Believe it or not, there used to be a thing called “convention season”. But, as comic conventions have exploded in popularity the term “con season” has become a bygone misnomer. Nevertheless, we are in the heart of the busy period of the year, starting with Emerald City and going all the way through New York Comic-Con in October. As you’re reading this, many tens of thousands of our comic geek brethren are getting ready to flock to the Windy City for C2E2. That show holds a special place in the 11 O’Clock Comics pantheon because it was our first show together, and has always been a place where so many of our fans and community members have come out to show their love.
Our favorite part of any comic convention is Artists’ Alley. These days, Artists’ Alley feels like a home away from home, but it wasn’t that long ago when it felt like the most imposing part of my convention experience. In order to ensure you don’t have the same long and drawn out learning curve, let’s demystify everything and anything related to Artists’ Alley.
What is Artists’ Alley?
Artists’ Alley is a place where creators set up shop for the weekend. It’s a home base of sorts for creators when they’re not otherwise obligated for meetings, panels or signings at the publishers’ booths. It’s where creators can peddle their wares, meet fans, and network with other industry insiders.
How does a creator get a table in the Alley?
The rules for Artists’ Alley differ from show to show, but generally creators apply for a limited number of spots and pay for the right to a table. Sometimes publishers or someone else may sponsor a creator’s attendance (and the con usually sponsors a number of premier guests, as well), but generally there’s a financial commitment from the creator. In addition to the monetary cost of the booth, creators are committing their time — which is a sunk cost few full-time creators have the luxury of enjoying more than occasionally.
Transacting in the Alley
Let’s remember that creators aren’t there solely for your enjoyment. They need/want to make some coin; at the very least they want to generate enough revenue to cover the costs of the trip! And that’s where the symbiotic nature of the comics industry comes into play, because there are a lot of ways you can help make it worth their while, and at the same time enhance your own enjoyment of the con.
Signatures – The most common exchange between fans and creators are signings. It’s the perfect window to thank a creator for their work, coming away with a little keepsake, and yet allowing the creator to meet and greet a high volume of people. The signature process differs from creator to creator, but can generally be bucketed into three types:
- Come as you please – Many creators will happily sign books at any time they’re at their tables
- Set schedule at the table – Some creators, in the interest of optimizing their time to draw commissions and attend panels and industry meetings, will have set times each day for signings at their tables
- Sponsored signings at industry booths – The publishers frequently have scheduled signings at their booths (versus the artists’ booths)
- Have your comics out of their bags before you get to the front of the line
- Don’t be that person who brings up an entire 75-issue run to have signed. It’s incredibly rude to all the other fans waiting patiently behind you
- Ask for a personalized signature dedication; it proves you aren’t going to flip the book on eBay that same night
Cost: Free (Most of the Time)
Signatures are generally free, but creators are getting smarter about the flippers who try to traffic in their good nature for profits. I’m seeing many artists sign one or two items for free, and then charge for every item thereafter. Other creators ask that you make a donation to a charity like the H.E.R.O. Initiative for a signature. Either way, if you’re a genuine fan looking to get something signed for nostalgia purposes, it probably won’t cost you.
Photos – Photos are a commonplace occurrence, but this is very much a case-by-case thing. Some creators don’t want to take photos because their lines are too long. Others don’t feel like posing. But if you catch most at a relatively calm time, they’ll be happy to snap a photo with you or your loved ones.
- Always ask before snapping a shot
- Offer to email the creator a copy of the photo, they may want to display it!
- Keep in mind, I’m talking about photos with creators at their tables, this is NOT the same as scheduled photos with celebrities or legends like Frank Miller. Those are generally handled by professionals and cost a fair amount of money
Cost: Free (Usually)
Posters and Prints – I’m not a print guy per se, but this can be an artists’ key moneymaker. A lot of con attendees simply don’t have the budget to buy original works of art, but will happily spend some money on a full-color print from their favorite creators. Creators capture good margins on prints because generally they’re printing an image they’ve already created (and been paid for) in some other manner. Most artists will also sign any print you purchase (killing two birds with one stone if you’re into the aforementioned signatures).
