Saturday, October 27, 2012

Baltimore Comic Con - Preparation

OK, it's been a few weeks since Jesus Marquez and I brought our respective books to the Baltimore Comic Con in September, and before it all washes away in the rushing waters of my quickly diminishing memory, I wanted to share how it went, what worked for us, what didn't, and what we learned from the experience.  This will include an overall review of the convention as well as our personal experience as exhibiting artists.

First of all, admittedly, we had never done the Baltimore show before, and had not exhibited at a major show in several years.  We chose Baltimore only after we received the polite decline from NYCC this year, which we knew was a longshot.  We applied kind of late to NYCC and the competition for those tables is fierce, with a very long waiting list.  But Baltimore seemed like it might be a god fit for us - at just over three hours the drive was manageable and the table cost was comparatively cheap.

We'd also heard some very good things about Baltimore, specifically that it is a TRUE comic con, unlike a lot of the shlocky shows these days put on by those hacks at Wizard World and even the "Big Two" in San Diego and New York.  They're not promoting anime, toys, movies, TV and gaming, which sometimes takes up as much as 2/3 of the floor at those other big shows.  No, this is purely comics.  And that's pretty sweet!

Once we were booked, we both had to get to work, booking the hotel room and figuring out how to fill our respective 3 feet of real estate.  When I do shows I like to book a room on the cheap - having been raised on camping, my hotel standards are low and cheap is the goal.  Cheap means more money toward the table and more money toward purchases.  So I booked a hole in the wall in the outskirts about 15 minutes away and it served its purpose.

I already had printed Colossians, so Jesus was furiously working to wrap up Man of the Hour - having these two books at the show was deemed absolutely essential, needless to say, so we wouldn't just be two goofy guys that can draw.  I also packed a set of Megazeens, still have an attic full.

 We had practically nothing in terms of display.  This had not been a huge problem before, since the shows we had done were low-key and non-competitive, but when you've in a room with a few hundred other artists, you've got to make that table look attractive and inviting.  I know what you're thinking, that Jesus and I are attractive enough by ourselves, and I thank you for thinking that.  Anyways, we did a little research on what was an essential packing list.

We bought a black table cloth to cover the table to the floor - while most shows have the tables covered or at least skirted, not all do, and no one wants to look at bony hairy knees.  I should note that we invested in a table CLOTH this time, unlike the black plastic party one I'd bought years ago and spray painted "Megazeen" across the front (oh that was charming).  I also picked up some simple display and office organizer pieces at Staples, so we could display our names, prices, artwork and books upright. 

The biggest investment was a pair of banners - a horizontal "Megazeen" banner with our new logo for the front of the table and a retractable 8-foot Colossians banner for the back. I will note that banner are no longer a unique luxury - almost EVERYONE has one, they're not expensive, and the tables that did not have a backdrop of some kind looked sorely lacking.

 At recent smaller shows, I had been taking my sketch cards and spreading them out on the table to attract people, then laying a few books out front and leaving the back space open to draw on - but that's when I have a 6-foot table all to myself.  The sketch card problem was solved by putting them in a binder and propping it up with a cheap wire display. I'm still not convinced this is the BEST way, but until something better comes along, this will do.

There was a pointer I had picked up from reading Dave Sims "Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing" that I had been dying to try and I'm glad I did.  We printed up a couple thousand trading cards on a laser printer, the front had a pencil sketch from one of our two books, the back had our website info and, most importantly, our booth number.  For a mere ten bucks, a worthwhile investment.

Finally I printed off a handful of t-shirts for both Colossians and Man of the Hour - figure what the heck.

I packed a few other supplies that I'd been told were important to have - a roll of tape, paper clips, florescent post-it notes, a notebook, and a roll of singles and fives for change.  Some people suggested a cash box, and I would recommend that.  I didn't see the purpose, since I figured my pocket would serve the same purpose and be more secure.  But it's awkward, having to reach into your pocket shuffling for change and pulling out a wad of paper money.  It damages the idea of the "starving artist" when they see the pile of twenties you've accumulated, and it's sloppy, it made me feel unprepared - you go from really cool artist to gas station attendant in thirty seconds.  Keep the big bucks in your pocket, the small bucks in the box, and carry the box out overnight - don't ever leave it alone.

