Chicago ComicCon Recap & First-Time Artists Advice
August 9th through 12th, I went to my first comic convention as an artist in Artist’s Alley. It was as a result of a free table I won in an art contest back in April. I entered the contest in the amateur category and was almost entirely unprepared to win the pro-category prize of a free table. That said, I spent the intervening 4 months searching for info on what to expect and how best to prepare and found little of use. This journal is intended to fill that void.
My biggest questions after learning I had a table were pretty typical: What do I need to bring? How many prints? Of What? What prices do I charge? What sells? Can I draw copyrighted characters? Can I sell them as prints?
Those last two, almost nobody wanted to give me a straight answer, by the way.
I eventually got a few different answers to ALL these questions, and invariably like anything else in life the best, most accurate answer to all these is also the most frustrating: “Depends…”
So instead of belaboring a series of if/then options with suggestions that would largely be speculation anyway, I’m going to simplify. This is a list of what happened to me at this one con, what I learned from the experience, and in some cases my thoughts on why. Some of it is still speculation, but hey, it’s what I got. Read on if you think it might be useful. If not, go your own way, live on in rock n’ roll, et cetera.
Also, I invite anyone to reply or link me to your thoughts on this or any other Con experiences from an Artist’s or Vendor’s side of the table. I’d love to hear how these things go for others. And if you’ve never played vendor but have suggestions/thoughts on how to do it better, awesome! Let’s hear those as well!
Bear in mind that this was the experience of exactly ONE Wizardworld Con in Chicago, Illinois, August 9-12, 2012. Artist’s Alley was jammed in the back of the hall, split into 2 sections, and was generally laid out such that we got shafted by being as far away from the entrance as possible. Meaning IF people bothered to walk all the way back to visit, they had had every conceivable opportunity to blow whatever cash they’d brought by the time they got there on swords, towels, T-shirts, comics, motorized cat ears, and flashing sequined hats.
Artists are not Wizard’s highest priority at these shows… But that’s a different article, and hey, for me this was a free table so complaints would just be ungracious.
So, in the order I was asking the questions, pre-con, let’s have some answers!
My Prize – Or – What do you get when you buy a table?
Simplest way to answer this question is a direct quote from our Artist’s Alley Welcome email, sent July 18th, roughly 1 month before the show date:
“You receive an 8ft table and two wristbands unless you have more than one table or have purchased additional wristbands.You will have 10 feet of space behind your table as well to set up any displays, as long as it doesn’t encroach on another artist’s space… Any additional wristbands can be purchased onsite for $25each there is no limit to the amount you can buy, wristbands are valid for the entire weekend.”
This proved to be mostly accurate, if somewhat misleading. For the $400 price tag (again, I won mine, but that’s the cost as advertised), you get 1 table measuring 96” x 29” as your tabletop, 2 wrist bands valid for the full show, 2 (uncomfortable) plastic chairs, and about 5 feet behind you at best. Where they say 10 feet, that’s actually split between 2 tables, each with its own artist of course, and if the guy behind you has a mammoth display, good luck navigating around the interior aisles.
I was booth 3208.
Wizard left us to our own devices regarding any “land disputes”, but I personally had none. For my part, the kids behind me were okay and didn’t horn in too much, but then I had absolutely no display set up behind me so I had no real need for my 5 feet. The artists directly around me were courteous, very helpful, and very cool. I had some great neighbors, one of which gave great advice on printers, scanners, and running a table. :-)
Re: Prints; Copyrighted Characters? How Many Prints? Etc.
I was stressing about Prints before the show. I was asking all over for ANY info on what sells, what doesn’t, basically what’s the best way to make prints that will sell and NOT get myself a cease-and-desist letter..?
What I didn’t know is this: Prints barely sell. Or at least MY prints barely sold at THIS show. Wizard is a much more kid-friendly con, and half my stuff features warrior women with little clothing with ample chests. Also, dragons, evil jesters, and zombies. So in business-speak, I was probably marketing to the wrong demographic. Moms with kids would round the corner to my table and wince, herding their little ones to the next booth where they could get drawings of Scooby-Doo. More cartoony, kid-friendly stuff… All good things, which I CAN draw, but it’s not what I had prepared as my table image.
