On Friday, October 12, 2012, the New York Comic Con was in full swing. Later that night, a few blocks form the Javits Convention Center that housed the convention, Y: The Last Man and Saga writer Brian K. Vaughan was scheduled to appear at a party hosted by Multiversity Comics and Image Comics. For a $10 cover, revelers could get in, have a few cocktails, and mingle with comics creators. The door proceeds benefited the Hero Initiative.
At 10 in the morning on Friday, October 12, 2012, the Hero Initiative booth at the con was already swamped. People were asking about the party, and specifically about Vaughan. The main question: Would Brian be signing autographs at the party?
The booth staff was a bit befuddled. The event was billed as a party. Have a drink. Chat. Mingle. Snap off some photos with friends. No one wanted to obligate Vaughan, or any of the talent, to do more than just kick back and relax. The answer came back: "We don't think so. It's a party. Just go and have fun."
"Too bad," one fan said. "I'd pay $50 if I could just get Vaughan to sign two books for me."
Make no mistake: We live in the age of the $25 Brian Vaughan signature. If only Vaughan would sign them at $25. He signs for free.
If that sounds to you like a market failure that would make Adam Smith spin in his grave, you’re probably right. And it’s very emblematic of the strange time and place we exist in when it comes to comic conventions. By and large, the talent doesn't want to be paid (yet!) to sign books for fans and the general public. Former DC Comics president and Legion of Super-Heroes writer Paul Levitz also falls squarely into this camp. “They already paid their 10 cents, or maybe 12, for the book,” Levitz quips. “The least I can do is sign it for free.”
From their most nascent days in the 1960s until well into the ’80s, most comic conventions were made up of a dozen dealers and three artists in an off-ramp Ramada Inn ballroom. But those days are now dust. As conventions ramp up, the money rolls in. That 2012 New York Comic Con boasted 116,000 attendees. At an average ticket price of $50 a pop, that’s $5.8 million in ticket revenue alone, to say nothing of booth sales and sponsorships. That critical mass of footfalls and money invariably leads to ground-level entrepreneurs looking to take inefficacies out of any economy. Just like people were being paid up to $300 a day to wait in line for some rich guy to buy an iPhone 5, so too do comic conventions now have paid line-waiters. Really. And some of them are paid to get 50 copies of the same book signed by a creator…for free.
“I never know what to do with that,” admits longtime writer and artist Rick Remender. “It’s one thing to have a guy come up with a run of your books, like one copy each. I’m always really happy to sign ’em. But then you get the guy with a pile of just one issue, all specially cased so you sign in the same place. I don’t want to be a dick and say, ‘You want me to sign 50 copies of X-Force #1? Really?’ But I know that’s you looking to monetize my signature.”
Faced with a dilemma, Remender errs on the side of the angels. “I’m dealing with…maybe a fan who’s also trying to make some money?” he muses. “I don’t know. I don’t wanna be a dick, so I want to sign three, maybe five, but I usually just wind up signing them all. In many ways, it’s easier.”
“Easier” is hard to find these days, especially at high-volume venues such as New York Comic Con and San Diego. In fact, the sheer volume of people—multiplied by one security guard in particular—caused one creator to take an extended sabbatical from San Diego.
While at the 2012 San Diego con, Fables creator Bill Willingham says that “Some security guy put his open hand right in my chest, pushed me aside and said, ‘Celebrity coming through!’ And…you just don’t shove guys aside because you’re an important security guy and important minor TV celebrities are on their way. It was a wide-open area of floor out in the concourse. It just didn’t need to happen.”
Willingham later found out that the TV celebrity in question was comedian Paul Scheer. “The next day I announced I would not be back to San Diego the next year, and the immediate assumption became—boom!—that I was pissed off by this incident. Yes, I was pissed off by the incident, and I think it’s both annoying and silly that you could be the highest of comic guys at this con and not be assigned the security of even a minor TV celebrity, but that had nothing to do with the decision not to come back. That decision had been made months ahead of time.”
Willingham says that the sheer weight of the con is just too much to put up with on a regular basis, even once a year. “San Diego is just mentally and physically exhausting to attend,” he says. “Anything you go to, you have to leave 40 minutes earlier than you normally would, because you have to swim like a dysfunctional salmon through a sea of flesh.”
Willingham sees the influx of people as a double-edged sword. One edge is, of course, Big Moving Pictures. “The TV and Hollywood people, other then the very few who actually do enjoy comics, wouldn’t be caught dead in the comics section,” he says. “I love the fact that this thing has gotten huge and all that, but San Diego—and you can fill in any of the other big mega-conventions—isn’t really one convention. It’s like 12 smaller conventions that just happen to be taking place at the same time in the same place. And all the non-comic media have realized ‘This is the place where we need to go to get a head start on promoting whatever it is we’re flogging this year.’”
Rick Remender is a San Diego vet. He attended his first con there in 1993, and has made the scene again every year from 1997 to the present. But these days, he’s an attendee and not an exhibitor. “In San Diego, the evolution has been from comics-focused to more media-driven,” he says. “San Diego has gotten so big, and it’s easy to get lost in all the white noise. Given how expensive the show is, I stopped doing tables there in 2007.”
And when San Diego gets full to bursting, two things happen: The public hears about it and craves more comic convention experiences, and the other cons benefit.
“The other shows I’ve been doing on a regular basis—Heroescon, Seattle, WonderCon when it was in San Francisco—have become what San Diego used to be,” Remender observes. “They’re still very comic-centric. And they have also grown in attendance in the last few years.”
They’ve grown so much that artists can make way more money being artists at conventions than in the pages of a Marvel or DC book. Look no further than beloved longtime comic artist George Pérez.
“I can earn more in a single weekend of convetioneering than I would in an entire month drawing comics,” Pérez says. “And I get a pretty high rate drawing comics.”
