NYCC 2016 Artist's Alley

The Evolution of Artists’ Alley

The beginning of this might be a little too meta for some. Don’t worry, I’m coming around to my point in the next section…

NYCC 2016 Artist's Alley

2016 NYCC Artists’ Alley (or “Artist Alley”, as their banner suggests)

In my time at New York Comic Con the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’ve been a little gun shy about approaching creators in Artists’ Alley.  I never had that problem in the past.  I’d just roll right up to their table and talk to anyone, hand them a business card, have a lively chat, look through some art or listen to their pitch, and maybe even buy something.

In the earliest days of my con-going, I’m sure that was an attempt at networking and generating interest in my relatively new column.  Often, it wasn’t necessary.  At the turn of the millennium, blogs weren’t big yet.  The field was fairly clear.  You only had two major comic book websites. I wrote for one of them. I had also had three or four hundred letters printed.  People already knew my name from there.  I was working twice as hard as I probably needed to, but it was fun.

Now, this year gave me a little extra skip in my step.  I returned somewhat to form, bouncing around from artist to artist, having short (and some longer) chats, handing out cards, and having a good old time.

For the most part.

There were still artists I didn’t entirely find approachable, and — here’s the twist — ones I didn’t want to bother.  I don’t think it’s their fault, entirely.

Why?  Because as conventions have changed, so has Artist’s Alley. And the innocence is long gone.

The Bigger Business of Artists’ Alley

In 2000, I’d go to San Diego with a blank sketchbook and go from table to table to my favorite artists and get head sketches.  Sometimes more.  They didn’t charge anything for it, for the most part. One or two did, and it was nominal.  I think by 2003, I paid a whopping $35 for a full-bodied pen and ink drawing.  It was well worth it, but the writing was on the wall, in hindsight.

Back in the day, conventions were easily categorized into three sections:

  • The publishers (both large and small), who were playing a marketing game, showing off copies of their books, hosting signings, and pitching people on their upcoming products.
  • The dealers, who lined up their long boxes or their toy shelves or their original art displays, to sell stuff to people.
  • And Artists’ Alley.

Artists’ Alley was a place for creators to go and pimp their works and meet with fans.  They’d talk and sign and draw and show off their wares.  They’d sell comics (likely from whatever comp copies their publishers gave them) and original art and maybe a small sketchbook that was likely printed at Kinkos and stapled by hand afterwards.  (Those were the advanced folks.)  Few attendees were carrying sketchbooks around.

That’s not what Artists’ Alley is anymore.  Like with the original art market, prices have exploded.  Business has taken over.  Nothing is cheap anymore, and everyone’s time is just a little more precious.

We can probably blame eBay.  Once those con sketches started going for $100 or more the week after a convention, artists understandably felt less charitable towards people claiming to be fans.

San Diego Comic Con 2001 Artist Alley

San Diego Comic Con’s Artists’ Alley in 2001

Once conventions were taken over by Hollywood’s interests and the prices of tables went up (*), the balance of convention economies was upset.  Heck, even the publishers sell exclusives these days, which threatens the purse strings of the dealers who buy booths at cons, on top of constant trade paperback collections and digital comics sucking the life out of the back issue market. You may have noticed fewer dealers at cons these days.  It’s not just that the publishers’ enormous booths have taken up all the space; it’s also taken a chunk of the money from attendees’ pockets.

Those flimsy ashcan sketchbooks you use to get in Artists’ Alley are now replaced with $40 hardcover short-run prints of books.

Original art which would be available for less than $100 now starts at $100, though I did see one artist with a stack of $50 pages at NYCC this past weekend.  (Hint for art buyers on a budget — go to the inkers!)

I don’t blame them for this, by the way.  As a freelancer, it’s a smart business move.  You’re a business of one. You need to diversify your income in as many ways as possible.  Going to a convention is a big interruption of your “day job.”  Justifying it with sketches, commissions, autograph fees (!), original art sales, comics, sketchbooks, and more is a smart business move.

The internet makes a lot of this much easier now, too.  Original art prices have gone through the roof thanks to eBay and online auction houses.  I imagine printing books is easier thanks to the internet and various computer applications, too.  It doesn’t take a Mensa member to figure out how to become a brand and market appropriate materials.

 

The Net Effect

NYCC 2014 Artist's Alley

This is a picture from NYCC in 2014. Same banner as 2016. They’re getting their money’s worth on this one…

I don’t want to bother an artist anymore when they are working at their table.  If I see their head down working on a sketch, alone at their table, I’ll often keep going. I don’t want to interrupt.  They likely have a long commission list to get through by day’s end.  They need to pay for that table somehow.

Isn’t that crazy? Yeah, it probably is.  This could just be my own neurosis.

But that’s really what it comes to. I’ll often wait until there’s a couple people there before I jump on the back of the line.  This way, I’m not the one who interrupted, and I’m not the one who looks like he’s rushing that first person there off the table.

