Comic-Con 101: Top 10 Worst Promotional Gimmicks for Comic Creators


The danger will be whether or not a promotional gimmick will help you build a readership and sell the comic. Because if your comic book sells, the rest will all fall into place. Sit at my feet, young creator, while I scratch my gray beard. I shall tell you stories of the Top Ten Worst Promotional Gimmicks for Comic Creators.

10: Classical Adaptations: Whether you’re illustrating stories from the Bible or putting your own spin on Shakespeare or another classic tale— Comic creator, you should avoid doing this.

Image from Pixabay

The reason is simple, the story isn’t yours, and while I like these comics and helped sell and publish one— They are suitable for a publisher because they will sell, but for a comic creator, no. By focusing on the classic itself, you’re not building a readership. You are merely parasitically attaching yourself to one that already exists.

Think of it from a reader standpoint, if you were to buy a great adaptation of some famous Greek play, for instance— Are you interested in the creator or are you interested in the play? Unless you plan to spin off writing comics in a similar style (and you’d be putting yourself right up against those time-honored classics), the reader is only there to hear Sophocles or Shakespeare or Twain, not you.

As a showpiece for an artist, sure, it’s a great sample. For writers, being associated with a great classic doesn’t hurt. (I adapted Mark Twain’s Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc). However, as a comic creator, you’re not building up your brand, story, or readership. And eventually, when you run out of one type of classic, you’ll be forced to move on. Fans of your Ernest Hemingway adaptions might not jump on board with your Zane Grey spectaculars.

9: Game Tie-Ins: As a creator, I’ve dipped into the world of games and comics. There is some amount of crossover with the fanbase there, but ultimately if you don’t compartmentalize the two products, you may be wasting your time.

Photo by Pixabay

Perhaps you heard of a little game called Magic: The Gathering. Now, while I’m sure you can probably name some of their cards or card sets if you played the game, can you call any of their comic books?

MTG tried publishing comics, and they sold very well when they came packaged with an exclusive card. I watched MTG card junkies by the comic in the comic book store rip out the card and left the comic behind. The game was just too big and too popular, I guess. It seemed to overshadow everything.

I don’t know if the comic was any good because I did the same damned thing when I bought it. Perhaps if the game had been more story-based or featured reoccurring characters more prominently, that readership had somewhere to go. As it is, I don’t know a single one of my Magic-playing friends who read one of their comics either.

For my comics, I made Hackmaster RPG adventures for The Travelers and put them on my website. The fantasy comic sold decently, but these were just something to entice the audience at Kenzerco that was more game-based. Judging by my hits at the time, I wouldn’t attribute much to sales, but I felt it looked cool to the fan base. Perhaps if my fanbase had grown to the tens of thousands, a Hackmaster RPG tie-in would’ve been a natural fit, but it was not to be.

And, of course, I’ve seen dozens of creators do card games, board games, and even online video games over the years. (I did one for Super Frat). Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun and pretty cool, but ultimately they don’t mean much unless they improve your readership and sales. If you’re a big creator, sure, a game launch can put some money in your pocket and give your fans a new kind of excitement, but for most creators, it’s just going to be a financial burden and time suck you could otherwise use to build up your readership.

It’s also possible the game will hit and your comic won’t; then you have the decision to make. (That’s not necessarily a wrong decision to have to make, by the way.) I knew a group of creators that hit the opposite way, and they still published both games and comics. I say stay away from games until you get that elusive hit or unless you’re independently wealthy.

8: Too Much Merch: One of my favorite stories of doing signings is meeting a fellow creator in front of a comic book store in Delran, New Jersey. He was selling T-shirts, flying discs, pencils, keychains, bumper stickers, cups— You name it— All of them featured his superhero team. He worked at the company that made that kind of merch for businesses. I was impressed.

However, he hadn’t published the comic yet.

Illustration by NightCafe AI

Even if he had it, I don’t see how anyone would see it with all the junk he had on the table. He didn’t look like a guy who was a comic creator; he looked like a vendor at a flea market. It sent the wrong message.

