Comic-Con 101: A Brief History of Con Trends and Why the Future is Bright for Small Creators

Photo Cred: Pixabay

Comic book conventions and fan con conventions have been around longer than you think. The Philadelphia Science Fiction Society was established in 1935 and is considered the second oldest organization of its kind. PSFS hosted the first science fiction convention in the United States in 1936.

Fast forward to the 90s when I started doing them, and the con had become a different animal. It wasn’t just a bunch of well-read nerds smoking pipes and trading intellectual takes on H.G. Wells— It became part nostalgia, part flea market, part game, part comic book, part TV, and part— well, everything nerd. But from what I observed, the convention is a cyclical series of events that follow the current trends, and creators would do well to observe them.

90s Trend: Comic Books

Jersey Devil Comic Books
Photo Cred: Tony DiGerolamo, Comic books by South Jersey Rebellion Productions

When DC Comics killed off Superman in 1992, it sent shockwaves not just through the comic book industry but the adjacent comic con industry. At the time, I was the co-host of The Comic Book Show on Channel 62 in Philadelphia. As comic books exploded into the consciousness of normie brains, my producers and I had hoped to capitalize on this emerging trend. We developed the show in ’92, and by the summer of ’93, we were up and running, doing interviews and covering all the major cons.

But in that short year, everything changed. Before the Death of Superman, the average non-comic book-buying civilian was convinced that most modern comic books were worthless. Comic cons were still for geeky teens and the rare high-roller collector with a wallet commensurate with his particular obsession. After ’92, people flooded into comic book stores with the “unique” idea of financing their kids’ college tuition by buying some comics.

Comic book conventions went from dingy hotel conference rooms and VFW halls to star-studded affairs in convention centers. My show interviewed Jim Lee and Mark Silvestri after they rented a tour bus and hopped from store to store and con to con like a couple of rockstars. My then-future boss at the comic book store told me he regularly needed to go to the bank with money in a trash bag because his bank deposit bag wasn’t big enough for all the cash after comic day.

It was suddenly all about money. Storylines, artwork, and crossovers had driven the past, but then it became about chromium covers, hot artists, and print runs. Lightning Comics, a local comics publisher, announced that it would never print more than 100,000 copies of their issues— Presumably to keep the price “stable.” Comic book stores near where I live in South Jersey suddenly began opening everywhere. Sports Card stores, struggling from the collapse of their own overheated collectibility, suddenly started carrying comics in a last-ditch attempt to stay afloat. It was like the California Gold Rush; only the “gold” was “hot” collectible comics.

What did the indie creators do at that time? Did they prioritize story and art over collectibility to grow their fanbase? Hell no. Most of them did the exact same thing every other old, and new comic book company did— Pick the fanboys up by the ankles and shake them until all the money was gone.

Trading card inserts, variant covers, pogs, game tie-ins, TV and movie celebrity endorsements, comics built around hot models, contests, skateboards, candy— Every gimmick you can possibly think of save one— Making a good comic.

While doing a signing for my comic based on the Jersey Devil, I met a small comic creator like myself who had an impressive table of merch. He had t-shirts, flying discs, cups, pens— All at a time before you could easily order this off the Internet. Then I noticed one thing missing.

“Wait, where’s the comic book?” I asked.

It wasn’t even finished. He had come to the signing to start his “branding.” Don’t know if he ever actually printed the damned thing.

To this day, creators are still going to comic conventions with stars in their eyes because of the early 90s. Under the misguided impression they’ll become millionaires if they create or draw a hit comic— The expectation of these creators are sky-high. They should remember that at the height of the popularity of BattleChasers, I believe the creator went to work for a video game company rather than continue a book selling close to 200,000 copies an issue.

With the collapse of the 4-color Ponzi scheme in ’94, the comic book stores closed, the new comic book companies went out of business, and every convention was flooded with early 90’s comics. Like the stock market crash in the 20s, fans rushed to the comic book store in a weak attempt to unload their collections, but it turned out the price guides were wildly overinflated. My TV show ended and I found myself managing one of the surviving comic book stores that wouldn’t buy your 90’s comics just in time for the next trend— Games.

The 2000s Trend: Games

Photo Cred: Pixabay

As the comic book industry burned and my boss sold Spawn #1’s by the pound, Magic Cards became the engine of the next trend. By the 2000s, card games and RPGs came roaring back. By this time, I was working with KenzerCo, publishers of Knights of the Dinner Table and Hackmaster, and everything they made was absolute fire in those days. KODT, Nodwick, and other gaming comics were surging in sales and spawning games, bringing even more revenue.

In comics, the publishers had licked their wounds and plateaued sales back to something they had been before the boom of ’92. Did they abandon flashy covers and collectibility? Hell to the no. They merely got more sophisticated in how they would fleece the fandom. Variant covers could only be obtained by ordering fifty or a hundred of the “regular” cover to get the high-priced variant.

The cycle of collectibility in the past had gone something like this: A hot comic with an important story would be published— Let’s say, A Death in the Family in Batman. For a while, the comic would spike in price, but after a couple of years, it would go back down and creep up to where it would generally plateau around five years later.

