Convention Culture and the Modern Artist

So, I’d been meaning to write something about this since things erupted last month on Denise Dorman’s blog [link]. But the topic is a very, very big one, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the entirety of it, and still can’t, and so I’d resisted anything other than a few tweets on the subject. I do think, though, that there are a couple of very basic truths on the subject that I can get out here, so let’s dive in and see where this takes us:

1. The make-up of the attendees of comic book conventions is changing.

I’d say this is a no-brainer, but for those in the cheap seats: There are more fans of nerd-culture things, like superhero comics and science-fiction, than there have been in a very, very long time. The success of DC and Marvel’s movies, the easy availability of sci-fi and fantasy on specialty cable networks, the goddamned Big Bang Theory, all of it has contributed to ‘geek’ culture being embraced by the widest swath of people in history–with the possible exception of Star Wars and Star Trek on the big screen from 77-85.  Despite the fact that I have been going to comic-cons since 1994, and despite the fact that I have been going to Comic-Con since 1999, my mom finally figured out what Comic-Con was last year and that’s basically the only dividing line that anyone needs.

Because of this, the interest in comic-cons is increasing, attendance is up at most shows, and the audience is significantly different from the ‘initiated’ or ‘hardcore’ fans that made up the bulk of attendees as little as five years ago now.

2. The make-up of comic convention organizers is changing, too.

Here’s the one that’s not getting as much play. Comic-cons have always been half way between a labour of love and something resembling a scheme, but their incredible success has attracted a lot of people and organizations in recent years that had previously stayed away due to the specialized nature of the events. Because the sorts of material covered by comic-cons is now material that’s largely in the mainstream, it has gotten much, much easier for those sorts of organizers only tangentially in the know to put together a show that will draw a crowd. The ‘gentleman’ who’s running the Salt Lake Show trying to challenge San Diego’s TM on Comic-Con, or the large-scale trade show organization that has been buying up medium-sized and large-sized shows, like the one in Toronto a few years ago… Comics conventioneering has a long and great history of events being run by passionate businesspeople, passionate groups of fans getting together to organize events, and other only-vaguely capitalist types.  It has a history of hucksterism and scam artists too, but it’s getting a heckuva lot tougher to tell the well-funded and well-run show from the guy who’s trying overselling admissions to cram as many people through that door and who doesn’t give a damn about the exhibitors, attendees, or the fire code for that matter…

The person in charge of an event matters, a lot. Most fans don’t really do the research or even care who’s running the show, as long as they get the access that they crave (access to guests, access to goods, access to other fans). I’d even wager to say most attendees don’t really know the actual name of the show they’re at. Speaking from personal experience we still get fans, exhibitors, and artists that can’t tell the difference between TCAF (indy show, May every year since 2009, set in a library since 2009) and Fan Expo (fan show, August every year for a decade, at the convention centre). That sort of… undiscernment… is to everyone’s own detriment, but you can’t force people to be good consumers, and that lack of discretion always has collateral damage, as badly run shows negatively impact impression of all shows.

3. Professional Fans & ‘Personalities’, which is to say Youtubers, Professional Cosplayers, etc.

I think Denise Dorman’s railing against the ‘instagram’ generation is hilarious but actually has a point–she’s just not using the best terminology to describe what is an actual phenomenon–before 5 years ago, no one (in their right mind) would go to a show thinking that they were an ‘attraction’ without buying themselves an exhibition space, a booth, an artist alley table, something. However, in the last few years the number of people who think that a badge (whether paid for or comped) entitles them to an audience within a convention space is on the rise dramatically. It’s been pegged as cosplayers, and honestly there are more cosplayers at shows than ever, and more professional cosplayers who are going to shows to make money and build an audience. Cosplayers attending shows as businesspeople, who aren’t contributing to the economy of the show.

But professional cosplayers (and I think there’s an important distinction there between people who cosplay and people who earn money cosplaying) are literally nothing compared to the other social media personalities who have begun to call comic-conventions theirs. Where previously you had nerdlebrities like Wil Wheaton building a social media empire out of their cred, today’s social media personalities have amassed huge followings through their postings, videos, and photos on YouTube (largely) and other video and media services. They are the product, they have 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 subscribers on social media, and they announce that they’re going to COMIC-CON X and all of their fans should meet them there. It’s easy to see how that’s a boon for a convention looking to sell tickets… they get a crazy-popular ‘guest’ and they don’t have to do any of the work of actually bringing this personality as a guest. The dude with the media badge AS the thing being covered. But tell me that a fan motivated to go to a comic show to see a dude who talks about shit on Youtube is gonna buy the same way, at the same level, as the fan motivated to go to a comic show because she likes comics.

