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?]
  • First of all, Part 2 of Dave Sim‘s and Cerebus TV‘s streaming video discussion of yours truly and whatever crazy shit went down in the past involving Dave and I went up online on New Year’s Eve at Cerebus TV; here’s the link, check it out now.
  • 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.

    Since 2005, it’s gone from their doing so for two or three shows—APE, SPACE, SPX, and/or MoCCA—to monthly shows yanking them hither and yon.

    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!

  • Here's a link to Steve's blog and website, Steve Seck's Life is Good, go check it out and lend some support to a working cartoonist, folks!
  • 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

    Discussion (23) ¬

    1. steve.

      hey steve! dug the post but one thing stood out to me: are you sure you don’t mean SPX when you mention SPACE & CCS students being priced out? SPACE is still a pretty affordable $55 for a table while SPX is the second most expensive “indy friendly” con to table at…

    2. srbissette

      Thanks, Steve (CCS Alumni, Class of 2009), and appreciate the correction! I’ve added SPX to the lists, and note I didn’t cite any one or more shows as “priced out,” I just sort of listed them all generically as “the big ones,” since I DON’T know, and you DO.

      I’d welcome more specific feedback (and I’m sure Dave would, too): what are the most “indy friendly” cons right now, and why? What are the cost issues?

    3. srbissette

      For those on Facebook, there’s great conversation commented on this MYRANT post over here:

      I respectfully ask permission to archive those posts/comments here, and that folks keep commenting HERE, but such is the further fragmentation of the marketplace of ideas!

    4. Paul Riddell

      Sigh. I don’t think that the idea of established pros giving advice to beginners is a bad idea per se. Unfortunately, I see it as a potential trap for a lot of those pros. What this business model is offering is validation by experts in a generally self-made field. “Hey, Steve Bissette says that my comics are great, and he signed this piece of paper so I have proof!” In that case, it’s no different than the old “Have the pros review your portfolio” workshops at the old Dallas Flimsy Fairs.

      What worries me is that, much like all of those old correspondence art and writing courses, the concern isn’t about making money by making better artists. You know as well as I do that even the best artists are incredibly thin-skinned, and that talentlessness and extreme delusion go together like rum and Coke. Is the business model going to be for offering honest criticism and assessment with a likelihood of precious snowflakes running out crying about how “You’re WRONG! I am SO a good comics artist!” or even suing? Or will you see a repeat of those old correspondence courses, where the pros will constantly be pressured to find something good to say about the worst crap they’ve ever seen, in order to keep Precious Snowflake sending in course payments?

      (I’m asking this not just as a generality. The various Art Institutes around the country have been working on the latter model for decades, and having an Art Institute note on your CV is almost as damaging as one from the University of Phoenix. I’ve personally worked with several Art Institute grads who might have been better illustrators if they’d just shoved pens in their asses and tried drawing that way. Problem is, you now have Art Institute grads suing the school because they were PROMISED well-paying jobs after spending $40k on animation or illustration courses, and you’ll probably see more in the next year or so.)

      And on the subject of conventions in general, you already know what I know about the collapse of the Dallas Flimsy Fairs. On one point, Larry Lankford just got greedy, and turned what could have remained a successful once-per-year event into an all-year extravaganza that bled off interest from everyone but local fans. (I won’t go into how he just assumed that local talent was going to come out to his shows for free, or how he promptly pissed all over that local talent so he could attract new Marvel speculators to the dealer’s room.) The real problem, looking back fifteen years later, was that he simply had too much going on with that talent. By the time I stopped going in 1995, the Flimsy Fairs were no longer about getting general fans together. Damn near everyone attending had some comics-related project or book manuscript under his or her arm, and all anybody could focus on was selling said project so “I can quit my shitty job and write/draw full-time.” It’s a completely understandable instinct, but one that just emphasized that any idiot can come up with a bad Star Trek parody or an H.R. Puff-n-Stuff porno comic proposal and many do. When ALL you have are wannabe artists and writers, and they don’t have any money because they blew it all on hotel and transportation costs, you don’t get people coming in to buy stuff from the dealers that ostensibly pay the costs of the convention. You get a lot of cheap-asses who expect “review copies” for free, and who then badmouth anybody who doesn’t treat them as a STAR. (Or, to put it another way, there’s a very good reason why my ex-wife was nicknamed “The Nancy Spungen of Fandom”.)

