So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #088: Vegas Vacation (Part 1)

When I last left everyone, I’d made mention of exploring Unshaven Comics’ recent respite to Sin City. So I guess I owe no one a Coke. Whew. That’s right, two articles in two weeks. Maybe I’m on to something? We’ll see.

Before I dive deep into our trip, let me take you back — all the way back — to the secret origins of Unshaven Comics. When we debuted at Wizard World Chicago in 2008, the shared goal of the table was simple: Find an all-important Comic Book Editor™ who would be so enamored with our creative non-fiction book “The March: Crossing Bridges in America” that they’d whisk us off to Comic Book Land™ with three full time jobs waiting for us to just make comics for the rest of our lives.

No, I’m not even kidding. We were in our mid-twenties and absolutely that delusional and devoid of any actual industry knowledge. 

The upside to this goal? It made Mike Gold laugh so hard he hasn’t stopped being our friend since his late wife — the amazing Linda Gold — dragged him over to our table to hear about “The March”. Silver linings and all that jazz.

After we three Unshaven Lads learned how the comic book sausage was actually made, our goals shifted appropriately. If the industry wasn’t going to hand us all jobs, then we’d play the long game instead. We recognized that the journey was likely only ever to be our reward, and as such, we declared to no one the new goal: exist. And maybe, if we were ever lucky? Our flagship title The Samurnauts might one day become more than a comic series. 

You see… The Samurnauts really became something special to us almost immediately after it debuted. With the pitch yielding a better than one-in-three closing ratio from merely hearing our twenty-two second schpiel (from the first issue of Curse of the Dreadnuts mind you), the fans who we’d made on the road repeatedly asked us a few burning questions about the property. Namely…when will this be a cartoon, when is the video game coming out, and where’s my immortal Kung-Fu monkey and zombie-cyborg space pirate action figures, dammit?! 

As we were releasing Curse of the Dreadnuts #2, my boss at my day job — an entrepreneur if ever there was one — stopped by my desk after returning from a weekend convention trip. I’ll spare the long form story here enough to say this: he was curious what an investment in a small indie publisher might entail. And with absolutely no knowledge on what a pitch deck or business plan was… I gave him an amazing forty-five minute presentation that landed with the impact of a Justin Hammer rocket. Splunk. Fzzzzz. Poot.

Funny enough though, in my whirlwind of research, I stumbled into the concept of licensing. How a company might look at something like The Samurnauts, and purchase it (or a chunk of it, I suppose) and then produce things with it, and everyone makes money. On paper? That sounded like the pie-in-the-sky answer to the fans’ clamoring for cartoons, video games, and action figures. This research led me to the Licensing Expo — a comic con, but for folks who were licensees and licensors. The former has the property, and the latter makes the things from the property. At the time of my ill-advised pitch, the Expo was a pricey endeavor — as properly exhibiting at it for your Unshaven Lads would have been well north of ten thousand simoleons. After my then-boss was done laughing at my hubris… I politely tucked the notion of licensing away in a drawer to never be opened again.

And then came the pandemic. (Trust me, I understand we’re THIS FAR into my article and we’re nowhere near Las Vegas yet, but we’re closer than you think!)

With the world trapped indoors, the Licensing Expo — much like every other convention at the time — was forced to reinvent itself as a virtual event. With this came the opportunity to plink around for free. Long story made medium there? Unshaven Comics was properly pitied, and a few nice folks (not unlike other Golden people I know…) offered a hand to help us reach our unattainable goals. We got some hands-on training with our pitch deck, and it resulted in us getting to legitimately pitch ourselves virtually to a few industry folks. In 2020? It yielded nothing more than some polite ‘no-thanks’, but we did have a solid deck, and a concept that was often met positively. What were we missing? Well, what all licensors are seeking: virality and a built-in fan base with predictable purchase habits. 

Flash forward to January of 2024. 

As I’d never unsubscribed to the Licensing Expo’s email newsletter, one slow Sunday morning, a banner ad piqued my interest. “Do you have the next great action figure?” it asked. “I do!” I said to no one. So I clicked the ad and looked over the landing page it dumped me into. A simple form asking me who I was, and what property I had that was screaming to become 6” plastic with including accessories. I typed up my normal storm of Samur-words and submitted. Barely a day later, I was on a zoom call talking to a representative from the Expo. That ad and intake form I submitted? Turns out it was just a lead form to exhibit at the show. Once I realized it, I laughed. “Oh, ma’am, I apologize. I genuinely thought y’all were looking for action figure ideas. We looked into this show years ago, and we don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to get out there. Thank you though!” And then something strange happened. “Oh, Marc. We should talk.”

So it turns out between forever ago and now, the Expo had a few economical options. Economical enough that it was actually financially viable for Unshaven Comics to attend. Armed with that knowledge, I came to our bi-weekly Unshaven zoom session (we record our award-losing podcast at that time) and presented the facts to Matt and Kyle. Together we weighed the options: Not go, save our money, and continue to squirrel away funds and earn a larger fan base or… Go, effectively dump our existing nest egg out, and take a chance on ourselves full-well-knowing that the likelihood of success was effectively next to 0. And, folks, it was Kyle Gnepper — the most curmudgeonly member of Unshaven Comics — that sat back in his chair, took a breath, and said “eh, we’re not getting any younger. Let’s do it.”

(See? You only had 3 paragraphs to go!)

And so, we plunked down the cash for our space, and purchased our plane tickets. With roughly 4 months to touch down in Vegas, we were determined to do absolutely everything we could do in order to make the show a positive experience. We designed a new backdrop — a 5’ wide by 8’ tall banner with just the Samurnaut pitch as large as we could make it — to adjoin our existing Samurnauts banner. I made some simple brochures that extolled the virtue of the Samurnauts as a potential license. I dusted off our pitch deck, and updated it stem-to-stern. I then opened up to what few industry vets I knew willing to assist us (with our existing budget of $PleaseAndThankYou), and adjusted our decks accordingly. 

Beyond the nuts and bolts, the Expo also opened up to us it’s meeting request platform. As such, I made it my personal mission to use the tool every f’n day between when access was offered, and day one of the Expo. In doing so, not unlike our “Can I tell you about our comic book?” signage held aloft at comic cons… I virtually pitched Unshaven Comics and the Samurnauts to anywhere between 5-10 people a day for 3 months straight. Literally any Expo-goer with relevant interests got a personal message from me citing why it might be worth the time to stop by our booth and gab a bit about Samurai-Astronauts. For my efforts? We wound up with over 25 scheduled meetings across three days. Not too shabby, right?

Thus, on May 19th, 2024… the wheels went up on a mostly full Southwestern Airlines flight from Chicago, IL to touch down in Sin City with Unshaven Comics on board. 

Would Unshaven Comics get to the Mandalay Bay in time to set up their booth?

Would our hirsute heroes achieve glory and get the Samurnauts signed to a mega-million-dollar-deal?

Would these bearded bastards lose it all in a game of chance?!

Stay tuned for next week, as I detail every throw of the dice!