(This also includes the type of Pro-Fan who has a thriving eBay store, an Amazon store, who is a toy-hunter or exclusive-hunter, basically any sort of fan actively deriving income from attending a convention)

Which brings us to point four.

4. Comic Conventions Are Filling Up And Selling Out, Earlier and Earlier

So all of the above, all of it, almost-completely doesn’t matter at a comic convention with infinite size and infinite space. In that situation, then, yes, it DOES come down to how good of a salesperson Denise Dorman’s husband is, because (in theory) every potential customer will walk by his booth and make a decision about purchasing his wares.

But comic conventions are not infinite. San Diego sells out the year before. New York sells out months out. Emerald City sells out eight months out. I could name a dozen more shows that sell all of their tickets well before the doors open. What that means is that demand is higher for tickets than there were tickets available. So when that happens, you’ve got to ask yourself, what ‘type’ of fan got the tickets before they sold out? Probably the most-dedicated fans. The fans most-in-the-know about how shows are run these days. And, probably, The Professional Fans, who while not exhibiting nonetheless derive income from being at that show.  And when your casual buyer who just wants to go to a show and maybe drop some money on comics can’t make it, because she didn’t want it bad enough, well sir I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be a different kind of sales show for exhibitors, that’s for sure.

Now until this point, all of this has been more or less neutral, as far as I’m concerned. Like I said, I believe that these are truths about the business–the way things are. I don’t particularly think these new fan economies within shows are good or bad, because there’s clearly a give and a take between all involved. Capitalism, you know? It’s where advice like the somewhat facile “Adapt or Die” comes into play… If the economy of shows is changing, adapt to it and make your money. Sure, why not.

However, I actually do have opinions about this stuff, beyond the statement of simple truths. Here goes.

The changing convention landscape is inherently shitty for people who make comic books. Art comix, indy comics, mainstream comics, whatever comics, the changing makeup of conventions is hostile to people who want to make and sell comics at comic conventions. And let me be clear, this is comic books and graphic novels, as opposed to ‘prints’ or crafts or whatever manner of tchotchkes makeup most exhibitor tables these days. Basically, comic book conventions are aggressively attracting an audience who don’t necessarily value books, or comic books.

This is sure to be controversial, so before you scroll down to leave an angry comment, please hear me out.

Let’s go back to points 1 to 4 a bit, and talk about those points okay?

1. I think it is a very safe assumption that people who come to comic books, sci-fi, or fantasy through adaptations in other media like television, film, video games, don’t necessarily place the same value on the medium as the message. Sure, some of them become converts–it’s hard not to! Comics are great. Novels are great. But I’d say a large percentage don’t really care about the original media, they’re just interested in the story (or if I’m being less generous, the ‘property’). This is bourne out by my experience as a comic retailer and convention exhibitor for the past 20 years or so.

2. The changing make-up of convention runners means that more and more people are entering the field who could give two-shits about anything other than paid admissions and filling the con floor with whomever has the money to pay. There are still lots of great shows, lots of great con-runners, but their are very few shows at all with an ideology, particularly one that values comics. This has a pronounced effect.

3. I don’t mean to beat this particular horse any further, but let me just say there are no vloggers or YouTube personalities with 300k followers regularly talking about comics, to my knowledge.  Games, current events, their own lives, but if there’s some sort of comics vlogger out there that’s defining a generation of criticism and winning new fans, please let me know! I’d love to subscribe. Professional fans, again, are there for their own reasons.

4. I’d say hardcore comics fans are just as likely to be extremely motivated to jump through the necessary hoops as Pro-fans, as personalities, as people heading to shows like they’re a “Nerd-Happening”, to attend sold-out shows. But that does leave the casual attendee or comics fan out in the cold, and being able to convert those casual attendees is what the prior economy of shows is built on.

All of this adds up to fewer folks that actually care about getting comics at a comic con. Again, I want to stress: I have 20 years of exhibiting at shows, including Comic-Con, backing this up.

