As our fifth year of exhibiting at New York Comic Con- NYCC- is upon us, a look back at our first year is in order, so I present the first chapter of The Great Con, a memoir/chronicle of Wayward Raven's journey among the tests, tragedies and triumphs. This is my perspective. This is my experience and it is odd. By Joshua Lee Andrew Jones.
The Great Con
Preface: At ten years old, I saw my mother weep in a way that was beyond grief. The tears were of desperation and existential sorrow, which I instinctively recognized. So, I made a vow to her. It was a vow at an age where reason holds little sway. The promise made was to protect her and not let anyone, or anything, hurt her like that again. I failed.
This was to be a confession, an exorcism, a pseudo-didactic exercise and most of all a chronicle of outrageous fortune along with and behind-the-scenes look into a little investigated subsection the comic book industry, namely the convention circuit through the eyes of an independent company. What, as with most stories of life, was once planned but then diverted.
This chronicle is about endurance, persistence in the face of daunting odds, terminal disease, travel and odd events that I would not have believed if you told it to me a few years prior. The end is the beginning for something else.
ConQuest: a three year journey behind the scenes.
Chapter 1: the great con.
Hip Hip Hooray! Smiles were all around. Happy people talking about happy topics surrounded us on the Metro-North train bound for the great city of New York. Everyone felt the warm embrace of human kindness and the New York Comic Con was going to be absurd fun. The enthusiasm was like a captured sun that beamed love and joy to everyone. Puppies and rainbows and candy sprinkles on cupcakes filled the hearts and minds of the travelers.
Not really, though some of these emotions might have been experienced by people on their way to the con, but not me. From being a fiction writer, I know starting off on a morbid foot tends to make people walk away from a story and the introduction should begin with positive words until the slow decline of such diction when encountering the break into act two. It’s a structural element that helps the psychological movement of the reader and assists in development of plot. Now we have that out of the way. Here’s the reality. The journey onto the path of breaking into the comic book industry is afoot; this is terrifying even for the most skilled and stable individuals on the outside looking in, but as you’ll see, I’m not stable. The journey was and is wrought with doubt, danger, and debt as well as a couple more words that start with d, but you’ll see that a couple words with p, mainly persistence and patience, can help you overcome the pitfalls.
Two days before, I was going to give up and go into creative exile. No more rejection. No more dealing with people I perceived as incompetent. No more bloody writing or publishing world. Things were falling not just apart, but also away. The total sum of my life’s events added up to nothing of value in my estimation. There were medical issues and emotional issues to attend, some could be terminal but was uncertain at the time. However, I had one last commitment and I would not flake on my long time friend, so I would endure one last excoriating event while assuming the enterprise would be humiliating enough to edify my decision. A curious tingle of fear whipped though my stomach. I had felt this before and what happened next when that feeling stung me in the past was not good.
The sun, being a vindictive joker, taunted me with a curse of scorching light and my eyes narrowed as I walked the streets outside Grand Central Terminal. Through the swerves of thick foot traffic and tourists, heavy steps met the stable concrete sidewalks of the metropolis. Down Park Avenue to 38th Street we stumbled and huffed while burdened with a cargo of comic books. The Midtown traffic was not as bad as expected and we trampled 38th through Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side only to come upon the long light at 11th Avenue. We waited and waited some more while our muscles weaken from the weights in tow. Though only a short distance traveled, eons passed in my thoughts and now the monolith of glass and steel, The Jacob Javit’s Convention Center rose before my sweat clouded sight. So close. So very close, just across the street, but my aching legs and arms struggle against gravity. The two gym bags of comic books, candy and water was getting too heavy to lug. The nylon handles cut through my circulation and my fingers were becoming numb. Every muscle in my shoulders began to protest and the synthetic fabric sawed back and forth into my palms.
