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News: Must-See CC? Alt-Comix Companies and San Diego's CCI
posted August 30, 2002
 

From the floor of the convention, Comic Con International has enjoyed its recent string of successes by presenting the heart of mainstream American comic books through the lens of media-savvy southern California. The shift in emphasis from old-fashioned convention concerns reflects the transformation in emphasis of American comic book companies. The fact that close to 50,000 badges issued for the weekend, when compared to national comics sales, indicates at the very least a dual awareness of X-Men the comic book and X-Men the movie. And while the main room may still smell slightly of the effort produced by members the universe's unhealthiest Klingon army, there exists less of an odor of decaying pulp as by all reports retailers on-site have shifted steadily into toys, anime and pop cultural ephemera as their items of chief concern and primary push.

With the changing context of the convention in San Diego, the continued presence of so many alternative comics companies must come as a slight surprise. In addition to most being decidedly media-challenged and almost entirely about ink on dead slices of wood, company decisions to brave the Stormtroopers and Witchblade-trailer television loops in addition or even instead of narrowcasting alternatives conventions such as Bethesda, Maryland's Small Press Expo or San Francisco's Alternative Press Expo focuses attention on the role Comic Con International plays in the calendar of the arts comic publisher. Without a North American major comics festival in emphasis in size to rival those in Europe, Comic Con International remains the most important event of the summer for many alternative comics publishers, even if the experience of attending is like, in the words of cartoonist Lewis Trondheim, "being in outer space."

So too is the presence of those publisher important to a small portion of the convention's fan base. Attendee Austin English puts in bluntly: "If the Fantagraphics and D & Q booth were not there, I would probably not go to San Diego." For English, the combination of finding books his store won't carry, and the meet-and-greet aspect of activities surrounding alternative cartoonists, makes the trip. "The booths are not only helpful for buying alty publisher items that my store does not carry, or that I am not aware of, but for the mere fact that I get to meet the artists that work for the companies, as well as the publishers themselves." Marcia Allass, attending from Great Britain, argues that despite having access to a decent comic store the wide availability of books across the spectrum is a key attraction. "Cons are like Paradise Found for me - being able to browse at will through acres of work previously unknown to me and pick and choose new books to try is a great feeling." She cited the comic L.C.D., a hard-edged satire not available in her country, as the kind of purchase that helps makes the show for her.

Cost and Benefits, Ratios and Analysis

Resisting the temptation to define the alternative comics presence at San Diego through the eyes of this magazine's publisher, arts comics are found at several points on the convention's main floor. From a recognition standpoint, a fan wishing to peruse comics of that type would be directed to the far end of the publishers section at the center and eastern parts of the hall, directly adjoining the single-artist small press areas. An acknowledged central attraction is Fantagraphics' large but plain display, eight booths surrounding a screened-off, adults-only pornographic section. Drawn and Quarterly has in the past few years taken the extra booths in that island, replacing previous partner, the publisher and distributor Last Gasp. Facing the open side of the Fantagraphics booth in 2000 were small publishers Highwater, Westhampton House and a booth launching the Kieron Dwyer-led effort, Lowest Common Denominator. Several other alternative publishers exist in close proxmity to the Fantagraphics/D&Q island, including Last Gasp and Robot Publishing along its back row, Top Shelf within view, and various efforts a brief shout away, such as Phil Foglio's booth, Scott Morse's efforts, Sammy Harkham's display, and the publishers of Giant Robot.

The end result is a feel for an alternative comics section, although any orientation is in some ways arbitrary (they could all be described in physical relationship to Top Shelf, for instance) and areas of interest exist throughout the convention floor. Other publishers with product oriented towards the alternative comics audience, such as Cartoon Books, Adhesive Comics, Slave Labor Graphics, and Oni Press, are located amongst more mainstream publishers in booths at the center of the hall and have been for years. An independent comics press island, containing artists like Linda Medley of Castle Waiting and Alex Robinson of Box Office Poison, was constructed from tables in booth space also closer to the center of the convention. Still, a young man attempting to find a specific kind of book might be encouraged to "Go west."

