Used to be that convention season was basically the summer. Everything was built around the cons in San Diego and Chicago. Now serious convention season starts in March, with Emerald City Comicon in Seattle the first weekend of the month, and runs all the way to New York Comic Con in October. March in particular is like running a gauntlet, with Emerald City, Wonder Con in San Francisco, C2E2 in Chicago and MegaCon in Orlando on consecutive weekends. I’ll be attending Seattle and Orlando next month.
The “highlight” of the season — though a different description might be offered by many, myself included — is still San Diego. Or, more properly, Comic-Con International: San Diego. I don’t remember the first year I went to San Diego, but sometime in the early ’90s. Long enough ago that the con was still actually about comics. Now, of course, it’s more about Hollywood hawking its wares, with comics as more of a “they still print these?” sideshow curiosity. I don’t begrudge the con its success, and certainly the higher profile of the event is good for everybody. But a lot of my pro friends view San Diego as an ordeal to be survived, rather than something to look forward to. I’ve heard it referred to as “The Bataan Death March of Comics” more than once.
It’s an interesting disconnect. A lot of fans look forward to a convention with anticipation, while a healthy percentage of pros view them with dread, or at least indifference. And I guess that’s understandable, because for the pros, conventions are work. Not digging ditches work, not even stocking shelves or flipping burgers work. But work nonetheless. So I thought I’d try to give you an idea of what it’s like to be on this side of the con table. Right up front, I should admit I’ve never actually seen a con from the fan side of the table. I’d never been to a con before I was a guest at one. My vantage is strictly that of a professional, with all the benefits and baggage that goes with it.
As a pro, you have to be “on” when you’re in a convention hall, energized and ready to meet (or face?) the public. At the bigger shows — San Diego and New York in particular — you’re apt to wind up booked from morning ’til night with consecutive signings, panels, meetings and interviews. Lunch break? Yeah, nice try. It’s sensory overload for a lot of creators. Most of us spend our days sitting alone in a room. A convention is the absolute antithesis of our daily routine.
I realize most of you are saying, “So what, ya big baby? I’d love to do all of that!” And I guess the first few times it is pretty cool. But if you’ve seen enough of them, there’s a “Groundhog Day” quality to it all. A lot of the shows tend to blend together: the same booths, the same people, the same cement bunker of a con hall. You almost inevitably wind up sick after a con, because you shake hands with literally hundreds of people (now you know why every booth has an industrial-size bottle of Purell). Your conversations with most people are awkward nose-to-crotch-level interactions, thanks to being seated behind a table while everyone else is standing.
For me, the biggest drawback of going to a con is time away from my family, something I absolutely hate. Yes, a con is a chance to see friends I usually see only a few times a year, and to sit down face-to-face with the artists I’m working with. There’s usually a breakfast with the guys I’ve played fantasy football with for years, including Dan Jurgens, Peter Krause, Phil Hester and Ande Parks (don’t play in a league with Ande; he has some kind of contract with Satan that grants him fantasy football success). But compared to seeing my wife and kids, it’s all a pretty distant second.
A con is also time that I’m not working, which means I’m losing money. Artists sell pages, sketchbooks, prints, do sketches. A con is an opportunity to make a decent chunk of change for those with artistic ability. There are some artists who make far more of their income from cons than they do actual comic work. Unfortunately, I can’t draw a stick figure competently, so for me a con translates to time I’m not writing. Appearance fees are relatively rare for comic pros.
That’s one of the reasons that I don’t attend a show unless the show or a publisher is footing the bill, both hotel and airfare. I’m already away from my family, and losing money because I’m not working. I don’t want to pay for those privileges.
Cons are an expensive proposition for exhibitors. I believe the cost of a 10′ x 10′ booth in San Diego this year is $2,200. There’s a premium if you want to be on an endcap or island. And that’s just for the space. There’s usually additional fees for carpeting, tables, chairs, even a waste basket. There’s a drayage charge for your materials to be brought from the loading dock to your space in the hall. Need electricity? You have to pay an electrician (say, $60 an hour) to hook it up for you.
Just to give you an example: we did some good books when I was at CrossGen, and I’m proud of a lot of them. But I think what we did better than anything at CG was spend money. The company had a big presence at cons, beginning with that big-ass booth with the lighted panels and spinning sigil on top. I’d heard just the booth itself cost a cool $60,000, and I have no reason to doubt that figure. The booth broke down into a few huge cases, which had to be stored in a storage facility (hello, monthly rental fee), and shipped across the country to whatever shows we were attending.