To fans, small creators are struggling against the tide of corporate comics and trying to bring something different and new to fans. Too much merch looks like you have lots of money, so you push the bar up for the customer to buy. When you do that, the customer starts to wonder things like, “Why aren’t you in Previews in the front of the catalog?” “Why haven’t you visited San Diego, Dragon Con, and Motor City Con this year?” “What big-name talent do you have working on your comics?” And the worst question of all— “Why haven’t I heard of you before?”

By raising the money bar too high, you price yourself into a higher creator category, whether you intend to do it or not. Don’t get me wrong; merch can be lucrative for a creator. The guys from Penny Arcade made a fortune on T-shirts over the years, but they had a great business model and a tie into video games that no one had really leaned into before.

The odds are you’re a newish creator with just enough money to get your book out on time. Next, you need to build your audience to sell the merch, especially if the merchandise is tied to your comic specifically.

For instance, you might have a cool demon character in your comic. Throwing that character onto a shirt for its iconic look might be a big seller. However, placing the cover of your comic with the title and that character? Not so much. Unless you have brand awareness, most people don’t want a t-shirt with an obscure comic cover, but they might want a T-shirt with a cool demon on it.

So compartmentalizing some aspect of your comic might work for the merchandise, assuming you have the capital to fund and it doesn’t draw you away from what your primary goal has to be— To sell your comic book. If the answer is yes, you can pick up some extra bucks to keep you going, maybe. But trust me, sitting in a con with 40 shirts and running out of one size and then watching three customers in a row ask you for that very size— It’s very frustrating. So unless you’re reasonably affluent (and you probably don’t need this article if you are), keep the merch very minimum at best until you’re more of a name.

7: Food Giveaways: I am guilty of this one too. (See how I learn from my mistakes?) At Pittsburgh Comic-Con, I bought a beer ball one year and gave out cups of beer to very appreciative fans. Needless to say, the con organizers got wind of us and immediately asked us to stop. (I don’t think it was against the law, but I only did it once.) While I got a great response, it didn’t really translate into sales.

Photo by Pixabay

I’ve seen dozens of creators give away candy over the years. The pattern continues to be the same: A group of fans always come into the show with no intention of buying anything. They are killing time or window shopping, so they are mostly trolling for free whatever.

“Is this candy free?” they will ask.

“Yes!” the excited creator will tell them. “Please, take one.”

They take four.

“Oh, just one, please.”

“I thought you said they were free.”

Trust me; there’s always one guy that does this.

It’s the same thing with families with kids. The parents will happily bring their kids to your table for the free candy. As parents, they are probably desperate to keep their kids happy before they have to leave or feed them or whatever. Your candy might bring the kids and parents joy for a few fleeting moments, but few sales will happen. And the kids will likely ditch their parents to make at least one more candy run at your table.

If you’re disciplined enough to say something like, “You can have a piece of candy if you listen to my comic pitch” or “Free candy to anyone that buys a comic,” I would say that’s a little better. However, you run the risk of someone asking and then getting disappointed when you tell them there’s a catch with the candy.

At a comic con where you’re having trouble getting anyone to your table, food giveaways can help. If you have one person at the table, more tend to come. Unfortunately, if the person behind the guy grabbing the candy takes a piece and leaves, the people behind him could do the lemming march and the exact same thing.

Granted, it’s a cheap and easy promotion, but unless it really ties into your comic— I would stay away if you were doing a Willy Wonka-style thing.

6: Carnival Games: I’ve seen a handful of creators do this over the years, and I must admit, I’ve been tempted. It looks like a lot of fun, and the carnival atmosphere does get the crowd going, but I see some flaws in this gimmick.

Pixabay photo

As with the food giveaways, there will always be a guy who wants to get something for nothing. He doesn’t want your comic but would love to spin that wheel. Tying a wheel spin into a comic purchase won’t stop him from asking for a free spin and walking away as you robbed him of something.