The cost of attending Comic Con International as an exhibitor breaks down into personnel, product, and space. The primary cost is space, offered from the convention with discounts for early payment. In addition, each company has to pay for the materials, from carpet to tables, with which to build a site. According to Eric Reynolds, director of promotions at Fantagraphics and that company's point-man for the convention, "Strictly in terms of exhibitor space, we spent $8800 just for the space, and another $4300-plus on furniture and accessories," space which Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson confirms was roughly eight booths. No other publisher contacted by the Journal shared the exact cost of their space, or anything else for that matter, although one might infer that the space costs were proportionally similar depending on time of rental from the convention, and vastly different according to set-up. Highwater decorated their spaced with efforts from the artist and publisher, while Top Shelf offered a slightly more elaborate set-up based on a swanky bar -- both of which required effort from the exhibitors and both reportedly well-received, but neither one of them exactly the giant tree which loomed over the Trilogy Tour.

A second cost for companies is product shipped to the show, a combination of material from their own warehouses, and items to debut at the convention delivered with varying degrees of last-minute haste directly from the printer, as well as the people to sell them. Most alternative comics publishers, without the cash resources of the major mainstream publishers (although many of the majors, according to rhetorical evidence, cut costs the same way), fall back on their DIY roots and adopt various strategies to save on potentials costs of attending and exhibiting at the show.

One strategy is to fly out only a select number of artists or workers, and to hire locally or part-time convention workers from those who have already paid their own way. Tom Devlin of Highwater told the Journal, "I flew out [cartoonists] Ron [Rege Jr.] and Brian [Ralph]. Other folks flew out on their own dime." Fantagraphics flew down 11 workers, some on a part-time arrangement, while artists making appearances at their booth were drawn from cartoonist paying their own way in order to attend the convention and, in many cases, sell original art to collectors, and a number of guests of Comic Con International proper, such as Phoebe Gloeckner, Lewis Trondheim, and various EC artists signing in support of writer Grant Geissman's book Tales of Terror!

Another strategy is to share booth space proper with another publisher. Westhampton House's Robert Boyd worked out a deal with Highwater. "Basically I 'rented' space from Tom--I treated Highwater as a bookstore and gave him 50% of my sales," he told the Journal. (Boyd was the only publisher to cite a second job as a way to defray costs. "I also work for LPC Group, and part of what I did in San Diego was LPC related--and they helped pay my way.") Another formal partnership was Robot Publishing and the French small-press clearing house Bries, according to Robot's Robert Goodin.

Robot also enjoyed the inherent advantage of having its main representative located in nearby L.A. Sammy Harkham, living in California made him the only contributor to the anthology "Kramer's Ergot" able to attend the convention. He described his experience to the Journal. "I drove down with a friend who is not involved in the comic, and doesn't really care for most comics, which was fun in way to have someone who can look at the whole spectacle without distortion. As far as how many books we brought, I just filled the back of my truck with as many boxes as possible."

In the end a successful convention will help on clean-up costs, specifically the returning unsold books to the publisher's warehouse or other storage space. Most of the publishers spend part of Sunday selling a large amount of stock on hand directly to retailers with large stores, like Rory Root, or to outlets like the Bud Plant catalog. Sell-through helps cut costs, too. Chris Staros of Top Shelf gives one perspective on a publisher's needs for the show. "As for books, we shipped 41 large boxes of graphic novels out there, and when we packed things up at the end of the show, there were only 8 boxes left -- an amazing sell-through for any Con."

Why Go?

Unlike mainstream publishers, who see the convention purely in terms of public promotions and behind-the-scenes business, alternative publishers want and need to move product. The number of attendees not only represent an audience which could easily increase the circulation of even a successful book by a factor between five and ten, they represent a mix of casual fan who might be interested in the wider interests represented in alternative subject matter, and hardcore comics followers who might be ill-served by a local store -- not to mention the already-discussed selling in bulk near the conclusion of the show.

Of the publisher contacted by the Journal, most reported back varying level of profits. Some like Top Shelf, considered the convention a success even after figuring the costs. "In years past, when we were just getting started, Conventions were a break even proposition at best. But now, due to the popularity of some of our books (like Good-bye Chunky Rice, Monkey vs Robot, and From Hell), and the fact that our line has gotten so large, conventions have become a significant part of our annual income and cash flow. Even if you factor in all the travel, meals, hotels, shipping, and the cost of goods sold, we
still come out way ahead on most cons now," Chris Staros told the Journal. For what Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson called the best San Diego in company history, Eric Reynolds confirmed. "Kim is basically right," he told the Journal. "Bottom-line: it was more profitable than ever." Yet others are more guarded. Highwater's Devlin was amongst those for whom sales overall were up slightly, but not as high as hoped for. "We did OK. Sales were about equal to last year ( a little over actually) which was under our projections but not embarrassing." Robot's Goodin offered a similarly tempered analysis ""In terms of sales, the convention was a moderate success. Sales were up, but since we had 4 new books out and a real booth (as opposed to a table in the small press ghetto), the increase in sales was a bit disappointing. We didn't sell that much more than last year."