      As one last point on discussion, I had interest in bringing out plants to both World Horror Convention in Austin and Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas. Sadly for me, they both run on the same exact weekend at the end of April/beginning of May. With me, it’s pure economics: I can pay for a rental truck to travel 200 miles, each way, to Austin, with the attendant hotel and gas costs, to show my stuff to about 400 to 600 wannabe writers who’ll cry poverty the whole time while trying to convince me and the other vendors to buy their self-published Twilight ripoffs. Or I can stay here, sleep in my own bed and make dinner in my own kitchen after dealer’s room closing every night, for a crowd of about seven THOUSAND who’ve saved up money all year long to hit the show. With one, there’s physically no way I could bring enough plants to cover expenses, and the wannabes won’t buy anyway; with the other, I literally sold out of everything I had last year in the last few minutes of the show. And yet somehow I’m a traitor and a greedhead when I pass up World Horror for Texas Frightmare Weekend.

    5. Nat Gertler

      There’s a dynamic that goes on at conventions where one assumes that some indy creator there is being successful, and if you’re not the successful one, you must be doing it wrong. This is magnified greatly by those folks who feel that the route to success is talking as though they already were a success – watch carefully, often the people telling you about how great a con they had are the ones who aren’t there the next year. It seems to be the reality at many cons that no one is making it work, certainly not anyone who didn’t come into the con as a big name. That’s not to say that doing a con may not be of value, but if its worthwhile, it often has to be for reasons other than the money which flows across the table.

      I worry some time that we have created this illusion of general success – generally unintentionally (it can be easy for a fan to go to a con and see a creator surrounded by a couple dozen fans and think that that’s fame and success, and not see that such conventions are 1% of the creator’s life and day-to-day is very different.) The point at which this becomes a concern is when it channels a lot of creative energy and cash into chasing that illusion. There is a legitimate market for education on working in this artform, but there’s also the point at which we’re taking money from people who dream of being the next Jane Hotshot, without recognizing that being Jane ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that the previous Jane from a decade back is now having trouble making her house payments. Those of us who profit from the “teaching comics” industry – and that includes Steve with his teaching career, Dave with his plan to take money for critiques (and don’t underprice yourself as it sounds like you’re doing!) among other things, and myself with my how-to books – have an ethical duty to try to keep the depiction of “success” to be a realistic one (not dour, but realistic), while not damping enthusiasm for comics as a form of expression.

    6. srbissette

      At CCS, I most certainly engage with the issues Nat raises, and do so in every class (including Drawing Workshop). Our primary initial text in my comics history class is Gerard Jones’s MEN OF TOMORROW, chosen in part because it does so fully illustrate the perils of the industry and the business legacy the students are necessarily building upon, reacting against, or creating alternatives for in their own career paths. There’s no sugar-coating in my classes!

      In the senior year (2nd year, as its a two-year program), we have an intensive Thesis Workshop class, where during my semester (which I’ve co-taught for two years now with Alec Longstreth), Alec and I most certainly get into many aspects of these issues, including sample contracts, survival scenarios and strategies, etc. Furthermore, Alec teaches a semester-long “Professional Practices” class for 2nd year (senior) students.

      That’s one of the reasons I DO work so hard at CCS; and one of the reasons I DON’T engage with tutoring, or conventions, or the kinds of “crit” programs Dave mentioned. You’re either in for the whole program, or I’m not able to responsibly introduce the full spectrum of lessons, including careful discussion of the risks involved in any creative path.

      I hope, too, that my writings and posts to MYRANT go some way toward illuminating such vital issues… these posts (and comments) included.

