So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #077: “Dragon Conned?”

On labor day weekend of 2021… Unshaven Comics (yeah, my studio still exists) got in the ole’ minivan of power and headed from our quaint Chicago suburbs all the way down to Hotlanta for the back-in-the-venues-for-real Dragon Con. The show was our first outing as a studio since Dragon Con of 2019. Why? It rhymes with schmovid blinetine.

The show gave me all the feels, and it behooves me now to reflect. And I’m not here to sugar coat said thoughts and feelings. Because there’s no need for spin anymore. I’m 39. I’ve been making comic books and associated bric-a-brac now for 15 years. For those doing the math? That’s more than a third of my life. I’m done faking it till I make it… and so is Unshaven Comics.

For my lil’ studio, the show was already not going to be as successful as we might have wanted it to be. Because one third of the company was still at home. That’s right… our secret weapon, Kyle “Salesman 5000” Gnepper opted to stay back and away from the potential throngs of con-goers. For his safety, and that of his wife and children… he made the choice to let me and Matt “Penciler, Inker, Coffee Drinker” Wright do our thang as a gruesome twosome. Let’s be clear: Matt and I were 100% cool with the choice. And irony be damned? Kyle’s kiddos had a bit of cold to fight during the weekend anyways. As dads ourselves, we knew that Mr. Gnepper was best served doing his fatherly duty. The fort, we figured, was held down.

So we two Unshaven Lads unearthed the scattered remains of our convention materials (what we could find of them), and trekked ten-ish hours across Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia to make our way to the show. We had to our name a few boxes of random loose issues of “The Samurnauts”. We had 2 boxes of trades — the last of our supply of the first run. Matt had his box of original art. I had 3 spinner racks awaiting to be filled with 60+ mighty mashups — sacrilegious postcard-sized amalgams of Pokémon with comic book counterparts, as well as a set of Sailor-Scout-Disney-Princesses. Our only real branding? We found our tablecloth — creased oddly and in desperate need of dry cleaning. And that, my loyal followers… was it. No business cards. No infamous posters to attract wandering eyes. No sign to sit behind our table.

Show setup this time around was easier than years past. With this now our 4th trip to AmericasMart, all the landmarks were finally set in our brains, enough to traverse through downtown Atlanta to the right parking lot, to the right floor, to the right elevators to the right spot where we belonged. Badges were picked up, and we brushed the cobwebs from our setup and built the “booth” such as it were. With no desire to test the limits of the current pandemic, we booked it straight to our (very not good) hotel for the night.

Friday morning, we arrived an hour before the doors opened. We’ve done it perhaps a hundred times before, so, it was as you’d expect. The cashbox is organized. The books nicely fanned out. My pokemon cards properly assembled to maximize lookie-loos. Without so much as a polite announcement, the fans made their way into the hall, and thus the con began.

To paint you the picture as best I can: Artist Alley at AmericasMart is a rectangular room with about 12 ft. ceilings. The “front” of the room entrance is about a 10 foot wide hallway that breaks into the center of the rectangle. The first two-thirds of the room is an open expanse, bisected by a wide middle aisle. To the left and right, banks of eight foot tables — about 4 or 5 — with one artist per table (save of course for “bigger” acts that purchased 2 tables to breathe better).  A back wall of sorts is formed by a new row that faces in to the middle aisle. If you weren’t paying attention? You might think this is the back of the room for fans. But, continue walking down the middle aisle, and 2 more rows in the back of the room await. In that section, our table sat in between a corner booth to our left and right.

So let’s not mince words. For Marc Alan Fishman? The show was damn-fantastic. For Unshaven Comics… it wasn’t great. Hell. It wasn’t even good. But that’s not due to anything beyond the bearded bloke click-clacking away at the very column you’re reading.

