Zen and Art

Convention Wisdom – My first comic-con

Monday, January 19th, 2009

The FIRST show.

Often your first show will be overwhelming, no matter which one it is. But some more than others will utterly blow your mind. My first real convention experience was San Diego Comic-Con in 1997. This was before they doubled the size of the convention center. I spent the first day – drool down my chin – half blissed out and wandering around like a zombie – my friends dragging me around by the sleeve to keep me from running into things. Actually… things haven’t really changed all that much now that I think of it.

My first experience was much like I imagine many other peoples have been – high levels of exhilaration, over-stimulation, exhaustion and complete and total disappointment. I came with a backpack of my very first book to give away to every publisher I could find. All of whom took one look, cringed and brushed me on, the way one might an overly enthusiastic golden retriever – It’s not without warrant. That first book was awful. But it was no less heart breaking to hear from your favorite artists just how awful they thought it was. From Jim Lee to Neil Adams, they each took no pity on me and flat out told me I ought to quit then and there. I was in for many years of heartache and disappointment – was the general consensus. They were not wrong.

What made matters worse, was that my first comic book was a flip-book with a different story on either side. Both, stories that I’d written and created.  But on the flip-side of my pariah of creativity was the art of one Francis Tsai. No matter how I presented the material, they would creak out painful illuminations about my art, and eventually turn the pages over… and the heavens would open, the angels would sing and the praise would pour forth from their lips as though all were reading from the same exact script “Did you draw this?! ITs AMAZING!”SIGH..…”no”  I would reply. “My friend drew that.” “Oh” they would say… painful grimaces slowly crossing over their face once again. And so it went… the remedy for my tiny ego that had swelled briefly between the moments of finishing the book and arriving at the convention. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I was actually trying to SELL the comic book. As it was it took nearly 10 years to give away the 1000 copies in that print run.

By the end of the weekend I was broken down. I had no will within me anymore. Save for 3 people that took me aside and fed me a little encouragement to keep me from completely crumbling away.

  1. Danzig… thought my work was great. Go figure. Its organic!!! Like its growing out of the #@$&! page. Is what he told me.  And the art on the other side of the book “looked like he’d drawn with a ruler in his @$#!” (whatever that means?) But the thing that stood out was that he told me “it looked like I actually had fun drawing my comic.”  Which is something that you actually don’t see as often as you would think.  And its something I had to relearn after getting lost for many years trying to “get better”.  I may never know if he was just putting me on. But his enthusiasm made me smile and kept me pushing through the show.  Even now, my rule of thumb is, “If you’re not having fun doing it, no one else will have fun reading it.”
  2. I met Steve Oliff while lurking admiringly around the incredibly stunning Trilogy Tour booth tree with life size replicas of Bone, the red dragon and Usagi yojimbo (I was also secretly hoping the 350 people waiting for Jeff Smith would suddenly disappear). Steve was off in the corner of the booth, he said, keeping it warm until Charlie Vess returned. I recognized Steve’s name on his badge from Olioptics, Sam Kieth’s color artist on The Maxx (My absolute favorite comic book at the time). He asked what I had in my hand. By that time it felt like leprosy on the end of my arm… but reluctantly I surrendered the book to him. He was honest, but kind about what I had. For about 30 minutes he gave me real feedback and even a lesson or two – sketching out a demonstration in my little notebook for me to take with me. But most importantly, he imparted me with a gift that I have passed on many times over. Don’t give up. If it’s really important to you, eventually you’ll get to where you want to go. Every time I meet a new artist I remember that conversation and how much it meant to me.
  3. Lessons always come in threes I’ve found, I had heard the words from Steve, and felt the enthusiasm from Mr. Danzig… but to really believe something you need to see and example and on this occasion the artist Roel Wielinga was to be my example. When Roel asked to see my work I honestly barely knew who he was. I just knew he had beautiful paintings all over his booth and for some reason he wanted to see what was in my hands. He didn’t say much at all, he just listened to me vent over the horrendous experience that weekend. After I’d gotten it all out he just smiled, pulled out a painting from behind a stack of many others. He asked simply what I thought of it. I thought it was awful. But I would hardly admit that, so he said it for me.  Then he told me the magic phrase.  It was only five years old he said… that’s how quickly things can change. I knew from his example, that if I wanted it badly enough, I could make that kind of a change. In time, I can honestly say that I have. And I can honestly say that anyone can.

What did I learn from the experience?

  1. Start Small. Don’t pick the biggest convention in the country to get your feet wet. No matter how many people tell you it’s a good idea! Find as many small press/ indy conventions as you can and attend them all. Make friends. Take small steps. Small steps don’t hurt as badly when you fall.
  2. DON’T print 1000 copies of a book until you know you can sell ONE! This is a very common mistake. Print 100 copies at Kinkos. Practice selling 100 copies of a mini-comic for $2.00 each. Do it over and over with different stories until you can sell them all in 1 or 2 shows.  Then its time to start thinking about something more.
  3. Remember to have fun! It can be easy to get so caught up in the whole process of showing your work and getting feedback and your ego inflating and shrinking – that it takes away from all the fun, cool things you experience at a show. Take it in! Be a fanboy! Have fun!
  4. Put yourself out there! This is the opposite of rule number 3. Because there are some people that don’t put themselves out there to risk getting burned. No matter how painful it was, I am glad that I did it. It put me years ahead of some of my friends who are only now starting to put themselves out there.  And some that may never even try. Don’t wait! But find the right balance between having fun, and getting experience.
  5. Keep smiling! No matter who you are talking to, make it a good experience. You never know who you’re making an impression on, or who they know. So ALWAYS, ALWAYS make it good.
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