My friend, writing partner, and motivational speaker, Mark Frankel picked up the pace when the Walk signal lit up in white. Almost broke, we came upon the campus that would school us for the next four days. Men with clipboards and stern faces directed through the front doors into the main gallery of the vast convention center. Confusion drew and quartered my senses as man in a Staff jacket told Mark where to sign in, which happened to be a football field away and up at the top of a set of daunting stone stairs spread wide and hard. “No badges. No Entry,” said the man in the Staff jacket. I gave up and almost collapsed. The bags fell in heaps to my mesh-topped hiking shoes soaked to the tiptoes.
Oh, I should mention I was wearing a black, full-length rain coat and it was October. Not late October where cool drifts of onshore breezes chill the New York morning. It was early October in 2012 where humidity’s memory lingers from the proper summer and a chilly morning transformed to grueling heat in the just the time it takes for the train from Fairfield, CT to arrive at Grand Central Terminal, a little over an hour. Also, we walked from Grand Central to Javits; not bad when unburdened, but enthusiasm crushing when lugging forty pound bags in each hand along with a backpack. Basically, you could tell I was as some say, “A nube.” A sweaty, sweaty nube.
The city heat and exertion were not the only factors to this almost collapse. Terror and worry had a hold long before I took a step off the train onto the underground platform at Grand Central terminal, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. Need to set the scene for you a little better. Where were we? Oh yes, Mark went and got the badges along with directions to where we were setting up in Artist Alley. This “alley”, more like an enclosure for the Hindenberg, was at the far end from where we entered. If you don’t know, in general, this is the section of comic book conventions where artists set up tables and show off their comic book art. The Show Floor, on the other hand, is where large vendors of all things comic books/scifi/fantasy set up elaborate stalls. Large publishers and small publishers also set up booths along with video game companies. This was the case for New York ComicCon 2012, our trial by ordeal and the first test was at hand.
Down the corridor of vaulted ceiling and massive industrial architecture, we plod with our bulging bags as grunts and frequent stops punctuate the transfer of anguish to its selected position within the realm. I ask Mark the table number again as we climb down the few stairs leading to the cement floor where clack of hard soled shoes smacked my ears. It was getting hard to breathe and my hands were trembling in fatigue. Through the space, the clicking of plastic wheels from suitcases being drawn along by the experienced professionals echoed like a menagerie of mechanical insects calling into the empty night. All else was silence besides the occasional “Damn it!” from artists having problems setting up their table displays.
The last ounce of strength left me as my shoulders slumped. The table, our table, sat before us with a nameplate signaling we were official. We were a part of the comic book world and the grand schemes it entailed. The set up was not quick even though we practiced at Mark’s house a couple times before. Goes to show, there’s only so much planning can do and that actual experience is not replicated in the safe spaces.
Being someone who went to comic book conventions, I studied how artists set up their individual tables. Most were simple with stacks of books, a selection of prints in a portfolio to flip through, and some had art propped up by literature stands on the tabletop, which was at about waist level so everyone had to look down to see your merchandise. To counter this, artists had banners made with either an eye catching image with a logo or name, or it had a marquis character of the comic books they were trying to promote. Some artists also used the Wall-Effect. This is where they take up every available portion of airspace they had and erect walls of artwork. I found that a turn-off and mostly avoid those table at conventions unless it was an artists I really admired.
We decided to take a conservative approach since we only had two comic books to sell. Mark, being the guy employed by CBS and had money, bought a banner with the title character from his comic book The Ascendant prominently displayed rising from the grave. We had literature stands for the comic books, buttons to give away, bookmarks, beer cozies, t-shirts to raffle off, and a big bowl of candy. We weren’t sure how this was going to work but if we wanted to make a living at comic books we had to start mingling in the community instead of just trying to be writers from periphery. It was my last shot too. Resigned to quit the creative life, I assumed this would be catastrophe but hoped it wouldn’t be. The time and effort put into the writing life was hard to let slip away. Who would I be then anyway?
We reached our table and it looked smaller than I anticipated. The length was right but the width was not what I assumed. That meant the display plan was dashed. No problem. We didn’t have much. Would need to adjust where the premium giveaway items would be. The free artwork we had just slipped behind the comic book stands. Then the oddest thing happened, the tinge of fear spiked through me again and the “Squish” happened. The “Squish” happened to me before unpleasant episodes where it felt like gravity collapsed for a second, crushing me, but then expands and I with it. Wasn’t bad though. Figured it was low-blood sugar.
