You can’t win ‘em all.

Last week Brad and I attended Wizard World Chicago – the biggest comic show in the Chicagoland area. We walked in with high hopes of huge crowds, big sales figures, and the joy of counting fat stacks of cash at the end of the day. But as it turned out, it was a mediocre show for us. A ho-hum turnout with a nothing-to-write-home-about sales ledger at the end of the day. We’re used to setting up and selling tons of books, but last weekend waves of potential customers simply walked on by. Few stopped to talk to us or even pick up a book to flip through. In terms of the numbers, the costs and profits to us as a business … it just didn’t seem worth it.

PCL (final)

As I stood in a mostly empty Artist Alley on the first night of Wizard World I found myself wondering whether I should bother coming back next year. For the first time, I started doubting not only our business model, but whether or not Sun Bros Studios had a ghost of a chance of making it at the big shows. Was our success at C2E2 a fluke? Was our Kickstarter just beginner’s luck? Did we build this company on unrealistic hopes and false bravado? The next day brought a similar trickle of attendees, and while it did pick up a little on Saturday, I finished the show feeling pretty discouraged.

Back in grad school and throughout my days as a hospital chaplain, I spent a significant amount of time studying grief, death, and loss. Among the seminal theories is Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s well-known five stages of grief — from denial all the way to acceptance. I didn’t go through all of that, but I did notice three distinct phases of Post-Con Letdown. And while Post-Con Depression is characterized by feeling low after riding the high of a spectacular show, each phase of Post-Con Letdown is something else entirely.

Phase One (final)

My first response after Wizard World was to chow down on a big bowl of sour grapes. We paid a lot of money to be there, and for all our cost and trouble the con just really, really sucked. Too concerned with WWE superstars and not giving a damn about indie creators, the organizers jacked up the price of admission and forced Artist Alley into a subterranean hellhole nobody could find. In this phase, I was convinced that any self-respecting artist should swear off this show for the rest of their professional lives. And hey, if Wizard World can’t appreciate its artists, then we as artists shouldn’t appreciate them. Damn straight.

But after my initial bitterness began to fade, I found myself slipping into a new phase. I looked back at the feeble numbers and just shrugged my shoulders. Easy come, easy go, I said. We make art because we’re artists, after all — not for the bottom line. The fact that we get to sell these books is just gravy. So if we don’t make any money, no big deal. I wouldn’t want to be a sellout anyway.

Phase Two (final)

Honestly, I think I could’ve spent a long time in phase two. But in truth, both of the first two phases aren’t really honest places to be. The bitterness of Phase One puts too much emphasis on the organizers, while conveniently absolving the artist of any real responsibility. Sure, Wizard World could’ve made it easier to find Artist Alley. And sure, it could’ve been a lot more organized. But ultimately it’s our job to connect with our audience. If our art isn’t appealing enough to turn the heads of folks heading down the aisle, then that’s on us. And if after flipping through an indie book, a con-goer would rather pick up something from The Big Two, then that’s on us as well. We can get resentful about it, but that won’t make our work any better.

Similarly, the lackadaisical comfort of Phase Two shrugs off responsibility in its own way. It suggests the artist is either powerless or disinterested in the outcome of the convention. Selling the book becomes an incidental byproduct — a trifling activity after the real work is done. Art for art’s sake is a noble ideal, but if we try to take that attitude to a convention I know we’ll just be fooling ourselves. Once you make your work available for public consumption, is it really sincere to claim a disinterest in the profits? If my brother and I wanted Chinatown to be strictly a project for its own sake, we could’ve stopped at printing two copies. But we didn’t. Printing hundreds of books was our decision, as was tabling at Wizard World — and that makes the outcome of the show our business.

After struggling with the first two phases of  Post-Con Letdown for a while, I finally began to see a third. Rather than seeing cons as merely another venue to sell our books or dismissing them as incidental, I started to see them for what I believe they really are: an investment.

Phase Three (final) 2

This new attitude — one which I’ll call the professional phase — is far and away the most productive, honest, and focused. I’ve now come to see each show as a necessary step toward the future of our work. Yes, that includes making money, but cons provide so much more than that. They’re the source of many interconnected networks of relationships and an endless supply of inspiration for future projects. They are not guaranteed successes but down payments on future success, helping us get our name out there, meet publishers and other professionals, and even direct the future of our art.

Take for example what we’ve learned from our time in Artist Alley. If you come by our table, in addition to our books you’ll find four 11×17 poster prints for sale. Among them there is one that consistently outsells the others. It garners more attention from passers-by and fellow artists, and it even turns the heads of fans rushing past. And here’s the kicker: the artwork is from a book that isn’t even out yet. It’s from our next project, the third book from Sun Bros Studios — and it’s called Monkey Fist.

We’ll be releasing images and info about the book soon, but it was our experience at conventions that confirmed which direction we should head next. It is because of Artist Alley that we know where the future of our company lies. And how can you measure the worth of that guidance?

When a con doesn’t live up to the hype, it’s pretty natural to fall into Post-Con Letdown. If you’re like me, it’s easy to become bitter or lackadaisical. I find it a lot harder to be a professional, but that is what I strive to be.