However, ask Goodin about the success of the con in terms of costs versus profits, and get a more sever response. "It isn't even close to paying for itself. If I were to look at the profit of the books I sold it wouldn't even cover the cost of half of the booth. If one considers the expenses of the booth, hotel, man-hours, and cost of printing, the amount of money made is a fraction of the expenses." Westhampton's Boyd, who claimed sales equal to last year, puts a similar situation into more succinct terms. ""Did I make a profit? No. I never have and doubt I ever will."

Several factors other than bottom-line economics contribute to the convention presence of alternative publishers. A small-press person like Sammy Harkham might be interested in it for novelty's sake, as a first-step into an industry from which he might otherwise feel ostracized. "Though we lost some money due to hotels and cigarettes, I feel it was totally worth it. I had a lot of retailers come by and place orders, I met some magazine people offering illustration work, and of course I met a lot of cartoonists. Which for me is still fun. Doing things in a void isn't always so encouraging. Its nice to see people respond to your work who aren't your family." Others might see it as an avenue for sustaining and building on past momentum. Devlin described Highwater's success in terms of increased good-feeling surrounding his artists-in-attendance, while Goodin told portrays Robot's presence as part of an overall publishing plan. "This is the important question for us at the moment. It is going to take awhile for real profit to start rolling in. What I hope to accomplish at these shows is to become more established in the minds of readers of comics. There is nothing worse than being the best kept secret in this industry. By attending these shows new people discover us and hopefully through enough word of mouth, things can begin to improve in the sales department. I think that this is a slow moving process of becoming better known for producing high quality comics. I see signs that things are changing for us. I'm optimistic."

Creative deals made at the convention are part of the overall work done. Boyd told the Journal, "There are minor benefits for Westhampton House and the publishers I represent (Slab-O-Concrete, Jippi Forlag, etc.). For instance, a lot of people from the animation world are there, and I sometimes help put them in contact with artists they like in various WH books." Kim Thompson cited some new project acquisition, including this year's discovery of a major graphic novel from Joyce Farmer. Some of the groups are involved in convention programming. Fantagraphics co-owner Gary Groth moderated a panel on the late Gil Kane, while the Highwater Press cartoonists ran a panel close to their interests. Said publisher Devlin, "Jordan [Crane], Brian, Ron, and Dave Choe did a panel on comics reproduction. They talked about silk-screening, computer tech stuff, photocopying. Dave did a segment on how to steal copies from 'Blinko's.' Mostly it was a panel on how to make a package, how to make your books look nice, how to treat your work with respect."

The launching of individual titles, new issues, and publications with special features is a big part of every Comic Con International -- as a way to bring special attention to title and creators, particularly those in attendance. Although Westhampton's Boyd disputed the importance to his specific publishing situation, citing the types of books he sells as not being the kind of book particularly suited to San Diego crowds, most of the publisher's feel new books drive a publisher's convention presence. Tom Devlin: "I'm sure everyone would agree that new books are important. I know that for a lot of people they just went around and grabbed all the new stuff on the Fantagraphics table and the D&Q table. Here's your first chance. Beat all the kids on your block. Sales on our semi-new books were down considerably from last year's con debut of Cave~In." Not surprisingly, all the publishers queried reported high sales on new work yet to enjoy wide release -- Robot's four new comics, new books from Tony Millionaire and Joe Sacco at Fantagraphics -- and a few surprises from books which had already been out for a while. According to Thompson and Reynolds, back issues of Dave Cooper's Weasel sold well, and the Ellen Forney collection Monkey Food sold out on Friday, Goodin called himself "pleasantly surprised" to sell more copies of the original Robot anthology, Oden, at this show than any previous. Summed up Staros, "When books debut at Cons, they really do create an extra buzz that helps launch the title. Not just in the sense of extra sales at the show, but also in the enthusiasm that gets back into the comics community from the buzz over the book"

Of course, most of the publishers are also comics fans with multiple friends within the industry they might only see in San Diego. Staros cited nearby parents, while Goodin extolled the virtues of hanging out with Robot Publishing partners. Kim Thompson told the Journal he looks for an excuse not to go, but the appeal of a certain personality at the con, or special feature, helps him to attend. "I always tell myself that I'll skip the next one, just to have one summer without that huge drain of energy and time, but there's always one guest I feel honor-bound to accompany to the Con -- last year it was Chris Ware, this year Lewis Trondheim -- or a few people I really want to meet, or see. I can't skip next year because it's Fantagraphics' 25th anniversary and we're talking about doing some special shit for the Con, but maybe I can take off in 2002." Harkham and Reynolds each claimed convention work isn't the best way to meet fellow cartoonists or industry members, but both cited bumping into EC artists as a particular side-benefit. For Devlin, fun is fun and business is business. ""I like seeing everybody but I find these affairs really nerve-wracking."

