To fully understand the impact of this past weekend, I offer a little backstory.
In early 2011, my mother had died after a prolonged illness, and for much of the time leading to her final weeks, I was her primary caretaker. In the few years leading up to her passing, I was working at a comic shop, and was becoming friendly with a variety of creators on social media. I had attended a handful of conventions in my youth, and I found out that three creators in particular, Francesco Francavilla, Paul Tobin, and Colleen Coover, would be at the Baltimore Comic Con.
My wife, whose ideas of comic conventions were not unlike the general public’s preconceived notions, agreed to go along to help keep an eye on our then-six-year-old Kidlet. I had established a virtual relationship with Francavilla, Tobin, and Cooper, and meeting them was an honor and a pleasure. I even got to introduce myself to Francesco with my usual humor. He was busy enough that we sat and talked to his wife for nearly an hour, and it was her advice that convinced me to start up CRASS FED, my old web comic.
My wife, however, got the best of it, finding the handful of creators we interacted with to be nothing like the preconceived notions the general public have of comic fans and creators. (She even got to watch me fight through fanboy paralysis when I happened to find Stan Sakai with no one at his table, and spent ten minutes desperately trying not to faint.) She enjoyed herself enough to want to come back the following year.
A medical emergency for my mother-in-law meant Baltimore 2012 was just me, the Kidlet, and a friend. I got to see Francesco again, plus Drew Moss and Bob Frantz. Kidlet and I also got to investigate a relatively new thing, the “Kids Love Comics” pavilion, which was really just a six-by-six area where kids could get a mask, or a cape, or draw their own heroes. Surrounding this pavilion were creators who made books aimed at younger readers, with the hope of getting, keeping, and nurturing readers. One man in particular, John Gallagher, was running the show essentially by himself, and he was doing a heck of a job running his table, and making sure that every kid got a few moments of uninterrupted attention.
Also there was Jamie Cosley, whom I had met thru Twitter, and who has since become a close friend, mentor, and collaborator. Subsequent trips over the next couple of years created, and expanded, our “comics family,” to include folks like Todd Dezago, Matt and Suzanne Wieringo, Craig Rousseau, the Mariano Brothers, Liz and Jimmy Reed, and more.
In 2013, we added an annual trip to HeroesCon, which expanded the family further to include the DeFractions, Amy Chu, and Erica Schultz, Joey Ellis, and more.
On the way home from Heroes 2013, my wife realized that not only was she having a good time at these shows, they were becoming exactly what some people expect from a family reunion: wonderful, exhausting trips that we hoped wouldn’t end.
Right after the 2014 HeroesCon, I was laid off. The anger and frustration with the manner in which I was let go wore off by the second day, transforming into concern and confusion, as I wondered what was next for me.
As it almost always happens, I took a shower that night…and it hit me.
On the drive to Heroes, my wife was behind the wheel and it was about 2am. I was doodling on my phone, and I sketched a goofy image. It was the Kidlet’s favorite toy, a cow, and I had drawn it as an astronaut.
In the shower, an idea and a title came to me. I kept repeating it to myself until I was finished with my shower and dried off. I fired up the computer, and typed for a couple of hours.
I had a rough draft, and ideas for a handful more books. My wife and Kidlet were asleep, so I waited until the morning to share what had occurred to me.
Shakes the Cow had been born, and MOO THOUSAND AND PUN was underway.
I self-published MOO and debuted it at AwesomeCon 2015, which was my first convention as exhibitor. Another book quickly came to mind, and by the time Baltimore 2015 rolled around, I had published MOO THOUSAND AND PUN and the BEAR FROM A.U.N.T.: THE HONEY DON’T CASE, and was a “veteran” of three conventions. At the end of Baltimore 2015, we were packing up and saying goodbyes to friends.
John Gallagher, along with his co-conspirators for Kids Love Comics, Mark and Chris Mariano, offered me a chance to join the pavilion, and be a member of Kids Love Comics.
In the following year, I published the follow up to both books, TEMPLE OF MOO’D and BEAR FROM A.U.N.T.: CASE OF THE PUSHY OCTOPUS. OCTOPUS debuted at Baltimore 2016, along with a new chapbook from the Kidlet, and plush Shakes toys, handmade by my wife.
There is a Beatles song I have thought about a lot these past two years, With A Little Help From My Friends.
Before Baltimore 2016, we had exhibited at seven shows across Virginia, DC, and North Carolina.
Only one show, VA Comicon, was a bust. It was the only show where we didn’t sell enough to make back our table fee – at a show where tables were less than 100 bucks. At every other show, we made back at least our table fees.
And we could not have done so without our friends. In addition to the backers for the Kickstarter that helped publish MOO, friends came by our tables and picked up original art, coloring books, extra copies, my wife’s cookbook, Kidlet’s comic, and more, to help us out.
It was pretty amazing…but I having dealt with depression for over thirty years meant I couldn’t just enjoy the slow success. Doubt crept in as always. Luckily, it wasn’t enough to keep me from creating.
