Signing Up for Signing Autographs for Free
A few years ago at Baltimore Comic-Con, I was sitting at my table, chatting with someone, when a fan rolled up. Literally, rolled up, because he was pulling a flat rolling cart behind him. On the cart sat two long boxes.
"All those for me?" I asked, with a smile on my face. And with no smile on his face, he answered, "Yes."
He wasn't kidding. The long boxes were filled with a great deal of what I'd written in my career, including complete collections of my "Silver Surfer" and "Green Lantern" runs, everything from CrossGen, and a lot more. He was toting (or wheeling) more than 300 issues, probably closer to 400. No duplicates, as far as I can recall.
I signed them all. For free. All I asked was that he step to the back of the line when other people arrived to have books signed. When I was done, the guy merely said, "Okay, thanks" and went on his way. Presumably in search of his next victim.
Signing an autograph is flattering, an indication that your work has somehow meant something to that person. But signing 400 autographs for the same person does feel like an imposition.
"To charge or not to charge" for autographs is an increasingly contentious discussion in the industry, fueled by the obvious boom in comic cons. Conventions are big business, attracting wider audiences and more money than ever. It wasn't that long ago that there used to be one or two sizable U.S. conventions a month. Now there are three or four sizable U.S. conventions every weekend.
Industry legend and longtime creators-rights advocate Neal Adams is likely the most vocal proponent of charging for autographs. Neal's known to charge $20 to $30 for his own signature, and urges other creators to charge as well, in something like a show of solidarity. At the recent Cincinnati Comic Expo I attended, Neal made up a sign for another creator, advertising a price for his autograph, and urged him to display it at his table. The creator in question respectfully declined, and continued signing for free.
I've never charged for an autograph at any appearance. I've been paid to sign books by companies like Dynamic Forces and others, a few bucks for every signature. It's a pretty sweet arrangement, getting paid to sign my name while watching a Mets or Giants game. But I've never charged a fan. I feel like if you bought the book, the least I can do is sign it for you. Yes, even if you bring 400 of them.
Yes, it's the publishers who pay the creators. And the publishers' customers are the retailers. But if the fans aren't there to buy from the retailers, the whole thing falls apart. The support of the fans is what allows us to have these careers. Signing books and posing for photos is a way of saying thank you. For me, charging for that thank you seems tawdry, though I don't demand that anyone else shares my stance.
Anytime I'm able, I have a Hero Initiative donation can on my table at conventions. It's completely voluntary, of course, so it's not unusual for people to ignore it. But plenty of people throw in a buck or two, which is very appreciated. It all adds up, and Hero Initiative is able to passively collect a nice sum at cons. Once in a while, someone drops $20 in the can for just a few signatures, and I always feels like that's a testament to the generosity and empathy of the comics community as a whole. Anything raised for an organization that helps creators in need is a boon.
So I've never charged, and I have no plans to do so. But at virtually every show, you're presented with books that are pretty obviously from a dealer's stock -- multiple copies of key issues. It seems like I must have signed every copy of "Green Lantern" #50 and "Silver Surfer" #75 in existence, but there are always more. Sometimes they show up in stacks of ten or a dozen, all the same issue. It's pretty obvious the issues are going to be flipped on eBay, or even at the con itself, with an upcharge for the autograph.
Even more blatant are copies with a window cut in the mylar bag, leaving just enough room to sign (and protecting the condition and value). A few times I've had those sorts of books brought to me by a kid, someone obviously working for a dealer who's hoping a kid won't get turned away with such a brazen cash grab. Honestly, I'm more offended that they think I'm dim enough that I won't catch on, than I am by the act itself.
Still, I don't decline, even though I'm fairly certain that the books are making their way into the hands of someone who is turning a profit on them, and my signature. And even then... well, my rule is "If you bought the book, the least I can do is sign it," right? Even if the dealer is flipping the books, they bought them initially. It's impossible to be absolutely certain; I've certainly had legitimate fans bring up window-cut mylars because it's easier on everyone. I would rather be taken advantage of by a multitude of flippers than disappoint one genuine fan.
