The past few months I’ve heard a lot of buzz on the internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, about Marvel/Disney coming down on people drawing their characters, or selling unlicensed prints of their intellectual properties (IP) like “Star Wars” at cons. Actually, the buzz was mostly rumors about would they or wouldn’t they at cons such as the New York Comic Con. I read one article on Bleeding Cool, and another on the blog site Conventioning on the matter, and some Facebook posts, like this one from artist Travis Hanson. What is the future of Artists Alleys and comic-cons themselves?


I’ve been going to conventions for years now, both as an attendee and an artist. When I was self-publishing the comic series “Bushi Tales” with Dave Beaty and Micah Stewart, I never really worried about that sort of thing. We were doing our own books and merchandise with our own characters. It could be a hard sale, trying to get people to take a chance on something new that wasn’t published by the big two- Marvel and DC Comics. But they were ours and we were passionate about our characters and story. Occasionally we would do some con sketches of other characters if someone asked, but for the most part we promoted our works.


Dave’s gone on to work for Marvel, DC, and other comic publishers. I’ve done sketchcard work for companies like Topps and Breygent on properties like “Star Wars“, “Mars Attacks“, and DC Comics. Dave now has official digital comic pages and original art he can sell at cons (as well as sketchcard returns), and I now have officially licensed sketchcard returns to sell, and my “Scared Silly” toons, too.

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Recently I’ve been picking up sketchcovers to draw on and sell at conventions. They are a regular comic book, but have a blank cover with a masthead logo on the front. They are made for artists to create their own cover art on. The blanks can be purchased from retail from comic shops at cover price or a bit higher (depending on the print run or how many copies the retailer orders), and can sell with finished art for anywhere from a few dollars above cover to several hundreds of dollars. For me, these and the sketchcards have been a way for me to draw some of my favorite characters I don’t own the rights to, and still stay above board legally. The comic publishers make these to be drawn on by pros and fans. But if you think crime doesn’t pay, try making a living as an artist- especially in Artists Alley! I’ve had people look at my sketchcovers and say, “$50.00..? Dang, that must be an old comic to be THAT expensive!”


Because I’m slow and it’s hard to sell and draw at the same time, plus bad lighting and cramped space at cons, I don’t do a lot of con-sketches. If Nicki’s with me I can work on a sketchcard or sketchcover, and I will always  do a quick free doodle when signing, or draw a quick cartoon in a kid’s sketchbook or program. Once I had a lady ask me if I would mind doing a sketch in her young son’s sketchbook. I said I’d love to, did a quick Superman sketch (for FREE), and handed it back to her. She looked at me like I had just handed her a pile of steaming poop, and walked away while continuing to give me the evil eye! I recently read a post on Facebook by artist Tom Hodges I had to shake my head at while reading. He does some great Star Wars head sketches (I’ve got one plus a couple others for my wife) and was in Artists Alley at a con where a woman came up to him and asked how much his con sketches were. When he replied that they were $20.00 each she told him to go fuck himself! WTF..?!!! If that had happened to me I don’t know if I would have laughed at her, told her to do the same, or had to keep my wife from beating her ass..! Just how cheap does art have to be..?

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If you think crime doesn’t pay, try making a living as an artist! It’s possible, but apparently so is winning the lottery, or becoming president, or winning the SuperBowl. For each person who does, there are tons of others who don’t. (But check out Steam Crow Press by Daniel and Dawna Davis for an example of doing it right at cons– amazing original work and booth set-ups.)  I screenprint for a living again now, but still try to do as much art as I can. Unfortunately people consider it my “hobby”, and several other artists I know run into that problem, too. Trying to figure out how to make cons work for me again.

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For years and years conventions have been the haven for geeks. Before the internet, it was a place that fans could go to search out comics to complete their title/character run, discover vintage toys, buy original art, find fun tees or fan made items you couldn’t find anywhere else. They could create costumes, dress up as their favorite character, wear their favorite geek tees, talk nerdy, build prop replicas, buy fan made collectibles, and be comfortable being themselves around others who enjoyed what they did.