With four books, and new plush toys from my wife, we drove to Baltimore with hope, and a hopeful ace up my sleeve.
Not only did my invitation from John Gallagher and the Marianos allow me to join the Kids Love Comics family, it brought an invitation to submit art for the annual Yearbook. This year, Baltimore was celebrating the 75th anniversary of Archie Comics, and I was invited to submit a picture of my character interacting with some or all of the Archie gang.
I drew a picture of Shakes as a soda jerk at Pop’s, serving Jughead malts, while Archie looked on, bored, waiting for Jughead to finally finish ordering drinks. It was accepted, which meant a large number of attendees would be coming by to get my signature in the yearbook (a full book of autographs yields a prize of free art).
A late start meant we couldn’t set up until Friday morning, so we went to dinner with the Wieringos, and a friend and winner of the ‘Ringo Scholarship from SCAD, Nicky Soh. If you ever get to Abbey Burger Bistro, try the antelope burger. I’m pretty sure I heard Peta folks scream with every bite. It was a late night, and eventually we got to sleep, excited for the new day.
Some sample sketchcards that were available at BCC:
Friday started with some frustration getting our stuff into the convention center, but once we got set up, it was just a challenge staying at our table and not running off to visit friends. Luckily for the Kidlet, she had no such restrictions.
Before the show began properly, I got to spend a few moments with friends Thom Zahler (Love and Capes; Long Distance), Joe Endres (Scamped), and Christy Blanch from Aw Yeah Comics Muncie, and a wonderful talent in her own right. (Write?) I even tracked down the Kidlet to go shopping for Lego figures (don’t ask how many) before I planted myself at table 3004.
We were seated next to Marcus Williams and Greg Burnham, creators of a fun historical fantasy called Tuskegee Heirs, which involves, yep, descendants of the famed aviators. They were great neighbors, as we spent some of our limited down time having fun. Right behind us was seated Joe Endres. Thanks to my wife and Christy Blanch, Endres and I were supposed to engage in a “Carol Channing Impersonation Contest” all weekend. Unfortunately (luckily?), my throat was killing me so we only managed the occasional Channing Shout Out to each other, which simply confused everyone in ear shot, but had my wife in hysterics. So it was worth it.
We got to go spend money at the booth of one of our favorites, Cuddles and Rage, and see the lovely April Alayne, and the custom-satchel-wiz Zombisaur. Emily Swan and Nicky Soh also had tables in Artist Alley, along with another of our “kids,” Eryk Donovan.
At the rate we’re going, by 2020, half of the artist alleys at Heroes and Baltimore could be listed as dependents.
Friday, sales-wise, was wonky, and almost entirely made up of friends’ purchases. With two exceptions.
First was a rather fun goofball named Justin, who is the creator of the MOVIE BUFF GAME, a trivia game in which the game is run entirely on what knowledge you already have. The cards have no trivia on them whatsoever, but are strategy cards dictating flow. Everything else requires you to outsmart your opponents. It’s a fun game that only takes a couple of plays to get the hang of, and when you are really into it, it can even get diabolical.
Justin came by after Kidlet had spent some time with him at his booth learning the game. He later brought back his wife, and they picked up both Shakes books and a plush for their toddler. That sale saved our Friday, and set up a big moment for my wife.
At the middle of the day, a little boy walked up, smiling, arms outstretched, and said, “COW!” The look on his face when we handed him his very own Shakes was priceless, and made my wife’s weekend.
Those two exchanges may not have broken records sales-wise, but they sure as heck won the day for us regardless.
(After we got back, Justin posted photos of their child with Shakes, and my wife has beamed ever since. Their kiddo is a cutie, and any support you want to throw at them, we heartily encourage.)
Friday after the show, I got to have no fewer than three fanboy fits.
Jose Luis Garcia Lopez was in the lobby of the hotel as we were waiting for dinner, and I got to go thank him for everything he had done in his career. Garcia Lopez was not only an influence in my storytelling, but I got great joy out of everything he has done. Simply put, he is one of my heroes. (I had sent Kidlet with a copy of his Batman 66 book to get signed to her, but she sneakily had him sign it to me. Silly Kidlet.)
After that, in walks Walter and Louise Simonson. I wished Walt a Happy Birthday, and he agreed to take a picture with Shakes. (More on that later.)
I recovered from those two interactions to have dinner with Brian Stelfreeze.
Brian kept me in comics in the early 1990s, and at three previous shows he has been an angel with the Kidlet. We took him out to dinner to thank him, and we had a great time, making jokes, telling anecdotes, and talking shop. He was great with the Kidlet as always, and they even have a contract, wherein she gets a full painted commission if she is taller than 5’9” by Baltimore 2020.
Saturday was the big day, with the majority of fans there for just the one day. One customer liked my art and asked for a “cowmission.” When I asked, “sure, what would you like,” she replied, “can you draw a penguin?” My wife tried to stifle a hearty laugh as I pointed to my banner, which features the now infamous avatar of almost twenty years. “I think I can handle that,” I replied. She pointed to my “Cow Tipping Appreciated” sign and asked me to draw it for her. We also sold two more plush Shakes, one to an adult who also came forward, arms outstretched, calling, “Cow!” I suppose we’ve struck a chord.