When you have people who are attending and otherwise interacting with comic conventions who aren’t coming at them from the direction of comic books (whether physical or digital, I should clarify), then the folks who aren’t selling books are at a tremendous advantage in battling for the dollars to be earned from an attendee’s wallet. There is a very different perception in value of a book or a comic book, or a print/craft/tchtchoke. At a show like this, if you’ve got a $20 Punisher comic on a table, a $20 Punisher action figure, and a $20 11×17 colour photocopy depicting The Punisher next to each other on a table, you are going to sell that 11×17 Punisher colour photocopy 7 times out of 10, the toy twice, and the comic book once. And it doesn’t matter if the comic is full price at $20, half price at $20, or if the artist himself is there and selling the Punisher comic with an autograph. The print, almost always the print.

Example: I have exhibited at shows for UDON, and had a $40 (really nice lithograph) Street Fighter print on the table, and a 200 page Street Fighter book which contained the image on the print and 190 other images, also for $40, and the print always sold first. When I asked the customer why they didn’t go for the book with the image they loved (reproduced at a nice size, I should add) instead of the single image, the answer always came down to the print feeling like an object with higher perceived value.

The same goes for other merch. There’s a thriving world of grey-market collectibles based on other peoples’ intellectual property out there, and honestly as long as the creators (if not the IP holders…) are fine with it I don’t really care. But being an exhibitor, or being in artist alley, and having a book versus having a piece of merchandise is not a level playing field, it just isn’t. Which, again, is not to say that the unleveled field cannot be overcome. In a vacuum, again, that’s fine, that’s capitalism, but:

  1. It’s not a vacuum, because of points 1, 2, 3, and 4, and
  2. Comic-cons have traditionally (and until very recently) been places that have been immersed in book-culture, have been pro-book, and whose attendees value the medium.

Saying “Adapt or Die” to someone who has been placed at a severe economic disadvantage by forces entirely beyond their control in the space of 2 or 3 years is, at best, terribly unsympathetic. And I don’t mean to pick on the writer of that piece specifically, but that response is emblematic of the responses I’ve seen to Denise Dorman’s pieces, that (without knowing anything about her or her husband’s con setup) they just weren’t trying hard enough, ‘and have you considered making eye contact with people and not hating cosplayers.’ I mean… ugh. That poor woman. Anyway.

So, in short: The makeup of contemporary comic conventions has changed dramatically, and is changing, at every single level. The deck has become stacked against people selling book product (and particularly original book product versus licensed or tie-in material, in my opinion). I think every creator out there should think long and hard about the shows they do, how much money is being charged of attendees, who their fellow exhibitors and guests are and what that says about what sort of show they’re likely to have. Moreover, it would be nice if more comic book conventions made a concerted effort to privilege comic books (and novels) in the make-up of their shows at all levels, to at least attempt to level that playing field a little. Creating an environment where comics, and their creators, are celebrated is positive in a great number of ways, not the least of which because those television shows, films, and video games are going to have to come from somewhere, and it would be nice if comics creators could at least break-even at a show where they’re trying to promote their work, and the medium.

So those are my thoughts–a few things that I don’t think are being talked about, and some conclusions I’ve drawn from them. I’ve enjoyed reading other folks’ responses to this issue, and if you’re reading this 2500 words later I appreciate you taking the time to read mine.


– Christopher

P.S. and Full Disclosure: For those of you new to my writings, hi! I Manage a shop called The Beguiling in Toronto. I co-founded and am Festival Director of The Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ve also been involved in the running of comics conventions, and have been making and promoting comics for quite a while now. 

18 Replies to “Convention Culture and the Modern Artist”

  1. I find what moves is the exact opposite of what you do. I set up a table with my book of prints, my comics, and my Tarot deck, and all the prints ever do is bring people in so I can pitch them on my comic or deck.

    I can usually turn a modest profit on an alley table, especially if I split the cost of a room with some friends. I’m not paying my rent but I’ve only been doing comics shows for a couple years.

    I’m also not selling anything at all resembling fan art. I’m curious how much of your 20 years of con sales have been with UDON, who is (IIRC) basically a group of pro-level Street Fighter fan artists? Fan artists are competing for mind space against everyone else drawing fan art of the same corporate product; I regularly see people discover that they did not know there was a hole in their life shaped like a comic about a lesbian robot with reality problems until they stopped at my table and walked away with a lighter wallet. There is NOWHERE else anyone can get a fix of that, but there’s a hell of a lot of places you can get a hit of Street Fighter or Batman or Mario or Star Wars or whatnot.