Some creators have a limit of, say, 10 books signed for free, and after that there's a charge. Or a 10-copy limit, period. My name is nice and short (thanks, Mom and Dad), and it doesn't take me very long to sign 20 books, much less 10. I don't have a limit, other than asking someone to step to the back of the line if they have a stack and others are waiting.
Some creators charge a fee for signing books that are being witnessed by a CGC employee. That seems fair, especially since CGC is actually charging for their participation, and the book's owner is hoping to increase the issue's value by getting it slabbed and graded. My friend Dan Jurgens does not charge for signing books. Dan once had someone approach him at a con, accompanied by a CGC representative, with 300 copies of "Superman" #75 he wanted signed. A deal was worked out for a substantial contribution to Hero Initiative, but it gives you an idea how someone might take advantage. I've done the same for CGC books in the past, though never for a stack that large.
Bear in mind, this is all from a writer's perspective. Specifically, from this writer's perspective. For artists, other factors come into play. Signing books is an interruption in working on the commissions they've been paid to draw. Handing artists an endless stack of books to sign most certainly impacts their bottom line. Some artists set specific signing windows, so they can concentrate on drawing during the non-signing times.
Let's not candy coat the reality: conventions are in large part about commerce. Promoters want to sell tables to vendors and tickets to attendees. Vendors want to sell merchandise. Creators want to sell their wares. Artists, in particular, can generate very tidy income from sales of originals and sketches, enough that a number of them, including my buddies Mike McKone and Kevin Maguire, derive a majority of their income from conventions. If that commerce includes an autograph fee, that has to be up to the individual.
For me, very often when I'm at a convention, I'm being paid an appearance fee to attend (in addition to having travel and accommodations covered). The appearance fee offsets the loss of working time, and thus income, while attending a show. Writers, as opposed to artists, have less ability to generate income at cons. Best-case scenario, a writer can make a few hundred bucks, maybe a bit more at a larger con, selling issues and collections. The promotional value is an added allure, of course, but it's hard to pay the mortgage with promotion. If I'm being compensated by the convention, I'm not charging fans for autographs; they've already paid their admission fee.
Certainly the media guests at cons are being paid appearance fees as well as charging for autographs and photos. I've been told it's not unusual for upper-end celebrities to walk away from a big show pocketing six figures. There's a sense on some quarters that comic people are the ones who built the convention scene, but now celebrities are the one deriving the most benefit from it. I've definitely been at shows where the common wisdom was that celebrity autographs were sucking most of the money out of the dealers/creators room.
All that said, I feel like signing comics for free is a sign of appreciation for your audience. Hopefully, some sense of reciprocity accompanies it. If you're having a stack of books signed, drop a few dollars in a donation bucket, or in the tip jar on the creator's table, as Ben Templesmith has suggested. Or you can purchase something from the creator's table, or commission a sketch, as a thank you.
But understand that this is what I do. It's what I'm comfortable with, and I don't expect it to be the answer for everyone. Everybody's outlook is different, and more importantly, everybody's situation is different.
I know of a number of creators, some enjoyed most of their commercial success in the 1980s, who charge up to $5 a signature. I don't begrudge them the practice. Everybody has to make the decision that's right for them. For some, it's the way they make ends meet, because much of their mainstream work has dried up. It's no secret that the comic industry is less than kind to its elders. Last weekend at Baltimore Comic-Con, I heard one veteran creator say, "This is my last show this year. I hope I make enough to get us through the winter." That's a sobering revelation. (Incidentally, the creator in question who was charging for autographs.)
This is about what the market will bear, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer. As I said, I don't begrudge anyone their choice to ask an autograph fee. I would hope the same courtesy is extended to those of us who decline to ask a fee. It's not my responsibility to charge for an autograph so that others who do charge will find a more agreeable market. The fan-creator experience at conventions is fairly unique to comics. I personally don't want to put a price on that.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics, his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.