You should be aware of your local and state gaming laws because you absolutely cannot run an actual game of chance at your table. This means you must make anyone who places whatever carnival game you’re running win something. You can’t take the money and then shrug and say, “You lose, sorry.” That’s casino gambling, and you’re not a casino.

The best bet is to offer a free spin to anyone that buys a comic and then a bonus prize. It’s fun, but it requires lots of extra overhead and being able to politely turn down people who will keep asking to spin the wheel or roll the dice or whatever. Unfortunately, you’ll probably be remembered as the guy who had the game, not the creator that made a cool comic book.

Maybe your comic is about a carnival or a fair or something, but even that may attract a circus-like atmosphere you don’t want. While trying to explain the character arc in the first book, you might have fans chanting, “Spin the wheel! Spin the wheel again!”

If you use this gimmick, my advice is to compartmentalize the comic. Hopefully, it gets people coming to your table, but the goal is to get them there and sell them the comic— Not to entertain them with a wheel and prizes.

5. Doing Sketches of Copyrighted Characters: I know artists need to eat, and you can make a quick buck doing this. But if you’re a comic creator pushing a product, drawing Iron Man is great for your bottom line, but it’s not building your readership.

Photo by Pixabay

Technically, you’re not even allowed to do it. However, artists who have gone overboard doing show after show, taking commissions, and making a living doing it are sometimes flagged by one of the corporate entities, especially if they never even worked there.

I know you’re probably going to do it, artists, but don’t make it your emphasis. Try to sell fans on your comic. If they ask about commissions, see if they will let you draw them one of your characters. Fans that want something Star Wars? Maybe offer up a Darth Vader mash-up with one of your characters fighting him. Maybe offer them a discount or an upgrade if your character is the focus. Not every fan will go for this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask politely.

Sketch covers (blank comic covers with just the logo printed on drawable stock) are a great way to bridge the gap. Fans want a sketch, you want to sell comics, and you get to sell the comic at a premium. I’m sure it’s a bit of a downer if they still insist on just Iron Man on the cover of your comic, but at least you sold one, I guess. Hopefully, they don’t just sleeve it without reading it, but you always run the risk if you do it this way.

4: Giving Away Comics: Just recently, I saw a creator giving away a comic sample in an attempt to get fans interested. I cannot stress enough how this doesn’t work.

Image by NightCafe AI

First, the comic book industry is still based partially on the idea that fans might buy your book, you become famous, and the comic becomes valuable. I don’t like that premise AT ALL, but it exists. One must acknowledge reality.

And part of that reality is this: When Marvel printed Spiderman at 99 cents (I think that was the price and featuring Mike Allred if I remember correctly), store owners didn’t want to stock it because the price point didn’t make them a lot of money. Of course, some fans (like me) loved it, but most comic fans are trained to see a “cheap” price and think negatively about that product.

And while I would love to see a price war with the big two to drive cover prices that low, you can’t do it as a small creator unless you’re rich. So the conclusion is, giving away your comics makes them look cheap and, therefore, not WORTH purchasing.

Second, this same creator was aiming his comics at kids. That’s the exact WORST audience to give away comics. Parents take kids to the comic con, but ultimately they want to satisfy the kid at that moment. Kids jump from one thing to the next. One minute, they’re playing with a toy they love; the next, it’s on the floor, and they’re watching TV. By giving the comic away, you sate the kid’s urge without getting any money from the parent. It’s a win for them but not you. If anything, you should be working that angle like this:

You: “This is my comic, kid. You read comics, right?”

Kid: “Yeah!”

You: “Well, if you get one, I’ll sign it for you. It’s about x, y, and z!”

Kid: (to parent) “Can I get one?! He’ll sign it!”

And now, you have the kid helping you make a sale. Unfortunately, kids are fickle, so he might just as likely say “No” when you ask him if he reads comics. But if you give it away, you have no shot. You’re trying to get the money out of the parent. When they see things, kids ask their parents to buy them everything under the Yellow Sun. You give them a comic; the parent isn’t going to feel bad for you and buy something; his inner monologue will be, “Thank God! Something I didn’t have to buy!”