- If you’re looking for prints of a certain character, but aren’t necessarily looking for a particular artist, take your time and walk around the convention floor before purchasing. Chances are you’re going to see options that blow away the first image you come across – and if by chance the first image you see is the best, you’ll be able to roll back to that table and buy the print later in the show
- If you don’t have a portfolio, most conventions have vendors who will sell you a hard plastic sleeve that can safely store your print purchases
There are prints, particularly limited edition pieces, that may cost more than $50, but most prints and posters will fall comfortably into this range.
Sketch Books – Artists often put together books of their artwork for sale. These can range from photocopied, black-and-white stapled books made by hand all the way to signed and numbered, limited edition hardcovers. I love these because the money goes directly to supporting the artists, they make a good margin on it, and as thanks most will usually do a quick sketch inside the front cover as a thank you.
- Feel free to leaf through the book and not feel obligated to purchase
- It’s okay to ask if they could do a little sketch in the book if you buy it
- Buy the book because you love the art, not because you think there’s resale value
Up-and-coming artists will use sketch books as a way to get their work out there into the public eye, and those tend to be the less expensive, hand-made versions. Established creators frequently have professionally printed and bound books for $10-$25. The higher priced sketch books tend to be the limited edition books by well-known creators.
Comics, Trade Paperbacks and Hardcovers – This is self-explanatory. Many creators have their wares on display for reference and purchase. You’ll usually pay cover price at a table, but remember the money goes directly into the creator’s pocket AND you can almost assuredly get a signature for your troubles.
- Target small press and creator-owned books that you can’t find at your LCS
- Be on the lookout for a volume discount, most will give you a deal if you buy multiple items
- I would avoid paying more than cover price, you can get the book elsewhere and bring it to their table for a signature
Cost: Cover price
I’m all for supporting the creators (obviously!) but don’t overpay for comics at a comic convention. If a creator is marking up their own work, be sure you’re getting something else for the effort. If a creator will do a remark sketch in the book, I MIGHT consider paying a premium. But caveat emptor.
Quick Sketches – It’s important to differentiate between a finished sketch/commission that takes time to complete, versus a quick sketch done in your presence that takes no more than a minute or two. Quick sketches usually lack detail or a lot of finishing work, but can still be great mementos. Every artist has their own approach to sketches, so just ask. If you have something you want an artist to sign, and they don’t offer to do a sketch right then and there, just ask. It’s like asking someone out on the date; the worst thing they can do is say No.
- Have a sketch book or paper handy, don’t assume the creator has materials
- Artists are most likely to do quick free sketches on items you’ve purchased (e.g., a sketch book or a copy of one of their comics)
- The best way to get a quick sketch for free is to be polite and engage in the creator in an interesting conversation. If you clearly know their work, and have a genuine chat with them about something, you’ll be surprised how many artists will sit there and do a quick drawing while chatting
- Often quick sketches will be at the creator’s discretion, usually a character they’re known for drawing
Cost: Free – $50
In Europe, nearly all con commissions are free of charge. For us state-siders, the quick and free sketches are becoming a thing of the past. That said, it never hurts to ask.
Finished Sketches/Commissions – I LOVE commissions. This is my con spending drug of choice. Unlike quick sketches, these are finished art pieces, and as a result are pricier and harder to come by. Because these pieces take time to complete, every artist can only do a finite number; and they’ll usually accept more requests than they reasonably have time to finish at the show. Prices will vary based on the popularity and notoriety of the artist. Head sketches are generally less expensive than a full body sketch. Some artists will add backgrounds, but that’s discretionary. Often artists will charge less for a pencil sketch than a fully inked sketch. And usually multiple characters will cost more. A basic rule of thumb is, the more complex your request, the more expensive.