    7. srbissette

      PS: Our weekly Visiting Artist sessions, and our annual Industry Day (with guest editors, publishers, agents, and other business figures from the field) also provides candid discussion and ongoing access to working professionals from many comics-related fields. These have included special events with vets like Jules Feiffer, Jeff Danziger, Gary Trudeau, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Seth, etc. talking to the students as peers, as fellow professionals—and many sobering, insightful conversations have been nurtured, cultivated, and continued from there, too.

    8. srbissette

      Steve Seck (first to comment on today’s post; see top of comments thread) has given me permission to archive his Facebook comments regarding this MYRANT post here. Thanks, Steve!

      Steve wrote:

      “i left a comment on your blog, but would like to add: i’m gravitating more toward the less expensive regional shows myself. i did a few last year & found them to be more rewarding than some of the bigger indie cons i do – both professionally & financially. doing more than simply covering table cost is easier (i sold more in 1 day at some of the smaller shows than i did at both days of MoCCA last year) & you don’t go unnoticed / get shitty table placement because you’re an unknown. i wouldn’t write off the larger indie cons just yet – SPX is still my favorite show to table at – but the smaller regional shows are certainly becoming a viable alternative to spending $400 with your comics pals to sit in a musty NYC armory for a weekend praying that enough people will take interest in your work to cover table cost…”


      “sure, you can archive my comments at myrant.
      RE: distro: my big thing is the con appearance – i schedule my comic production so i can have a new 28 – 40 page book for both MoCCA & SPX (i “hype” myself up to do the bigger, more competitive shows by always having new work for them). getting face time with people – either new to my work or who have previously bought my stuff – is invaluable. i also sell my books through my website & do some consignment at some of the indie-friendly NYC / NJ comic stores & ones out of state that will take my work via post. i’ll be looking more into some sort of actual distribution once i have my first LiG collection ready at the end of this year, but my main concern right now is to keep producing &, you know, keep getting better & stuff…”

      THANK YOU, Steve!

    9. srbissette

      Robert Berry also granted permission to archive his Facebook comments to this post here. Thanks, Robert, and here goes:

      “I was at APE last year and though the creative atmosphere was fantastic, I could sense the lack of spending taking its toll on the vendors, despite being well attended. Someone once told me it’s like the same $100 is just being spent from table to table with vendors buying each others stuff. San Diego has become so bloated and cost prohibitive, I don’t know how a small guy can even turn around any kind of profit.”

      “i’ve seen vendors’ booths moved and yanked to make room for hollywood stuff at San Diego, too”

    10. M Kitchen

      Regarding pros giving advice to aspiring comic artists: In animation, there’s this thing called Animation Mentor –

      I don’t know TOO much about it, but it sounds like it’s a similar vien to what is being discussed.

      Have some other thoughts too, but they’ll have to be typed later.

    11. srbissette

      Roger May has just granted permission to post his Facebook comment (referencing this MYRANT post) here, for archival and conversational purposes:

      Roger wrote:

      “For the majority of us who publish ourselves: One must be content with seeing it in print. The odds are the same as going to Hollywood with your screenplay and getting to direct. The one major lesson I learned from 40 years of Comic-Con is seeing 100s of artists far more talented than I not getting “work in the industry”. The one hundred plus titles I published will prove nothing to any one else but myself, which is all I ever wanted in the first place. Seeing my section in Fantagraphic’s NEWAVE was vindication enough for the rest. Saving the world since 1973, one small book at a time.”

    12. M Kitchen

      Seems that MYRANT thinks my latest comment entry is spammy, so I’ve posted it on the Ultraist Journal Blog. In it I’ve gone into deep detail on my comic convention experiences. It can be read here:

    13. srbissette

      I’ll post it here, too, Mike:

      Mike wrote:

      Regarding Comic Conventions:

      There are two conventions that are “profitable” for Ultraist Studios and Possum Press: FAN EXPO and WORD ON THE STREET (which is a book fair, not a comic convention).

