So, I’ve let this spot languish a bit of late as I’ve been quite busy with my responsibilities with Action Lab, Princeless, Order of Dagonet, and a lot of other stuff. However, I recently read a wonderfully written article by Amy Ratcliffe at Geek With Curves about the wonders of Baltimore Comic Con. The experience she had as a attendee was quite different than mine as a writer with a table. I suggested that I’d like to write a counterpoint to her article and here I am.
Let me start this off properly. This is not an attack on Baltimore Comic Con. Baltimore Comic Con provides an invaluable service to comics creators, retailers, and fans and has been doing so for years. As cons go, it’s one of the largest on the East Coast and it has a draw unlike many other cons. That said, my experience there was less than ideal and I’d like to share with you some of the things I’d like to see improved WHEN I return in the future. Note the when, not if, but when.
My first and principle concern is that the layout for “Artist Alley” was disjointed and confusing. The artist alley was not, in fact, an alley but a series of unconnected and confusingly laid out islands. The doors to the con opened into the far left side of the convention center. Artist Alley was at the far right and in an area that was actually behind a wall when you entered the convention. It was then divided into two sections by a cloth wall, so that one couldn’t even see that there was more artist alley on the other side of the wall. A number of other artists were then put up against the wall in a completely different section. Beyond that, more popular guests of the convention were in a section behind the retailers. To give you an idea, if you came to Baltimore to see Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, you could do so without ever knowing that there was an artist alley.
Now, criticizing a convention for giving priority to big names is ridiculous, I realize this. But, how it should work is that you give those folks priority and give the smaller folks exposure. You mix us in where people that don’t know about us can see us or at least see our banners. This is the chance our us and our potential audience to meet. If the con is set up to where attendees have to come looking for me to find out I exist, it’s doing a disservice to everyone. I create a well-received and award nominated book for all-ages and I know people are looking for that, but they couldn’t find it here.
Amy remarked in her article that traffic was great. I only understand that statement because I left my table for awhile to go see some folks on the other side of the floor. Traffic for retailers was hopping. Traffic for Stan Lee was bumper to bumper. Half of the small press publishers had their tables blocked off by lines waiting to see Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. Meanwhile, in that large hunk of real estate known as artist alley, we had a slow dribble. There were people there, but nothing like what was on the other side of the floor. I can measure how good traffic at a convention is by how well I end up getting to know my neighbors. Good traffic means I never see them, never talk to them, we exchange a casual nod and ask each other how the day finished and that’s it. Unfortunately, I got to know my neighbors very well this year. Fortunately, they were Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore. On talking to some of my friends who were also exhibiting, it seemed the experience was pretty consistent. Christian Sager told me later that he only made about $12 the whole con! Considering what it costs to stay in the Hyatt, buy a table, drive or fly to Baltimore, and eat anywhere near the Inner Harbor of Baltimore – that’s a really bad number.
Amy also mentioned that the convention goes out of its way to support its guests. I assume that’s probably true and the issues is just a problem with the way cons define a “guest”. Guests are generally people who are invited by the con. Guests are given a free table in a prime location. Guests have their travel expenses paid. Guests are put up in the hotel by the convention. Guests often get free drinks and food – in a number of cases they’re wined and dined by the organizers. Guests are, by definition, taken excellent care of. I am certain that Stan Lee did not have to discover two hours in that he had forgotten his water and cereal bars and wander to the concession stand to buy a five dollar hot dog and a four dollar bottle of water.
Unless you’re a guest of the Baltimore Comic Con, nothing is free. No food, no water, not even electricity. I paid a not insignificant sum of money for a table at this convention and after I retrieved my name badge on the first morning, I did not speak to or see a representative or volunteer of the con until closing time. I was never offered anything, checked on, or assisted in my time at the convention.