Unfortunately, since publishers became enamored with gaming the system using gimmicks instead of stories— Stories no longer mattered. Slowly but surely, even the big two were undermining their own established universes— Bringing back the long dead, the cloned, and whomever else to juice the sales.

What did the indie creators do at that time? They followed the more prominent publishers down the same rathole. Sometimes an artist could break thru with flashy artwork and a well-timed push, but these forgettable characters faded from memory almost as quickly as they emerged. The five-year cycle collapsed to a year and then less. At my local comic book show, I watched a comics dealer talk a fourteen-year-old fan into buying a variant Danger Girl for $50 long after its value had fallen.

Comics publishers tried to take advantage of the gaming trend. They jammed game cards into their books and published their own games. The success of these gimmicks was mixed at best. But as the game trend faded, the next one emerged in the 2010s: Webcomics.

The 2010s Trend: Webcomics

Me (left) goofing around with Pete Abrams, creator of Sluggy Freelance (right) at Dragon Con in 2010

Desperate for stories and too broke to afford print comics— Fans began seeking out a cost-effective way to follow creators. I was at a gaming con, watching a table of creators sell T-shirts for $20 at a whiplash pace, wondering if the sellers were stuffing them with crack. Turns out, no. They were just a very popular webcomic I had never heard of called Penny Arcade. When I congratulated them on selling a ton of merch, one of the creators turned to me and said, “This was our worst show. We’ll never come here again.” I returned to my table and told my artist at the time, “We’re doing webcomics now.”

Like everything else, a few creators made a ton of bank. Mostly, the creators were already in webcomics before everyone heard about them. And with the change in the medium, the change in cons started to happen.

Unfortunately, prominent webcomics brought in fans to a con but only a little in terms of inventory that could be sold for cash. Dealers couldn’t sell back issues of webcomics and the merch wasn’t old enough to be bought up at yard sales for a song, placed in mylar containers, and resold at a hefty profit.

A few webcomic conventions emerged, but by 2015 the constant gaming of the Internet and social media algorithms undermined new creators. Monetization was always the problem with webcomics, and when things shifted to crowdfunding — Webcomics lost their sheen. So what did the comic book conventions do?

When comics got big, the conventions were mostly taken over by corporate entities designed to squeeze all the money they could. But just like Rome, they quickly expanded and collapsed when the comic industry did. The same thing happened in games, albeit on a smaller level. Webcomic cons never reached the moneyed heights of either of the previous trends and just faded away.

Atomization and Reformation of the Con

The fandom atomized thanks to the Internet. The upshot was creators could find a voice if they were talented enough and built their social media presence. Once the place to connect with other fans, the con was no longer needed for that function. They have been consolated into giant corporate events to ape San Diego or collapsed into church basements and VFW halls.

Now, what should a small creator do with this information? Are cons even worth doing now that they are a mixture of old wrestlers signing autographs and cosplayers?

Absolutely.

Those big cons were never good for small creators. I’ve done NYCC in both Artist Alley and on the floor. If you don’t have a staff of 4-6, you can’t justify a floor space with enough sales. And if you’re in Artist Alley, you’re going to see the same amount of people you’d see at a moderate to well-attended small convention for a fraction of the cost.

Do the math. How many people can you talk to about your comic in an hour? I ballpark it at about twelve, and I’m a good salesperson with enough improv experience to think on my feet. By the time you pitch and make a sale, you’d be lucky to move to the next customer within five minutes. If the con is three days, six, eight, and six hours respectively, you can talk to 250 fans max. That’s assuming you have a fan at your table from the moment you open up and up to the minute when you leave.

Therefore, there’s no point in attending a con with more than 500-1000 people. You could never talk to that many, even over three days, and you’ll probably end up talking to almost as many in San Diego as you would in a large hotel show within driving distance from your home.

Some might argue, “But the exposure!” to which I say, “What exposure?” You’ve walked through the halls of a big con. Do you remember all the tables you passed and didn’t stop to visit? Do you remember any of them? Small creators have to connect to the fans. It’s rare someone’s going to connect with your creation simply because they saw a standee in the middle of a con that’s probably full of other standees, loud noise, and other displays of outrageous images and color. Social media has a better reach for zero cost.

The Hopeful Future

The other upshot? Your competition is played out. In comics, most midrange and small publishers are struggling just as much as you are, and the big ones are too busy criticizing their fans’ politics to actually make a decent comic. This is a perfect time to stand tall in front of these other creators and loudly proclaim why your comic is new, unique, and memorable.

Your mission at a con is to make sales and distribute information about your creation. You’ll need a postcard or something to hand out to anyone interested in going to your website. Remember, you’re building your social media presence for future crowdfunding. You’re also going to need good products at a fair price (something we’ll delve into in another column).

And to top it all off, fan cons have become a mishmash of horror, comics, books, wrestling, TV, autographs, movies, toys, games, cards— Everything. That’s better for you, small creator. A variety of products inside the convention allows everyone to sell. Too many comic sellers and everyone has the same inventory. Believe me, trying to sell your creator-owned comic during the height of the comics boom was an exercise in futility unless you had a chromium cover, a numbering system, and a promise on the inside cover not to do reprints. In this era, your competition has worn out the fans. They’re looking for something genuine that the trends can’t provide.          

And that’s where you come in.

Tony DiGerolamo

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