One of the dirty little secret of “comic conventions” bubbled to the surface on the internet over the past few days fueled by a story by Denise Dorman the wife of Dave Dorman who is probably best known for his Star Wars covers at Dark Horse Comics. She spilled the beans on the difficulty of artists at some conventions to make enough money to cover the cost of selling at a convention.
Here is the story posted by Denise Dorman:
Privately, famed comic book industry personalities everywhere are discussing with each other whether to stop exhibiting at comic book conventions. There’s a fine line between being accessible to and pleasing the fans vs. LOSING MONEY at these conventions. Take Wizard World 2014 in Chicago, for example. Those were three miserable days of our lives we’ll never get back. Time we could be spending with our family and friends. Time we could be actually earning money working from our studio and offices at home.
The Saturday of Wizard World that I sat in for Dave, I sat in a 1.5-hour traffic jam to get there (the convention center is a mere 30 minutes from our home), I sold $20 in books, and I paid $13 for parking. (Good thing I packed my own lunch!) You know, you start to get paranoid. You start to think, “Is it only us? Is Dave no longer relevant?” So I began covertly asking around. Asking artists equally in demand, equally famous. No one I interviewed made money at that show.
The same was true for San Diego Comic-Con. Normally, we at least cover our costs. This year we spent $7,000 to exhibit at #SDCC, between the booth space rental, hotel, car rental and food expenses. This year, we came home $1k in the hole. So I started asking around…again, I asked equally famous, equally in-demand artists, writers, and creators. The post-mortem was that everyone either lost money on this show or barely covered expenses, and some very famous artists–household names you would know–are questioning whether they will bother returning next year. Even the biggest comics exhibitor with several booths, Mile High Comics, announced they were pulling out next year, in a much-publicized story in the New York Times–admitting they suffered a $10,000 loss at the show this year. (Their status on exhibiting next year may have since changed – I haven’t followed the story that closely, but it drives home my point.)
I have slowly come realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, COSPLAY is the new focus of these conventions–seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches, and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place. I’ve seen it first-hand–the uber-famous artist who traveled all of the way from Japan, sitting at Comic-Con, drawing as no one even paid attention to him, while the cosplayers held up floor traffic and fans surround the cosplayers–rather than the famed industry household name–to pose for selfies.
The hard-working artists and creators who are the very foundation of this industry…the reason there even is an industry….those creatives who have busted their asses and spent money they perhaps didn’t have to spare in order to be there exhibiting for–and accessible to–the fans…have been reduced to being the background wallpaper against which the cosplayers pose in their selfies. At what point do you start to wonder if–other than your faithful, loyal regulars who are like family and who find you every time–the general fandom population even gives a shit about the creators more than they care about their Instagram profiles?
I’ll be the first to admit I revel in the amazing, visually arresting costumes. I snap photos. I have cosplay friends who dedicate their lives to it. I admire the creativity, the expense, the time investment, and the sacrifice–especially the imaginative Steampunk cosplay. I just float the idea that maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. Have the expenses of dressing up, rising ticket prices, price gouged hotels, and parking costs to attend these costly conventions made it financially unfeasible for people to actually spend money on exhibitors anymore?
So…this morning I checked in with Dave, exhibiting since yesterday at GrandCon. Yesterday, he earned $40. Today–Saturday–by 12:30 p.m. Michigan time, which should be the busiest day of the show, he’s earned $20 thus far. Luckily, he’s a featured guest, so his hotel expenses are covered, but…this is time away from the studio. Time he could be earning money. Time he could be spending with our son. And since I am the primary bread winner and self-employed, this creates the burden for me of extra time away from the office managing his errands while Dave is out of town.
So I ask you…at what point would YOU cut bait and stop attending these shows? How do we satisfy the fans in a way that makes sound financial $ense ? ? ?
First there was the attack from the cosplay community that she singled out them for the loss of revenue at shows. Now if you carefully read what she said she never said that they were the problem and this is not the main issue to this discussion. Bleeding Cool ran a story titled Denise Dorman Asks – Is Cosplay Killing Comic Con? that I will not link here because the title was very obvious click bait story and got everyone riled up instead of reading the original story that she wrote and having a discussion about it.
While there are many questions raised by Denise’s story there are no easy answers to the questions. Here are my observations. First the cost of going to a major convention like San Diego Comic Con, Emerald City Comic Con, New York Comic Con and other super big show are very expensive for attendees. For myself to go to SDCC I split the very expensive room with two of my friends to help keep cost down. Even then the room for 4 nights with parking runs nearly $400 each. I am lucky to be able to get professional passes but if I didn’t then that would run me $175 if I was able to get a full pass for the show. Then throw in gas and food for the trip that can say run at least $250 on the low-end. So before you set foot on the convention floor you are already spending at least $800 on the low-end to go to SDCC. So one problem is that with spending so much to get into the show what money is left to spend on buying stuff at the show.
