So Long and Thanks for the Fish, man #004: Indie Comic Book Publishing 101 Part 4

Onward Comic soldiers… marching on to cons! I hope you read that like the little ditty from Sunday school. Further down the rabbit hole of comic creation, we find ourselves at a foothold that will define you and your brand for years to come. One misstep could lead you from indie darling to worthless sham artist in a matter of swathes of a brush. Hyperbole? You bet. But we absolutely need to discuss the matter at hand:

Your Product is Your Brand.

Take a stroll down the aisles of artists in the alleys of comic cons (aka “Artist Alley”) and you’ll soon find that they all fall into one of a few basic categories: Book Pushers, Famous-Enough-Not-To-Need-To-Sell(ers), Original Artisans, and Mad Merch Guys. Now, everyone (of course) is a unique snowflake — so they will all be a certain percentage of one, and another percentage of another — but these categories all basically define not only what we sell, but how we sell at a comic con. 

Book Pushers are in the alley to primarily move their original comic books.  Original Artisans are there to move their fine art — prints and original pieces that usually are not copywritten characters. And the Mad Merch Guys? Well in the alley, they are hawkers of stickers, posters, post cards and the like; where the majority of the work is recognizable copywritten characters not owned by the artist in question. You follow me so far?

For the record… Unshaven Comics is 85% Book Pushers, 15% Mad Merch Guys.

And it’s right there in that percentage that we’re going to get nice and comfy discussing. You see, early in our career at cons, Unshaven Comics strictly sold books. Matt — our resident artist extraordinaire ؅— would offer commissions from time to time, as he is typically the shyest seller at our table. Plus, it’s always a draw when you have an artist… well… drawing at your table. And for the while, this was how we operated. But over time, as we became better acclimated with the fans walking into the building, and the products that surrounded us, an itch began to form.

As our ability to produce full comics continued to remain at a snail’s pace (again: we all work full time non-creative day jobs…), we feared irrelevancy. How could we, in good conscience, show up at the same con a year later with nothing new to show? And so, in a fit of desperation… we mashed up Adventure Time and Star Wars into a single poster print. And Invader Zim mashed with Mars Attacks. Printing posters was a deceptively easy and affordable solution for giving our table a little more to move. As passersby caught a glimpse of the prints, a giggle would be our ticket to invite them to hear the (non-related) book pitch. You see, the prints were made specifically to be up-sell freebies with book purchase. Unless you were already a fan, in which case we’d sell you the poster only if you’re absolutely sure you want it, no pressure!

After dipping our toes into those merchy waters, it was like the veil had been removed from our eyes. We noticed more and more… the rise of full-time Mad Merchers. Towering displays of posters of every conceivable character (again, not licensed by the artist showcasing them) started to cast long shadows across the booths of their fellow alley cats. And the slow burn of competition began to smolder. Nowadays? Take that walk and truly count the number of Wolverines, Narutos, and Harley Quinn prints littering the con floor. In every kitschy and conceivable style — photo-realistic, anime-influenced, chibi-cutesy, formed entirely out of words, silver age homage-style, or just rendered in the artist’s house style. And all done knowing full well an army of lawyers from big publishing could cripple booth after booth with a flick of the finger. See? That’s how we live on the edge!

But let’s stop here, and get to the big fat point: Where is the line between shameless sell-out, and original auteur? And what advice would I give to a would-be creator on the precipice of attending their first con as a seller?

I personally believe the answer is different for each and every artist who showcases at a con. For some? The need to grind out profits will outweigh the need to say something original. And that’s OK. Because for many folks… going to con and finding that perfect print of 90’s era crab-mask Kyle Rayner done in a marginally realistic style is the exact thing that fan wanted. How could I ever begrudge a fan for finding their favorite rendition of their favorite character which in turn puts food on the plate for the artist who made it? Never! Nor could I shame the artist for promoting their more commercially viable wares before their totally off-the-wall original comic series — which takes a full minute to pitch and is often not an easily identifiable genre that sells to a wide audience. But I digress.

On the other end of the spectrum exist those who create their work, and would rather not spend their time rendering the works of another company (unless that company is paying them). Commissions may be one-thing — a very necessary thing for many working artists in fact — but the products that land on the table will act as the statement of the artist standing behind it. And while their work will need to be sold on the potency of the pitch more than the instant recognition of a character, or immediate appreciation of a specific style, doing things in this matter is just as valid (and not better) as those folks peddling poster-prints.

Ultimately what you sell is your brand. In whatever manner that brand is perceived, is a direct correlation to the products you choose to showcase. The comic community is for all creators willing to make and sell their art. Judgement should not come in an audit of artistic merit, but in the execution and crafting of the final work for sale. For my studio? Our brand is our comics. Our merch is a way to keep us relevant, get a few laughs, and ultimately showcase our personality. The 85/15 split is a purposeful choice to help potential customers see what we want them to see. And while the siren song of a significant increase in merchandise over books remains at a dull buzz in the backs of our heads… for now our choice remains the foundation where we’re building our secret headquarters.


Next week… The Cool Kids Club; and how I’ll never be in it (but you just might be!).