Pérez is fortunate in that he has an almost-40-year track record in the business and the fan base that comes along with that longevity. Quick convention sketches, typically at $40 or $50 a pop, are his stock-in-trade.
“Fans are hungry for original artwork,” he says. “I had to start charging less for simpler sketches to try and please as many fans as possible. I used to charge a higher amount for a more finished sketch. But now it’s simple headshots that typically take me between three and five minutes, and I earn much more doing that than I would spending more time on tighter sketches. Plus, more fans get ‘the experience’ they want, so I see it as a win-win.”
That experience? Pérez thinks it’s unique to the comic con biz. “It’s so different from getting autographed photos from actors or sports figures,” he observes. “Athletes and actors can’t play the game or perform the part in a convention setting. No one can reasonably ask someone to hit a home run or give them a scene from Macbeth for a small amount of money in a con setting. But fans can have me do exactly what I do to earn a living for them! I’ve got fans hiring me for three to five minutes at a time!”
Many artists strike a balance between doing their published work at a drawing table during the week, and hitting conventions on the weekends. But more seem to be shifting into con-only mode. “There are artists who make their living now going to conventions…because now you can,” says Pérez.
And again, as competition increases, the demand for name creators at conventions intensifies. Pérez used to look only as far as the end of a calendar year to slate his convention appearances. Now he’s booking cons three years out, as conventions relentlessly pursue talent. Enter…the appearance fee.
“I’m also charging appearance fees, and I know many other artists are as well,” Pérez says. “It’s one way of ‘evening the playing field,’ from my point of view, as more requests for appearances have come in. No matter if you’re large or small, you have to pay the appearance fee.”
Just a few years ago, the standard was that a convention would fly and hotel a creator, and slide him a free artist alley table as compensation for a con appearance. Now, pretty much all “name” creators can charge an appearance fee if they wish. Rates typically start at about $500 on the low end, and can quickly rise to $5000 or $10,000 for top-tier talent. Rates as high as $40,000 to $50,000—Paging Neil Gaiman!—are rare, but not unheard-of.
The highest-end rates, indeed, can put comic talent on a par with Big Moving Pictures people (and even minor TV celebrities). When Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood appears at a con, he’s typically paid a guarantee of $40,000 to $50,000 against sales of autographs and photo opportunities (tho’ Frodo Baggins gets first-class air and a hotel suite as well). Things can get higher. If you want a genuine Dr. Who (Matt Smith) or a lady-killer Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the fee can be $100,000, plus perhaps a few Van Halen-esque riders as well.
Many comic creators have a “friends and family” sort of list with a few favorite cons where they don’t ask for an appearance fee. Pérez is quick to point out that Orlando’s MegaCon is right in his back yard, and owner/operator Beth Widera is a friend. He wouldn’t think of asking a fee there. But he also prides himself on putting in the work to earn his fees.
“I look at it like I’ve been hired by the convention,” Pérez says. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m there to do everything I can to make the fan experience as pleasant as possible. So I’m working for that money. One thing I’m particularly proud of is that a convention will usually ask me back for the next year after I’ve only been at the show for a day or two, because of my rapport with the fans. I look at like they want to re-hire me, because I do well with the fans. I want to make sure I’m conducting myself professionally, and I’m worth the extra bucks.”
As the business has become more of a “business,” the friends-and-family cons rack up an advantage against the larger concerns.
“If it’s a corporation, you do feel a bit like a number,” Pérez says. “Sometimes I’ll meet some chairman of the board of some convention, and they have no idea who I am. There have been many conventions where I’ve spent the night alone at the hotel because I don’t know anyone. If there’s no personal con organizer, no one thinks to ask you if you want to go to dinner, which would be nice. So sometimes, it’s a bit of a job, but it is balanced out by the ones that are more a mom-and-pop organization.”
Interestingly enough, Rick Remender has seen his “mom-and-pop” days move into the mainstream, just as conventions have done the same. Remender cut his teeth on the con circuit lugging boxes of creator-owned projects such as Black Heart Billy, Strange Girland XXXombies to cons before he started writing Punisher, X-Force and Secret Avengers for Marvel.
“I’ve been doing shows for 16 years now steadily, so…I just don’t know how to not do them anymore,” he laughs. “With the independent work, it’s very important to make a personal pitch. People might come over because they know me from a Marvel job, but I can hand-sell them a Fear Agent or a Strange Girl or a XXXombies book that they may not have heard of. And many times at these shows, people will come back and say that my turning them on to a creator-owned book was a good experience for them, and they’re now buying truckloads of the stuff. I always think about it like this: Every time you sell a book and have an interaction with a fan that’s personal, even a brief conversation, you connect on a deeper level. Then if they read and like the book, you have a customer for the long term.”
Bill Willingham thinks those opportunities and interactions still exist, despite any growing pains. “There are many conventions I love: Emerald City [in Seattle], though it seems to be on the threshold of being one of those huge headache conventions, is run by people who truly love comics,” he says. “The Baltimore show and the Heroes [Charlotte] show are fine as well. Things like that where the people who put them on clearly love comics…yeah, I like being at those shows.”
And at the end of the day, Remender likes them, too. “I’ve had dozens of people show up with tattoos of Black Heart Billy, Heath Huston from Fear Agent, lots of Doll and Creature tattoos,” he says. “It’s always so incredibly flattering to meet people who are so connected to something you wrote and created that they go get the character tattooed on them for life. That’s always an incredible experience, to see that these things that you create in your room somewhere have made it out to the world in that way. And the conventions, in many ways, are my window into the world.”
—This is but one part of an ongoing series about the comic convention business. Stay tuned to Newsarama for more, and feel free to follow @McLauchlin on Twitter.