Finally the art essentials got packed, because I've learned that I will sell more art than books at these shows. I've learned to my dismay that my books compete with dollar boxes and discounted event books from Marvel and DC, and that is a losing battle for the bucks.  HOWEVER, there are plenty of fans that appreciate an inexpensive sketch by an indy artist, and that's not something you can find in a dollar box.  So, my small army of pencils, pens, brushes and Prismacolor markers got tucked into a nice neat backpack - the main purpose of the backpack was that this was the easiest way of NOT leaving them in the show overnight.  That caddy contains several hundred dollars of art supplies accumulated over the years, not something you want to risk losing.  A couple of pads of Bristol paper, blank sketch cards, and comic backing boards rounded it off.

Everything got packed into a pair of rolling suitcases and we were off to the races.

Next up - how it went at the show itself, what we learned, what we did right and what we did wrong.  Learn from us.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Money Thing - Part 4 of 4

Thus far in this series, I have attempted to conquer some of the "hot topics" of prices for comic art, most specifically at conventions but pretty much anywhere.  Here are my conclusions, to summarize:

(1) Price your work where you are comfortable selling it for, based on a combination of time, quality, your own recognizance, what market will bear and how important it is to you that people buy it.
(2) Art is not all about money - if it is, it's no longer art, it's work.  Volunteer work and favors are important no matter what you do.  We just happen to draw pictures.
(3) Art is beautiful, but requires a lot of thought, passion, materials and time to create - and an artist should be compensated, out of respect for the beauty of his/her work as well as the time and effort taken to accomplish it.

Now that you've made some money, what do you do with it?

PART 4: Stop Starving, Stupid (or, Living Responsibly as an Artist)

There is nothing dishonorable about starving.  There is something drastically wrong with being irresponsible.

If you are the poster child for "starving artist" there is probably something very wrong with your picture.  Let's all accept that, by and large, art may not pay the bills the way you want and you might need to get yourself a J-O-B. When people spend money on art they do so out of their disposable income, and when there's no disposable income, the necessities of life dominate, leaving you with a full table to pack up at the end of the show.

There's also the very real possibility you're just not that good.  Declaring "I AM AN ARTIST" doesn't mean the dollars will just start flowing in.  Are you taking time to learn, study, and train in your chosen craft?  How is your anatomy, your perspective, your consistency, your backgrounds?

Now, let's fast forward and say that you are actually starting to break even or make a little moolah.  What now?

It was only this year that I started actually making some money at these shows.  I remember how floored I was the first time I broke a hundred bucks.  Everything in me SCREAMED to take that cash and run around the show and grab up statues, dollar bin comics and all manner of fun stuff.  After all, if I was generating the cash, shouldn't I therefore be able to spend the cash any way I want?

Well, no, not if I have half a brain and an ounce of discipline.  And by the way, I make a decent living at my J-O-B, thank you very much.  If I have a rough day at a con it isn't going to make or break me (aka I live financially responsibly).  Therefore, I could just spend my con cash as fast as I make it.  I could.  But that's not responsible, is it?  Not when I have other artists to pay, table costs to meet, art supplies to purchase, books to print, and bills to pay.  And IF art was my sole breadwinning opportunity, you'd better believe I'd be at it hardcore throughout the day to make sure I was improving my skills, marketing myself, producing enough to make ends meet.

Otherwise, I just become one of the poor saps trying to sponge off some charities after years of pissing away my artistic cash on hobbies and distractions, not saving and investing and making it grow.  Kids, you have a responsibility to retire and not be reliant on the government, your kids or Hero Initiative to bail you out of decades of irresponsible decisions, if you are physically and mentally able to do so.  No exceptions.  "But I'm an artist!" is NOT an exception.
Fellow artists - put away your X-boxes and Playstations.  You don't have time for gaming.  You need to draw, paint, write, conceptualize, and draw some more.  You need to generate the artwork for the next big show.  You need to pencil and ink those pages.  In one hour I can create a pretty cool, full color pinup on a comic book backing board.  I could do five or six pages of thumbnail layouts for a comic book.  I could draw a panel of a comic book page.  Or, I can zone out on Facebook or level up on KOTR.  Which would you say are time well spent?  Which are you really passionate about?  Being an artist or getting another utterly meaningless high score?

There is so much more to add here, if I continue on this tangent, but regarding the financial aspect, I think this is a good place to stop, for now.  Your comments, pro or con, are most welcome.  And I hope to bump into you at a show sometime soon.