While Dave is an amazing artist and has very nice high quality prints for sale but at $75 to $120 is narrowing the possible sales to a limited number of prospective buyers. The other possible issue that Dave might be encountering is that while he is a fantastic artist what is the last project that he has done? He really hasn’t done much art beyond covers lately and I imagine that the people who are most familiar with his work probably own it already. The other thing is that the pricing might be an issue. My friend Mark Dos Santos does tons of prints of popular comic and pop culture art with his wife Autumn and they price their prints at around $10 to $20 dollar range that is very easy for most people to purchase. While the quality of the prints are not as high as Dorman’s they do art that is current and have lots to choose from. They do very well at conventions and always have new pieces.
The other thing that artist have to compete with at bigger shows are the exclusives such as variant comic covers, toys, t-shirts, and prints. A lot of the time people spend both time and money-getting the exclusives to resell so they can afford to go to a show. This is one of the main things that a lot of people go to shows to pick up. Shows like SDCC you could spend your whole time at the show in line for exclusives and not see anything else. I know people who nearly do that. After people spend their money on exclusives they may have very little money left to buy other things.
Artwork has become somewhat pricey. While we all have to work for a living and artist spend a lot of time doing art to sell some artist can run quite a bit of money to have an original artwork done for you. So here is the dilemma for people like Dave Dorman. For $100 you can purchase a print that may be signed and numbered and be of very high quality, or you could buy an original page of artwork from an artist for the same amount of money. You could also for less money have an artist do a one of a kind original sketch for you that would probably run you around $20 to $50 depending on the artist. While Dave does amazing art and nice prints if you are on a limited budget you might lean towards one of the other options.
Some conventions have become more about Nerdlebrities and media than artists and comics. Lots of shows have celebrities and a large number of celebrities that is a great income generator for them. They can get anywhere from $20 to $100 plus for signed photos or the privilege of taking a picture with them. While it is great to meet celebrities that you might like but I have never understood the appeal of spending money to get a persons autograph on a mass-produced photo. I have signed stuff but rarely pay to have someone sign something. Neal Adams charges $20 to sign something if you didn’t buy it from him and I just can’t justify spending that kind of money on a signature. I ran into Bob Layton at the Long Beach Comic Con a couple of years ago and asked him to sign my Iron Man Demon in a Bottle hardcover and we started to talk about stuff and he started to draw a nice Iron Man head shot in the book. I offered to pay him for it and he said don’t worry about it. He did it because he wanted to and we had a nice conversation. A number of artist and writers have put the Hero Initiative donation stands for signature or sketches that they do. I gladly throw a few bucks in for a great cause. She does bring up the question of cosplay but while it is a big part of conventions now I really doubt that this plays a major factor in people spending money at conventions. It doesn’t cost anything to take a picture of or with a cosplayer. So while I do wish that all people would not park in the middle of the aisle and take photos both cosplayers and the people taking picture should not impede the flow of attendees access to any area of the show floor.
I still think that the economy is still a factor in what people are spending there every dwindling extra income on at conventions. I think that some people are being a lot more choosier on what they buy compared to many years ago at conventions. For most people money is really tight and while people do spend money I think that they are becoming more thrifty in what they end up buying at conventions.
People are also suffering from convention fatigue and poorly run shows. A really good example of that is the infamous Dashcon and the ball pit. If you have not hear about this train wreck then read about it HERE and the ball pit meme HERE. It seems that everyone is putting on a convention and there are horror stories of failed conventions. Even some of the larger shows have issues with dealers and artist being treated poorly or even in some cases being lied to. Every show has both good and bad experiences. I also think that smaller shows like Long Beach Comic Con really promote artist and devote a large portion of the show floor to artist alley. They really seem to go out of their way to make sure they promote the talent that are going to be there. There are lots of shows out there that put on great shows that are artist friendly and are both big and small. WonderCon in Anaheim for a larger convention has a greats artists alley that is one of the main reasons that I love going to it for.
The one that is for sure is that the days of conventions of the past where comics and their writers and artists were the main draw are sadly dwindling. Times are changing and both artists and attendees need to adapt. For attendees you might want to sit aside some money to buy something from an artist that you are a fan of. Even if it’s a copy of their latest comic at least you are supporting them in a small but effective way. Make sure that you visit conventions artist alley and you might be surprised what you will come across. One of the best books that I ever discovered at a small local show was Shane and Chris Houghton’s Reed Gunther comic. As for artist it’s now always easy to pick an choose a convention to go to. You may go to one and do great business and then go back and do terrible. It’s a crap shoot for sure but remember that the more variety of items with a good range in prices you might have a better chance to catch more dollars in the long run.
Let me know what your thoughts on this are.