Alley, Island, or Ghetto?

Since such a large group of alternative comics publisher have settled into a specific portion of the floor for several years now, booth placement becomes an issue. Robert Boyd summarizes from the conventional wisdom. "I have no basis for comparison, but to my mind, it makes sense to put like exhibitors together. I think people into sensitive, twee, artistic, intellectual and/or foreign comics know that our little section is the place to go. I wish we hadn't been right next to Troma--which always has an entertaining booth -- but was really loud. Better to be next to Drawn & Quarterly, a booth one knows will never play earsplitting techno over and over and over... Plus, people who like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics tend to like our stuff, too. I like being across from Fantagraphics--partly because I like the people there, but also because they do so little to jazz up their booth that it makes our garbage sculpture/display fixture look all the more cool in comparison." Reynolds extends the cosmetic benefit to most nearby exhibitors in general "I think, frankly, it's more of a benefit for the smaller companies being next to us than vice-versa."

Although happy with his location facing the larger Fantagraphics area, Tom Devlin suggest that a ghetto-effect should be avoided, and that perhaps the publishers in that area might emulate the Slave Labors and Cartoon Books booth, entering the middle of the con fray. "I think the Con has pushed us all too far into the corner. I actually want to talk to Gary and Kim and Eric about this. I don't know how they feel but I want to be right near Dark Horse and Oni and DC. I want to get some more of those casual people. I think we mostly get people who know to look for us. I want someone who is waiting in line to meet Kevin Smith the wonder what going on in that booth with the big pile of painted garbage to wander over and look at our books." Venturing into the unknown -- and hard-to-find potential booth placement near the back of the hall like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund aside, Fantagraphics' Thompson is unsure if any tampering is necessary -- citing year-after-year increases of success up to 20 percent as a reason to stay put -- while Chris Staros switches into Southern Baptist exhortation: "We've come to realize that as long as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, and Highwater are in close proximity, that all of us will do well together -- we make a good family. But would it help all of us to be more centrally located? Or have all of us be co-located with Slave Labor, Oni, Cartoon Books, etc.? You know, it probably would. I've always believed that together we make up the 'new mainstream,' and if we got organized, we might just push the industry in our direction."

For his part, Sammy Harkham would be happy if more of the run-off crowd had looked in his direction: "I did notice some folks walk in and eyeing the yellow Fanta banner, just walked by without even a glance in our direction." And Robert Goodin expressed the most dismay at having his proximity to Fantagraphics request end up in a position near the curtain on FBI's backside. "I had requested to be placed next to Top Shelf and Highwater. At first I was excited that we were across the aisle from Fantagraphics, but I quickly realized it was actually Fantagraphics backside (which was a big yellow curtain to hide the Eros porn comics. Since it was the first year of us having a booth, it's hard for me to say how it affected sales and traffic. It sure seemed like there was less traffic on our aisle as a result of essentially having nothing across from us. But, then again, we were sandwiched between Last Gasp and Juxtapoz. So that isn't too bad."

Fans contacted by the Journal who looked for alternative material at the con were split. Most enjoyed the concentration of alternative publishers. Says attendee Austin English, "I like that ghetto, and was disappointed that Top Shelf sort of moved away. It was awful having Troma there instead." For English, having publishers near one another makes new discoveries that much easier. "When Highwater was sort of new last year, it was great having them right next to D&Q. I would seek out Top Shelf and Highwater now that I'm aware of them, but a few years ago, I might not have. Thus, I'm glad that little ghetto sticks together." Craig McKenney, a freelance writer who has attended Comic Con International in the past in addition to this year, shares some of Devlin's doubts. "I don't like the way that all of the alternatives are sequestered off by themselves. I think that tends to alienate and continue the ghetto-ization of the alternative publishers. I just think that, if Wizards of the Coast can have a booth next to Marvel and DC, why NOT have D&Q or Top Shelf there, too? It seems that more casual readers and disinterested visitors to the con would see/ buy/ read these books if the booths were mixed like that, because most of the people I mentioned are drawn to things like Marvel and DC because it's what is easily recognized since most of their stuff is such a part of American pop culture. I think that being huddled off in a corner prevents independent books from being seen in that way. Indeed, I would seek out whoever I was interested in, regardless of where their booth was placed at the Con." Tom Peters, another attendee, has his doubts of the McKenney's logic. "I would personally seek out alternative publishers if they were spread out. But I also think that grouping them together is mutually beneficial for all the publishers involved. Just because the Vampirella model is creating a high traffic area-that isn't necessarily going to translate to sales for Drawn & Quarterly."

