Sim & Bissette Yammer On
Paid Advice, Free Advice, & Cons
[Vark Thing color sketch by Dave Sim, © and TM 2009/2010 Dave Sim, all rights reserved. See what you're missing, not tuning in to Cerebus TV?]
But what I can tell you is that here on Myrant, I am archiving Dave‘s and my latest ongoing conversation, which proceeds below, without further ado.
* As you can see, I elected to go completely public with this whole conversation, Dave. I didn’t ask, as I knew that was your wish in the first place; and it’s working out fine. It’s how we’ve done it now for pretty much a decade or more anyhoot, and arguably (if you care to argue) we were plenty public with at least 60% of our previous conversations and conclusions from the 1980s on anyway, so—well, let’s be as candid as ever. We’ve had nothing to lose longer than most of our comics peers seem to, so what the hell.
* Let me jump ahead, briefly, to your statement directed to Bob Colby (forgive me, Bob): Yes, there’s a lot of these regional indy comics shows popping up.
I’m well aware of them, since I’m often asked/urged to attend, and more than that, my CCS students regularly post about the upcoming ones on the CCS Discussion Board (closed to the public, for CCSers only), plan for them, work toward them, take over the CCS basement studio in varying degrees printing up their new (and reprinting old) work for them, and coordinating their collective rides/travel/lodging/setup/sharing tables/etc. on a regular basis.
I must say, though, that with the proliferation of such events, what has always been a double-edged sword has now become one of those new-fangled multi-blade razors. It cuts all ways, this new scene.
In one way, as I stated in my first post in this dialogue, it’s heartening: indy comics cons are now the regional equivalents of craft and art fairs. The work itself is often closer to that model, too: increasingly hand-made, manifesting all manner of ingenious “art object” elements (die cut covers, silk-screened covers, intricate folds, unreproducable format strategies, etc.), moving comics from mass-produced mainstream print industry to singular creations in and of themselves.
In another way, it’s only further evidence of the utter fragmentation of the marketplace we once knew, Dave, and further downslide from the era of trade shows: that pinnacle of self-publisher commerce, where we could pay the extravagant costs of travel, lodging, table space but at least meet our retailers, and reap the benefits. The trade shows vanished in the mid-1990s, the first casualties of the Direct Market implosion and impending monopolistic Diamond dynasty. At that same time, Wizard took over ChicagoCon, the Dallas Fantasy Fair evaporated, and by the end of the 1990s comics conventions had transformed into media shows—where comics were increasingly relegated to the fringes while movie, TV, and other mass media presences turned every show into a bastard spawn of the Star Trek/Dr. Who cons I’d learned early on to avoid.
The end game for me came in 1999, due not only to my retirement from the American comics industry, but my new day-job in the video retail/rental market, and what I saw firsthand happen to the annual VSDA (Video Software Dealers Association) trade shows (I should mention I was a shareholder and employee at First Run Video in Brattleboro, VT; shareholder from 1991–2006, employee from 1992–2005, co-manager 1999–2005; I’d been to a few VSDA trade shows before the events I’m about to describe, so I had experienced them in their heyday). By 2000-2001, the major motion picture and TV studios abandoned the VSDA events to favor San Diego Comicon!
Once the studios clearly saw the division of the annual profit pie-charts, knowing the VSDA members (owners of video shops, chains, and the majors in that market like Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, etc.) were a captive buying group, they abandoned even the pretense of courting or catering to that market in order to instead curry the attention of the end-user—the individual viewers/audience—and San Diego Comicon was deemed the best venue for that.
The first VSDA trade shows I attended had eye-popping, intoxicating studio presence, from standing Jurassic Park indoor jungles (with Stan Winston Studios‘s actual JP dinosaurs!) and Walt Disney Studio evening dinner musical theater events to all-day, every-day “meet the stars/get autographs” booth sessions with real movie stars, old and new (Charlton Heston to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen when they were wee tykes). By 2002, that was all gone, moved booth, stars, and ballyhoo to San Diego Comicon.
