So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #014: Con-Job!

Unshaven Comics — the studio that houses myself and my brothers-from-other-mothers — participated in our final conventions for 2018. While other comic cons are going to be running through the end of the year… for us, the year is over. And what an interesting experience we as a company had in our final pair of shows. It seemed we forgot how calendars operate, and wound up double-booking ourselves. The newly minted Ace Universe show in Chicago welcomed us (and our money) the very same weekend we’d committed (as always) to the Kokomo Comic Con, in Kokomo, Indiana. Luckily for us, there are 3 Unshaven Lads, and Kokomo was only a one-day shindig — allowing us to divide and conquer. With that being said… there is a lot to unpack regarding the size, scope, and relative success my motley crew saw across the pair of shows.

Ace Universe is a hot new contender in the pop culture convention space. As brought to the geek kingdom by way of the Shamus empire — formerly of Wizard World fame. Ace’s calling card is top tier talent specifically in the autograph / photo-op space. Specific to the Ace Universe Chicago show we tabled at? Chris Evans, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Karen Gillan, Zazie Beetz, Matt Smith, and a litany of WWE Stars all took center stage. The show itself was held at Chicago’s Navy Pier — which by most fans we spoke to, was not the easiest or accommodating commute to take. The convention hall was a single large open room, with the autograph/photo-op area dead center, artists and vendors around its periphery, with a “main stage” set in the tail-end of the space.

As an artist tabling at the show, we found almost immediately that our success would be wholly achieved through the grind; as most of the attendees came strictly to collect their photos and signatures. These “celebrity experiences” were costly endeavors — with VIP packages starting in the mid $200 range. Keeping that in mind? It became apparent that we lowly vendors and artists were there strictly to act as window dressing and distractions for the already wallet-light fans milling about. Friday itself was the most-rough day of the weekend, with the after-work crowds all dawdling in with little desire to buy. Saturday and Sunday saw larger and more amicable fans pursuing the aisles (all 4 of them) with only slightly more desire to hear about new and wonderful independent publications (such as “The Samurnauts” or “Toolbox”). Given a relatively tame tabling fee, Unshaven Comics left Navy Pier on Sunday night a little above break-even; once the $30 per-car per-day parking snapped the top off our coffers.

In contrast, the Kokomo Comic Con was a single day, single community affair in the wonderfully proud 13th largest city in Indiana. Here in its 9th year, Kokomo Con is a show Unshaven makes the trek out for regardless of specific sales goals. As denoted this year even more than the last, with little new to showcase at our table, most of my interactions throughout the day really were with well-wishers who already owned all that I came to promote. Anchored by stalwart Indiana-based comic bookers like guest-of-honor Stuart Sayger, always amicable Gavin Smith, and a handful of other fantastic independent artists and vendors… the show seats itself in the wide-eyed, big-smiled hearts of those who know what comic conventions of yesteryear looked like. With costume contests, light-hearted announcements over the PA, and a little over 1000 fans from around the city and beyond milling about, it was as far removed from Ace as one might get. 

Once Sunday evening befell my beleaguered brethren, I waxed poetic as I recounted the year in conventions for my little studio. I walk away with a short list of lessons learned. I’ll leave you with them:

  1. New is good. Unshaven made way to the mile-high city of Denver this year, to attend the Denver Comic Con (now the “Denver Pop Culture Con”). There with no one to have ever heard of us? We were able to smash our sales goals and break into a market with a fresh-face.
  2. For the larger shows like C2E2, we are still very much an “Artist Alley” act. Where we previously tabled from the small press area, making our way back to the single 8 ft. tables of Artist Alley proved a much more profitable and pleasurable experience. We know the optics of being seen as a small press publisher may make a particular statement… Unshaven Comics knows that the only thing we need to appear to be is exactly who we are: 3 best friends who sell a handful of our books and some art. Nothing fancier needed.
  3. New content is king. Simply put, when you don’t bring anything new to a show? You (well, “we”) feel like a fraud. That is to say: when your day job, being a husband and father, and freelance life prevent you from cranking out the new comics? A guilty conscience trying to hock the same books you did at the same show for the last year and a half can lend to one feeling a bit guilty as you wind up apologizing a dozen times or so as you’re asking “Got anything new?”
  4. There are no bad shows, if you choose to make them good. As detailed on other sites I’ve written for (google it, I’m lazy and uncharitable today), I am firm believer that when a show doesn’t shower you in spendy-attendees… it’s an opportune time to make some lemonade. Networking and commiserating with fellow artists can bolster a rolodex. Taking more time to interact with fans — instead of feeling the pressure to sell and turn the customer out — can yield important market research as to your product offerings. And of course, slow sales days allow for the bolstering of one’s personal portfolio — should one be the type to produce and sell sketchcards and the like on the side.
  5. And last but not least? Comic conventions remain the lifeblood of the independent publishing market. The shows may ebb and flow with size, shape, and drawing power… but the need to create spaces where our communities can cavort elbow to elbow with those creating their work is a necessary function to both engage a worthy fanbase, as well as a continuing source of experimentation and inspiration. The lesson to learn though, is to select the right shows in the following year so-as to maintain necessary growth in order to meet the expectations of the company that you serve. In lesser terms? A shit show deserves scrutiny when choosing to table the following year.

For now, Unshaven Comics can regroup for 2019. We have new merchandise to make, branding to build, and content to create. I’m

assured we’ll see you on the floor soon enough. Just be on the lookout for the same old sign…