      Fan Expo is the fourth largest comic convention in North America and it’s right in our backyard. Our only expense is the table and parking. As a result we are able to do slightly better than “break even”. Our comics are able to hold their own in this environment. We get lots of interest from people who are at the show for other things (like the SciFi or Horror). This has become an annual outing for us and we are now at a point where people come looking for us. Check out our con reports here: . In fact, in 2009 Electric Playground did a SPY GUY feature that was broadcast on national television. That interview can be seen here:

      Word On The Street is interesting in that we are some of the only comic book publishers at this event. We get people from all walks of life showing interest. It’s a more even demographic that any other show. Because there are few comic books, we get a lot of interest from children. That is a good sign (if you ask me) that comic books are as interesting as ever for the upcoming generation. Considering that table costs are quite steep for a one day show, and we are selling three dollar comics, it amazes me that every year we are able to do slightly better than “break even”. Con reports here:

      Just about any other convention we’ve done, once you tack on travel and accommodation costs, becomes a loss leader.

      It is the residual effects of attending these conventions that make them worth while.

      APE at the time we went was our least successful show. People there were more interested in art objects than comic books. This is a common trait I’ve found in the ultra-indie comic cons. People do not seem to be interested in traditional comics, unlike the big ComicCons and FanExpos. Blair and I went home from that show with the wind blown out of our sales. But because of that convention, we were noticed by some people in Hollywood, and were asked to be a part of the convention sequence of the 2008 feature film SUPERHERO MOVIE directed by Craig Mazin and produced by David Zucker and Robert K. Weiss. Here are some screen grabs:

      We recently returned to San Francisco to attend WonderCon 2010, and were amazed to find how many people had been looking for us ever since. Our table was tucked away in a far back corner, so when we were discovered with excitement, it was one of those things that makes it all worth while. Here is a videoblog of our Wonder Con adventure:

      SPX was one of my favorite shows to attend. It fell somewhere between the mainstream shows and the ultra-indie shows. There wasn’t Hollywood competition, and yet people were still interested in traditional looking comic books. It was a “break-even” or “slightly-less-than-break-even” show, but the BOX of comic trades I came home with FAR MORE than outweighed any loss. Good stuff! Of course we did that show on the cheap (sleeping in the van). Paying for a hotel room would have crushed us. Definitely a show I would like to do again, however circumstances have prevented us from doing so recently. Full report here:

      MoCCA had to be the biggest financial loss of any show I’ve attended. There was lots working against it. Blair didn’t attend the show, so I took all the financial loss myself (even though I was selling his comics and using his sales to help offset the cost). I brought the whole family with me which added to the expense. And MoCCA seemed to be one of those ultra-indie shows where people aren’t interested in traditional looking comics. That said; this is what good came out of it: I finally got to meet Charlito (and Mr Phil who I first met at SPX) of Indie Spinner Rack, and got to speak with him for one of the ISR shows: and I also got to meet Brian LeTendre from the Secret Identity Podcast and appear on his show: I also got to meet Gahl Buslov of Midtown Comics who made the BIGGEST single purchase of SPY GUY comics in the history of Ultraist Studios. It was nice to say “thank you” in person. Here is my videoblog con report: (good trades from this show as well).

      And San Diego Comic Con. What an experience that was. This nearly ties with MoCCA for biggest financial loss, but man was it fun! It was so big, and we met so many people, and went to so many post-con parties, that I have to say it was worth the expense. An interesting story; I was approached by someone who was apparently involved with the Bourne Identity movies, who was looking for new SPY material to be made into feature films. He asked if I ever though of having SPY GUY turned into a movie, and I told him that if it were ever to happen, I’d see it as an animated movie, at which point he lost interest, though he gave me his card, and I gave him a comic. But the though of having “Bruce Willis as SPY GUY” was a funny enough thought to keep me laughing (even as I type this). We have a video blog waiting to be edited but in the meantime here is a quick blog post:

      An exception to the “loss leader” show was SPACE. Here the table cost was low, and even the foot traffic of attendees was low. Yet if you compared our sales to the number of attendees it had to be the highest sales per person ratio of any show we’ve been to. I don’t think we covered transportation cost (gas from Toronto to Columbus) but when all is said and done, it’s a show I would not hesitate to do again. It was a “meeting of the tribe”. Highlights were meeting up with the Cerebus Yahoo!s, doing the annual gathering at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus (for our first time). Also came home with a decent amount of trades. SPUD & HARRY even got nominated as a SPACE PRIZE finalist!

