MIX 2011 REPORT 2011 (MIX EDITION)

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I went to Minneapolis to appear at an indie comics convention with my glorious publisher Koyama Press! The very short version is “it was great, I had a great time, I didn’t make much money though but it was great!” And I took some pictures. The longer version appears below; it will be divided into three (3) areas of focus, each more thrilling than the last:

1) The Good, The Bad, And The Minneapolis Indie Expo
2) Minneapolis: Gorgeous City of Hot Dreams and Cold Cartoonists
3) Zak Sally And His Magical Press

Good titles, no? Okay, let’s get to it!

MIX 2011 :: The Dramatic Ole Soap Factory

1) THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE MINNEAPOLIS INDIE EXPO

MIX was an uncommonly well-organized show. And while I make a lot of proclamations and uninformed snap-judgments, this is one area I’m well-equipped to comment on: I worked for a big 3-day mainstream comic convention for 14 years, the second half of which had me fairly central in the organization and planning of same. During that time I did a lot of things right, and probably did even more things wrong.

MIX 2011 :: Jim Rugg & Sam Hiti

MIX organizer Sarah Morean got the most important things right: treat your exhibitors well, make it easy for them to figure out whatever they need to figure out. Happy guests and exhibitors will talk about a show they’re excited about going to–in the biz this is known as “free advertising.” When exhibitors aren’t engaged before a show–or even worse, are confused–they get all sullen and bitchy and complain incessantly like a bunch of wet-nosed babies. I do, anyway. This is called “bad advertising.”

Sarah sent out a bunch of non-spammy emails, which variously ran down panels, schedules, best ways to get into the city, basic info on the venue, power, heat, etc.–all the stuff you need to know if you’re carrying a bunch of books to a place you’ve never been.   And a week before the show she sent a truly epic email, filled–FILLED!–with very useful odds and ends. Like the fact that the $1.75 public transit ride would take just as long as the $30 cab ride. Although my traveling companion Jim Rugg and I might have wasted some time waiting on the wrong side of the street for a bus. Our fault, not Sarah’s.

MIX 2011 :: Mike Dawson, Rina Ayuyang, and Karen Sneider

And the most useful thing of all was being able to ship books ahead, which magically appeared–presto!–at my table. This, especially from a small con, is huge–it means it will be easier and cheaper to set up at the show than it would otherwise. and maybe more importantly, it says that the organizers want to do whatever they can to help you have a successful show. Huge! It means “we are all in this together, let’s all have a great show” instead of “sink or swim, you bitches.”

So anyway. Sarah did an amazing job of organizing the show. There were very few hiccups–none, as far as I know, or at least none that I noticed. At the afterparty, Jim Rugg and I cornered her for half an hour to try and browbeat her into doing it again next year; she recently announced that she was taking at least a year off, and there was no one to replace her. More on that in a second.

There were a few negatives, although it’s a testament to the job Sarah did that I only really noticed them near the end of the show. Also, it’s very easy to hindsight things when you don’t make a lot of money and are looking for someone to blame–I did less well at this show than any two-day show I’ve done in the last few years, so I may have just been unwilling to admit my own culpability. For instance, I brought too much, which meant that I had too many things competing for space and oxygen on my table. I suspect if I’d halved what I’d brought, I would have sold more, not less.

MIX 2011 :: The Towering Skyscraper

The main show negative for me was the venue. It had a lot going for it: a converted old soap factory (named, fittingly, “The Soap Factory“) in a part of town near a bunch of cool stuff. Jim and I walked there the first day from our hotel, less than a mile away, and after hours we walked to most of the stuff we did. But the venue itself needed some more converting and less “old soap factory.” A cool looking building isn’t enough–there was just a single bathroom (for both sexes? I’m not sure, I never actually used it the whole time!), and the floors in our part were basically dirt. As in, anything you set on the floor was instantly dirty. Not to mention the general fog of dirt and dust in the air. In the morning there was a fine Pompeii-layer of grit on everything. Some rooms were freezing, others were just cold.

MIX 2011 :: Chris Pitzer, Aggressive Salesman

But that kind of stuff is mainly incidental–having dirty knees and gross boogers for a few days isn’t that bad. I think the main negative for me was just attendance, which wasn’t really there. There were some busy times in the afternoons, but never truly busy. It’s hard to say why–I bet Sarah did some work on advertising, considering how great she was at everything else. And with such a robust cartooning community in Minneapolis, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of the locals weren’t spreading the word as well. Too, it might just be the kind of attendee that was present–not everyone comes to a show to spend money; a lot of times it’s just a fun cultural event, especially when it’s free. And attendance and sales numbers are not the sole metrics to judge something like this by–people are hard to predict; who knows what they will do at any given time?

