By Brady Dale
Purveying my wares
This year, fellow Philadelphia comic maker Dre Time and I got tables at the Small Press Expo. It was my first time as a legit exhibitor at the biggest alt-comix show on the East Coast, and here’s what I learned:
I attended and volunteered at my first SPX in 1999. I had just graduated from college and moved to Washington, D.C. I freaked out as only a 22 year-old can freak out when I learned that there was this huge gathering of underground comics makers in a little hotel just a few Metro stops away. When I got there, I bought something from almost every table I stopped at until I realized I wasn’t going to make it through a full row before I was out of money.
SPX was the first place I had ever saw a mini-comic, even though I had been buying comics since the 2nd grade, off of spinner racks in the grocery stores of Southeast Kansas.
My decision to go all the way with the show this year came out of a move I made a couple years ago. A friend came up with this idea that she called “The Jesus Year.” The story goes that Jesus did most of his significant work in the last year of his life, his 33rd year. So as we each approached 33 we made a pact: we would spend 33 working to define the way we wanted to live for the rest of our lives. And that’s the year I launched my web-comic, Eat The Babies! Since then, I have been pounding out two comics per week on the site and shooting to create enough content for The Google to start taking it seriously.
So I decided to take the plunge and get a table at The Small Press Expo in 2012 and see what happens. I found that your perspective on shows really changes once you become an exhibitor.
First of all, getting on the exhibitor list was a complete roller coaster. We didn’t even get listed as tablers when the exhibitors list came out. Apparently, if you didn’t send in your check on the first day that exhibitor registration opened up, you were out of luck this year. I think I sent ours in on Day 3. After haranguing the volunteer staff endlessly, I found out that we were “very high” on the wait list, but no promises.
Finally, three weeks before the show, we got an email saying we had a spot after all. If you are the cartoonist that flakes and gave us our spot: thanks. That said, I had had all year to finish the mini-comic that I wanted to take to SPX, but without knowing I had a table, it had always fallen to the bottom of my to-do list. I needed to finish the last six pages, get it scanned, neatened up and send it off to the printer. I got it done, but just barely. Good For America made it to SPX with only a few mistakes, and despite the fact that the printer completely screwed up the binding on the first try. It was the first time I had ever sent a comic to get “printed,” ever thought about bleeds or print runs or even doing anything with a color other than black.
At the show, my behavior completely changed from that of an attendee. In the past, I have felt a responsibility to drop a certain amount of money every time I showed up. If I was going to be there, I needed to support the work, and I was careful to make sure that I bought a mix of books from Established, Getting There and Totally Green Creators. Once I was an exhibitor, though, I had no interest in leaving my table. I bought one and only one book the whole show, Dean Haspiel’s new jam, The Last Romantic Anti-Hero, because I have been following Dino close ever since I first discovered him in a long ago SPX Anthology. I also made sure to do it before the show floor opened, so I wouldn’t miss that first eager flush.
I know what fans say: artist who talk to passers-by are annoying. I have said that.
Let me tell you how many books I would have sold all weekend if I hadn’t talked to people: two. Maybe three. I didn’t sell many books – period. But it would have been a complete waste if I hadn’t initiated conversations with people and asked them to open up my comics.
I am a nobody. No one went looking at the exhibitors map and asked themselves: now where’s that guy who draws the television with the arms and legs? Plus, my stuff looks really rough, really sketchy. I don’t have that perfect line or that really elaborate visual imagination that makes some exhibitors’ tables nearly glow. I had to hustle. I had one friend who killed it at the show without a lot of hard selling. But his work is pretty from a mile away. Mine, you gotta give it a second. And at a show with as much going on as SPX had, I had to work to earn that second from passers-by.
SPX is overwhelming. Nevermind the fact that this year nearly all the giants of the field were there. Chris Ware, The Hernandez Brothers and Dan Clowes? Are you kidding? Why even show up if you weren’t going to work it? I thought my secret weapon was going to be my table display. As you can see from the photo above, I made a cardboard cutout of DEATH and gave him a word balloon where The Grim Reaper certified my comic as “The Darkest Satire at SPX.” I thought that this was a bold enough statement that it would get me traffic by sheer dint of people who wanted to call me on the brass of it. What I found? In the visual din of the exhibit hall, people weren’t even seeing it.
People only saw Death if I pointed at him and repeated what the sign said out loud. If you don’t have something ten feet tall or higher behind you, it’s like you don’t even register at this show anymore. Big change from ‘99 when it blew me away how many people were selling photocopied minis for $1.
If I was lucky, then they would pick up Good for America and read a few pages. It’s a pretty raw book, so some people were turned off right away. I have to say, though, folks with the right inclination would always start laughing once they had it open. I got a lot more laughs at my table than I got sales.
Still, that was nice, too. I once read an essay about a mid-list author who had been making his living as a writer for years, but had never seen someone reading one of his books in public. Without shows like SPX, I don’t know how I would ever be able to sell a little comic like Good for America. Even when it didn’t sell, though, it was really gratifying to watch people read it from cover-to-cover and find something to laugh at on every page.
In fact, it was even fun when one woman read three pages and said, “this depresses me too much.”
As long as you are getting a reaction, right?
Don’t get me wrong. If you’re an artist, one of the key reasons to show up at SPX is to network with other cartoonists. No question. It’s just that there is plenty of time to do that off the show floor. That’s what the late night, post-Ignatz partying is for (bring a flask or a backpack full of beers, though – you don’t want to pay the hotel’s booze prices). Once the doors opened, I was all business. Even if folks didn’t buy, I had hoped to have enough of an exchange with them that they might remember to groove on my webcomic later (I don’t think flyering shows really does drive web traffic – but you might as well try).
If I stayed by my table and kept talking to readers as they wandered by, I got a chance to find people that connected with my work. Even if they only did for a second, as they scanned it there in front of me, that’s pretty nice. And it would stay nice, as long as I didn’t do anything silly afterward, like putting my revenues and expenses into a spreadsheet.