It’s time to take the comic on the road.
Hi, my name is Cameron and I’m the writer and co-creator of my first comic book ever, Skeleton Bay Detective Agency; a comic that I self-publish with artist and fellow co-creator, Taylor Carlise. If you’ve been a regular reader of this series, I am deeply flattered and I hope you’ve found them enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. Also, you may remember that way back in the first installment of the series I mentioned that I’m writing these in real time, as Skeleton Bay gets created. Case in point, I had planned on this installment being about the Kickstarter we ran last year and some of our early work promoting the book. All my plans got derailed by my participation in CAKE and Heroes Convention. Instead, to demonstrate just how seat-of-the-pants writing this is, I’m going to talk about the last two weeks first.
First up, CAKE, or Chicago Alternative Komic Expo (it’s so hip that “comic” is spelled with a “K”).
We all know about the Big Two, right? Marvel and DC. They dominate the industry and combined make up 60% of the comic book market. There is, however, a great depth and breadth to what is offered in that left over 40%. In fact, there is an entire community of creators dedicated to “alternative,” “indie,” and “small press” content. These are the people pushing the edge of the envelope when it comes to Sequential Art as a medium. From denim-clad, tattoo-covered punks making neon skulls that drip goo, to soft sweater adorned waifs presenting painterly, European-inspired wood nymphs; they all sit elbow to elbow with quiet, shy creators of autobiographical comics about their struggles with mental illness. For those who are looking for more Fine Art than Fan Art, events like CAKE are an awesome place to check out the diversity of the “Alt Comic” scene.
Having attended CAKE for the past two years, I would have LOVED to have had a table there and shown off my stuff alongside such cool work. I submitted Skeleton Bay with no expectations, though; space is limited and I know that my comic is more commercial than most of the hand-bound mini comics at CAKE, so I was not surprised or hurt that I got waitlisted. I did, however, sign up for the second wait list, telling them I was willing to jump in at a moment’s notice, all the way up till day-of. Just in case. I proceeded to make plans for the weekend with my friends, adding the caveat that, it’s a long shot, but I maaaay have to bail to go table at CAKE. Just in case. I even went so far as to daydream about what I would bring to the event, hypothetically. Just in case.
Weeeeellll. 10:20 a.m. rolls around Saturday June 10, as I wake up to a text, “Hey, this is Neil from CAKE, can you come in?” I take about half a second to go, “uhhhhh,” then immediately reply “yes!” With the expo floor opening at 11, I rush around, grab my things, throw them in the car, and race over. Luckily, I only live 10 minutes away from the event, so I surprise them with my expediency. But, of course, the venue is right near Wrigley Field and it’s game day, so there is no parking. I drop my stuff off with the expo organizers, race back out and drop the car back off at my house, then race back on one of the city-wide rental bikes, landing sweatily at my table, only 10 minutes after opening.
After taking a little time to cool off and set up (with a clutch assist by my friend Bill who brought a bed sheet to act as table cloth for my little corner of table) I was ready to tell people about Skeleton Bay. The show was great. It’s not a big event, you could comfortably stroll and it’d only take about two hours tops. It’s only maybe 150 creators or so and only Saturday and Sunday, so pretty limited compared to other comic events. The thing is, this show is all about quality over quantity. If you seek out an event like CAKE, you’re there for the art and to support creators making their own way.
I had our preview comic, Midnight at McLloyd Mansion and, uh, not TOO much else … So I put out a poster that Brittany did for our Kickstarter mostly to fill out the space, and then pulled out a stack of notecards I had grabbed from my apartment and offered terrible doodles and witty observations for a dollar a piece (an offer that a couple people surprisingly took me up on). Because of the awesome support from the guests and fellow creators, I actually wound up selling just about as many copies of Skeleton Bay at CAKE in two days as I did at Emerald City in Seattle in four.While I don’t know if my tablemate loved that I was there instead of his buddy who had called in sick, it was still great to be there among people who were passionate about the art form and making cool stuff and telling awesome stories. I mean, I don’t have gauged ears so I don’t know if I quite fit in all the way.
I know, I know, that concern is all in my head and everyone I met was really nice and welcoming, but like, if gauged ears would make me cool, I uh, I would maybe like, consider it…
The only downside to tabling at CAKE was that I had to brace myself and rest up because Heroes Convention was immediately around the corner. I flew out the next weekend to North Carolina so I could meet up with Taylor for Round Two.
Heroes is a more “traditional” comic book convention, down in Charlotte, North Carolina, which Taylor, Brittany (our colorist), and I tabled at last year as the inaugural convention for us all as creators. I’ll go into last year’s experience a little more in my next installment, but the gist is that among the comic shops selling rare comics and vendors hawking nerdy T-shirts, there is a section of any comic convention called the Artist Alley. A sea of tables lined up together in aisles, it’s where various creators set up and sell their art. Much like CAKE, but on steroids, it has mostly posters of artists’ takes on comic book heroes, some pins, stickers, and if you’re lucky, plenty of comics. For people more interested in mainstream, more commercial work, it’s a great place to find cool art and meet your favorite creators. If you’re a creator yourself, getting a table in Artist Alley is a great way to network. Heroes is a relatively small convention when it comes to square footage, but because of the high percentage of floor plan dedicated to Artist Alley, along with a knack for attracting a lot of high-profile creators, the con has a reputation as a good place to go to meet other people making comics.