MIX 2011 :: More People!

MIX struck me as a show split in thirds between local zine culture, cartoonists, and students from the local school getting their feet wet. Of those three groups, no one has any money, so that might be part of it right there. My suggestion next year: add “Tycoons” to the masthead. “Minneaplis Indie eXpo (for Tycoons): MIXT.”

I didn’t say all that above to cast aspersions: like I say, Sarah crushed it. But here are some actual serious suggestions I would make:

1) Don’t take the year off, Sarah! You have momentum, which will dissipate (or disappear) in a silent year.

2) Instead, go back to a one-day show. I think the attendance and style of the show suits a single day better, and more importantly means there’ll be less planning, less stress, less cost, and less burnt-out Sarah Morean at the end. 2011 was the first 2-day iteration of the show. If it flattened you so completely, I think that’s a better reason than any other to return to 1-day.

3) Charge more for tables. I have complained publicly before about shows charging too much for too little; but the opposite is true as well. Charging too little for too much devalues your work. “Oh, it’s not about me, I’m just here to help” you might say. But when you pay a fair value for space at a show, you show up for that show on time, you do your best to earn that money back, you know? You’re invested. If I only pay $40 or $50 for a table for 2 days, that’s $20-25 per day. I’m not made of money–if anything, the opposite–but $25 just isn’t much money, and as such is pretty easy to blow off. Value your work! People are willing to pay for value, especially if it means you are able to do what you do without imploding.

4) Pay yourself! Organizing a show for no money is nuts. It takes a whole year to do it well, and doing most of a year’s worth of work for no money, or even as little as $500-$1000, is bananas. Set MIX up as a little organization with a board and anoint yourself president, then give yourself a small salary. Solicit donations. Charge for tables. Work with local businesses to donate money or resources as sponsorships. People do it all over country; surely we can do it too? (I stole this last idea from Jim).

5) Don’t announce the week before the show that you’re quitting. Huge bummer.

MIX 2011 :: Tom Kaczynski & Jim Rugg

2) MINNEAPOLIS: GORGEOUS CITY OF HOT DREAMS AND COLD CARTOONISTS

Don’t worry, this section won’t be as long as that first one. So the con was good, the con was fun: but what really set the weekend apart was the AMAZING Minneapolis-area cartooning community. I mean, it was kind of dizzying. Just off the top of my head: Tom Kaczynski, Zak Sally, Kevin and Zander Cannon (unrelated), Shad Petosky, Vinnie Stall.. phew! The list goes on. Jim comes from Pittsburgh, which has its own not-insignificant scene, but as I recently wrote for Frank Santoro’s “Scene Report” series on The Comics Journal, Charlotte has next to no cartooning scene.

Going from that to being in the middle of the Pink Hobo gallery for a combination Cloudy Collection show/drink-and-draw event on the first night I was in town was great. For me it was like a country-boy going to New York City for the first time: “Gawrsh Maw, lookit all them cartoonists!” The big discovery for me of the Minneapolis scene was Vinnie Stall, co-owner of both the Pink Hobo and (with Shad) the PUNY design studio. I met him at the gallery, and he was nice and so forth, but the next day, at MIX itself, someone went by with one of his comics and I had to reach into the aisle and stop them to find out what it was. Vinnie’s table was crammed with gorgeous books and prints. I managed to get away with just two books and this wildly underpriced $30 original:

Sweet Melinda! You can check out Vinnie’s stuff at the King Mini site. Don’t be stupid!

After the gallery, “Clever” Jim and I went over to Tom K.’s house to marvel at his collection of comics and ephemera and his workspace and just.. well it’s just fun to see creative people’s spaces, they’re always fascinating. Plus chilling out on Tom’s floor, talking about comics with him and Nikki and Kevin H., was a thousand times better than getting snockered in some bar and waking up with a hangover. After staying with John Martz at TCAF, my new goal is to hang with people in their houses from now on when I go to shows–it’s SO enjoyable. Just relaxing, seeing the city from the inside, taking the public transit, walking down the sidewalks. Many thanks to Tom and Nikki for being such sweet, welcoming hosts, even if only for a couple of pleasant hours. Oh: Tom sent me this picture of his space:

MIX 2011 :: Tom Kaczynski's Magic Attic

Not to be outdone by Tom, the next night a bunch of people ended up at Zak Sally’s house. Besides me and Jim, there was Tom, Mike Dawson, Anders Nilsen, Kevin Huizenga, Julia Wertz, Sarah Glidden, John Porcellino, Noah Van Sciver, Tom Neely, David Huyck … someone else. Oh yeah, Zak himself. Very comfy group, lots of different conversations. All the ones I was involved in were, unsurprisingly, immature. But I’m pretty sure I overheard some smart-people talk somewhere in the house.