      A videoblog documentary of SPACE 2010 can be viewed here:

      What is worth mentioning is that a lot of these things don’t necessarily translate into immediate sales, but there is a very real “snowball effect” that is clearly happening in slow motion where each event builds on the other, causing a cascading chain reaction.

      It’s tough doing the comic circuit selling three dollar comics.
      Part of the trick to making money at these things is to come up with something that sells in the $50 and up range.
      Big name artists can sell sketches, but we like to give those away to people who support us for free.
      That’s just how we roll.

      Coming up in the next few years, we’ll be experimenting with attending other shows we’ve yet to attend. To have our comics infiltrate new cities and get them into the hands of new readers. I’m very curious to hear other artists experiences with shows they’ve attended and hearing their recommendations.

    14. srbissette

      PS: Steve Seck, Mike Kitchen, these are JUST the kinds of comments we need to discuss this current topic; THANK YOU BOTH.

    15. Daniel Barlow

      2011 will be the first year since 2007 that Trees & Hills won’t have a table at MoCCA … We’ve discovered that as much as we love that show and seeing all our city friends, we can make just as much money (and for less in table and travel costs) doing local shows in Massachusetts (MICE, the new indie show by the Boston Comics Roundtable) or Maine (the Maine Comics Art Festival). But this also makes sense for the DNA of the group – we’re local and want to focus more on that going through 2011.

    16. Eric Hoffman

      Wanted to throw in my two cents and say that it’s been absolutely fascinating watching Dave’s “Cerebus TV” segments / reading his fax and reading your responses here at your site. Was in Buried Under Comics the other day, enthusing with Brian about how rare it is to get such worthwhile and substantial commentary on the comics medium, particularly in the form of a conversation between two comics greats. Keep it up!

    17. billybates

      The first step to building a critique-for-hire empire is to publicly and viciously stamp out the Kochalka-ian concept that “Craft is the enemy.” Develop the idea that Craft is your pal, hipsters. These disposable income-enabled twitterers need a well-informed, super-critical father figure to simultaneously encourage and zing their attempts at comic book creation. Steve, lay out for Dave how the sickeningly paternal editors at DC treated their work-made-for-hire employees to give him some pointers.

      And the best part is, with Print-on-demand, all of the back-breaking printing fees that were once the bane of self-publishing can now be funneled directly to a consultant’s pocket.

      (I am not being facetious. Also, these seemed like good ideas at 3:20 AM.)

    18. srbissette

      @Billybates: I always saw James Kochalka’s “Craft is the Enemy” (your term, not mine, or necessarily James’s, though I’ve personally heard him speak on this in the CCS classrooms and elsewhere) as the equivalent of the “Dogme 95″ manifesto and “vow of chastity” from the filmmaking community Lars Von Trier was part of: an aesthetic stand to strip away artifice and (for comics) the presumption that mainstream notions of what comics “ought to be” simply ceased to apply. Just as Dogme 95 was rejecting the increasing grip of Hollywood product and CGI plasticity, Kochalka was (just as Rory Hayes had, sans manifesto, with his own work in the underground comix era) saying, in effect, “fuck the illusion of craft, express yourself—anything goes.” In this, he was building on bedrock laid by the likes of Rory Hayes, Gary Panter, Savage Pencil, Mark Beyer, etc., and I see that as completely necessary and valid. It’s clearly been a galvanizing catalyst for a generation of cartoonists.

      The trick for a teacher like moi is to address this in the classroom, then go, “OK, but I’m here to teach you the craft.” And we go from there.

