Sunday, September 4, 2016

The reality of indie comics (Or why I took a semi-sabbatical from cons)

I love Baltimore Comic-Con. It's a great comic-centric show, there are always a who's who of comic creators and there is just a general sense of acceptance and friendliness among the creatives down at the Inner Harbor. The Inner Harbor is also nice and over the past few years I looked forward to heading down to Baltimore for the con. Perusing social media, it looks like this year is a great show and part of me wishes I was there, but this year I had to take a bit of a sabbatical from the convention scene.

The 2015 con year was... maybe challenging is the right word? At the end of 2014, I ran the successful Kickstarter for Patriot-1. I did the 2014 Baltimore show to great success, 2014 New York Comic Con - the first NYCC I set up at since 2011 - was pretty solid. Things were going pretty well and I started to focus on conventions. As 2015 began, I started looking at cons to set-up at and the majority of them just so happened to more towards late Summer/Fall.

The thing about cons for me is simple. I can't afford to travel very far. I also don't like to. There are a couple of reasons for this. I don't fly, like ever. That's mostly because my wife and I aren't big travelers, we never really go anywhere we can't drive. I also don't travel for work, which admittedly is an amazing feat at my job, but any time I've had to do anything, it's been local. Now I've flown plenty of times, just not in the last 10 years or so (which also is kind of amazing), but that's mostly because I've never needed to. I'll fly if/when I absolutely have to, but because of my lack of flying in my adult life, it comes with a bit of anxiety.

So you weigh the cost of flying - both economically and mentally - and you consider realistically what you'd do sales wise with a small press book while also factoring in table expenses, food, hotel etc., etc., and you begin to see the harsh reality of making comics at this independent level.

I know, I know - in the long run there are considerations for exposure, new markets and all that. But I also have to consider I have two full-time jobs. One has been my regular day job at WWE for nearly seven years - which overall is a pretty cool gig. The other is a bit more exhausting - I have three kids. Nearly four-year old twins and a two-year old. I'm really involved with my kids... it's my favorite job, but it can also be really taxing. When it comes to doing cons and being gone for a weekend, my wife and I have to factor a lot of things, including who is going to help with the kids. And on top of these regular jobs, there's fitting in time to write and plot and all that fun stuff.

Would I love writing, comics and developing my intellectual properties like Patriot-1 to be my full-time job? Of course! But that doesn't cover insurance or pay my mortgage right now.

Cons aren't cheap for the indie creator. Many of us aren't going to get the "guest" status which means we have to pay out of pocket for the table space and other expenses - and that adds up. And when we have to do that, there is no guarantee we'll have good placement, or that the quality of work around us is on par with our own. It's kind of frustrating, honestly. And then you factor in the constantly rising cost of getting a table. You're hard-pressed to find one under $200 anymore. For writers, that's really, really tough. Artists can do commissions and sell prints and generally have an easier time of making up that costs. Writers don't have that luxury and the rising cost of these tables is starting to get both ludicrous and cost-prohibitive.

Also, consider this is all in addition to the swelling costs of actually producing the comics. Then marketing them, then depending your distribution, factoring how much of a hit you'll have to take per unit. It's not a cheap hobby or tradecraft.

When my con season came around finally in 2015, I had virtually everything going for me. Patriot-1 had won an IPPY Award and was picked up by Diamond for distribution, ExtraOrdinary had launched, some cool stuff at the day job was going down... everything was promising.

I did a few small appearances and "cons." Nothing I had to pay for, sold a few books and mostly just hung out with other creators. There was Special Edition: NYC, which was okay... I had a good time meeting a lot of great people at that show more than I liked the show itself. Then the first bigger show rolled around... I did decent, was ready for the next. The second one about an hour away, two day show. Was able to go home at night and everything. The show itself was okay overall. Not great, not the worst. When I got home at the end of the show Sunday, I found out my parents - who came to help with the kids - left suddenly. Come to find out, my grandfather - and my first son's namesake - had taken ill and was hospitalized. And it was one those things that wasn't a case of "if" but "when." So the week went on, there was nothing I could do but wait (my grandfather lived very far from me). After much debate, I continued to the Baltimore Con the next weekend. Took my mind off everything, but at that point it just cost a lot of money to go. I wasn't splitting the cost with anyone.

