HEROESCON 2011 REPORT *PLUS* LONG OPINION BLAH BLAH
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.
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.
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!
--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.
--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.
--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.
--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.
--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.