To begin with, I really didn't know how big a deal the New England Webcomics Weekend was until Saturday morning, when I discovered that the place was sold out for that day and I'd have to scramble to get in on Sunday. Fortunately, I discovered this on-line and not at the door, so I dropped Christopher Baldwin an email and a text (the electronic equivalent of belt-and-suspenders) and he set aside a Sunday ticket for me so I wouldn't drive two hours and find myself on the outside looking in.
NEWW is a pretty big deal. The place was full but not crowded and the majority of cartoonists had a steady stream of fans, to the point where I felt sorry for the newcomers who weren't well-known enough to draw a constant crowd. But people did wander by their tables to have a look and a bit of conversation, and I think they made some good new contacts over the course of the two days.
As someone who is somewhat knowledgable about the web form but more oriented towards syndicated strips, I found the conversations interesting.
To begin with, I'm not sure why a syndicated cartoonist would bother with a fan convention, since their market is newspaper editors, not individual readers. But I say that in part sarcastically, because, in the heated Web-versus-Print debates, the print people adamantly insist that selling books and T-shirts is not a significant source of income, and that's basically what was happening at NEWW.
People were lining up to give these guys money, and it seemed that, for the well-established cartoonists, the big question was how to balance quality of contact with quantity of sales. Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary was drawing extremely elaborate sketches for people who would have been pleased with a quick scribble, and it probably discouraged a few casual fans from waiting their turn.
On the other hand, the people who DID get to the front of the line came away with something pretty spectacular and are going to not only remain fans but will spread the word and help ramp up his reputation. Because he was taking so long with each customer, his line was short, but people were watching and would come back as he was wrapping up with someone, and then they would buy multiple copies, or boxed sets, of his work.
Meanwhile, Dave Kellett, the guy who wrote the book on webcomics as a business -- or, to be accurate, co-wrote it -- was equally busy but working a little faster, so he had a constant line of six or eight people waiting to hand him money and have him draw in their Sheldon books. The biggest curiosity here was that they almost invariably wanted a sketch of Flaco the lizard, which surprised me because I thought Oso the pug would get at least equal requests. But Flaco it was.
I was impressed by something Dave has done, which is to add themed books to his selection, rather than simply gathering up strips for chronological reprinting. He has done some very funny strips about literature, including a killer strip about how to read Moby Dick, and collecting them into a single book makes a great deal of sense. He's also got a single book of pug jokes, which also makes sense, given that pug owners are, hands down, the most indulgent and the most prone to dress their dogs up and give them ridiculous names.
Of course, the fact that Sheldon is a gag-a-day strip with short story arcs allows this. The vast bulk of webcomics are continuity strips with long, interlaced arcs that can really only be broken out for print by date.
You'll note that I'm talking a lot about marketing and not much about art or humor or other aspects of the creative side. The people who make it in this world are a combination of good graphic storytellers and savvy marketers, because that's what it takes.
Now, every successful creative type has to be a marketer at some level, if only to sell their concept to a syndicate, a publisher, an agent or some patron who will take over that part of making-a-living-at-this. But this is simply not a matter of artistic quality. Though it may seem impolite to say this while writing about an event so close to Amherst, the romantic notion that you can sit up in a garret writing poetry or fiction or painting great art and that the world will somehow find you is nonsense. At some point, you have to step forward and show people your stuff and do it in a manner that makes them notice you, out of the massive crowds of people who would like to be discovered.
The question is, do you want to be rid of all the hassle, or do you want to retain control? A couple of the more well-established artists talked about having tried to work with syndicates and becoming frustrated in the development process, reminding me of stories of people taking their soft acoustic music to Nashville and finding that record companies wanted to add drums, reverb and back-up choruses. Sometimes you listen and sometimes you don't, and some choices work out and others don't.
Of course, this was not a gathering of those whose choices hadn't worked out. And besides the need for a good basic strip and a solid sense of marketing, there is certainly some serendipity involved, as Jonathan Rosenberg, creator of Goats and Scenes from a Multiverse, recounts of the impact of his "Republicans for Voldemort" T-shirts and bumperstickers, which at one point more than doubled his income.
Tomorrow: More from NEWW, with Christopher Baldwin and Dylan Meconis