will be responsible for thousands in revenue. Furthermore, the sooner I get this one off the books, the sooner I can launch my next Kickstarter campaign.
Meanwhile, my Patreon backers have completely changed the way I approach my business… and I’ll be darned if I’m going to disappoint them by missing updates. My time is best spent right here in my studio, cranking out a steady flow of content for my Patreon backers because that’s where the majority of my income is coming from these days.
Perhaps it’s because comic cons aren’t about comics anymore.
Guigar also posted a link from Bleeding Cool, scarily entitled “Is cosplay killing comic cons?” Denise Dorman, a wife of a comic professional, give her accounts of things on the ground… and it’s not a pretty sight.
The hard-working artists and creators who are the very foundation of this industry…the reason there even is an industry…. those creatives who have busted their asses and spent money they perhaps didn’t have to spare in order to be there exhibiting for–and accessible to–the fans…have been reduced to being the background wallpaper against which the cosplayers pose in their selfies. At what point do you start to wonder if–other than your faithful, loyal regulars who are like family and who find you every time–the general fandom population even gives a shit about the creators more than they care about their Instagram profiles?
So…this morning I checked in with Dave, exhibiting since yesterday at GrandCon. Yesterday, he earned $40. Today–Saturday–by 12:30 p.m. Michigan time, which should be the busiest day of the show,he’s earned $20 thus far. Luckily, he’s a featured guest, so his hotel expenses are covered, but… this is time away from the studio. Time he could be earning money. Time he could be spending with our son. And since I am the primary bread winner and self-employed, this creates the burden for me of extra time away from the office managing his errands while Dave is out of town.
So I ask you…at what point would YOU cut bait and stop attending these shows? How do we satisfy the fans in a way that makes sound financial $ense ? ? ?
The small comic con I attended was probably most similar to comic cons in their original incarnations. The cosplayers at this show were the ones who seemed out of place. It was collectors, who generally skewed older, browsing long boxes to fill that hole in their library. In fact, a few of the tiny area cons tout the old school aspect as their main appeal. The Jet City Comic Show‘s tagline is “Back to Basics.” Hey, who needs the hassle of these giant conventions attended by the normals, huh? Remember when it was all about the comics? Minor celebrities just distract you from the real heart of comic con! Let’s strip all of that away and get back to basics!
What these old school comic cons aren’t, though, is fun.
Comic readers were, and still remain, an awfully niche group… and there’s nothing inherently appealing about getting a bunch of hardcore comic readers together in the same room. (The old joke was that all these nerds in one place had to smell like flopsweat and Cheetos.) Old shows like the X-Files used to poke fun at these comic conventions, a place where only the most desperate would congregate. The modern comic con is for the people.
Thing is… I am totally a guy who loves to play dress up for Comic Con. Conventions probably would never have become a culturally accepted trend if not for cosplay. It would still be a collection of sweaty, Cheetos-stained nerds. So you’d never, ever hear me say, “Cut it out with the cosplay… you’re ruining comic cons.” (Hell… I probably wouldn’t ever have stepped into a comic con in a first place if it didn’t give me a chance to dress up as a different member of the Justice Society every year.)
So here’s what I want you do, webcomic readers. When you go to comic cons, you not only visit webcomic creators. You pay them for a commission, or buy a book from them. After all, they were totally cool with you reading their comics for free online. What’s a few dollars to make the comic con experience worth their while?
Also… stop dressing up as either Harley Quinn or Deadpool. Be original, people.