My placement wasn't great in Artist's Alley - most Artist's Alleys have become so overrun with print sellers that it's hard to standout, but as I've learned... you've just got to make the best of it all. However, the second day of the show rolled around, I wasn't doing that great sales wise... and then I got the call. My grandfather passed. It was a weird feeling... I was okay with it all, I had a week to process it all. He lived well, he was 86, and he had just seen all my kids a few weeks prior. But still... it was my last grandparent.

I used to have a traveling partner for cons. We'd do a lot of shows together, but he was in a serious relationship (they're getting married now) and he traveled to last year's con with her. He was also tabling with the artist of his phenomenal book, and most of my other friends - mostly established pros - were attending the Harvey Awards that Saturday night. As a result, I was alone. It was fine - I like being alone... but it was just a weird moment in time to take everything in.

I left Baltimore with a bizarre feeling. I frankly didn't do as well as I'd hoped, the personal news stuck to me and I just felt tired. It was a weird thing... everything was going so well all year and then there was this massive slow-down.

A few weeks went by and it was time for the big one... New York Comic Con.

I love NYCC. I have a sordid history with it, but I love it. In the past few years I've been lucky enough to have a friend offer me space at his booth in Artist's Alley. And I also get to see a lot comic book world friends I don't see often. My experience was overall pretty brutal for 2015. I decided to drive into the city every day. You might think this is foolish, but in the past? Not a problem. HUGE problem in 2015. Every. Single. Day. The worst was Saturday, when I had to do a favor for the guy giving me booth space and didn't head into the city until noon. Two and a half hours, a trip through Queens and across Manhattan later, I finally made it.

Overall, NYCC 2015 was a grueling experience. I was happy/relieved when it was over. A lot of my friends did really well in Artist's Alley, and I once again did "okay." (My placement wasn't great, but I couldn't argue).

2015 started great... ended well... yeah.

2016 was a fresh slate and I booked my first show... East Coast Comic Con. I even paid extra for a "corner table." Let me rephrase, I paid extra for a table in the corner away from the main entrance, near a bathroom and a concession stand that did the least amount of traffic imaginable. I sold one book. The show was barely crowded and hardly anyone came by my table. Needless to say, I took the loss and stayed home with my wife and kids the next day.

It was on that drive home that I decided I needed a break from cons. They've gotten very expensive and the crowds are more interested in prints and Funko POPs than looking for books outside the norm. I canceled plans for Boston, Baltimore, a show in New Jersey, Vermont, two in Connecticut and Saratoga.

I was tired of being placed between print sellers or (as pretentious as this sounds) creators whose quality of work was nowhere near on my level. (If you've seen my books, they are high quality and professional). This is the reality for small press and independent creators. We spend a ton of money on a crapshoot when it comes to cons. I don't speak for everyone, and I have friends that do really well, but for me it was just an off year or so.

Never giving up also comes with the territory. I've been working on the second Patriot-1 book, is chugging along and The Atomic Thunderbolt is coming. In June of this year, I attended Albany Comic Con... which served as a reset. The first show I ever set up at with TJ Comics was Albany back in 2009. I also did it this year with my frequent editor - someone who has become a very close friend - just as I first had in 2009. It's a one day show and I drove up and back to Albany that day and on the way home, I really did feel like I hit the reset button.

I decided to maintain my semi-sabbatical on cons, though. The exception was to be New York Comic Con, but after getting shut out of Artist's Alley and Small Press, I may just attend as the traveling pro this year. If my friend offers me space at his booth, I'd be hard-pressed to pass it up but if not, it's all good.

I'm hoping and I'm optimistic that 2017 will be a huge year. I'm getting ready to book a number of cons. Patriot-1 is going to have a new life as book two will enter into production towards the end of this year, ExtraOrdinary has been very well-received and The Atomic Thunderbolt is coming.

I guess the point of all of this was partially therapeutic, partially to highlight the realities of doing this comic thing. It's a grind... but it's something I love and I don't want to give up. I want Harveys and Eisners and the ability to keep making comics.

In the meantime, if you want to support my books... you can get them here: TJ COMICS SHOP.

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