  2. The times they are a changin’

    Some people hate change with a passion and will often point at one exact thing as the reason. I like this article on the subject because it doesn’t just play the blame game, really, change isn’t something you can blame. You can kick and scream and fight against it but you’ll lose out every time.

    I’m lucky. I live in the smallest province 🙂 and I have 1 really good, really small comic expo nearby. It’s comic book focused which works for me and most of the people who attended.

    We have a bigger convention that is more all encompassing for nerd culture things which I don’t attend because yes, part of it applies to comics, but it seems like a small part.

    I cannot imagine going to something like NY, San Diego or those because they seem to be made to make money and are just so big that they try to fit everything in…not that that’s a bad thing IF that’s for you. Or at least, take that into consideration

  3. Interesting comments. I must admit that despite watching the Marvel films, buying the Batman games and so on I haven’t actually picked up a comic in these series in years. I absorb knowledge of these things either osmotically or from the ancillary material, like the films, like the games…rarely if ever from reading the comics directly. Because Marvel and DC occupy such a prominent place in our cultural landscape actually reading the source material becomes basically unnecessary to know who these characters are. Or at least get one interpretation of them in your mind.

    It also seems something of a shame that, like you said, comics conventions are inadvertently pushing out the conventional comics fan. Inevitable, perhaps, but still a shame. Great article overall!

  4. This was really enlightening, thank you! I haven’t been to many cons, but I feel like Emerald City Comic-Con is one of those cons that makes a real effort to promote actual comics (especially ones outside the big 2). I just hope it continues to stay that way.

  5. I haven’t been selling at as many places, but I’ve been attending and selling since about 1981 or so, and yeah, a lot of this really rings true.

    Maybe not dead-on for some of my stuff, but close enough for me to think about compensatory strategies as opposed to a shock-and-awe-at-what’s-happening approach.

    Thanks for writing it!

  6. Christopher (from a fellow Chris)…
    Very great and interesting points of observation.
    Full disclosure from me:
    I am a web cartoonist who has exhibited in various Artist Alleys since Heroes Con 2008 (my first con as an artist selling stuff). I had been going to all kinds of conventions since the early 80’s when I got back into comics as a high schooler (yeah, I’m an “old timer” alright).
    But anyway, getting back to the convention discussion, I’m glad you made the point about prints and why they seem to be the object of choice for so many convention goers these days.
    In a lot of artist circles I am a part of, there’s a sub-section of warring going on between those artists who don’t have a problem of selling prints and those who are against it. For me, I’m a cartoonist so when I do prints, I always do some kind of parody or twist on the subject matter. I very rarely have a straight up, non-humorous depiction of another company’s character. And they sell. This past year and a half, when I started doing them, I have had my best sales since 2008.
    I also have three book collections of all of my webcomics that range from 165 pages to 185 pages. I struggle to get those into other people’s hands at shows. But the Minion mash-ups I have on my table? Man, they sell like hot cakes. It’s very much the same experience you had with UDON. They would get more bang for their buck if they bought a single book for $15 but they’d rather have three 9×12″ prints for $10 instead. Can’t explain it, can’t comprehend it so I just go with it instead.
    I’m also seeing a huge increase in sketch cover work as well. Used to hate doing sketch covers ’cause the covers were glossy and hard to draw on but with more of them using a card stock-like paper, those have been hot sales at me table as well. Maybe it’s because people are getting a comic book AND some original art as well, I don’t know.

    Anyway, just wanted to say “nice piece”.
    I’m out.

  7. Very useful to me! I’ve spent the last year trying to comprehend how cons have changed, and I keep getting surprised. Thanks for writing this.

    As a child of the 70s & 80s, I think of comics as literature to be archived and treasured. Posters are disposable ads with folds and staple holes, often ripped out of a comic or magazine (Dynamite!) thus ruining your book. It’ll take some time for me to swallow that some people would pay more for a poster than a comic book.

  8. Came across this article after seeing Scott McCloud’s tweet.
    I agree with everything written, but I also did have a thought as a tangent from point 3:

    Marcus “djWheat” Graham, as a web personality heavily involved in gaming culture and webstreaming technologies, is always regularly plugging the latest indie comic book that he just picked up. He might not have a 300k+ following, but he’s definitely made me look at indie comics a bit more closely in the last few months, Rat Queens and Low, for instance (I’ve been a Marvel guy for the last few years and this has been refreshing).

