HEROESCON 2011 :: Table-a Rasa

Except where noted, all photos come from this Flickr set, which has even more pictures, whoa bonus!

Last weekend I was a guest at the yearly Heroes Convention, a 3-day comics convention here in Charlotte, North Carolina, and one which until last year I worked for. Shelton Drum, my boss for most of the previous 14 years, was gracious enough to give his quitting protégé a table in Indie Island, which is like the alt-comics creamy center to the larger superhero-oriented outer coating. Actually that’s a tricky metaphor–HeroesCon is pretty much a straight-ahead superhero show, so saying the indie part is the center doesn’t quite work. Anyway, more on that later.

Anyway, yeah. I worked for Shelton from 1996 to 2010, with a couple of intermittent quittings thrown in there. From around 2002 or so on I started to take a larger role in the organizing of the show, and then in 2005 I started the Indie Island subpromotion, with Shelton’s kind support and the generous placement of that area right in the middle of the artists’ section–rather than off in a corner or another room or some other ghetto. I say generous because, again, HeroesCon is a very mainstream comics industry show, and it’s really good at that. Great even–it’s got one of the best guest lists in the country, a hardcore community of art collectors and sketch enthusiasts who come each year, which creates a market for commissions and sketches that fuels the guest list, etc and so on.

So giving up a key spot in Artists Alley for a bunch of indie cartoonists was ballsy on Shelton’s part. But it was his idea! He rightly figured that without putting it right out in front like that, it wouldn’t have any real oomph. Love that guy.

But the problem with Indie Island at a show like Heroes isn’t the show, it’s the city itself. Charlotte just doesn’t have an enormous dedicated readership for that kind of comics. Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find, Shelton’s shop, is the best comics shop around, probably one of the best shops in the country. It’s where I myself discovered weirdo comics like Yummy Fur and Cerebus back in the early 90′s, and where a lot of people like me have as well. But Charlotte’s not really a cartooning town–there’s a small group of working cartoonists in the area, the Jason Latour‘s and Chris Brunner‘s and Andy Smith‘s and so forth, but that’s about it. I’d say maybe about a half-dozen people making their living in comics. And in terms of more “indie” cartoonists, even fewer. There’s me, and until recently Tyson Hesse lived in Charlotte, and there’s Rich Barrett and the Sketch Charlotte group, but that’s about it. I just described most of the cartooning community in Charlotte in half a paragraph.

It makes something like Indie Island hard–a dedicated community of cartoonists creates a kind of ripple effect in the community; it forms a nucleus that other ideas can orbit around, something with enough magnetic force to bind disparate elements together into a coherent whole. For HeroesCon in general, it’s Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find and Shelton himself. The store has been there since 1980, and the convention will celebrate its 30th year in 2012. For anyone who’s attended the show, that’s where that famous relaxed, friendly, all about comics vibe comes from–from Shelton. For Indie Island, there’s still a ways to go before it can settle into some comfortable spot in the scheme of things, not only in terms of its place within HeroesCon, but on the larger con schedule as well. For a cartoonist in New York or Minneapolis to travel to Charlotte, they need to be able to depend on a certain level of sales to make the trip worthwhile, or failing that a level of promotional value to offset their expenses. I’m not sure Indie Island is there yet, in terms of offering more to its exhibitors than they individually can offer the show. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Shelton (there’s more than one of course), it’s that the secret to putting on a good show is to put your exhibitors first.

HEROESCON 2011 :: The Dharbin A-Sketch

I say all that… well, I’m not sure why. Indie Island was hard when I was in charge, and I spent a lot of time on it that probably would have been better spent on the larger show itself. But it was a labor of love, and I enjoyed putting my own time (and Shelton’s time) into it. Now that I’m gone, Rico Renzi is the new Creative Director at Heroes, and he slayed this year. I almost would have preferred there to be more problems, so I’d feel a little missed. But no–smooth as silk from where I sat, and I know better than anyone where to look for the cracks.

Rico is like me–someone who’s a working creative professional and is organizing a big comic convention, and so has to juggle a number of often clashing aesthetic ideas. Rico also has a lovely wife and the cutest child on the planet, so he maybe has less time than I did to do his job. But he loves what he does and takes pride in his work, which is the secret ingredient that shows like HeroesCon and TCAF have–they’re run by staff who believe in what they’re doing and do the shit out of it.