Basically what I learned is that your prints are your artistic street cred. They’re good examples of what you like to draw, that you are capable of drawing, and what any given commission might look like.
I came prepared with 5 different 11”x17” prints, 30 copies of each. Of those, only 1 was an existing character. Those prints were loosely described as an Evil Jester, a Swamp Witch surrounded by Zombies, a Wolf Girl victoriously holding up the heart of a slain dinosaur, a Dragon fighting a medieval knight, and Wonder Woman shattering a Minotaur’s battle axe against her bracers. I sold a grand total of 6 11x17 prints during the show. That’s right: SIX. In 4 days.
I also brought 4 smaller, post-card-sized prints, 50 copies of each. My Evil Jester, a Poison Ivy, a Mary Marvel, and a silly/joke cartoon of Superman picking on Batman. Of those, my most popular seller was the Superman/Batman one. The funny stuff did a lot better than the badass/cool stuff. Total, I sold 17 postcards.
Nobody came to the table giving me a hard time about copyrighted characters, and nobody so much as blinked twice regarding anything cease-and-desist. Didn’t happen, at least at THIS con. Although, again, I’m a noob and I didn’t make the $400 table price total so it’s not like I’m taking bread from the mouths of Marvel or DC comics.
So what works? What sells? For this crowd, at this one show? Funny stuff. Cartoony stuff. Familiar stuff (ie. Characters with good and RECENT movies behind them). Given the US economy I don’t think there was much chance of anyone coming away from this show with a windfall. But! I did make $360… Which, you know, would ALMOST have paid for my table, right?
So where did that $360 come from? Primarily commissions, and a few originals. I had a couple of good ones come in early on. One was a portrait of a girl & a guy, drawn from photographs, another the next day was a request from a friend of the first girl to draw some portraits of her dog. I did a sweet Birds of Prey commission that was so much fun I easily did the $40 job I was paid for, if not more.
Also, I got the impression that other artists did pretty well sketching caricatures of people as superheroes or as the villain in pre-drawn comic pages where just the head needed to be filled in. Pretty clever idea, that, and one I’ll probably adopt for future shows.
Also, I sold a few originals from my portfolio. But again, the only originals I sold were of pre-existing characters. I sold a couple of Batman villain pics, and a Doctor Who. LOTS of people got a laugh at a Deadpool I was working on for a friend of mine, but nobody offered to buy it.
Table Survival Kit
If you take nothing else from this journal, copy this list and don’t go to a con without filling it. All these items proved incredibly useful in some form or another, most of which are obvious. Get this stuff and bring it to each and every show you attend:
Art Supplies & Paper (whatever you’re most comfortable with. I use Smooth Bristol Board, Black India Ink, Sketch n’ Wash, white-out pens, Warm & Cool Gray Copic Markers, Letraset Basic Colored Markers, and a handy .5 mechanical pencil & eraser. These will be your Commissions, and you should be familiar with them before putting anything down on paper in front of an audience.)
Portfolio (Obvious, and full of your best finished pieces. I recommend keeping your originals in this, your prints elsewhere. You’ll want to keep this on you and safe at all times.)
Drawing Board (because there’s no guarantee the table will be smooth or comfortable to draw on for 2-4 days, 8 hours a day)
Tablecloth (I use a black one… Helps you stand out, and looks very professional.)
Print Stand-ups, Back-Drops, Displays (People see very little of what they look at in a crowded space. The bigger, the brighter, the better, so long as it’s classy and crisp)
Large Bulldog Clips (three 1-1/2” clips to keep the tablecloth in place, and to keep your garbage bag attached to the table and up off the floor, nice and clean)
Garbage Bags (Duh… Small ones are fine. Again, clean and uncluttered is the idea.)
Water Bottles & Snacks (Again, obvious when you factor in that a bottle of water in these shows can run you 4 bucks a pop, and food is even more expensive. 2 Bottles of water per person per day should be sufficient. If you’re a thirstier sort, bring more.)