Onto the Small Press Expo

Almost none of the publishers contacted by the Journal admitted to adjusting their San Diego strategies in light of the alternative-friendly Small Press Expo to follow nine weeks later. Most, Chris Staros, were able to point toward a grander feeling of involvement at the smaller con, but like Robert Goodin were loathe to choose one or the other in terms of releases or focus. "I attend both shows mostly to make a little money in sales and to help increase our popularity."

As an editor, Reynolds was able to tell the Journal his strategy behind releasing the upcoming Dirty Stories 2 at Small Press Expo, despite a much larger devotion to sales of books similar in content being sold in San Diego. "Personally, I decided to debut Dirty Stories II at SPX rather than SDCC [San Diego Comic Con, CCI's previous name] for two reasons: (1) it gave me an extra month to prepare, and (2) I hoped it would have a slightly higher-profile at SPX, because at CCI it would have to compete with Safe Area Gorazde, Maakies, and Tales of Terror!, all three of which are very big releases for us." Reynolds went onto say that the greatest determinant for an individual publication was whether an artist would be in attendance at one show rather than another.

Conclusion

With everyone in attendance embracing the meet-and-greet aspect of the show, Top Shelf and Fantagraphics enjoying banner sales year and all of the alternative publishers contact fulfilling goals within their broad-range plans, Comic-Con International 2000 serves notice on several items of interest: the importance of the show on the publishers' summer schedules as a sales and promotional tool; the incremental gains in respect for those comics role in the reading habits of an aging, more selective audience; and the mix of professionalism and self-driven ingenuity for facet of the art form usually marginalized by fans. The year 2000 also marked Robot Publishing's booth debut and the first Eisners attended by Highwater at all, and by Westhampton's Boyd wire-to-wire. ("It certainly is a lowest-common-denominator crapfest," exclaimed Devlin.

Fantagraphics' Reynolds cited the professionalism of CCI officials Pam Noles and Gary Sassaman, particularly Sassaman as liaison to the panels portion of the show. Added Thompson, "No complaints, everyone did an ace job. Even the occasional (mild) harassment over displaying adult material (arguing about whether Naughty Bits needed to be bagged on display, and such) that marred some earlier years has totally vanished." So with the established alternative players unusually satisfied, it's the shock of the new that gets the last work. First-time exhibitor Harkham: "Have you noticed that comic fans and many cartoonists talk a lot? for the most part I didn't get in too many stuck situations, but listening to the conversations between the fans and publishers on either side of our table, I was struck by the length and depth of some of the most mundane topics usually concerning the x-men movie and Pikachu drawn as Darth Maul, and these conversations never ended. So fucking boring. And their jokes suck." Tom Spurgeon

SIDEBAR: Useless Items Go Alternative

Alternative comics publishers are only too happy to offer convention-only specials, although the amount of money involved can be a barrier as well as the typical convention-goer already being bombarded by products. Special t-shirts in previous years have been one way to attract convention-only sales.

This year's smart item was the Highwater Books shopping bag, featuring art from cartoonist Brian Ralph. Said publisher Tom Devlin: "We did that special bag deal which worked real well. Those bags are all gone now and it seemed like a nice little gift and a great way to get people to spend more money at our table." Rather than sell the bags directly, Highwater gave them away as a premium to those who spent $30 or more, kicking several customers from the one collection range into buying an additional item or two.

Attendee Rick Bradford was happy to be convinced. "Highwater was very crafty this year. I had around 22 bucks worth of stuff picked out when Robert Boyd informed me that I could spend 30 and get a nifty Brian Ralph screen-printed shopping bag. So, of course, I did. The design on the bag depicts a scraggly guy imbibing and relieving himself simultaneously along with the caption 'Highwater Books -Just Look the Other Way.' Who could resist?" TS