The banner went up with the title character from Mark’s comic book The Ascendant, about a demon with remorse issues. It held dominion over the air and the books went in cheap plastic sleeves acquired from Staples. The last item, what we hoped would bring us attention among the throngs, a bowl of candy took center stage. A Free Candy sign was taped to the front. Two men in neat moustaches wrapped in plaid vests sauntered by and off the lips of the man holding a black portfolio came, “Two hours until VIP’s get let in.” The countdown began.
Then, the familiar heart-pounding pressure that signaled an old nemesis’s arrival began and quickened. Dizziness pulled back my eyes. My heart tried to punch through my sternum. All took on a yellow hue. Boom!
My frequent enemy had slipped in on exhausted feet. General Anxiety’s first assault, the “Squish” was weak but it had been reconnaissance. Dirty pool General Anxiety, dirty pool. The big guns would soon blast the artillery shells of adrenaline and the fight or flight response would run insane upon the field of battle. I could deal with this when able to go into a dark room, and sit in silence while trying to utilize some cognitive behavioral therapy I learned. Here I was exposed, naked, and the revelation of my unstable emotional condition had not yet been made public to my friends, so I made an excuse and went to the nearest bathroom. I locked myself into the handicapped stall and tried to inhale controlled, slow breaths. Didn’t work.
Sounds from outside bounced off the bathroom walls and slowed, expanded, lowered, so I couldn’t decipher what was going on. Gravity was sent by General Anxiety and decided to attack from above. It crushed me down to my knees. I whispered, “I should have given up. Shouldn’t have come. Just going to fuck this up for everyone.” In the next stall, a man who I assume ate a bear and a field of onions the night before, unleashed a putrid demon into the bowels of the bowl with a blast of sound that could corrupt even the most sacred souls. There is nothing holy left after that violation of the universe. Nothing. Never heard him enter in my confused terror state, but he forced me to leave through what I can only call, in the most friendly way, as an acidic miasma of self-hatred that burns your eyes when passed through. I do owe that man a debt. His act of unparalleled rot, of which I hope he saw a doctor for, forced me out of my escalating emotional breakdown. For that, thank you anonymous guy and yes, I began with a story involving bodily functions. You’re welcomed dear reader.
Back to the table, a little shaken, a little weak, a lot disturbed, I went and Mark asked me if I was okay. I lied. But that’s what I was programmed to do since birth by my odd family. In public, you present yourself one way and in private, you’re you. Life was an act, a performance to gain and manipulate. Suffer in silence and never show weakness. It’s a pretty terrible way to grow up, especially when you are the son an Episcopal Reverend who preached loving forgiveness and kindness in public but wasn’t that way in private. I digress. You don’t want to know about my childhood as that would take at least another ten books of things you wouldn’t believe and I don’t want to tell, but I do spice my fiction with reality.
The tables nearby began to fill up with artists and some writers. The silence had given way to a chatter that pulsated like a heartbeat heard in an ultra-sound test. The volume began to rise like a full-moon high tide, Mark and I rehearsed elevator pitches. I was not a good salesman. Loath to bother people and identify as an observer but Mark is excellent at chatting. He can strike up a conversation with just about anyone and I have never in my life ever struck up a conversation with a stranger on purpose.
It was a Thursday, a half day, a VIP day, so the assumption was it wouldn’t be that busy. We were wrong. A rumble shook the rafters as commotion of sound approached from the connector hallway. As if a spillway was engaged by a damn unable to hold back recent flood water, the people flowed into Artist Alley. A few fit comic book fans gripping sketchbooks and art sleeves tight sprinted by and caught me in a question. Why? The realization came that these fans were running to be first in line at their favorite artist’s table so they could get art commissions before the artist’s list filled up. Most artists only take on a certain volume but tend to have prints of their art to sell throughout the convention. No one stopped to see us. We watched wave after disinterested wave surge and then a person stopped. The candy gambit worked.