As a comic creator, I depend on a lot of things to go right to have a successful show. One of the most important is communication. I have to get to and from events. I have to make plans quickly if I need to meet with someone. I need twitter, facebook, tumblr, instagram, and more at my disposal. I need to take payments using my Square. As an indie comics creator, the internet is very important to me. It needs to work and it did not.
I stayed at the con hotel, the Hyatt. Despite being quite expensive, even with the “con discount” the Hyatt asked me to pay another $15 per day if I wanted to use to internet. Now, granted, that’s not exactly the con’s fault, but that is who the con does business with and it isn’t creator friendly.
What is the con’s fault is that the internet available inside also has an additional charge. This is a fact that I am used to, but not happy about. A con ought to be able to provide a reliable internet connection for the people who paid to be there. At a growing number of cons they offer it either to vendors and artists or to everyone at the con for free. This makes sense as the network is already there and is costing the convention center the same amount regardless of use.
I accept that this is a business choice, which is why I choose to have the option to use my 3G/4G connection. However, for half of the day Saturday and all of the day Sunday, there was no way to get so much as a cellular network internet signal inside the center. Not long after that, I couldn’t get a phone signal. This made it impossible for me to sell things to customers who wished to pay with a credit card, to update fans and followers, or to even share pictures of what and how we were doing.
Perhaps the problem I have is this: when I go to San Diego Comic Con or New York Comic Con or a venue like Dragon Con, I expect that the emphasis is going to be on the large media presences. They advertise that. It is a fact. My issue is that Baltimore is “all about comics”, it is not however “about all comics”. Amy is right that Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse, and Image did not attend. None of them had booths the way they do in San Diego. However, if you’ve ever read “Gotham Central” you know what it’s like to be a cop in Batman’s city. He almost never appears, but he’s like a force of nature directing everything that goes on there. There’s not DC or Marvel table, but occasionally you catch a glimpse of Dan Didio or Tom Brevoort out of the corner of your eye. You see a flock of people with cameras flashing and realize Stan Lee left his secluded tent to go to the bathroom. You see that there is a panel all about what it takes to write for Marvel and you wonder why none of the publishers who are at the convention have any panels. It’s like having a birthday party for someone that doesn’t even show up.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough about this. The fact is, as conventions go, clearly it’s a fun place to go and see comics and comics culture actually run a show that claims to be about comics and comics culture. As a creator, it’s just a little disappointing to be left out of the festivities. It really hurts to think that there are people in the same room as you who would LOVE your book, but will never see it because they’ll never make it to your isolated corner. It’s confusing to think that there are enough people there that their support could mean a real change in your life, but they’re looking for Batman.
Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen the holy land. Last year, Denver held their first Denver Comic Con. The crowds were huge, the fans were excited, and the floor was set up so that you had to walk through artist alley to see the celebrity guests. I got a respiratory infection and one of the con organizers went out to buy me cough drops and a hot beverage. On several occasions, staffers checked in on each and every table. They got someone to sponsor giving exhibitors bottled water! It was amazing!
The week after I did Baltimore, I returned to Maryland for SPX in Bethesda. The two cities are 38 miles apart, but the two conventions could not be further apart from one another. Every table at SPX belonged to a working artist or artists who had comics that they made to sell you. Everybody was passionate. The box I had shipped to the hotel magically showed up on my table the day of the show. I talked with several of the convention organizers at a free dinner and meet and greet the night before the show. Several of them came by my table during the weekend to see how I was doing and even to buy my book. I made more money by noon on Saturday in Bethesda than I did all weekend in Baltimore.
I don’t expect catered meals and cough drops at every convention, but a friendly check in during the weekend, a little effort to get small press and indy guys foot traffic, and some reasonably priced and working internet is not too much to ask. I understand that conventions get big and when your audience is paying to see Stan Lee, you make sure that he wants to come back, but it was only about two years ago that Scott Snyder was one of us – the unwashed masses of table paying, small run printing, room sharing small-press diehards. You do not know who the fans will be lining up to see next year. Giving them a hand up should be your pleasure. It might pay off when they make it big.