Much love,


Monday, October 1, 2012

The Money Thing - Part 3 of 4

Now, my purpose in Part 2 was not to say that artists should be working for free.  Oh hecks no.  The reality is that people think we just draw, ink and paint for fun – and sometimes we do.  They then make the leap to think that we would just be delighted to be asked to paint or draw something that it takes mere seconds to ask for, without the realization that it takes hours or days to make it happen.  When our artistic skills are used in real world applications, that which we did for fun becomes real hard work.  Artists know what I’m talking about.  Drawing Spider-Man is a snap.  Drawing Spider-Man with his mask off to look like the guy from the office, followed by pages of sequentials complete with backgrounds, that’s another ballgame.  Comic book logos don't get farted into existence with the snap of a finger as if we know miraculous shortcuts in Word to make that happen.  Coloring a comic book page takes significantly longer than it takes to utter the words, "Will you color my comic book?"

We should not and will not always work for free or even cheap.

PART 3: How Much Is It Worth to You?

Recently at a small comic expo, a family stopped at my table and was impressed with the work they saw.  The dad came back later and asked how much I would charge to create a comic book for his three-year-old son for his birthday.  I pondered it for a moment, considered my current workload, the probable art style I would use, the time it would take, the limited audience this project would receive, the fact that his three year old son would likely not care a lick and it was really for his parents anyway, and its overall value in the scope of things, and responded with what I thought was a very reasonable rate: $50 a page.  His jaw dropped.  He later came by to buy a $20 color sketch and offered me $10 for it, and I turned it down (btw, I sold the sketch the very next day for full price).

At the recent Baltimore Comic Con, I got into conversations with two gentlemen, one a youth pastor and one an area director and pastor.  Of course, their eyes caught the banner with the large red logo for Colossians on it, which led to the inevitable conversation about the fact it is a name taken straight from the Bible for a specific reason.  Both men seemed oh so grateful that we were there in the thick of things, spreading the word, being a light in the darkness, salt of the earth, all that fancy church jargon.  But when I offered to sell them a copy of the comic book, they both politely declined and moved away from the table with that same body language that would suggest they had just discovered I had leprosy.
Now some would say that these were ‘brothers in Christ’, and that I should have given them my book for free.  I say no, for two big reasons.  One, they are not my target audience.  I’m not doing this to entertain Christians, I am doing this to entertain comic book fans.  For the record, I give plenty of books away as I see fit.  Two, they both had an armful of swag already, demonstrating that they were spending money – they just made the conscious decision not to support a book of this kind (probably surprised I wasn’t giving it to them for free), even though they pretended to be overjoyed it existed.

On the other hand, I do frequently charge nothing, in fact I'd daresay still more often than not.  I create a monthly poster for my church's Sunday school.  I will spend the day doing sketches at Ronald McDonald House or St Barnabas Hospice and turn in all my earnings for the day to these charities.  I will contribute to a comic book project that I believe in and that I want to be a part of, such as the Bible project mentioned in Part 2.  And if a kid comes to my art table and gushes over a sketch card, very often that kid will walk away with that sketch card for nothing, simply because I know he or she will appreciate it.  I do this because, according to my quick analysis of the situation, it seems right to do so.  It please me and pleases the customer that I want to please.

This does NOT apply to the fanboy who comes to my table, sees my sketch cards, asks for a series of weird mash-ups ("can you draw, like, Deadpool as a Transformer?") and thinks he can walk away after an hour of my hard work with a sheepish "thank you."   

So clearly, there is a time that compensation is in order, and a time, at my discretion, when I would opt not to.  This is mainly to help make it clear where I'm coming from personally - other artists take this to varying degrees, and it is their discretion to do so as well.

Part 3 is mainly addressed to the recipient of said art, so that you might understand why we might work for free, but also why we ask for compensation, and the sacrifice our time is worth.

I am going to admit, just as I have kicked in free art myself, I have been the recipient of some free art in the past.  The penciler for Colossians #1 blew me away by drawing 13 pages of the story for nothing, simply because he believed in it.  I was unprepared for his generosity at the time.  I paid him for the second half.  My cover artist used the cover to build his portfolio and he is selling the original artwork.  I will pay the pencilers for the subsequent issues.  I am raising the funds partially by going to comic book shows and doing sketches, which is my strong suit, to pay them to do sequentials, my weak suit.  I have also trimmed my comic pull list down dramatically so that I can invest more creatively into Colossians.

I have also been publishing Megazeen for ten years, paying a pittance for the cover art only and taking submissions for the interiors, to give artists some experience and exposure and a sense of community.  Did I short change them?  Some might say so, but I can't think of any MZ artist that feels that way.  They all knew what they were getting into and they got behind the vision of the book.  When I look at some of those artists now, creating their own webcomics, indy books, and getting paying gigs from various big publishers, and all the fun we've had over the years, I have to say it worked.  I never profited from Megazeen other than paying for the next issue and other various expenses like web hosting and comic cons.  