      Also, I’ll be getting into the illusory “print on demand” benefits in a future post in this conversation. I’m a practitioner and advocate of it, but it’s problematic and pricey in comparison to offset printing; sure, no backstock, but the cost-per-item is much, much higher than it is for offset printings, so that “back-breaking printing fee” is incremently far more back-breaking than proponents acknowledge.

    19. Bob Corby

      Thanks for addressing the issue of over priced conventions. I’m in complete agreement. We have been trying to maintain a low table rate at SPACE. No increases since 2005. We also don’t have “guests” at least not since Dave was here last. No exhibitor is financing any other exhibitor. We still run it first come first serve. Okay I do let the previous years exhibitors sign up early at a slight discount because loyalty is something that should be rewarded. We also encourage other shows to do the same.

    20. Matt Kennedy

      I’ve been helping to put together marketing strategies for the gallery artists in my orbit (primarily via La Luz de Jesus Gallery), and I’ve been very vocal about making sure that they have new product at every convention. I suggest that they base their production on previous interest, but also weigh the market trends for pricing among comparable titles and product. Selling out of something is good, but not if you have nothing else to peddle at a convention table that is costing you money whether you have 5 or 5,000 items on it. Travel, lodging and meals are above the line costs, and must be figured into the “worth it or not” equation. Not calculating those expenses is like only accounting for money won at a casino, without considering the money lost. We’ve all got friends who talk about the time they won $500 playing a hand of blackjack, but lost $1000 overall. Without copping to the loss, it’s a disingenuous model.

      Most of my west coast artists participate in only two cons: SDCC and APE. They share hotel rooms, convention tables and commute together to keep costs down. They drive from LA to San Diego and SF, sharing the cost of gas and trading off driving chores. It has thus far been profitable for some and not for others. Among those who were not immediately financially rewarded via product sale, they usually attest that the meet and greet, face-to-face value has justified the expense. So I’ve asked them to monetize the value of specific meetings, and investigate the work that could have been done for that amount of money without spending convention prep, attendance and travel time (and minus the associated costs). Everyone’s time is worth something, and important people’s time is usually stretched thin at the these trade shows. It is almost always more worthwhile to set up an appointment outside of convention season, but that involves having access to such people, and often a separate set of travel fees, but at least then it’s focused time. In that respect, there is value to attending trade shows if the people with whom you are trying to cultivate rapport are indeed going to be there and you’ve got your sales pitch ready for them. I’ve found that many artists use these trade shows merely to have fun, and convince themselves that it’s a business expense. They might be able to fool the IRS, but they shouldn’t fool themselves.

      I’m not suggesting these two shows are the only tried-and-true options, but for these artists, based on geographic location and the number of attendees, and the cost of tables, they are getting a good return on investment, and generating a high number of impressions. These artists all work in the genres of fantasy/erotic/sci-fi, and these conventions placate fans in these areas within the overall lowbrow/pop-surrealist blanket. I’ve encouraged one or two of them to consider adding Anime Expo, dependent upon their freelance work schedules. If this were the east coast, Dragon Con would be a must; in the midwest, GenCon and Wizard World, might take prominence, but without attending these shows at least once, it’s hard to know if they are good options, so I advise all artists to speak to other artists and get their feedback based on their experiences. Unlike freelance pay, people are pretty forthcoming about their convention profits (and to a somewhat lesser extent, their losses).

      I’ve been brought into Art Center and had professors at UCLA and Otis bring classes to me (in some cases charging admission) for lectures on the rules of this game, and it’s the same overall plan that I would recommend the indie comic guys follow:

      Simple Math

      It’s also important to know the appeal (or lack) of one’s product. What is the inherent value of what has been produced? If you didn’t draw it, would you buy it? If you hadn’t written it, would it still be interesting to you? Does the package convey the contents? Does the presentation justify the price? Even among very talented people there is the risk that they are performing a vanity exercise and that is for an audience of one. They should not invest the same amount of time and work to sell that project to others as one produced with others in mind. It is often an inability to prioritize these differences that burns people out. In many cases, the first work is the most personal, and while that can make it very passionate, it can also tunnel the vision and funnel the appeal (away).