CrossGen sent a huge number of staffers to shows, both creative talent and booth personnel. That meant air fare, hotels, even $45 per diem, for as many as 40 people. And for the most part, because the company didn’t want to take money out of retailers’ pockets, CrossGen never offered up anything for sale to offset costs. We gave away far more T-shirts, hats and comics than we ever sold at cons. Total price tag for a typical CrossGen San Diego: around $75,000. Obviously that’s the absolute upper end of the spectrum. But whatever way you figure it, cons are expensive for exhibitors, with no guarantee of breaking even, much less making any money.
Something else to realize about the con experience from this side of the table — for a lot of us, this side of the table is all we get to see. We generally don’t get to do much shopping, or get to attend panels. In all my years of going to San Diego, I’ve been to exactly one panel that I wasn’t on. It was to see the animation footage of “Nexus” that Steve Rude had produced himself. The entirety of the footage was two minutes long.
There’s little time to get sketches, or have books signed. Admittedly, autographs aren’t my thing. I have a few from my days as a sports reporter, Hall of Fame postcards signed by Bob Feller and Brooks Robinson respectively. Mark Waid was kind enough to bring back a signed photo of Buzz Aldrin for me from some convention or other. I have a few signed books — Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Sayles. And I treasure my copy of the “Fantastic Four Omnibus,” signed and sketched by legendary inker Joe Sinnott. But I don’t really understand the whole custom of getting someone to write their name for you. I’d rather have a conversation. But I’ve come to realize not everyone is comfortable with that level of interaction. Some people just want to have their books signed, hold the chatting.
Even though I don’t quite get the whole autograph thing, I know signing them is part of my job at a show. It’s a responsibility, and I don’t mind it at all. We creators are employed because somebody buys what we do. If someone plunked down money for your work, the very least you can do is sign whatever is put in front of you. My feeling is this: “Did you cure cancer today? No? Then sit your ass down and sign some autographs.”
There’s a well-known story about a well-known creator who wouldn’t sign reprints of his work. Nope, reprints were only deserving of a rubber stamp featuring the well-known creator’s signature, a stamp that the well-known creator had specially made. Never had the tale verified by an eye witness, but if that particular story is true, it’s a complete dick move.
This past year at Baltimore Comic-Con — one of my favorite shows — I had someone bring me damn near everything I’d ever written to sign. A few longboxes of issues, sometimes multiple copies. It’s flattering, of course, but somewhere around the two-hundredth signature I’d scrawled for the same guy, it got a tiny bit old. I signed every book he brought me, though, without complaint. I’ve never turned someone down for an autograph, and I never will.
So, all of this taken in consideration, why go to a convention at all? Well, for me, chiefly because it’s a promotional opportunity. It’s a chance to introduce your work to a new audience, or at the very least, preach to the converted. The best advertising is still word of mouth. If you as a creator are excited about what you’re doing, the audience can sense it, especially in person.
It’s also a chance to network — God, that’s a douchebaggy word — and remind fans and the media and publishers that you’re still around. Or, for those just coming into the industry, a chance to make an impression. There are more deals made after hours in bars than on the con floor.
And a convention honestly does recharge my creative batteries. Despite the seemingly endless vitriol you see online, the vast majority of fans are awesome, and it’s a pleasure to meet them. Incredibly generous fans have given me T-shirts, hats, beer, coffee, chocolate-covered Macadamia nuts, artwork, cookies, even a pocket knife with a half-naked lady on the handle. I’ve made lasting friendships with people I’ve met at cons.
The convention circuit has also given me the chance to visit places I might never have seen otherwise. I’ve been hot-air ballooning in Oregon, taken a cable car to the top of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, climbed to the top of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany. Last year, I had to pull out of a two-week convention jaunt to Australia and New Zealand due to deadlines. Work has to come first, but it was still one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, and something I regret terribly. I’m very thankful for those opportunities.
My convention schedule for 2011 looks like this: in addition to Emerald City and MegaCon, I’m confirmed at Albany Comic Con on April 17; Bristol International Comic & Small Press Expo, in Bristol, UK (May 14-15); Baltimore Comic Con (Aug. 20-21); Detroit Fanfare (Sept. 24-25); and New York Comic Con (Oct. 13-16). Hope you can come by and say hi at one of them. Just don’t be offended if I go for the Purell after I shake your hand.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Artifacts,” “Witchblade” and “Magdalena” for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, “Shinku,” for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com