Click on any of these photos to see them on Flickr, along with a number of others I took.
SO last weekend I was a guest of Heroes Convention 2012, widely described as the best mainstream comics show anywhere. I think a lot of people might stipulate that it’s the best *regional* show, and that’s fair. But for my money there’s nothing I want from a mainstream comics convention that Heroes doesn’t provide, short of actually being an indie comics convention. Oh and while we’re at it, featuring all my friends as guests, and being renamed “DharbinCon.”
I’ll put the most important datum up front: I did better at HeroesCon this year than I’ve ever done at any comics convention, indie or not. And I do good at shows, much better than my relatively slight fame would suggest. It bears mentioning that HeroesCon is a 3-day show, so there’s an extra (wearying) day of sales, but still. I was flabbergasted. I did nearly 50% better than last year, and last year I did great.
What’s interesting about that, to me, is that a lot of other people I talked to in Indie Island did as well, which was not the case last year. Last year I got some dirty looks when I mentioned I was doing really well. There were so many indie cancellations that there were also a number of empty tables, which didn’t help. This year the tables were all stuffed, and a lot of the people who previously had done iffy–especially guys from the minicomics and webcomics wing of things–weren’t tabling, so it may have just been been a natural market evolution. But even having said that, I heard a lot of reports from people that they had their best show ever this year, of any show they go to.
I can think of two reasons why, the most important being that Shelton Drum and Rico Renzi, along with a robust paid staff and small army of volunteers, did a fantastic job of organizing the show itself. So: less empty tables, better flow through the artists section, and overall a feeling of being valued by the con organizers, feeling like they actually give a crap about who you are and how you do at their show.
I can never ever emphasize this enough, the idea of hospitality. It’s not just some Southern thing, it’s good business sense. Probably the biggest reason HeroesCon is so well known, for a show in a medium-sized Southeastern city that isn’t exactly a teeming metropolitan destination city, is that the guests leave really happy, and they talk about it. I’d say the same for TCAF: if you’re a TCAF exhibitor, you get a series of non-spammy emails that basically help you have the best weekend, sell the most stuff, with the least snafus and the most help from the staff. That’s irreplaceable. I’d rather have a show with a staff like HeroesCon or TCAF than a hundred MoCCA’s, where the reputation is exactly the opposite: we don’t care who you are or what your complaint is, buy early to secure your spot for next year, dumdum.
Anyway. I feel like I know what I’m talking about here, not only from having been deep deep deep on the inside of HeroesCon and knowing what the prime motivating factors are, but from being a smart guy with eyeballs and a brain. If you’re running an event and aren’t interested in how the people you invite are doing, then you’re in the wrong business maybe.
Okay, so the OTHER thing:
Stan Lee was a guest this year, the first time since… ever? I remember he maybe did a store signing at Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find, the store who organizes HeroesCon, way back in 1984. HeroesCon has always shied away from having “special” guests, or “guests of honor,” but you can’t have Stan Lee and not have it be a big deal. Whether it was Stan Lee or just a REALLY deep bench, in terms of high-draw guests, there were a ton more people in the room than usual. Friday was much busier than in my recent memory, and Saturday was even busier than that, by a good distance. To the point where it was aggravating, the few times I got away from my table to go tee-tee: I could barely make my way through the aisles, and I’m good at cruising the aisles. I mean heck, I worked 15 HeroesCons in a row between 1996 and 2010.
When Shelton told me he was having Stan Lee as a guest, I was.. pretty skeptical. I mean, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get Stan Lee, both financially and in terms of technical challenge. I mean, just figuring out what to do with the immense lines is its own challenge. But there’s no denying that people were excited about Lee being there, even in the indie section, people were bragging to each other about meeting him in elevators and stealing pictures when they could. I had people I barely knew, people who didn’t usually have any interest in comics, asking me if I still had any pull at HeroesCon so I could score them a free meeting with him. Not a signature– a meeting! You just can’t buy buzz like that. Well, haha, yes you can. But it works–I’m pretty sure I have more money in my pocket because of Stan Lee being at that show.
But damn, it’s hard, in this year of people talking about creator rights (again)–and especially talking about what Jack Kirby and his heirs “deserve” from his part in the creation of most of the foundation of the Marvel Universe of characters, or as they’re known now, “intellectual property”–to stomach Stan Lee. I mean, I don’t have anything against the man himself. I’m not a Lee hater or anything. But let’s face it: his period of real creative fecundity ended in what? The early 70’s at best? I mean, I suppose he *did* do “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” book, with a little liiiiiitttttttle help from John Buscema. But what he’s proven himself to be truly good at is positioning himself, a thing Jack Kirby was not particularly good at at all. In a year where we’re (still) discussing whether or not Kirby was treated like a valuable part of the company he helped save from extinction, much less awarded anything like a fair financial reward for his many decades of constant work, you could pay $200 to spend an hour in a room with Stan Lee, listen to him talk, have your photo taken, and get his signature. If you want a second signature? Fifty more bucks.
There’s nothing wrong with that. People surely paid enthusiastically for the privilege, and more power to Stan for it. But did Jack Kirby ever have access to the same opportunities? Did Steve Ditko devote the entire second half of his career to creating a cult of personality around himself and becoming, in the world’s eyes, the de facto sole creator of Spider-Man and the rest of the Marvel Universe? Jack Kirby was an incredibly gifted artist, extraordinarily prolific, and worked pretty much non-stop from the 40’s through the 90’s for companies that seemed more or less indifferent to his value to them. At least in terms of what anyone else working in any other industry at the same time, either as long or as famously. Brilliant Jack Kirby had a long career, died, and today his heirs struggle to get anything more than some anonymous commenter legalists pointing out over and over that he signed that contract, he was asking for it. Stan Lee quit making comics in any real sense, and today people pay $200 to sit in a room and hear him say Excelsior! and get a picture and his signature on something he probably had nothing to do with.