  9. Great, thoughtful post; and yes, Dave Dorman & I do all of the things that people kindly suggested ALREADY – from making eye contact to supporting the cosplayers, to selling items for $5 and $10 to nice booth displays. There isn’t time in the day to respond to them all and explain that, but I’m glad you “get” it.

  10. True! The money is also timed with the cashflow of attendees. Here in Hawaii, money cons are right after mid month payday. No money cons happen near the end or beginning of the month, like the recent Kawaii Kon. Hoku con a new general scifi fantasy and comic con starting in 2015 in Honolulu is close enough to payday we should do fine.

  11. Hi Christopher:

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. I have seen our local little one day comic con go from 300 to 400 attendees to over 1000. Mostly kids wanting to compete in the costume contest and sit around talking. There are a lot of serious comic collectors who come to the con to look for scores. But many attendees don’t know one comic from another.

    I run a sci-fi/fantasy con. We had a famous author last year and rather than cram as many people into the space, we stopped registration sales before the con. I’d rather people be comfortable than have to cram themselves through a hallway just to get to the bathroom.


  12. You asked about comics vloggers: have you come across “Atop the Fourth Wall”? I don’t know how many people watch his videos, but I do know that he does this as his full-time job.

  13. This article sums up my feelings over the past few years as “geek” culture has taken over the conventions. I think what has happened to San Diego Comic Con with the huge amount of toy exhibitor booths shutting out what used to be all those great comics dealers is depressing to say the least. It used to be if you were local to southern California that you can take a nice Saturday drive down there and go for one day to see the great dealer tables, meet your favorite artist, and take in a nice panel. Those days are long gone.

    The worst part of it is what will happen when the geek fad wheres off? Where will that leave comic books and the whole industry once the movie box office receipts go down and the mega conventions with their year long waits are no longer bringing them in?

  14. RE: Purchasing prints over books.

    While I certainly think there’s a group of people who do so for “value” reasons, I think there’s a much easier explanation.

    I’ve only been to a few cons in my life but every time, I walk out with prints and will often choose those over a book from an artist. The simple reason: it’s likely I can find the book at my LCS- or online- while the print isn’t something readily available outside of the con. It will often come with a signature as well, which is a nice bonus and makes it particularly unique. I’m not reselling my Cliff Chiang signed “Archies” print any money. That’s a nice reminder- hung prominently in my house- of a one minute conversation with the artist about Jaime Hernandez. If I have a limited amount of money to spend, I’m going to buy the item I won’t be able to see again.

    1. This is something vendors should consider. If I buy a print I can get it signed and framed and display it. Almost any book can be purchased online or somewhere else.

  15. Well done. I have been working comic book shows since 2004 as a writer and self-publisher or comics. If you think it’s become tougher for indie comics ARTISTS to sell their material, come hang out with indie comics WRITERS at a show. Your remarks about prints selling 7 times out of 10 are dead-on target. I’ve split tables with many artists and they make double, sometimes triple, what I make in a weekend off prints and sketches, even though I’m doing all the “right” sales pitch stuff and they’re busy drawing.

    The common phrase I’d hear used to be, “Oh, you’re the writer (not the artist)?” or “Oh, you just wrote it?” I still hear those (and still somehow hold back from punching people in the throat when they say them), but now people ask things like, “Do you have anything to do with zombies / Dr. Who / Attack on Titan / Adventure Time / Game of Thrones / vampires / insert hip thing of choice here?” or “You do anything with Marvel or DC?”

    When they hear, “No, but I have a lot of stuff you’d probably like,” their ears shut off at “No.” Properties are all the hot rage now. I have two friends who are great pin-up artists. They would barely cover their food expenses at a show if they didn’t sell pop culture-themed pieces (Harley Quinns, Princess Leias, Power Girls, etc.). Few people want their pin-ups of a model they’ve never heard of or seen.

    And for the record, I don’t mind the cosplayers. I do mind the outrageous ticket, autograph, photo op, and table prices at shows, however. I worked Wizard Philly three years ago. It was $60.00 to get in on Saturday and $80.00 for an autograph from and photo with Chris Hemsworth. I was in a corner booth with one of my pin-up artist pals and a well-known and foxy professional wrestler for whom I’ve published multiple comics. We lost track of how many times we heard, “I wish I could buy your stuff, but I spent all my money getting in and getting my picture with Celebrity X.”

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