      In the film industry, as marketing guys, we used to warn the finance folks against buying product that spoke to a small audience, unless that was the only buyer calculated. If it was worthwhile based on those projections alone, it was a smart purchase. If they were using improper comp titles to project sales, they were fooling themselves and committing financial suicide, because it took just as much work to sell a bad film as a good one. It’s safe to say that we’d all rather try to sell a good one. This is coming from the guy (me) who released titles like Sex & Fury and Blind Beast Vs. Killer Dwarf! Getting feedback from the target audience is a luxury worth investigating, and listening to that feedback is important if there is any hope to connect with financial vindication.

      I’m not suggesting that anyone sacrifice their artistic integrity to attain financial success, but if it’s the case that personal, uncompromising integrity is the primary motivator, be honest about it, and view all efforts going into that enterprise as solely supplication of one’s own ego. I think it’s very possible to develop and follow a personal, creative vision and also have success. It does, however, involve timing and it has to connect with the zeitgeist. There is no formula for that. Not even throwing insane amounts of money at a project can guarantee its success. But the better it is from a creative standpoint, the easier the job of selling it will be, and there is no marketing weapon with a higher kill ratio (in a good way) than enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the DNA of word-of-mouth, and buzz is the protein of success.

      I have personally purchased less-than-ideally executed comics (and media) from creators who were just plain likable. They were positively enthusiastic about their own work and that made me want to support them. Just as I’m sure that attractive female artists are more than capable of selling their goods to drooling fanboys, enthusiasm and charisma are forms of attraction. I don’t want to come off all New-Agey, but this is a sustainable model with decades of marketing research behind it.

      On the flipside, even if you are having a terrible time at a convention, nobody that passes your table or booth should be aware of it. Suck it up and blog about it later, if you must. I have been a fan of the work of some artists who were so unpleasant to people at conventions that it dissuaded me from buying anything they had for sale –ever again. Impressions carry weight, and good impressions create good buzz.

      I could go and on about this, but at nearly 1,200 words I’ll cut it short here.
      Congrats on another great discussion, Steve!

    21. Brian John Mitchell

      I really like SPACE a lot, but as far as making money off of it after travel expenses & such, that’s asking a lot if you need a hotel room & are driving a few hundred miles. But if I look at it like an artists’ workshop it makes a lot more sense. I’ve gotten a few artistic collaborations generated from being there, so I call it an unquestionable success as a workshop.

      I do think there’s a problem at SPACE (& other indie cons) in that it is overwhelming. If I walked into a comic shop & they had all the standard comics & then one xeroxed indie comic, I’d buy the one indie comic. When there’s a couple hundred indie comics I’m not sure what to do.

      I’ve been thinking about trying out a table at the local cons that are mainly stores trying to sell their overstock, but when the tables are $100 it’s hard to justify.

    22. geoff

      appropos the convention discussion:
      smaller shows, bigger tables, lower table fees-and limit( or eliminate) travel expenses. But will an audience find its way to those smaller regional shows? Only one way to find out, I suppose.
      thanks for the larger, and quite illuminating, discussion of recent history, the Direct Market, creator’s rights, et al. Lots to learn from here. I’m hooked.

    23. Randall Drew

      What I’m hearing more and more at every con I attend from even more established cartoonists and collaborative groups like Trees and Hills is exactly as Dan mentioned above. Many cartoonists are deciding to stick to the smaller, inexpensive, newer indie-only shows exclusively and passing up MoCCA, SPX, NYCC, Boston Comicon, etc. They simply make more money at the smaller shows, and in the more intimate setting are more able to meet and greet and talk to the public and other creators about their comics. As someone who’s just starting out on the convention trail, I plan on following the same philosophy.

      There is something to be said about missing larger opportunities at the bigger shows where the bigger names and bigger publishers are, but until you’ve already established yourself at the small shows, what’s the point?

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