‘Go Where the People Are’
Nerdvana presents Small Press Saturday – aka, Lessons Learned Self-Publishing Comics
I will never forget the first time I saw my homemade minicomics on an actual comic book shop shelf. By proxy of the alphabet, my Amazing Arizona Comics stood next to Amazing Spider-Man, and I couldn’t be more proud. The following week, when I went back to the shop to see how many issues I sold, they were all still there, right next to where Amazing Spider-Man WAS. A week after that, all five issues were moved to the rack with other local, small press comics, all of which had been there for some time, according to the dust accumulating on their polybags. I realized my enthusiasm really wasn’t about seeing my comics in a comic book store – it was about seeing them SOLD OUT in a comic book store.
I could’ve assumed that my comics didn’t sell because they stink, but I was having great fortune selling them at First Friday in Phoenix, Second Friday in Mesa, and OTHER shops that specialized in pop culture, beyond comics. When I tabled at art events, people were genuinely amused by my pitch about local superhero adventure and sometimes purchased multiple issues to share with friends. I soon realized that these excited patrons weren’t regular comic book fans – in fact, some of them confessed that they didn’t know comic books were “still around.” I wasn’t surprised – at the time, 10 years ago, Tony Stark may have been a household name, but you couldn’t find an Iron Man comic book unless you were LOOKING for one.
If you ARE looking for a comic book, you probably already know what you want. Comic book fans are a superstitious, cowardly lot. We’re wary of new things, which is why the likes of Superman and Spider-Man are STILL the most popular characters around. Our buying habits are well-established, and, frankly, when we’re dropping anywhere from $3 to $8 an issue, we want GUARANTEED entertainment. For most of us, superheroes are definitely the devil we know. When independent comics boast similar cover prices (or MORE, usually to compensate for the higher piece prices of their shorter print runs), it’s truly McDonald’s versus a ramshackle hamburger stand across the street – which MIGHT be the best burger in town, but you’d never know unless you tried it.
So, how do you get people to TRY it? How can a comics self-publisher – or any independent artist, in any medium – find an audience, especially now, when AI threatens artists everywhere? Consider what a friend of mine recently experienced. She’s a painter, multimedia on canvas, truly beautiful work, priced criminally low considering her talent. She exhibited at a LEADING art event here in Phoenix, that specializes in flapjacks and alcohol. She paid to exhibit, and people paid to attend, and it’s all very “not your average art show.” From its marketing over the years, this event has always struck me as one that attracts genuine connoisseurs of up-and-coming local artists – yet, to my dismay and hers, my friend didn’t sell a single piece.
Very shortly thereafter, she scored a featured artist spot at a local dive bar. This joint’s been experimenting with art nights lately, in stark contrast to its usual beer and a shot vibe. My friend’s work struck the right chord with the right people. She hung her work FOR FREE, and she sold SEVERAL pieces of art throughout the month. She’s exhibited in galleries, festivals, and art walks for years, but her most concentrated successful showing to date was in this dark dive bar. Her experience justifies a mentality I developed a long time ago, a mantra I repeat to myself whenever I finish a comic book or zine and wonder what to do with it next. Where can I bring this thing so people SEE it, and BUY it? The answer is obvious:
“Go where the people are.”
My friend’s art flourished because it was in an unlikely place, and it sparked intrigue in its contrast to expectation. Had her work been in an art gallery, it would’ve been subject to comparison and taste – which is the very NATURE of an art gallery. Instead, her art did what art is SUPPOSED to do – it found people where they live, inspired a conversation, and established its own VALUE. Plus, most often, people go to art galleries to look, and, in rare instances, they might buy something. People go to bars exclusively to CONSUME. Its culture demands commerce, so OF COURSE patrons bought her art there. Who knows – maybe her art did something for someone that a Pabst simply couldn’t do.
Now, I LOVE comic book stores. Some of the nicest, most supportive people I’ve ever met run comic book stores . . . but, the last place my comic books sell is in comic book stores. Yes, people that buy comics go to comic book stores, but ONLY people that buy comics go to comic book stores, and, as I’ve established, we comics fans are pretty set in our ways. I’d never advocate excluding comic book stores from your distribution plan, but I AM insisting that you broaden your scope to ANY market or venue that might entertain carrying your work. Simply put, at a comics shop, comics are inventory. Anywhere else, though, comics are a COMMODITY, a quirky addition that usually evoke nostalgia – and there’s no greater sales rep than THAT.
This strategy is applicable for ANY variety of art, by the way. If you’ve ever walked by Hanny’s in downtown Phoenix on a Saturday night, surely you’ve seen the gentleman that plays guitar on the corner, as the bars let out. He’s great and could easily score a gig somewhere INSIDE, but he goes where the people are. On Christmas night, I met some friends for karaoke, and a comedian took advantage of the hot mic (and the karaoke host’s hospitality) and squeezed in a five minute set. The audience wasn’t wild about it, but I bet they were a bigger crowd than your average open mic night. See, the nature of art is often: Step 1 – Display in a designated space, Step 2 – Wait for people to show up and see it. Why wait?! Go where the people are!
I’ll never forget the first time I saw my homemade minicomics on an actual coffee shop counter. They stood alone, next to the register, and I was terrified they’d be mocked, or worse, IGNORED. Not only did I question my gumption in asking the manager if she’d sell them, but I questioned my ability to make comics at all! Exposing my comics to a “general audience” meant looking at them through “general audience” standards – would people mock my amateurish drawing abilities, or think I was a weirdo for telling stories about superheroes and aliens? Fortunately, the next time I visited the café, I didn’t have to worry about the way my comics looked. They had all sold.