As I’ve detailed in the past: Unshaven Comics is a balancing act of sorts. A living-breathing Venn diagram between art and commerce. On one side? Matt Wright. He’s boisterous when he wants to be. But his default position is at the board. Smiling. Drawing. Pointing out the various cosplays and things that catch his eye. On the opposite side of that spectrum is Kyle Gnepper. Kyle attacks the con like the Predator stalking prey in the jungle. Heat signatures walk past, and he strikes. “Folks! Can I tell you about our comic book?” he offers. And more often than not, the combination of Kyle’s straight-laced offer, and our collective gargoyle-like mugs usually winds up with a pity-stop. 22 seconds of pitching later, Kyle asks “So… would you like to give it a try?” and with it, we’ve seen a lifetime closing ratio of somewhere around 40%. I don’t care who you are… that’s damn impressive. In between Matt’s observer and Kyle’s pitch machine sits me. Can I pitch? Sure. Can I observe, network, strategize, and otherwise steer our ship? You betcha. But jack-of-all-trades means master-of-none.

Whilst con-goers walked past our table, I could feel the words on the tip of my tongue ready to invite them to listen to a pitch we’ve given so often, I could balance my checkbook while delivering it. But before I could open my mouth? The would-be customers were already at the next table, or now aimlessly chortling as they rifled through the spinner racks of Poke-Mashups.

By the end of the con, Matt and I wound up selling 27 trades. In 2019? We sold that many in a single day. What a difference a Kyle makes, no? The truth of the matter is that I got gun-shy. As proud as I am for Samurnauts: Curse of the Dreadnuts a year locked away due to COVID-19 left me back prior to finishing the book; forever second guessing if fans truly want a book about an immortal kung-fu monkey leading a color-coded team of samurai-astronauts to fight zombie-cyborg space pirates. That empathetic kick to study every fan before considering asking them if they’d mind hearing the pitch sewed my mouth shut. Instead, I clung to our signature 8.5” x 11” laminated sign that asks our leading question. Where Kyle uses it as a prop for a gag? I use it as a security blanket to hide behind. This time around, bolstered by the appeal of pitchless products like my Poke-mashups. Mashup cards I’ll sheepishly add outsold our books by about $300 by the end of the weekend.

What I feel I need to stress though… is that this show was not a bust for us. By any measure of the imagination. We didn’t sell Kyle-numbers because Kyle wasn’t there. My stutter-stop of becoming a solid pitchman doesn’t phase me. I know who I am and what I’m best at doing. Stopping a crowd with an idea? I can do it all day. And to help close that gap? It’s the artistic talent of Matt, the potent fearlessness of Kyle… and the combination of all three of us that is the secret sauce. So, a man down? I hang my head high with the results we DID manage to achieve.

Furthermore, a show is not just a tally in the till. For Matt especially? This was an event to find his personal passions again. A year without crowds to see and touch his artwork turned my brother-from-another-mother into an art-hermit. Forced to work his patoot off to pay the bills (we all face!) without those necessary jaunts back into the fandom had burnt him out. He’d said as much on our drive down. Of equal-if-not-greater importance? The fans. Connecting one-to-one with those who call pop culture and comic books their weapon of choice is a gift not to be looked past. To see folks we’d not seen in 2 years return to the table to smile behind their masks and just shoot the breeze with us? It crept a smile across my face that hasn’t been there since that last con. Worth the price of admission and 12 hour road-trip any day of the week.

Before I wrap it all up in a tidy little bow, let’s go ahead of cover the big things everyone should know. The convention runners made this a mandatory vax-only or proof of negative test in the last 72 hours for all attendees, guests, vendors, and artists. Masks were to be on while inside, no exceptions. Booths while still close did have an increase of spacing in between them. And building capacity limits were enforced to ensure no shoulder-to-shoulder­ con scrums would occur. The building staff and volunteers were all beyond amazing to us. And Atlanta’s downtown rolled the red carpet out for the mardi-gras of comic cons. It felt literally as safe as it ever was going to feel. And here a week afterwards… I’m not even sniffling. Con crud free, and ready for the next trip out (in late October, at Fan Expo Canada!).

Dragon Con 2021 won’t go down in Unshaven Comics’ history of favorite conventions. To be a bit mercenary? We barely made back our table and travel costs. But what we lacked behind the table, was saved ten-fold by just reconnecting to the independent comic book scene we once felt only on the fringes of. And while we remain devoid of invitations to the secret cool kids club soirees and masonic symbol secret cabals… we were acknowledged by our peers, air-fist-bumped by our friends, and once again supported by amazing fans. Unshaven Comics has a lot more to say… and we can’t wait to ask YOU if we can tell you about our comic books.