Where, clearly (though I haven’t been to a San Diego Comicon since the 1990s), comics were no longer the center of attention. Anyone who cares to chart this pilgrimage need only revisit the New Line Cinema promo of the Lord of the Rings movies, which was the spearhead away from the VSDA into San Diego.
It was a smart move on the part of the studios, and how could Comicon resist the influx of fame, dollars, ballyhoo, and elevated media attention? Wasn’t this vindication? Proof of comics coming of age at last? Look, everyone is looking at us! Part of what was smart on the studios’s part was the extension of their promotional dollars: where the millions spent on the VSDA show was never visible to the public, the rerouting of all that to Comicon meant the entertainment news media, cable shows, TV Guide coverage, etc. paid glorious attention to the studio resources lavished on Comicon: the perfect fusion of comicons, VSDA trade shows, and Star Trek/Dr. Who con prototypes, all in one transformed, transcendant, “hey look at THIS“ event.
How can a self-publisher shunted off to Artist’s Alley compete with that??? (I know the argument—what brings millions to San Diego spills into Artist’s Alley—but that’s as believable as trickle-down economics in the current Depression; oh, wait, Americans do believe in that still!)
So, the past decade’s growth of the key indy comics cons, which grew (in part) out of the Spirits tour of the 1990s, was inevitable. The comics-only people, and particularly the comics creators increasingly marginalized by all this (not only by the explosion of “media cons,” but also the creators shut-out from retail venues as Diamond and its exclusives gradually shut out even the possibility of building a readership via Diamond Distribution), were a visible enough population needing servicing that there was money to be made hosting regional indy shows.
However, where it used to be I saw my students and alumni work and scrape and save to do one annual event, maybe two (especially if it meant they could do a con closer to their geographic home base), and usually mount a collective effort to reach those destinations and goals, that is being fragmented as well. I won’t name names, but I’ve seen some of our most prominent alumni priced out of the big shows they used to work so hard to be at—APE, SPX, MoCCA—to instead do smaller regional cons.
Also, as APE, SPX, SPACE, MoCCA, etc. attract higher profile participants, they squeeze out the new creators: those who aren’t pre-packaged, pre-sold, or have yet to build an audience.
This is all hearsay from me, since I’ve maintained my distance from all this (what do I have to offer? And does my selling my work, such as it is, mean the new comics creators don’t get to sell theirs? It’s their generation, it’s their time: I say, let it be theirs, since I don’t need the revenue, the hassles, or the ego-boo, which isn’t true for the vets still self-publishing and publishing, for whom this is essential).
[Addendum note: One of the CCS alumni, Steve Seck (Class of 2009), has indeed shared some of his convention experiences and market strategies on the comments thread, below. Take what he has to say with far more weight than what I've posted here, as Steve is a working professional of the current generation, and he is working the shows!
OK, back to the original rant from yours truly:]
But I do see, month after month, year after year, how CCS students and alumni and staff engage, and how this has shaped, how this has changed, and how it has affected them, year by year, show by show, including those who thrive in such environments and opportunities, and those who do not (or who come away feeling, essentially, discarded and disheartened and broke).
We’re seeing a kind of displaced artistic refugee population exodus here, trying to find where they’re welcome and can live; we’re also seeing market forces gravitating to perceived revenue streams, seeking to both (a) accommodate/service that market need, as a business opportunity, and (b) detour as much of that revenue stream in to their pockets as possible. The more successful they are at (b), the less (a) is applicable to hungry, young cartoonists trying to eke out something like a return on peddling their wares.
I don’t think that “displaced artistic refugee population” is too extreme a metaphor, either; furthermore, having cut their teeth on Maus, Cages, Sandman, Harvey Pekar, and true graphic novels vs. a solitary diet of DC or Marvel comicbooks, they have their own stories to tell, and almost no interest in feeding the DC and Marvel pages or coffers.