Though this young man didn’t buy any comic books from us, he took a scoop of candy, it was free, and a card we created for the event that took them to our website/blog. He said he might be back after he did his rounds. It is a reasonable excuse for not buying, you want to take in the scene first, but he never returned. The artist next to us was Mike Miller, who did Game of Thrones material. Fans stopped by his double spread table and we hoped for some spill over but found this didn’t happen. As I had set a fairly low sales goal after querying the social media sites about what to expect for first timer independent comic book guys at NYCC, as the hashtag on Twitter will be in perpetuity, and found most seasoned professional said we wouldn’t sell more than 50 books the entire four days. It was looking to be the case.
The whole convention was like buying into a grand poker tournament. One had to buy in, come with the skills, sit at the table, and play. It was our game being presented to the world for the first time. If you ever consider exhibiting at conventions, the first time out will be more of a marketing situation instead of a revenue one, unless you have the money to create a special event, buy an advertising campaign, work social media with professionals, and celebrities on your side. We had none of it. Just Mark with his salesmanship and my pathetic face, which we hoped my draw some sympathy sales. Nope. There was an additional element. Alex. I had not met him yet and Mark hired him to work at CBS. They had started a webcomic called Damn Heroes, which was gaining some traction online. He was expected to show up later and I wondered what kind of impression I would make looking so in tatters.
The attack from General Anxiety had left me frail and distant. It was an effort to just look people in the eye as they came up but this was not the case for Mark, who kicked into gear. He worked and still works in the entertainment industry. One of his jobs was as a recruiter at CBS and he attended many jobs fairs and conferences in this fashion, so he started using his salesmanship techniques to strike up conversation with people without pitching the books. He lured them in with pleasantries and questions about how the attendees were doing, what they liked, who they were there to see, and after establishing a report, people then began asking what we had to offer. The first sale was made.
Through the coagulation of persons stuck in the lane that divided us and the other artists, a man, a Greek man, bounced with a city pace in his step up to our table with a smile. I see Mark reciprocate the smile. This was the Alex. He was and still is a geek after my own heart and we hit if off after introductions. At the time, I didn’t know him so I cannot speculate on his point-of-view on me. That comes later in the tale of conventions and madness. I can tell you that he is to this day one of my favorite people on this planet.
Alex slipped behind the table and we all chatted while trying to engage potential customers. This was when Alex’s sales strategy was first employed in my presence. It was a mixture of yelling random comments about people’s clothes or costumes and waving people over. It worked in some cases, which is better than no cases, and it was entertaining. Laughter had not been a companion for a while. The amusement was a fine distraction from my inner turmoil and my shyness lifted… sort of.
Certainly, the candy brought people over, but Mark got them to stay. With what I could muster and contribute, things began to take off as the crowd grew and deepened. The key to the advance was not to focus on what we had but what people wanted. Mostly, it was to be at the convention, look at thing and talk with like-minded members of humanity. It was tribal but people had to know you were part of the group first. By being nice, engaging, and interested in the attendees desires, they reciprocated. The low total for sales I was given for the entire fours days in my inquiry to comic book pros was almost half accomplished. The lesson was that conventions are an event, an experience, theatre of the absurd, and one must be an active player on stage. Only established artists and writers can just sit behind their tables and make money or meet people. If you want to break in, you must be entertaining and engaging first and then people might ask you what you have, and by that time, they will have almost decided to checkout your work because they like you.
The trial by fiery ordeal didn’t burn as much as billow smoke into my eyes but it was only the first day. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday would be the real tests. They indeed were, and I’ll get to that, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how we got there in the first place. Time slowed down for me and my enthusiasm was tempered by my inability to spit out the elevator pitches to potential customers along with boredom. The attendees walked by more than stopped as the crowd thinned.