HEROESCON 2011 :: The Slow Start

I wonder what the future of Indie Island will be. There were a lot–a LOT–of cancellations at the last minute this year, which sucked. It’s hard not to see that as a vote of no-confidence from the cancellers, but on the other hand these things happen–there are ALWAYS a lot of cancellations. Sometimes these things happen, and it’s more important to an artist to live their own life, with its own priorities, than to worry about some comic convention. I was pretty worried going into the show that Indie Island would be not only dead, but filled with ugly empty tables. And attendance did seem a little down this year, at least in front of my table. I say seemed because in three days I only actually left my table to look at anything once, and that was Sunday morning in the first hour or so. And the only thing I had time to look at was a bunch of Nobrow books at the AdHouse booth, which was maybe 30 feet away. Then it was back to my table.

That’s another weird thing about Heroes–even with less apparent traffic in the room, I was slammed all weekend with sales and sketches. I normally would never dream of charging for sketches at a con, but Heroes has a very active sketch market, to the point that you really need to charge just to keep from doing nothing but free sketching all weekend. People cheerfully pay too, so if you ever set up there, my advice to you is to charge without guilt. Especially for people with themed sketchbooks–heck, that’s practically a commission!

But yeah I was swamped. After backing out the few purchases I made, some food, etc., my net profits at the show were about $1100, which is pretty good for me. I definitely got a leg up over other people by getting a lot of local traffic, people I knew from working at Heroes, etc., who felt compelled to purchase something. I’m never shy about taking that kind of money, it spends just the same as other kinds. I saw varying success around me–I was seated between Rich Tommaso and Farel Dalrymple. I think Farel did pretty good over the weekend, especially once he started charging for his gorgeous watercolor sketches. I bet if he comes back next year he’ll be swamped. Rich did terrible–I don’t remember ever seeing money pass over that table. On the other hand, he worked on his amazingly beautiful originals the whole time–my rule is to stand up whenever you’re not in the middle of drawing for someone. It’s a lot easier to pass by a table when all you can see is the top of someone’s head bent over a page of art.

Anyway! I forgot to write a report of the show! Okay I’ll do it super fast; I need to eat breakfast and get to WORK. I’ll do it bullet-style, that’s my new favorite style. Very metro, very NOW.


(from Chris Pitzer’s Flickr)

–Before the show even began, my girlfriend and I got to take out Jim Rugg, Chris Pitzer, Lamar Abrams, Tom Scioli, and Ed Piskor, acting as surrogate Anne Koyama to them all. Anne is the best! Thank you very much to her for a delicious dinner, and thanks to those awesome people for a great dinner conversation.

–My favorite takeaway from that dinner, and just conversations in general, is talking about business with Chris Pitzer. He’s really one of my favorite people in the world, and one of the few people in comics I would sign a lifelong contract to without hesitation. He’s dumb enough to do what he does out of sheer love, and smart enough to really do it well and make it look easy. We need more Pitzers!

–Friday started slowish, and then I had two panels. Both went great, but the first one, which was about taking over icons in comics, I was a fill-in moderator for, and spent most of it trying to pretend like I’d read any of the books we were talking about. “So, Jim Starlin, when you first took over, um.. Captain…. Marvel?” Fortunately Jeff Parker was on the panel, I love that guy. Whenever I could feel it coming unraveled I’d just ask him a question. We need more Parkers!

HEROESCON 2011 :: View From The Green Room

–The second panel was just an hour after the end of the first, but it was about Kickstarter, which I actually know a lot about. I’ll be doing another Kickstarter in a couple weeks, so I enjoyed boning up with the other two panelists Jeremy Bastian and Jay Potts. They both had really different approaches, and both did really well–especially Jeremy, who ended up raising $36,000 instead of the $2500 he was going for.

–By the end of the day I’d done about $300, which was okay. Just a few years ago, I would have been wildly stoked to make that much at SPX, so I should be thankful. Plus being away from my table probably hurt–although usually being on a panel gives you a little bump–people who might not have known who you were see you talk for an hour, and are more likely to look you up afterward. I like to try to get on a panel at every show I do, especially in places where I’m less well-known.

HEROESCON 2011 :: Richard Thompson

–That night there was a Drink and Draw thing across the street in the park, with a lot of people drawing and donating the drawings to benefit Team Cul de Sac. Richard Thompson himself was there. Richard is so soft-spoken that most of what I’ve ever said to him is “What?” One day I’m going to sit down with him in a library and have a great old conversation.