Some of the drawings I did Saturday when I was really punchy:
Kidlet got a surprise when she discovered she had been written and drawn into the newest PERHAPANAUTS graphic novel, INTO HOLLOW EARTH, in a couple of sequences with her favorite chupacabra, Choopie. Writer Todd Dezago knows us well, and captured Kidlet’s character perfectly, and artist Craig Rousseau did so just as perfectly with pen and ink.
I didn’t find out until Sunday, but my friend Christy Blanch, moderator extraordinaire, moderated the panel featuring Kristian Nairn of Game of Thrones. Christy showed a picture I had given her of Shakes as Hodor to Nairn, and he signed it!
The highlight of the day was a Mr. Peanut cosplayer, who wore a hard-shell (ha!) costume, and had to bend over completely at the waist to see my portfolio. He bought a piece of original art, a cartoon I had drawn earlier of a “Man Eating French Fry.” We are still giggling over that.
A couple of friends rounded out the sales day just before a fire alarm shortened our day.
Dinner was our usual trek to the Irish Pub, Tir Na Nog on the Inner Harbor, and it was the normal annual meetup of friends in the “We All Live Within 15 Miles of Each Other in DC, But We Only Get Together For Dinner Out Of State.”
Sunday was a bit of a whirlwind. Kidlet had popped a fever Saturday after dinner, so she and my wife stayed in the room. I went to breakfast with some friends, and then over to the convention. Like a doofus, I had forgotten coffee, but friends grabbed me something to drink.
Most of Sunday’s sales were to new fans, save a couple of folks with “comeback cards.”
I had been talking with Steve Conley (The Middle Age) about the yearbook, and he suggested adding a business card to the page when I would sign my page in the yearbook. I did that one better by printing postcards with all of our information on one side, and a blank area on the other. When folks came up to get their yearbook signed, I asked how the scavenger hunt was going, and when I gave them back their book, I showed them the card and said to come back later for a free sketch. This way I could show them what I do when they had more time to listen.
On Saturday, there were two adorable kids in costume that got sketches, one of whom was dressed as Squirrel Girl. I mentioned we knew Erica Henderson from exhibiting, and that I would share a picture with her of the girl in costume. Her eyes got huge, and every time she saw us during the rest of the show, she smiled and waved.
Sunday, a dad and son came back to get their sketches, and while I worked, they looked through my books and picked one up. The cards worked!
The best part of Sunday for me was an early sale by a young mom with a little girl. They decided on MOO, and went on their way.
Not half an hour later, my phone buzzed. The mom left a message on my Facebook Author page, and she told me that her little girl had made her read MOO to her four times during lunch.
The rest of Sunday was fellow exhibitors and friends stopping by, saying goodbyes, and in some cases hellos and goodbyes, and slowly packing up. We made it back to the hotel, lazily ordered food, and tried not to keep each other up from snoring. The drive home was a quick one, interrupted only by a quick stop at the drugstore before we landed at home to fight falling asleep at four in the afternoon.
We were lucky to be guests this year. With only seven shows under my belt before Baltimore 2016, I am still a newbie, still green. We’re still learning what works and what doesn’t, still learning the best times to take a break from our table. Still learning. But, Baltimore 2016 will also be important as the first convention (eighth overall) in which sales to new customers and fans exceeded friends’ purchases, both in numbers and amounts!
John Gallagher, Mark Mariano, and Chris Mariano showed great faith in us, offering us a spot in the Kids Love Comics pavilion. It’s a small, tight family, and it meant the world to us to be included. Simply put, we were honored. We got to hang out with Chris Giarrusso, a family favorite, and Dawn Griffin, who is as much a goofball as I am. We got to see Tim King for all of five seconds, but also got to chat with Franco and Howard Chaykin.
Oh, and, we met Hayley Atwell.
There are so many moments with friends, family, and new friends, new family, and icons of my youth, that I am sure I have forgotten someone.
Joe Endres and I talked about an idea for a new book.
Chris Mariano gave me very kind, and much-needed words of encouragement.
Brian Stelfreeze and Hayley Atwell made the weekend for my Kidlet.
Kyle Roberts asked me to be a part of his sketchbook that includes artists I have no right following.
A stranger (who asked to not be photographed – which made me create my own backstory for him) bought my original art page for my entry in the yearbook. (The proceeds I immediately gave to the ‘Ringo Scholarship.)
Ramona Fradon stopped to ask if we knew where her table was, echoing my fanboy moment from this past HeroesCon.
These shows are filled with people I idolized ages ago, and people I am just getting to know.
These shows have provided me an outlet for my creativity, and a battery to fuel it.
And most importantly, these shows have given me, my wife, and my Kidlet, a glorious extended family that no other job nor industry could have provided. None of what I do now could ever have been done without them.
In other words, Thank You, Baltimore! We will definitely see you next year!
(Want to see what Shakes was up to while I was tableside? Check out her recap here.)