I’ll tell you more about our first trip some other time (spoiler: it was an emotional rollercoaster) but a whole year later, Taylor and I were excited to return. Because this marked the second year we were out at conventions, we wanted to show up with at least one new thing. So, in anticipation of Heroes, we ordered a print run of our first issue of the comic, The Case of the Sinking Specters of the Shipyard! We also had fridge magnets to promote the website (when was the last time you took a magnet off your fridge?), a new banner for the front of our table, Taylor had his own original work, and I brought some things too. We were locked and loaded for sales.
Which … happened. We definitely sold … some … stuff. Well, because we’re still so new and still starting out, our metrics for success are still pretty low. Last year, we sold eight copies, which was great because no one had EVER heard about us, so hey, a start. This year, between our two issues we sold 14 copies, so a whole 160% growth! Our bar is low.The second half of why Heroes is such a good convention for creators is it’s also known to be not as well attended as others, so you get plenty of time to get up, walk around, and talk to your friends. And on that front, Taylor and I really nailed it. Especially as a writer who doesn’t have much artwork to sell, cons really become about going out and meeting other people. One of the most tangible ways to mark my “success” in getting into the industry is the number people I recognize whenever I go to conventions, and that number is growing. I was able to check in with some people I had met last year, along with some I had met at Emerald City, and met a couple of new faces. In fact, I met fellow creator Scott Fogg because he actually crashed in our hotel Thursday night because his hotel-mates were coming in Friday. It’s those kind of interactions, putting in more and more pennies into the piggy bank that is a relationship with a person, that are what’s so fun about cons. Being able to be in the same room, face to face at the bar and getting to know people over a beer (Which is another place to socialize. At any convention you go to, there is a “Bar Con” at whatever hotel most of the creators are staying because most wind-up congregating at the lobby bar each night of the convention).
Just by the nature of having an “artist” badge vs. an “attendee” badge, it becomes that much easier to talk to people; you can commiserate as conversation starters or swap a little shop talk, learn something, and ingratiate yourself that much more. It’s not instantly easy and it takes a lot of guts to just go up to someone and go “HEY, YOU MAKE COMICS! I MAKE COMICS! LET’S BE FRIENDS!” but the more and more I’ve been going to these events, the easier and easier it’s becoming. There is a whole dance to talking to a creator at their table, then noticing that an attendee might be interested in their work, stepping aside to not interrupt a potential sale, floating to side of the table to determine if the customer is ACTUALLY buying, realizing that they want to talk to the creator, and then mouthing “hey, see you later” to your friend as you wave and slowly back away. It’s truly an art, and one that I’m perfecting.
There’s also a party unique to Heroes on Sunday after the convention closes, hosted by the comic shop that organizes the event, where there are free drinks and food in a backyard BBQ-style get-together. It’s a cool, casual place to hang, and one more chance to talk to people you didn’t get a chance to earlier in the weekend. Taylor and I didn’t stay long, however, as we had plans to get drinks with an industry pro. I don’t know if I should reveal his name, but we wound up meeting him at his hotel bar that happened to be otherwise completely empty, so whether or not he minds being named dropped, the House of Cards deal-making atmosphere of the event would be ruined if I revealed my sources. In actuality, it was just a chance to pick his brain and ask his advice on various topics of getting started in comics. We got a little hot goss’ about the industry and a lot of wisdom; it was insightful and encouraging and really energized us, giving us confidence that we’re pointing in the right direction.
And really, the biggest value to both weekends was just that; confidence. Having tackled CAKE and returned to Heroes, it was clear, tangible proof that we’re making the right moves. The experiences have sparked a bunch of thoughts and plans and schemes for both Taylor and me. With two more conventions under my belt, I’m reinvigorated and ready to take on the comic world!
Now that I’m at this little plateau of personal success, come back for Part Five of my series to hear about what it took to get here. I’ll talk about our Kickstarter, our first time at Heroes, and how we launched our website, Skeleton Bay Detective Agency!
Plus, if you like all of this behind-the-scenes information I’m sharing with you, Skeleton Bay also has a Patreon, where you can get each page emailed directly to you, along with all of Taylor’s process art, the corresponding page of script, and some annotations from me about what it took to make the page. We also have a Facebook page, so check it out, “Like” the page and all that. Lastly, we have a newsletter that you can sign up for and cut out the middle man of all the social media rigmarole and never miss an update.
Otherwise, I’ll see you next time for Part Five!