HEROESCON 2011 :: Krypto The Super Dog Man

–I enjoy sketching in books, although maybe not themed sketchbooks. Besides being just nice to do for somebody, it’s good practice to draw fast and a little outside of your comfort zone. I’ve been wanting to try messing with watercolors lately, so I did some sketches at HeroesCon using Frank Santoro’s recent posts on color as a guide. It’ll take a while to get out of my safe zone and into the more mercurial world of watercolor, but it was fun practice, and people seemed to like them.

–The Art Auction on Saturday night was fun, although I was one of the people more interested in chatting than in actually watching the auction. So sue me! The Westin is a great hotel, but for some reason their PA only goes up to 4 or something–poor Allison Sohn had to scream all night, and the speakers were distorting. A good sound man would have fixed that, and save her some wear and tear on those vocal cords! Allison was also kind enough to buy my entry into the auction, this Warren Ellis themed strip from a couple years ago.

HEROESCON 2011 :: No More Pictures PLEASE

–What else? Tabling next to Farel Dalrymple was really great. Nothing gets me charged up more as a cartoonist than being around people who comport themselves like ARTISTS. Maybe it’s part of comics’ self-loathing DNA, but it feels like a lot of cartoonists kind of view themselves like elevated fans, like they’ve ascended to a different plane, but are still working in this goofy system. Paging through Farel’s sketchbook at the afterparty, I was really struck by how people like him, Jim Rugg, Paul Pope all seem to see themselves as artists who work in a particular discipline (cartooning). That’s what I want for myself, and for the cartoonists around me–to feel like what we’re doing is real and important and evolving and flawed and brilliant, like art is supposed to be. It’s one of my favorite things about going to cons, feeling like you’re a part of a larger thing, that your selfish little scribbles at home are all part of a larger tapestry, the complexity of which isn’t discernible except at a remove.

HEROESCON 2011 :: Tom Scioli, Still Smiling

–Ah HeroesCon. It was really nice being a guest and not an employee. It’s the best of both worlds, honestly. To be able to enjoy the thing you used to work for, and moreso to be able to really appreciate all the hard work going on around you. Kudos to Shelton and Rico for a job well done. I look forward to being a guest at HeroesCon again and again, and will watch with pleasure and pride as it continues to improve, even without input from lil ole me.


  1. Shannon Smith

    1) Very cool to see my pal Blake in that first pic there. I did not bring a camera so I’m glad someone got a pic of him in one of these reports. 2010 might have been the year I quit comics without him. What a swell guy.

    2) I used to have the sketch for free to sell comics strategy at Heroes but ditched it in the past couple of years. Those folks want to pay for sketches. They LOVE it. I had a couple of folks insist on paying me more than I was asking. So as to the whole making it worth the trip to out of town cartoonists- bring your pens, brushes, colors etc. along with some already finished samples and get to work. There is money to be had. I plan to be better prepared next year myself. (And maybe bring some Marvel and DC collection type books for reference. Can you draw Firestorm’s costume from memory?)

    3) And it was good to see you Dustin. Your new book looks great. Nice to meet that girl character from your diary comic strip too. You are both a lot more three dimensional in person.

  2. sarah

    Well, you know we’ve talked about Indie Island a lot over the past 4 years. It works for some, not for others (for the record, we did great this year; and at least 2 friends of mine did great as well). After the show, I heard Tom Scioli telling someone whose name escaped me that he thought the secret to doing well in Indie Island is to have at least a tiny toehold in the mainstream industry. And I think he more or less nailed it. If you have just one issue or even a story at DC or Marvel the audience can relate to you and will want signatures, sketches and might even try out some of your indie stuff. It’s like they need that gateway to relate to you or something. There are exceptions of course (like you!), but I thought it was a really good general observation. Not sure what to do with it just yet, but it’s a thought.

  3. DHARBIN! Post author

    Thanks Shannon! And yes, Sarah, I think your theory is pretty sound. I have the same (sort of) small tie-in to the mainstream world, both from lettering Casanova and from being involved with the show for so long, so a lot of those art collectors know me on some level. So for sure, that makes sense. I know Jason Horn said he did the best he’s ever done at ANY show, and he’s an indie dude with a toe in the mainstream world. Same with Dean Trippe–I think he kills anywhere he sells sketches.

  4. Myron Macklin

    Great report Dusty. I especially love what you had to say about cartoonist seeing themselves as artists working in a particular discipline.

    Also, since you had a table this year, this is the most I’ve seen of you at the con. In the past you were a zig zagging blur on the floor.