- Do your homework! I can’t emphasize this enough. Every creator has their own process and it’s incumbent on you to research well in advance of the show because I assure you many other art collectors will know exactly what to do for every artist at the show
- Some artists handle their own commissions, others use an art rep. This falls into the doing your homework rule. Luckily, resources like Facebook, Comic Art Fans and 11 O’Clock Comics now exist to make this kind of advance research much easier to tackle
- At the show, the early bird gets the worm. Above all else, you HAVE TO get to creators early in the day/weekend if you want a finished commission
- Artists should have examples of commissions on display. Don’t assume because you like a person’s sequential pages you’ll love their commissions. They’re entirely different examples of the craft
- Make sure you are explicit in what you want BEFORE you agree to a transaction
- Be explicit with your delivery expectations. Artists QUITE OFTEN bite off more than they can chew and will try to do your piece after the show and mail it. I’ve had fine experiences with that and nightmarish ones. Be sure you know before the show whether waiting on the piece is something you’re comfortable with. If not, don’t feel badly about asking for your money back at the end of the convention if they haven’t completed the request
I’m not going to mince words, the commission market has become MAGMA HOT in the last few years. Generally commissions wouldn’t run more than $150-$200 even a few years ago but now commissions are routinely much higher than that. It’s not uncommon for premier artists to charge several thousand dollars for a piece. Here’s the good news, most conventions have artists of all levels of experience and notoriety. Don’t be discouraged if that “name” artist from your favorite comic is out of your price range, it can be that much more satisfying to get an amazing piece from a lesser known creator who puts their heart and soul into the piece. And the best part is many of those creators will be “named” creators in a few years and you’ll already have their art!
Original Published Art – Many artists will have pages for sale at their booths, or their art reps will be set up at the show. I love looking through an artist’s book. I much prefer when the prices are clearly marked, because that allows me to avoid feeling like I’m being sized up for how much I could pay. But don’t be afraid to ask. As to whether you can negotiate? My experience is that anything is fair game, so long as you’re respectful and logical. If a page is marked $500, don’t offer $200. One way I’ve had success is asking for a discount on multiple pages.
- Many artists use an art representative to sell their work. Reps vary in professionalism and organizational capabilities, but ultimately most are worth dealing with
- Original art can generally be procured online, whereas sketches/commissions can’t
- A quick rule of thumb in terms of pricing tiers:
- Covers are the most expensive
- Splash pages (big images of key characters) are also expensive (5-10x a normal page)
- Interior pages with key characters will be more expensive than pages from the same comic with backup or ancillary characters
- Inkers generally get 1/3rd of the pages from a comic, and are sometimes willing to sell pages for less than the penciler on the same book
Just as commission prices have skyrocketed, so has the price of original, published art. I’m not going to lie, many of you will be priced out of most original artwork. However, it’s not impossible to cultivate an amazing collection regardless of your budget. Think of the quest as a game. If you’re on a tight budget, focus on younger creators just getting started in the industry. Focus on books that aren’t as commercially popular but mean something to you. Look for interior pages without the major characters featured. It’s possible. We all started somewhere.
Other Tips and Tricks:
- Be polite, and be engaging. Artists want to meet and converse with fans
- Shaking hands and saying “thanks” don’t cost a thing, and can mean a lot to creators
- Many of the creators you wait hours for at the Marvel and DC booths can be found hanging out by themselves at their Artist’s Alley booths at other parts of the con
- Many creators will offer inexpensive sketches/signings in conjunction with charity efforts like the H.E.R.O. Initiative and the CBLDF
Artists’ Alley is the best part of any convention. Period. If you read comics, it’s the creators who make that possible. What other hobby allows you to spend time with your favorite creators without waiting in massive lines and paying exorbitant fees? What other hobby allows you to share stories with the people who have given you years of enjoyment? Where else can you come away with memories that will last a life time? Although the focus of this article was the commercial aspects of Artists’ Alley, simply having the chance to shake hands and thank your favorite creators is reason enough to pull yourself away from the main floor of the convention for a few hours. I promise you this, if you attend a convention and follow this guide, Artists’ Alley is going to end up being your favorite stop, too.