As this generation comes of age as artists, given the dirth of available venues for their work and lack of centralized distribution, they are forced to invent new venues, and to survive in the meantime by gravitating to whatever venues are open to them.
Given how many normal citizens now believe “graphic novel” is the coin of the realm, the false perception is there’s gold in them thar’ comics, and that being a cartoonist=rich (or, worse still, being a cartoonist=“hey you should draw my idear for one of them thar grafic novels”). When business people see business opportunities in tapping old comics pros offering advice to neophytes (see below), we’re clearly in a curious new environment.
Finally, let’s not underestimate the financial and personal resources that pour into having or sharing a table at even one or two of these indy comics events every year.
I’ll leave it to my students to articulate whether those sojourns and efforts are panning out; as ever, the priceless “meeting of the tribe” component to these gatherings eludes any final tally of “is it worth it?” The personal and professional rewards of just meeting, mingling, and making contacts doesn’t have a price tag attached, and it’s essential to this new generation to have such meeting spaces, but I’m curious to see how sustainable it will be, and when the shows price themselves out of existence (for the creators/dealers or the attendees, or both).
Keep your eye on all this, Dave; your experience and background is far more extensive than mine regarding the historical arc of comics conventions, and I’d love to hear what Larry Marder has to say about it.
* Re: middlemen brokering vet cartoonists giving advice to amateurs: It’s a venerable model, in’t it?
[Norman Rockwell, doing what Dave's pondering doing, during the period when Rockwell lived here in Vermont.]
Ah, another example of market forces gravitating to perceived revenue streams, seeking to both (a) accommodate/service that market need, as a business opportunity, and (b) detour as much of that revenue stream in to their pockets as possible.
Since I offer such sage advice almost daily in my day job, Dave, I’ll leave it to you other vet pros to see to this task, or opportunity, or whatever it turns out to be for all concerned.
(You know, I can mark the very day my life changed living in rural Vermont from being the “weird but apparently nice guy who lives down the dirt road who draws comics or somethin’ like that” to “Hello, could you tutor my talented five-year-old artist?” It was a phone call out of the blue from a local southern VT parent in 2000; at that point, I knew comics were “legit” at last, and we’d cleared another major generational shift since the 1950s comicbook purge tarred all comics as something to be avoided, and certainly to be kept out of the reach of children.)
Since I’ve been dealing with aspiring (and not-so-aspiring, but working) unpublished creators asking for advice since at least 1983 (the year my first official Saga of the Swamp Thing pencil job hit the stands), all I can say is: the Center for Cartoon Studies is paying me a fair wage for doing just that, though in a far more constructive, hands-on environment than I’d ever imagined possible (outside of the Joe Kubert School, natch). One of the benefits, though, is the process of distilling the serious artists/students from those just seeking I-don’t-always-know-what is out of my hands: by the time I meet each year’s new class, I know I’m dedicating myself to those who’ve already demonstrated some level of aptitude, dedication, and hard work just to be in the classroom.
Having dispensed free advice for decades, and finally being compensated for the honor, I say: don’t price yourself too low, Dave. It can be time-consuming and difficult work under the best of conditions and situations. And what’s the middleman doing with all this advice?
Seems to me there’s some issues to be sorted out, which I won’t elaborate on or belabor here, save to say:
Remember, too, you’re launching a potential relationship with every exchange, and that can be far more rewarding, and far more exhausting, and/or far more aggravating, than most normal folks would ever imagine.
Thanks for clearing that up; I only cited the names of the two folks who reached out to me regarding Cerebus TV, which launched this whole conversation.
That’s it for today; it’s Sunday, and I’m going to take it easy the rest of this day of rest… be back tomorrow, when Dave and I get back into headier turf.
Tomorrow: Part 7 of Dave’s and Steve’s Jawflappin’ in Virtual Space