We Can Be HEROES, Just For (Another) Show…

I am pretty sure when my wife agreed to go with me to a nearby comic convention a few years ago, she never expected to feel like one of these conventions would be the highlight of our year.

HEROES CON, held every June in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the best conventions in the country…if not the best. HEROES is different from AwesomeCon, San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, or any other show in the country because it is always solely about the creators. The artists, the writers, the letterers, the inkers, the colorists. None of the major publishers come, and the only celebrities are the icons of comic art like Adams, Rosa, or Steranko. No one from movies or television.

The focus of HEROES CON is on the craft. Everyone sitting behind a table at HEROES creates art, from two dimensional paintings to three-dimensional toys. From sequential art to custom plush.

Even the cosplay at HEROES is different, where the majority of cosplayers are the true die-hard fans showing their artistry and enthusiasm for a character as a thank you to the creators, not folks auditioning their skills at costume design for a possible film, television, or modeling job.

In a few short years, HEROES has become our family reunion we want to attend.

Creators I have quietly idolized for their tremendous talent have become friends, something which to this day floors me. After my layoff as a comic retailer, when I realized I had my own book to make, HEROES was where I wanted to start promoting my new career as writer and artist (after a test run at another convention).

When we debuted at HEROES last year, with MOO THOUSAND AND PUN, THE MIGHTY HIPPOFARTAMUS, and CON GRUB, we hoped to do well, but we always figured even if we failed miserably…we were still at HEROES. We would still have a great weekend. We actually did fairly well, making back most of the monies paid for our tables.

You know that odd combination of euphoria and depression you feel when you get up out of your seat at an amazing concert? You have this energy to do something cool, coupled with the depressing realization that the show is over. That’s HEROES.

After last year, I went home and immediately started writing and sketching ideas for THE BEAR FROM A.U.N.T., which I finished just in time to debut at Baltimore Comic Con in September. (Baltimore is a lot like HEROES, and is the other convention we love.)

The rest of the year feels like a long, slow, build-up to the next HEROES.

Last weekend, it finally arrived.

In between last year and this year’s HEROES, I made another Shakes book, TEMPLE OF MOO’D, created a new coloring book, and designed a plush Shakes for my wife to create. There was no follow up to CON GRUB ready, as my wife was also working on a third cookbook while trying to finish the second CON GRUB, in addition to crocheting several Shakes toys. Kidlet was distracted by schoolwork and the general youngster’s inability to focus on just one story to write for next time. (By next year, there could be three cookbooks and a half-dozen mini comics from the Kidlet…I can’t slow down at all!)

As is typical with the trip to Charlotte, 85 seems to be in as perpetual a state of repair as Indianapolis, adding time and frustration to the trip south. Also, those Bojangles billboards mock me. We figured out over the years that the best way to go is head down the day before the show, set up our table, and relax until the doors open on Friday.

We got to town in time to meet up with a couple of good friends, the Owens’, who were former customers in my comic retail days. They live a couple of miles away, but we always seem to spend more time together at HEROES or Baltimore. They joined us for dinner with Scott Fogg, a recent addition to the creator side of things whom we met a couple of HEROES shows ago. Fogg is the writer of Phileas Reid (a new self-published graphic novel) and Action Lab: Dog of Wonder (with Vito Delsante) from…wait for it…Action Lab Entertainment.

We all went to the opening night party at Buffalo Wild Wings, and had a meal that was textbook “how not to manage a chain when you have a guaranteed 200+ guests coming.” But, as with all things at HEROES…the company of friends made it less frustrating and more a story to share over the years. We also met Phileas Reid’s artist, Marc L. Thomas and his wife, and marveled at Marc’s relative inexperience with tables. You had to be there.

We also got to chat with two of our favorite people in or out of comics, Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick, who have embraced the roles as creator/fan ambassador brilliantly, even though they weren’t exactly looking for the job. They are kind, funny, and immensely creative people, and I have no doubt their children will take all of those qualities, expand upon them, and excel.

Exhausted and eager for the next day, we retired for the evening, but not before a quick stop in the hotel lobby bar to get the Kidlet ice cream and me an iced coffee. We ran into our friends Drew Moss, Hoyt Silva, and Kevin Cuffe there and chatted a while before they headed off to dinner. (I also got to pick Hoyt’s brain about a more ideal tablet setup for art production.)

As much as I praise HEROES, there are negatives. Unfortunately, they all happen at the hotel. Any hotel connected to a major convention center really ought to change the mattresses more…a sack of potatoes may have been more comfortable. Throw in the inevitable snoring competitions between me and my wife, and sleep becomes a luxury.

Along the way to Charlotte, we were being a bit silly with one of the plush Shakes, taking photos with the cow in goofy situations. This turned into “a thing” on Friday, where I manned the table almost exclusively, while Shakes became an immediate celebrity, with dozens of creators taking “selfies” with the udderly adorable bovine.

Most of the photos were with friends like Joey Ellis, Jason Horn, Francesco Francavilla, Chris Sparks (Team Cul De Sac), and Andy Runton. However, a few pictures gave me and my wife a chance to plotz. Shakes took pictures with legends like Ramona Fradon, June Brigman, Don Rosa, John Rose, and Marcus Hamilton. Fradon created Metamorpho for DC Comics in the 1960s, and is an idol of mine. Brigman created Power Pack with Louise Simonson, and creates wonderfully expressive faces that defy their two-dimensional medium. Rosa has drawn Uncle Scrooge for decades, and is simply one of the finest cartoonists around. Rose and Hamilton create Snuffy Smith and Dennis the Menace for the daily papers. Both strips were two of the few my wife read regularly in her youth.