Finally, the fact that you gave it away is perceived to have no value. There’s a good chance they won’t even read it. I give away postcards, but that’s just contact info and a picture. I expect uninterested people to throw it away. But for a comic? Even just a sample one? You don’t want to see them on the ground and in a nearby trashcan.

Do not give away your comic! Ever!

3: Hot Chicks and Cosplay: I love hot chicks. Who doesn’t? But I can’t think of a bigger distraction that draws attention away from your comic than getting some buxom hottie in a tight costume smiling at fanboys. Don’t get me wrong, the fanboys will run toward your table, but they are uninterested in your comic. They are interested in Booby McBoob and her alone. If you do this, you’ve essentially brought your competition along and paid for it. Plus, you’re likely to lose. Case and point…

Photo by Pixabay

A creator had his hot wife drawn as the superheroine and made her a costume and everything. She was, without a doubt, a total smoke show. But her endowments were so large it pulled the costume away from her body “down below.” This was a problem since it was very, shall I say, Vampirella down there in design. If she forgot to put her hand on her stomach every time she stood up, the costume pulled away, and you could see her all her “goods.”

This attracted a crowd of pervy guys with cameras and phones. Circling like sharks, they pretended to listen to the creator while waiting for his wife to stand up or move the wrong way while the cameras rolled. Worse, these guys wouldn’t leave. So not only wasn’t he making sales but the few guys that did buy were glued at his table and in the way of fans that might’ve also bought. Not ideal.

At another con, a mid-level creator I knew used to center all his comic books around busty protagonists. He’d bring the models to shows in costume and make money selling autographed pictures and comics. It was a money-making operation, to be sure, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you all but one of his titles. So when he showed up once with a tent where you could pay fifty bucks to get a picture with the model topless, I understood this wasn’t about building a readership or selling comics.

Some female comic creators have gone down this route on their own. Having been born hot enough to use their looks in this way, they build a story around a skimpy costume. I explained to two different hotties this wouldn’t work. All the excited guys talking to them were excited about their sweater meat, not their story or character.

And again, the cosplay and the hot chicks— Maybe you use them to hand out fliers away from the table with the hope of the flyer bringing them to you and your comic. Too many people will congregate around a hot chick and possibly your cosplay if you’re photogenic enough. You’re not there to take pictures but to sell your comic and build your readership. Most of this will be a distraction.

The best advice I can give is to compartmentalize the model from the comic. Ultimately, I don’t think it builds a readership, although it may make you a buck or two. God forbid you to end up in a MeToo situation. Who needs even to take that risk just making a comic book in this day and age?

I say, stay away. Yes, other creators will do it and suck the money out of the room, but at least you know your fans want another issue with a story— Not just bigger boobies or a topless cover. Are you selling comics or softcore porn? Speaking of which…

2: X-Rated Gimmicks: Whether you’re just doing a topless cover with your hottest character or a full-blown hardcore sex comic— Once you go down this path, no one— And I mean NO ONE will care much about your story.

Photo by Pixabay

I met a webcomic comic creator that told me he was struggling with his webcomic. Then, one day, faced with an impossible deadline— He quickly drew a sexy pin-up of his main character. That day, he got more hits on his site than in a month. He eventually turned his character’s adventures into “adult adventures” and got even more hits. But, after making some money, he quickly realized he had fallen into porn, and no one cared about his story.

Look, I’m not judging. If you want to get into porn comics, knock yourself out. It can be very lucrative. While webcomics in their heyday struggled to monetize and get readers, porn comics rolled right into a full-blown pay site almost from the beginning, and everyone was making money.

Some fans will argue, “No! I like the stories! There’s some good writing in there! I want my erotica to be interesting and fun!” Sure. Phil Foglio had his porn comic and did very well and also did a steampunk comic. I’d bet every cent I have that the porn comic made him more money. Fortunately, he was a big enough name not to get “tainted” by porn. You may not be so lucky if you go down that path. Also, it’s unlikely that porn fans will follow you when you do something “not porn.”