    Much success to you in the future!

  5. D. Blake Werts

    You write “…my rule is to stand up whenever you’re not in the middle of drawing for someone. It’s a lot easier to pass by a table when all you can see is the top of someone’s head bent over a page of art.”

    Think this deserves a blog post of its own. This is such an extremely valuable nugget of information you’ve shared to the community. I just hope your readers are paying attention!

    Having participated on the selling-side of the table in many collectible, toy, sci-fi shows/cons in the past, I hypothesized and experimented with the standing vs. sitting idea and stand by my conclusion that my transaction count DOUBLED and TRIPLED when standing and being “present.” It is certainly the case that when I’m at a show and browsing around, I’m much more likely to engage in a conversation with folks that appear to be interested in my actually being there.

    Of course, I learned a few other things that I’d be happy to share when the discussion comes up.

    Nice post. Great to see you at the show.

  6. Rich Barrett

    Really nice writeup, Dustin.

    The rare times I was actually sitting while talking to people I felt pretty conscious of it because there’s this weird imbalance between the conversation. People are physically looking down on you which is uncomfortable but also you feel like you’re being impolite when sitting comfortably while they’re standing there “in your presence.” That said, a few times I had to apologize to people and say “hey, don’t mind me I really have to work on this sketch while we talk.”

    I’m really curious to see what happens to Indie Island in the next couple of years. It felt very slight and almost besides the point this year after being a real destination the last couple of years. Are those days over? Would indie creators be better served by being folded into the main artists alley? Or is there some other way to bring new life and activity to that scene here?

  7. Blake

    Rich I noticed the *lack* of excitement this year with respect to the lead-up to the show. I really missed Dustin’s weekly Heroes “newsletters” where I could find all of the reasons why I should care about each and every guest that would be appearing. Granted, I understand this took a lot of work on Dustin’s part to get these done and out; however, you can bet that I knew exactly who was coming and what their work was like. This year, for whatever reason, I was even “surprised” to find out that the show was happening “this weekend” if that makes sense? The show just seemed to appear out of nowhere….

    Folding in the indie artists with the mainstream artist? I can see this working. This has the potential of getting more folks in front of you that wouldn’t even think of walking through the Indie Island area.

    Brainstorming out loud here: another consideration would be to take the Indie Island portion of the show and promote it as if it were a separate event–though it just happens to share the same dates and location as Heroes. We could drum-up more hype and attention around the Island. Though we’d still have the problem of the Island attracting mainly those folks looking for independently-published work.

    Mixing the two together may not be a bad idea, Rich!

  8. DHARBIN! Post author

    Rich–I think part of the more… lean? Indie Island this year was just a side effect of the transition from me to Rico. I agree that it seemed much more anemic, but part of that is that there were a lot of last-minute cancellations, like literally 10-15 or so! Which is a lot of tables, and thus a lot of space that a person might have stopped to look at but instead just cruised past. It’s important to point out that I spent a LOT of time working on that particular guest list over the preceding years, and have personal relationships with a lot of the people who’d exhibit. Rico has no shortage of his own personal relationships, and there’s a ton of overlap. I feel like if Indie Island sticks around, it will change complexion a little bit, but still be an awesome thing. It’s hard to overstate how much work organizing that show is–the number of plates Rico spun successfully on his first at-bat is pretty shocking, all things considering. I fully expect to be outshone next year :(((((

    Blake: I disagree about the lack of marketing. If anything there was TOO MUCH of that stuff this year! I had to unsubscribe to the Heroes newsletter because I was getting the thing every time I turned around! Plus there were almost weekly guest spotlights on the blogs, interviews with prominent creators, etc.

    I had a conversation similar to this one–in terms of just reabsorbing Indie Island back into “the mainland”–recently with someone who’s exhibited at Heroes for years and years; he pointed out rather passionately that sales for an indie creator at a mainstream show like Heroes were pretty grim before Indie Island, and he didn’t want to go back to that. I wouldn’t either, to be honest. I think the addition of the separate independent element is a good way not only to make HeroesCon more relevant in terms of the larger depth and breadth of the comics out there, but a way to nurture and grow a base of young cartoonists in the Charlotte area itself, which will have a lot of long-term benefits to the local comics community.

    I honestly believe that without some measure of diversity in subject matter, Heroes would eventually evolve into a pure art-collecting convention, something it’s gotten closer and closer to in recent years. Which isn’t a bad thing, but any monoculture is weakened by a lack of diversity.

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