MIX 2011 :: Jim Rugg & Tom Neely

A funny thing about Jim Rugg–he’s a real-deal fan of comics. Everywhere I went with him, if there were some old musty comics somewhere, he would end up on the floor going through them. He did it at Tom’s; you can see him above talking comics with Tom Neely. I don’t point this out to make fun of him or anything. I genuinely love Jim–I had one of the most pleasant weekends I’ve had in years with him. But one of the things I really love about Jim is that he’s a total-body artist. He’s got a restlessness to his aesthetic, like he just can’t stop absorbing all the visual data he can get his eyeballs on. It makes me feel lazy, but that is also because I’m lazy.

Big Brain

Oh that reminds me! After MIX was over, a bunch of us went over to Big Brain Comics, which had been described to me multiple times over the weekend as “the greatest comics shop ever”. I have to admit, I’m a little jaded on comics shops, just from having worked in (a really great) one for so long, and having seen the insides of so many terrible ones. I’m just not very interested in seeking out new comics shops–not that I have anything against them; I’m just burnt out on that scene. Until this weekend, the exception had been The Beguiling in Toronto. But Big Brain really did live up to the hype. Michael Drivas is a really cool guy (first important thing for a good shop). His shop is extraordinarily well-stocked (second important) and he knows where everything is (third). It’s well-lit, has high-ceilings, and most importantly is CLEAN and doesn’t SMELL LIKE ANYTHING, two things comics shops struggle with.

John Porcellino had said earlier that “Big Brain always has amazing music playing,” and sure enough, there was some sexy spiritual music playing over a nice system that just… made it pleasant to be in the room. Do you know what I mean? Damn I loved that place.

Big Brain

Note that both of these Big Brain photos come from the Flickr stream of “Sweet” Chris Pitzer. Thanks in advance to Chris for allowing me to use them even though I never actually asked!

After Big Brain, it was off to a fancy rock bar for afterparty drinks with more awesome people, and to try and browbeat Sarah Morean into not quitting doing what she did so well this year: organize a great con and bring together a bunch of great people (for me to meet and hang out with). Here are just some of those people, hanging out with me (again via Chris Pitzer):

Here's Annie...

#3) ZAK SALLY DEMONSTRATES HIS MAGICAL PRESS

The whole weekend was great, but this was easily the highlight for me. I’d wanted to see Zak Sally’s studio ever since I watched his Kickstarter video, which showed him walking from his drawing board to his 2-color offset printer and firing it up. “This is where I’ll print the book itself.” To someone who makes his own (much less interesting/beautiful) books at home, actually using a piece of honest-to-God-machinery to print your own books seemed amazing. I mean, I was aware that it happened all the time, but just having it sitting there around the corner from your board–whoa!

MIX 2011 :: The Magic Press

Jim wanted to go too, and it turned out a bunch of people did, so Saturday night we took three or four cars over there. It was great, just great. Zak’s studio is filled with all kinds of weird junk and baubles and old papers and new papers. He’s got comics pages up on the wall in various states of completion, all on Dura-lar. He explained to me that a property of Dura-lar is that you can use a special eraser to literally “erase” the india ink. I nodded politely, but then he demonstrated, and Lo, the Ink Was Gone.

MIX 2011 :: Zak Explains 2-Color Printing

I don’t know Zak very well; I only met him this year, and am new to his comics. I’ve never even listened to his band before. But there was something really impressive about him–he’s kind of a salt of the earth guy, someone who’s intent and driven and focused about his art, but also is cracking jokes and demonstrating stuff and helping people and asking them if they’d like tea and so forth. At MIX he clumped back and forth on the wood/dirt floors, as if he’d been called away from selling comics to fix a tractor. I loved him.

This is the best bit here though: Zak demonstrating his offset press:

Amazing! I’m not sure when Sammy the Mouse is coming out in its book form, but I’m sure it’ll be soon–I’m reading my copy now, and it’s beautiful. And hand-made! Watch Zak’s site for news.

Okay that’s enough. This con report has gotten out of hand. You can see more pictures in my Flickr photoset. Thanks very much to Anne Koyama for bringing me to Minneapolis with her; to Jim Rugg for being a next-level traveling companion, and a real kick-in-the-ass for my own progression as an artist; to Sarah Morean for really doing an amazing job of organizing the event; to Tom K. and Nikki and Zak Sally for opening their homes to us, and to Minneapolis for being such a super amazing city. Good work, MPLS! I hope to see you next year!