Why do I go to Comic Book Conventions?

I graduated with a Fine Arts Degree in 2007, but I could not/did not/know-how-to find a job in the art industry.  I ended up working as a Flash animator building graphics for online training courses.  At the time, that seemed to be as far away from my art career as I could get.  What I’ve come to realize is that the experience I gained by working in THAT industry has set me up for the opportunities I now have.

A friend of mine kept saying that I REALLY needed to make the trek out to the San Diego Comic Con and take part in the massive comic/geek cultural event.  I finally went in 2006 and walked shoulder to shoulder through the crowds for a couple days, and was SO overwhelmed I vowed that I would not return.  (Highlight of the event was meeting Erin Gray, and going to a panel where Sean “Cheeks” Galloway was talking about the character designs he did for Hellboy Animated.)

So why did I go back?  Well, I was invited to be an exhibitor and make a limited edition print for the Star Wars Celebration in Japan AND I was a finalist at the Atom Films Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge AT the San Diego Comic Con.

This time around I made a LOT of new friends.  After the show, I talked to superstar artist Jeff Carlisle, about some of my concerns.  Here’s the conversation.

 spencer

Hey Jeff,
So, I’m totally new to this whole going to conventions and being self-employed and stuff. I’d like to know more about how you make it all work.
First off your art is awesome so that’s gotta help out. Then it’s like your an indy rock star and these conventions are like going on tour. How many conventions do you go to, and which ones? Did you figure out how to be a guest of honor and then they pay you to show up?

Jeff (best response EVER)

Spencer–
It is all half luck.

Conventions are all about showing up.

There are two kinds of conventions and occasionally they overlap–the networking show and the art show. The networking show is all about shaking hands, making connections and showing work to prospective clients…and usually a lot of drinking. Literally half the show is what you do after the convention every night. Always be nice and if you have the talent for it, funny. You meet a lot of people who can help you with work and will feel overwhelmed and unworthy a lot of the time…don’t show your fear–you can always go into the bathroom and throw up, they will just think you are a drunk artist.
It is a good rule that to be remembered you have to talk to someone three times. Four might be pushing it, but definitely stop by their booth, talk to them at a bar, and always see them a second or third time before the end of the show. Follow-up is soooo important. And it is a good rule that outside of the convention you talk to them about everything EXCEPT getting work from them. Let them see you as a person who would be good to work with, NOT a needy person begging for work.
You have to show that you can leave it at the office sometimes.

The art show is (for me) about meeting and making new fans, drawing people into your booth or table and selling the shit out of the show. Like the networking show, you need to develop people skills and become a “people” person. Sitting at your booth and pouting that the louder but less talented person is getting all the sales gets you nothing. Find that balance between showman and artiste. Always be nice and if you have the talent for it, funny.
There is usually less drinking and socializing at those shows, as I usually have a lot of convention sketches to burn through at an art show–but don’t be a hermit. Remember that you are out of your studio…enjoy it!

Occasionally, you can combine the two types of shows–but only if you have someone else to help with your table, so you can occasionally get up and show work to people. You learn to make friends with other artists, and form a network trying to spread work around without taking work away from anyone. You see Karma in action, as people’s reputations are made and broken by what they do and say at shows.

It also takes time to build a career and a following–the affects of a convention are cumulative, building one year upon another. And you will see your definition of a successful show change as you do. At first you are happy to pay your table costs. Then it is about paying for the table and printing, eventually to paying for all the costs of the trip, then about an actual profit. Eventually, given enough time and success, Conventions begin to take on their own life, one paying for the next, paying for the next, and so on.

Here are the nuts and bolts of my year: I NEED to do two shows a year, GenCon and San Diego…these are the meat and potatoes of my career. Gen Con is THE Gaming Convention and I do it because I am still mostly doing gaming art. That is my big sales show. The SDCC is important, because San Diego Comic Con is THE West Coast show and almost all of the work I do outside the Gaming arena (and a lot of gaming as well) is all out of the West Coast–it is also usually my only trip out there, so If I want to be seen (and being visible is important to remind folks that you are alive, seemingly successful and a good person to work with) and become a “regular” than it becomes an important show.

The other shows I do change, but I usually do two to three other shows a year. I do the Origins Game Fair, the little brother to GenCon, because it is a solid fan show and I can be a larger fish in a smaller art show…and it is local, so I never need to pay for a hotel. My first year, I sold maybe $200.00, then my second year I did twice that in one day.

I attended my first New York ComicCon this year, didn’t have a table and stayed with a friend in Brooklyn. So, it was a relatively cheap show. New York is still the publishing capital of the US, so if you are interested in Books and Comics, it is a good show to do–plus it is growing show, and it is always a good idea to get in on the ground floor of a growing show. It is the East Coast equivalent of SDCC, so there you go.

There are also art fairs and local shows which are just excuses to see friends and socialize–but I rarely do those…I am now too busy with work.

Also, plan trips to visit the places you do work with.
I am working on the Clone Wars webcomics mostly because of a trip to San Francisco I took last year…which led to the right people remembering me at the right time. A similar trip to Seattle a few years ago helped me get more gaming work from Wizards of the Coast.
If you plan a trip and call ahead to the folks you work with, you can usually get to see the magic. Personal appearances always help, unless you are a noticeable a–h0le. If you are an asshole, try to keep it to yourself…it never gets you work.

So, that is pretty much it. Live by the rule of three as taught to me by the great fantasy artist/writer Tony DiTerlizzi. It basically says that to get work you follow three rules:
1.Be Talented and do good work.
2.Hit your deadlines, every time.
3.Be easy to work with.

If you can do all three, you are amazing–but most people can only do two at a time and they get work and keep it.
People who are Talented and hit their deadlines but are asses get work. People who are Talented, easy to work with but have a problem with deadlines get work. People with a lot less talent, but can hit their deadlines and are easy to work with get work.
You see various combinations of this in everyone you know.

Also remember that there is no plan–your success rate at a convention will go up and down from year to year. You never know what is waiting for you around the corner. If you give yourself the room to fail, you will be doubly surprised when you succeed. That is good advice for careers as well. I know my work got a lot better when I no longer had the safety net of a day job and my mortgage depended on me doing good work.

I hope this was some help to you. I am just passing this along, as I have learned it over time. See you soon, sir! It was great to meet you briefly at San Diego.

Jeff

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