It makes me feel weird.
Especially since it’s hard to get away from the idea that he put asses in seats, so to speak. HeroesCon was for sure crammed with people, the most people I can remember, probably more than ever during my tenure. I choose to blame Shelton and Rico though. Those are two people who love comics and worked their asses to the bone to make the convention a success, which it certainly was. As conflicted as I am about Stan Lee and what his whole thing means, I’m not at all conflicted about those guys and why they do what they do. Not to mention Andy Mansell, Doug Merkle, Karla Marsh, and everyone else who made the convention hum, from paid staff to humble volunteer.
But hey! Anyway HeroesCon was great, and I’ve spent too long talking about the thing that was in the back of my head all weekend. In the front of my head was a really REALLY great time:
The weekend started out as a series of out-of-body experiences. First I drove one of the HeroesCon shuttles for a few hours, under the expert direction of Doug Merkle. While I worked for the show for a million years, I never once did this–well, one time somewhat famously, driving Paul Pope and Paul Smith to the hotel and nearly crushing them both in 1997. But that’s a long story that I might turn into a comic one day, so let’s skip it for now. Plus, it’s been 2 years since I stopped working directly for the show, so welcoming people to Charlotte and giving them tips on where to go or how much to charge for their sketches was, while very pleasant, oddly like deja vu.
Then I met up with my friends Scott Campbell, Maris Wicks, and Joe Quinones, and on the way to find some food we stopped by Target so Scott could buy swim trunks. By “Target” I mean, “the Target I actually buy most of my groceries in.” It was so crazy to have people I see a few times a year at conventions on the same aisle I spend hours trying to figure out if I should buy new underwear or not (I should). Crazy!
After dinner we ended up, as all parties at HeroesCon do, back in the hotel bar, where me hooked up with Jaime Hernandez. Does he not look like he stepped out of one of his own comics in this picture? I mean seriously. We ended up spending most of the weekend with Jaime, which was probably one of the highlights of all the HeroesCon’s ever for me. Not that I did anything else but hang out with him–I never once asked any question about tools or composition or blacks or lettering or any of the literally one million things I could learn from him. Totally forgot, we were too laid back and relaxed for all that. I’m sure Jaime didn’t mind not being pestered by some young/old buck either. What a cool guy. Also, probably his sense of humor is 10x goofier than I ever would have guessed.
Like I said, the show itself was fantastic. Zero complaints, and I can be… a complainer sometimes. Tabling next to Scott C. is always a delight. Besides the fact that we’re friends, he’s just a cool guy. He’s always nice to every single person that comes up to his table, whether they’re fawning over him or have never heard of him. Although man, people sure do fawn over him. There’s something about him that just settles the vibe down: it’s hard to be all fussy and strung out when the guy next to you is just taking it easy and smiling and joking. I love him.
I also got to talk just a little bit with Jeffrey Brown, who was on the other side of Scott. I went over to look through his originals, which are as tiny as mine are in a lot of cases, but much much better, and ended up just reading most of them. God he’s funny. He’s one of those guys I just buy everything by, although I’m way way behind in my reading of his books. Gosh we had a great little section–next to Jeff was Brian Ralph, then Jaime, and on the other side of me was Danielle Corsetto, then Michel Fiffe and Kat Roberts. As Scott would say, “a splendid zone indeed.”
These guys look pretty uptight in this photo, but no one likes to see a flash in a dimly lit room. Despite appearances it was a pretty great dinner, thanks to our kind host Shelton Drum. Besides Jaime and Scott and Kate and I, there was Tom Scioli, Ed Piskor, Rafer Roberts, Dave Cooper (!!), Chris Pitzer and Jim Rugg. Talk about a brain trust.
This HeroesCon will also stick out for being when I *finally* met Ben Marra, and shortly afterwards met his tattoo. Holy moly on both counts.
After three days of convention, the guests and staff hooked up at Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find for a humdinger of an afterparty, which Shelton had catered with tacos and Thai wrap thingies–what do you call those? like lettuce wrapped around stuff?–anyway. Tons of food and free drinks and just a million great conversations. Very nice to unwind in a safe environment, everyone on equal ground, no egos. I got to have the longest chat of the weekend with Matt Fraction, my old friend and employer, although we just harangued each other about comics like always. Also Kelly Sue DeConnick, who I never get to talk to, so that was great. I tottered home around midnight with Kate, who thankfully pulled me away from the bottle of Jameson I’d discovered. Another sign of a great party!
Ah, HeroesCon! One definite benefit of not working for the show is missing it–usually a few days later, I’m still trying to stand up straight and speak without fainting, and definitely not missing it. Now that I have the luxury of standing back and enjoying the show, I genuinely wish it were last Friday again, and I walking around Target looking for swim trunks, about to start a great weekend. Many thanks to my spendid zone neighbors, especially Scott and Jaime, my constant chums over the weekend. And double special thanks to Shelton and Rico, who really rolled out the red carpet for me in a lot of ways, and took my weekend from pretty great to one of the best con experiences of my life. You guys really know how to treat 350 or so of your closest friends ♥♥♥
Click on any of these photos to see them on Flickr, along with a number of others I took, including a ton more of Jaime (sue me!) and a lot of Maris photobombing.