Name a hobby, genre, or property and there is probably a con(s) out there celebrating it- Star Wars, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, sci-fi, gaming, anime/manga, haunted houses, and more are all represented. Cons are still a place to find and enjoy those sorts of geeky things, but as they say, “times are changing”.


Today there’s more emphasis on celebs, cosplay, multi-media properties, and less and less on comics and such at “comic cons”. With eBay, Hot Topic,,, and other online sites you can sit at home and find what you want- even those “con exclusive” items. In the past few years Hollywood and others have really caught on to the fact that geek culture is not only fun, but profitable. The problem with that for some, is now the big corporations that own a lot of those characters people have been making “fan art” of, are realizing just how much money they are losing and/or could be making.

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Cons like the San Diego Comic-Con (Comic-Con International), New York Comic Con, Salt Lake Comic Con, and others have grown by leaps and bounds pushing the max capacity of their venues, and sometimes the surrounding hotels, streets and the local Fire Marshall’s patience. Lines have gotten longer and longer, and prices are getting higher and higher- both for attendees and vendors/artists. Hotels price gouge during the con dates. To add to that, some geeks feel the need to make others prove their geek street-cred, deem others as “fake geeks“, or just be completely negative about the whole geek/nerd culture. I’m all for welcoming anybody into this universe, but I have to admit there are times I do wish more folks had better home training. I’m totally understanding when it comes to being socially awkward, but there’s no need to be rude and inconsiderate at these events. But back to that geek-growth and its impact on how conventions are run.

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I helped get the Artists Alley/Writers Way started at the Superman Celebration about ten years ago when I was asked up as an artists guest. When we weren’t seeing any real comicbook shows in town I helped organize two small comic/toy dealer shows called TimmyCon, and an actual convention called Con-Sequential with some of my MidSouth Cartoonists Association co-horts (was a total bust and only lasted 1 year- long story).


Today just about every weekend there is a con or show of some sort going on each weekend. Right now in my area there is the MidSouthCon (sci-fi/lit con with some comics programming), Anime Blues Con (mostly anime and cosplay), Anime Blues Con Winter Remix (BBC part 2), Memphis Comic and Fantasy Con (some comics, but mostly voice actors, animation, cosplay- going on this weekend actually), Memphis Gaming Expo (gaming, cosplay, “geek fun”), Memphis Comic Expo (mostly comics and comic creators with some cosplay), ShadowCon (SCA, cosplay, fantasy), Mephit Fur Meet (anthropomorphic “furry” cosplay, art, comics, and anime), and the recently announced new kid on the block Tennessee Comic Con (which seems to be focusing on media guests, then comics and cosplay). Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head, and don’t include any smaller dealer shows around town, or any in surrounding towns like Jackson, Nashville, or Chattanooga, TN, Little Rock, AR, or many other cities within a couple hours of driving from Memphis. The more shows I hear announced the more I wonder if the industry isn’t cannibalizing itself. The Phoenix, AZ area has an incredible fan base and seems to have to constantly grow to accommodate that many fans and pros. The Phoenix Comicon (and Phoenix Fan Fest) double attendance numbers each year. I’ve watched the attendance go from a couple thousand to becoming one of the top attended shows in the country. It was always one of my favorites to attend- I even got engaged there. I’m happy for their success, but miss the great vibe it had as a smaller show. There seems like no going back to those smaller numbers- and that’s not entirely a bad thing. Maybe other smaller shows will fill that void. Unfortunately for my area of the country the Arizona fans aren’t the same as Memphis fans. I know here that many of the shows listed above are held at the same locations, and are attended by a lot of the same people. It’s really getting hard to tell each apart. I just don’t know how much longer this area and other areas of the country are going to be able to support the geek-con growth. Shows like Fandomfest aren’t helping by ripping off fans and guests- but that’s another story.