Paper Towel/Tissues (I often ink with a brush, and inkwash with water. Spilt ink is a nightmare without these essentials)
Rubbing Alcohol (just a smidge for cleaning inks, markers, etc. from your table or your hands)
Masking Tape (Not just for the drawing board, but elsewhere as well. Tape=useful.)
Seat Cushions (Remember way up there where I specified the seats you get are uncomfortable? I wasn’t kidding. My wife insisted we spend 12 bucks a piece on foam cushions usually sold in the patio furniture section at Wal Mart. Absolutely invaluable! She’s a brilliant and beautiful human, my wife, and my bum and I thank her for her forethought. Get some!)
Carrying Case/Luggage with WHEELS! (It’s a looooong walk from your hotel to your table. My Table Setup case has wheels, but my art supply case does not. It weighs about 50 pounds, and while that may not seem like much when you first pick it up, 500 yards later in the summer heat surrounded by crowds and running across the street to get to my hotel? Trust me, I was taking extra showers every day. I wished I’d had wheels on that damn case.)
Your Wife (or husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/most trusted ally in the world. Whatever. But bring a human who’s got your back. Because at best you only have 2 eyes, 2 hands, and if you’re busy drawing a commission then 3 outta 4 of those will be busy NOT welcoming people to your booth, fetching water, taking money, or making change. And I assure you at some point in 4 days you will need to use the bathroom. Bring a friend.)
Float (Your change for all your sales. $200.00 or so in 10’s, 5’s, and 1’s… I wouldn’t worry too much about 20’s, since the magic of ATM’s will bring those to your table first. I had 10x$10s, 16x$5’s, 20x$1’s. For small shows, half that should do just fine.)
There were a few occasions where some of the artists in the row behind me allowed several friends, ALL with cheap $25 Floor Wristbands described above, to camp out behind their table eating pizza and being generally loud and in some cases drunkenly obnoxious. More than once there was yelling, swearing, and a lot of bullshit peacocking in and around aisle 3100.
Obviously, I’m fine with cursing, and I couldn’t care less if you drink beer, wine, or Drain-O as long as you control yourself and don’t make the lot of us appear as disorganized, childish, and unprofessional. Unfortunately, that was not the case for the entire weekend.
Whether Wizard stepped up and reigned this in I can’t say since my wife helped me keep my cool and not pay anyone an angry visit. I can say that there were several helpful T-shirt-clad volunteers who more than once offered us water, assistance, and generally any help or info we might need. I suspect one or more of them sorted out the loudmouths in the row over.
Also, Wizardworld’s scheduling of events was wonky. When the con ends at 7pm and you have an Artists’ Party scheduled for 7pm, that’s not gonna cut it. You have to give people at LEAST half an hour between to get to hotels, get cleaned up, and get back out to the restaurant. In addition, the Drink & Draw had a similar issue where again the show that day ended at 7, the D&D was scheduled for 7pm in one email, and 7:30 in the flyer. These were both official Wizard communications, and even among their own correspondence there was inconsistency.
As a new, unknown artist, no money was made at this show. At least not by me. Hell, I spent nearly $2000 in food, hotels, & gas just to be there. I put 3,000 km on my car in the process. But my wife and I called it a vacation and we had a blast.
So if you’re in this to make money? Don’t even try it long-distance. Stay local and know your audience, preferably in an area where people have money to spend and don’t resent spending it. Artist’s Alley is a great place full of creative energy and excitement, but it is also a place where your competition is literally steps away. If profit is your goal, then this is not a game or a lark. It’s your job, and you’d best be prepared to work for it.
Call out to people as they walk past, make eye contact, strike up conversations. You have to drop whatever introverted shyness you might have as an artist and play the salesman. And your art is your only product. Even then, I found the largest factor in who stopped by the table, who liked my stuff, who even looked in my direction was all random chance. For a free table, I made back my printing costs and still had enough cash earned to come home and buy a cheap 11x17 scanner, which I’ve wanted for years. But if I’d paid for the table, I’d have lost money.