The bottom line is its wank material. So again, if you want to make fistfuls of money and don’t really care about your story— Wank away, I guess. But don’t kid yourself. This isn’t mainstream, even now. You also might smack up against obscure obscenity laws or get accused of God-knows-what in the Age of MeToo.

There’s also a mental price to be paid for doing this kind of work. Some people are not bothered by it, while others only think they’re not bothered by it until they’re in it. In my example, the creator left his comic in frustration and started over with something “not porn.” I sensed it had drained him emotionally and spiritually as he told me his tale.

Don’t do porn, kids. Not even once.

1 Collectability: While I’ve seen some smaller publishers have limited success with alternate covers, it’s ultimately working against you, creator. Think about it. Are you selling covers, or are you selling comic books?

NightCafe AI Comic Covers

You want fans to know your character and story when building a readership. However, fans that connect with your story will probably want more. They want to see your characters in new and interesting situations. And while the cover can accomplish that, it’s nothing more than a quick way to resell the same comic book to them.

Cover-collecting fans are likely to sleeve your comic and be done. Worse, they might associate you with the large companies that overprint a “regular cover” and a “special cover” that’s been under-printed to drive up the price.

This kind of comic Ponzi scheme has been going on for years. Everything from Chromium covers to limited editions to the actual numbering on the comic cover. Trying to Astroturf collectability is a pipe dream corporate comics have been trying with action figures, cards, and comics— It never really works, and if it hasn’t worked for multi-million dollar companies, why do you think it will work for you?

Collectability gimmicks were all the rage in the early 90s, followed closely by the near-complete collapse of the direct market. (In my region, as many as a dozen comic book stores closed in one week.) If that’s not proof enough for you, it’s a bad idea; I don’t know what is.

Comics became collectible only because people wanted the originals, which were in short supply. Old comics were printed on newsprint with classic characters and legendary creators. The pulp didn’t last unless you were lucky where the comics were stored. Over the years, fire, flood, and other disasters destroyed even the preserved comics, which drove up the price based on the issue, which usually had an important story in a comic book history that is treasured by fans even today.

Today’s comics are overprinted (usually in schemes described above) and printed on high-end paper mixed with plastic that will probably outlast a landfill. (Where most of them belong and will end up.) Corporate comics have cannibalized their own histories to the point at which they are unrecognizable and no longer remembered except by old comic wizards like me.

Additionally, pushing collectability attracts the sort of fan that will buy your book, sleeve it and never read it. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am when I see a fan do that to one of my comics. But when he folds it and puts it in his back pocket? That’s a reader, my friend! I know he’s going to read the story.

Collectability is a house of cards. Don’t build your castle like that. Build a readership, and you can take that to other projects. Why do you think most creators even want to work for corporate comics today? Hopefully, you build an audience so that when you jump ship with your own crowdfunded work, your fan base follows.

But for the guys that built everything on making a quick buck— Promising their fans (even directly or by implication) that the comic they were buying was “hot” — Well, I’m sure you probably have a list in your head of those guys. I don’t have to name them. Unless they parlayed it into a movie deal or sold off their IPs when they were hot, they’re either languishing in some media company or pushing to get another corporate comic gig to start over again.

If you remove anything from any of the columns I’ve written here— If there’s one thing I could use the Thanos glove for to save the comic book industry with a snap of my fingers— It would be to eliminate collectability. It has destroyed and continues to destroy characters and creators, all for a quick buck. And it’s probably driven more people out of the medium than are in it today.

Do not— Ever— Launch your comic career in the soulless pursuit of a buck trying to Astroturf collectability. If you do, you’ll have no one but yourself to blame when the money train comes to a screeching halt and fans avoid you like the snake oil salesman you are.

I hope this has been enlightening. See you next time, fanboys.

If you want more of our Comic-Con 101 articles, click here.



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