But most people don't look into it with this level of depth or commitment.  It's more like this:

"Oh you're an artist?  How cool!  Can you draw me a picture of Wolverine for my boyfriend on his birthday?" 

Well, maybe.  Do I like to draw Wolverine?  Am I good at drawing Wolverine?  How long will it take me to draw Wolverine?  How much were you planning on spending on your boyfriend for his birthday, and how much of that is going to translate over to this picture?  Or, was this your way of coming up with a nice free gift for your boyfriend and look like a hero, while I have a handful of dried out markers and another lost evening that I will never, ever get back?

Here's the right question, if you believe the artist's hard work has value:

"Oh you're an artist?  How cool!  How much do you charge?  Can you draw me a picture of (fill in the blank) for my boyfriend on his birthday?" 

Isn't that so much nicer and more polite?  Doesn't that tell the artist you value him and his skill?  And best of all, now the price issue can come up easily, with no awkwardness (which usually ends with the artist begrudgingly agreeing to do it as a favor and being bitter over it).

Here's another common scenario.  Every few months I read a post from a guy who says he has a GREAT idea for a comic.  He just needs an artist to make it happen (he "just" needs that... such a tiny piece of the puzzle when you're creating a COMIC book, right?  You know what a comic book without pictures is?  A BOOK.).  He can't offer to pay anything up front, but (wait for it) he will gladly split the profits (if any) once the book is released.  We've all had these offers.  Here's the reality of MOST of those offers:

(1) That "great idea" is most likely still in the guy's head.  He hasn't even committed it to paper yet.  He fancies himself a writer only because he cannot draw.  He doesn't understand that this stuff takes time and effort, because he has yet to put in any.
(2) That "great idea" mostly likely sucks in epic proportions.  It is not unique, it is cheesy, it will be a drag to draw, even if there is a script to work with.
(3) He will spend a few hours writing it, with minimal research and minimal regard to your skills and interests of what you can bring to the table.  You will spend several weeks drawing it.
(4) There will be no profits, so you will not get paid.

If YOU are that guy, here's some sage advice I want to pass along.

(1) If you really believe in the story, write the story in detail.  Even if your art skills are meager, play around with character designs and get intimate with the characters.  If you are going to call yourself a writer, it doesn't happen simply by declaring yourself a writer.  Hone your skill as a writer, read up on how to do it, get critiqued, research your backgrounds.
(2) If you really want an artist to draw it, be realistic, plan to invest.  Start squirreling away some pesos in a piggy bank - a few hundred dollars.  That might seem unthinkable.  But consider what you spend a week on comic books, lunch, gaming and other luxuries and take a chunk out of that every week.  Work a little OT at work, get a part time job where you can set aside money just for this.  Thirty bucks a week saved will give you $450 at the end of the year.  That's enough to pay someone $20 a page for a 22 page comic.  That's still a pretty low page rate, but there are some very skilled amateur artists who can bang out a nice page at that rate.  And then sock away some printing funds too.
(3) Figure out what you can bring to the table.  For example, learn how to letter a comic, and maybe you can save some money there.
(4) Be flexible.  If you're going to play the "my way or the highway" writer, the compensation won't be worth the aggravation.

There's probably a lot more advice I could give here, but the four recommendations above, most people won't follow anyway.

Please don't call it an "opportunity", by the way, just call it what it is.  "I'm too cheap to pay you.  I know that I will have to pay the printer, I will have to pay for a table at a comic con, I will have to pay for postage, and I will have to pay to advertise.  You, as the artist, are the one thing that I know I might have some flexibility on and might be able to get for free."

By the way, I don't buy the "I don't have money" excuse, hardly ever.  Here in the US, even the lowest of the low are better off than 90% of the world's population.  Those that really don't have money should be spending their time figuring out how to get their hands on some money, rather than collecting free artwork.  Get your personal life in line first.  Then, if the art is worth it to you, make some sacrifices.  Brown bag your lunch.  Skip the movies.  Buy less comic books.  Sell your Xbox.  I know, I'm talking CRAAAAAZY here.  What, sacrifice?  Why should I give up anything in my life?  The ARTIST is supposed to do that!

Bottom line here: if you appreciate the art, appreciate the artist.  If you're going to ask him to sacrifice, then YOU sacrifice too.  If that $20 is worth more to you than that sketch, then bypass the sketch.  If you really want the sketch, pony up the funds to pay for it.

So sayest Joe.  Let's wrap this up.