Two years before, I went to the New York ComicCon as an attendee to see a friend, who was recently reintroduced after a very long time. There had been a few small comic book conventions in the past but was astounded by the community’s growth. Though ComicCon in San Diego had become a worldwide phenomenon, it wasn’t replicated on the east coast. That was changing. This was also right after the first serious attempt at writing a comic book/graphic novel script was completed. It was actually written by me and Mark, but that’s not important right now, it will become important in the story. The friend I went to see was and still is an esteemed person in the comic book world and works at Marvel. I met him in the old times, way back in 1989. I was able to meet up with this friend in Manhattan at a quaint Irish Pub called Mulligan’s on Madison Avenue and reunite him with a friend we had in common who had a special place in both our lives. There was drinking and merriment. Conversations turned to comic books before the sentiments of youthful tales poured into our veins. By the way, Mark was there too. Under the influence, I mentioned the finished graphic novel script and the Marvel friend agreed to take a look. Turned out that the script was not something suited for Marvel but the friend vehemently stated it should be pursued at other publishers, which we did to no avail.
After going to the NYCC 2010, I described it to Mark, who, by the way, I had been writing stage plays with for years and editing his short stories, and convinced him to go to conventions with me, including making plans for attending NYCC the next year. We did go the next year, after writing more comic book scripts, and met up with the Marvel friend who invited us to an industry party. He told us a few things about breaking into the comic book industry but that we should publish the comic books ourselves. Then, go to conventions and network with other professionals, artists and writers. It was the new way of things. I was not keen on it but things were relatively stable in my life and Mark was eager to do it. The Punk Rock ethos of do it yourself injected into our minds and we began the research into doing it ourselves.
Over the course of a few months, we found an artist to work with on the first graphic novel, which we decided to break up into a limited series comic book. It was a cheaper and time efficient option since we wanted to exhibit that year. We had to apply to New York Comic Con and without work, no deal. The first artist fell through. Deliberations were held and we decided to hold off on the first project and move onto two others that were done. I admit we pitched them to publishers first but without artwork and this is almost always a no, so we looked for artists and found a few. Problem was, we had to pay them and present work-for-hire terms. Things we didn’t wish nor have the money to do. Mark, being gainfully employed, paid the artists. This hurt me. I was not able to contribute money to the cause and began feeling my status and importance in the endeavor wane.
My friend at Marvel then got me and Mark a gig doing rewrites on a Wolverine one-shot and said he’d vouch for us on our NYCC application. This porved to be the key to our involvement.
So the books were coming along but I was not writing that much anymore. Primarily, at that time, I wrote novels and finished four before I ever wrote a comic book script. Also wrote short stories, stage plays and poetry. I admit, the stage plays weren’t very good but I had poetry and short stories published. To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been happy in my life for more than a moment, satisfied and proud, yes, but happy no. You see I suffer from a few issues in the noggin department. I have difficulty sleeping. It’s hard to get to sleep and it’s harder to wake up. There have been more than a few traumas and betrayals from my childhood that bent the path of life in a crook. There were events in young adulthood that scarred my ability to love both others and myself. Then, the hidden beast that I didn’t know I rode came to a stop and let me know I was attached to its hide. This beast is called Depression and it loves a drink, which just makes it meaner. Last, family health issues accent my adult life with harsh stroke and strong consonants.
When I was a teenager and young adult, I wanted to be a Rock Star. My bass guitar lessons began at the age of fourteen. Though, my academic and intellectual side called, I always thought I’d be a musician first, then go back to school to get advanced degrees while writing the greatest novels ever because I was great and special. Guess what, I was not as special or great as I thought. My biology got the best of me and soon the opportune years where people give you slack tightened into a wet knot that dried into a noose. As if my own fears and failure weren’t enough, my mother had a condition that would, if fate was not on her side, kill her soon.
Hand trucks are an important investment for comic book conventions. Hauling all your gear without one will lead to exhaustion.
Expect expectations to break. Most situations will not go planned.
Eat well before going to a convention. Low blood sugar is an enemy.
Candy will bring people to your table but only you can make them stay.
Comic book creator tip: become friends with good comic book artists when you are young if you are a writer; otherwise, save up and be prepared to spend thousands of dollars on getting completed books done.