This is a Very Special Comic Con episode of Seinfeld, isn’t it?  Am I being neurotic?

In general, though, that’s my feeling about Artist’s Alley today.  It’s less a place to meet and greet. It’s a revenue stream for creators that secondarily functions as a marketing opportunity.  Artist’s Alley is the new dealer’s room, one in which each dealer is hyper focused on a specific creator.  Creators have niched down, to borrow a marketing term, to themselves.

Also, I’ve seen far too many horror stories of awkward fans to think that creators necessarily enjoy all of the attention.

The complaints a popular artist might have about Artists’ Alley in the past is that they only saw everyone’s belt buckles.  They had to keep their heads down to sign all the autographs for the line of people at their table.  Now, they keep their heads down to fulfill their obligations on the 10 slots they filled in their commission list in the first five minutes of the show that day.

Good sales and marketing says to stand up and make eye contact and welcome people in.  Unless you’re an unknown selling your own books, the opposite is now true. Keep your head down, draw the sketches, make your money.  Conventions ain’t cheap, from the table to the hotel to the airfare.  And heaven help you if you need to ship your books to the show….

Is It Just Me?

Am I the only one who thinks this, or noticed this?  Am I merely growing docile and timid in my middle-age?  Has Artists’ Alley always been a business proposition that my naiveté in the 1994 – 2001 span didn’t pick up on?

You know what I found helped me break the ice with a couple of creators this year?  I brought comics to get signed.  That opened the conversation nicely, and also (he says, selfishly) got the creator to turn his or her attention to me instead of their latest commission, if only for a moment.

I don’t mean to portray comic artists as business entities who don’t care about their fans.  I know they’re there for the socializing and the networking and the marketing and all the rest, too.  I just think that the purpose of Artist’s Alley has evolved over time.  The nature of the interactions between fan and pro has morphed a bit.

When we’ve come to the point where we need to seriously have talks about charging for autographs, it feels like the whole relationship between fan and pro has turned upside down.  Everyone’s in it for the money, so everyone has to go into it thinking about the money.  And that just stinks for those who love the craft and just want to be an active fan.

That all said, trust me — creators like to feel appreciated. If you just want to tell them that they rule, they likely won’t object.  They might disagree, but that’s just Imposter Syndrome.  We all have that already.

I’m not saying there’s a “fix” for this.  There’s not.  It’s the way the world goes.  This is just the first time I noticed it specifically and could put words to the frustration.  It’s the price of popularity for these pop culture events, is all.  Without the three ring circus that conventions have become, we wouldn’t have large conventions in big cities at all, especially New York.

Bah, get off my lawn, I know….

 

For My Pinterest Pals Out There

Here’s a good image to link to from Pinterest, if you’re of a mind to do so.

Pinterest for The Evolution of Artists' AlleyArtists' Alley is the new dealer's room. Quote.When we’ve come to the point where we need to seriously have talks about charging for autographs, it feels like the whole relationship between fan and pro has turned upside down.

 

 

 

Footnote

(*) San Diego Artists’ Alley tables are still free, but there’s a bit of a lottery there to get one.

5 Comments

  • George Tramountanas October 13, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I totally understand what you mean above, and I feel the same way. I think that means we’re fuddy-duddies. 😉

    Reply
  • How Erik Larsen Draws - Pipeline Comics October 13, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    […] The Evolution of Artist’s Alley […]

    Reply
  • Bryan Rosenberg October 15, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for putting into words the change many of us sensed but might not have been able to put our finger on. As a con goer since the mid 90s, I still have and flip through my old sketchbooks (remember when crossgen was around? Sketch seeker glory days!), but no longer bring one with me to conventions. Now I just tell em how much I appreciate their work and ask what they have coming out next. I feel bad when I already own everything they have on the table for sale. So creators, have something for your fans that we can’t get in stores. We want to support you!

    I still remember Ron Lim started charging for sketches before most others. Subconsciously, I still hold that against him, which is totally unfair of me.

    Reply
    • Augie October 16, 2016 at 10:39 am

      Yeah, don’t be mad at Ron. He was just slightly ahead of the game. I’m saving my umbrage for those who charge for any and all autographs. (If I just have one book to get signed, then it ought to be a freebie, really. Unless I bring someone in a CGC polo shirt to authenticate it. 😉

      And I love my sketchbooks, too, and have left them all home in recent years. It was nice while it lasted. I don’t mean to sound entitled or greedy here. I get it — I’m asking an awful lot with the sketchbook, especially once EVERYONE started to bring one with them. It just used to be so much — quieter.

      Reply
  • marksullivan5 October 15, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I haven’t been attending cons for as long as most of you, but I’ve noticed the same pattern. Lots of artists just starting out don’t do any free sketches; it’s just part of the business now. But I’ve still got a sketchbook, and have made it a point of honor to only have free sketches in it.

    Reply

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