That’s not to say that this will always be the case. In a few shows, with the proper investment in a backdrop banner, some judicious requests regarding table placement, and a better understanding of what people are looking for in any given city, I think I might be able to make a little profit on this. But for my part I’m actually less interested in profit and more interested in fun. And THAT I definitely had in spades.
If what you’re after is a good time and a great way to spend a weekend here and there drawing for people and having them tell you “your stuff is really good and if I had any money left I’d totally buy”… It’s loads of fun. I met some great people, had some really great conversations, and I’m psyched to go to the next one.
According to several people I spoke with, the fact that I made back my printing costs is actually quite an accomplishment for my first show. Thankfully I have a regular 9-to-5 job where I make decent money and drawing comics is currently just a really fun hobby. As a whole, this was absolutely the most fun I’ve had as an artist! And who’s to say I won’t make a real go of this at future cons? I certainly intend to try. :-)
Artist Alley Help!
Recently I was at Wizard World Con in Toronto and sort of accidentally won 1st Prize in their Drink & Draw.
I’m an amateur whose never really been published anywhere, and I now find myself with a free table in Artist’s Alley at Wizard’s Chicago Comic Con August 9-12.
I have no printed work, no self-made comics, not even a real portfolio to speak of, and I have a million questions to ask of anyone who might be willing to offer some advice regarding what makes a successful booth at a comic con.
Especially at a convention as big as Chicago, I’m really being thrown into the deep end here… So ANY experienced answers to any of the following questions would be immeasurably helpful. Thanks in advance!!!
First off, Stock & Pricing:
1.) How many Prints do I need to have made (considering Chicago Comic Con is a big show)?
2.) What’s the rule vs. the reality of Copyrighted characters (DC/Marvel) in Prints?
3.) Should I be making original character/public domain prints, or sticking to the well-known characters? Ie. What will sell vs. what won’t get me a Cease-and-Desist letter?
4.) What’s the rule vs. the reality of Copyrighted characters (DC/Marvel) in Show Commissions?
5.) What is a reasonable price for Prints, Commissions, Sketches for an unknown artist?
Next, Canada/US International Business:
For reference, I am a US Citizen & a Permanent Resident of Canada. I live & work full-time in Canada.
1.) What is the process crossing the US/Canada Border with a booth setup and Prints?
2.) Do I need to set up a registered Canadian business?
3.) Should I ship my goods to the Con in advance or bring them with me in my car?
4.) Do I need any kind of license to sell my art in Chicago?
1.) Any and all recommendations on setting up an awesome, professional-looking booth would be great, especially on the cheap.
2.) I hear I should grab a nice tablecloth… Any and all helpful tips for kitting out the table itself would be invaluable. Like a ‘Convention Table Survival Kit’ list..? (ie. Go nowhere without Duct Tape…)
I’ve done lots of research myself, but I’ve found very little documentation regarding the practical side of things. And the legal topics (copyright questions in particular) have SO much contradictory info it’s impossible to sort the truth from the crap.
So anything an experienced con-goer could help with would be GREATLY appreciated!
So I freaking won it..!
While everyone else was off at C2E2, I went to the other comic convention going on this past weekend: Wizard Con Toronto. It’s a lot closer to home, and I was pretty keen to try out Tommy Castillo’s Wizard Drink & Draw with some comics pros. There were 2 categories: Amateur & Professional. Being unplublished, I entered as an amateur. After seeing what I was working on, they bumped me up to Pro.
And damned if I didn’t win the thing! I will have my own table at Artists Alley at the Wizardworld Chicago Comic Con August 9-12, 2012. Catch me there!
As an interesting aside, Amy Acker (of Angel, Dollhouse, etc. fame) happened into the bar where we were doing our Drink & Draw and she came over and sat down with me for a minute, watching me draw. She liked my work, too. She was so nice! Very sweet person, absolutely fantastic. My wife and I stopped in at her booth the next day before leaving the Con and she recognized us, commented on my drawings. It was really great.
Weeeeird night for a small-town Georgia-boy. But a damn good one!