Yeah, geek/nerd culture is more mainstream now, but these days going to many of the shows it’s hard to distinguish one from the other, and is becoming more and more difficult to do each year. Fans don’t have to wait for a con, and it’s not a big deal if they miss one- another will be coming up soon they can attend. Same for pros. It’s kind of like when I was a kid. There were only three networks/channels (plus PBS). If something special was coming on TV and we didn’t stay home that night to see it we missed out. We would have to wait another year to see it, or take the chance that we maybe never see it. Same for Saturday morning cartoons. Then came VCRs, and cable, and DVDs, and TiVo, and YouTube, and On-Demand, and- well, it’s not as important to HAVE to catch it when it comes out. I think conventions are becoming that, if they haven’t become into that already. Look at a Wizard World show. If you miss seeing your favorite celeb at this Wizard show, more than likely they’ll be at the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. I’ve also heard about HUGE American style comic cons now in other parts of the world like London and China.

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Con/Convention“, “Show“, “Expo/Exposition“, “Fest/Festival“, “Celebration“- they’ve all been debated on what their differences are, but they’ve really become interchangeable. A few years ago when I asked a friend about a new convention in town he told me, “I think if you’re going to call your convention a “comic con” you should have comics and comic guests.” I totally agree. Unfortunately the general public and media think all geeky conventions/shows/expos/festivals/etc. are “comic cons“. Apparently San Diego Comic-Con International has noticed that, too- and recently filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the Salt Lake Comic Con saying that show’s trademarked name is too similar to theirs. Well, so are most “comic cons” these days.


I’ve done the San Diego Comic Con a couple of times. Had a blast and did well there, but it got very pricey with travel booth space, parking, and hotel. There was a time that smaller shows seemed to be more profitable for me. Did great at a small show in the middle of no-where Mississippi we nicknamed “DirtCon” because it was held in an old rodeo arena with a compacted dirt floor. Nicki and I had a blast, and it was a short drive to a one day  show- free table space, less than a tank of gas to get there, and no hotel cost. The past few of those smaller micro-cons haven’t done so well for me. Could be my product mix, could be the shows not advertising well, or just bad timing. I’ve actually gone in the hole accepting free table space at a couple. At all shows I’m seeing more and more TV/movie celebs being brought in. They charge for autographs and photo ops and there can be huge queue lines. That’s what’s being promoted as a “comic con”, even though it’s probably more of a fan-fest, pop culture con, media event, or celebrity zoo. Now even some of the comic guests are charging for autographs and photo ops. Between paying for the celebrity encounters and higher admission prices many attendees just don’t have the $$$ to spend once inside the con. Artists Alleys also seem to be growing smaller, pushed further away from the action, or hidden behind HUGE booths- although I am seeing some artists go bigger and bigger with their own displays. A 2’x6′ roll up banner behind your table just isn’t going to cut it these days. Displays and merchandise have got to be vertical- it can’t just sit out on your table and get noticed. Artists just can’t sit back and hope people will throw money at them. Most have to become a salesman (or saleswoman) and pitch their work to passersby.


One thing I love at cons is seeing families cosplay together, and kids in costumes are always a highlight of a con to me and Nicki. I dig cosplay and try to at cons when I can. It’s like having Halloween all year long. I’m seeing more and more cosplayers at cons, some now having their own booth, selling prints, and even charging for photo ops. Not sure how I feel about the charging for photos, but I guess it’s not much different than artists like Neal Adams charging for photos and signatures…

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One thing I’ve noticed about people in costume is that many cosplayers don’t have pockets, and those that do don’t seem to be spending a lot at cons. It’s rare that I actually see cosplayers shopping at shows. It’s not just the folks in costumes. It seems non-costumed attendees can be just as tight with their spending. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told by someone they didn’t have any money to spend, well- I’d probably at least break even at shows I set up at. The folks I have seen making money at shows are those artists selling unlicensed Marvel and DC Comics prints or parody tee booths. I know that probably sounds like sour grapes, and it probably partly is. It just seems to be those are the constant sellers at shows I go to, and I’ve heard it from other artists and vendors, too.


All this to say I don’t have a clue to what the future of cons may be. I hope that the bubble doesn’t burst. I hope that people will start giving unfamiliar things they find at cons a chance. I hope that Hollywood can show some light on other comic properties. I hope that geeks shall inherit the Earth.


I just don’t know…I do know that I and other artists at cons are going to have to up our game and re-think how we do business at cons.