Friends like Shane Berryhill, Joey Ellis, Micah Myers, and Fraction had a little fun with their photos, and some even had their creations photobomb the pictures, like Runton’s Owly and Erica Henderson’s Tippy-Toe from Squirrel Girl.

This series of photos became a highlight of the show, causing a lot of goofiness, which also helped my wife be recognized for her own abilities as a craftswoman, and led to our success at the table.

Last year, our good friend and writer of the upcoming Action Lab comic Monty The Dinosaur, Bob Frantz, shared our table and helped pass the slow moments with humor and tales of parenthood. This year, with Bob not attending, I asked to be placed next to Jamie Cosley, my friend and sometime collaborator, and the coordinators were able to make it happen. We were in a table group full of all-ages creators, and a couple of legends in Fradon and Brigman. Hanging out with the Cosleys is always fun, and creatively energizing.

I didn’t get away from the table much Friday, but I did get to say hello to Joey, Shane, Hoyt, Chris Sebela, Ibrahim Moustafa, and my friend Justin Peterson, and pick up a few books to read…eventually. (The downfall of my creating these books is that I can never read anything while working on them. I’m going to need two months this winter to try and catch up on the 18 months of books stacked up by the bed.)

The first couple of sales were to friends, one of whom is a sometime exhibitor, Emily Swan, who came to the show just to have fun. I will admit, I was kind of jealous. I also sold my first piece of original art, a sketch I had done last year of a mashup of Furiosa and Max from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Most of the sales on Friday were to friends stopping by to catch up. The Mad Max sketch was to a stranger, though, and hopefully he checks out my other work.

Friday ended with a late reunion with one of our favorite cosplayers, who routinely steals the show in smart, elegant outifts combining superhero icons with classic fashions of earlier eras. Friday she was dressed as Agent Carter, and even took a photo with Shakes…whom I guess needs either her own red hat or a tiny Captain America costume. As always happens at this show, my wife and Agent Carter’s companion, who is also a DC local, are already friends.

After a quick detour to the hotel to drop off a few items, we shuffled off to City Smoke for dinner with the Owens’ before retiring to our sacks of potatoes.

Saturdays at HEROES are usually nuts, and there was a wee wrinkle involved. A friend whom I only knew through social media, Jacques Nyemb, was going to share some of our table space. He was ready to promote and sell his latest book Humanescent, and we had extra space, so everything worked out perfectly.

Well, almost. 85 struck again, but Jacques managed to get to the convention with enough time to unload his gear with me while he parked. On the way down, we passed a large line of eager fans that was growing beyond the capacity of the lobby.

Jacques and I chatted about the show and book creation in general as we made our way to the table and set up, and making introductions all around with our neighbors.

Saturday was a great day for us, with 8 of ten sales to people whom we did not know. These sales will hopefully become repeats in future years, but even if not, it meant that we had new eyes on our products, which can help the slow crawl to success in this industry. I sold five books, some buttons, and a commission of the video game character Kirby as a cow.

The plush were getting some attention on Saturday, even if not many sales. However, the first sale was only a few minutes after the doors opened, when a father and son walked by and the son indicating to the Shakes toy said loudly, “We need that for mom!”

Another old customer of mine surprised me when he sauntered up to say “Hi.” He had been out of the country, but was back for his son’s graduation, and his wife pushed him to come in case we were exhibiting. My exit from comics retail was not ideal, and it is always nice to see old customers, and hear that I did my job well. (However, had I not been laid off, Shakes might never had happened. So, it all worked out well.)

I also sold more copies of MOO than TEMPLE, which showed that there will always be new eyes on your work, and to plan accordingly. Saturday ended with dinner out with the Cosleys at a fantastic – if amazingly loud – burger joint in Uptown called Cowbell. (Thanks to Chris Sebela for letting us know about this place. Of course, we took Shakes. She approved.)

Sunday began with a nice breakfast at the remarkably quiet Merts, a favorite dining spot with some of the best grits and green tomatoes I have had outside my own kitchen. We shared the meal with the Owens’, and their friends and also former customers the Fletchers. Greg Fletcher and I were toasted for Father’s Day…which we had both forgotten about. (Yes, Kidlet was with us at the table, it’s just how I am about the holiday.)

I had lost track of time, and left late from breakfast to hustle the mile back to the convention. Ken Marcus was waiting for us with the Craig Rousseau cover to his new book, Super Human Resources Volume 2. SHR is a very funny book, a gem from a few years ago that I remembered championing to my customers long before I met Ken, whom it turned out is friends with Cosley and Matt Wieringo.

We had more sales than Saturday, but mostly to friends who were finally getting away from their tables. Sunday was also a great day for my other book, THE BEAR FROM A.U.N.T. which sold as many copies as TEMPLE. We also were able to present books and toys as gifts to Kelly Sue and Matt’s kids, and find out that their kids loved MOO, which made me feel really good. It means a lot when someone you admire both for their talent and their character likes your work.

A couple of sales were from our friends Drew Moss and Hoyt Silva, who had the Kidlet short of breath as she ran back and forth between our tables delivering plush cows and penguins. It was kind of funny, and who knows, maybe we will offer table to table delivery next year, too.

The last sale of the show was to a friend of Jacques’, Christine Brunson and her husband Scott, who picked up a copy of MOO for their young son. And, as is always the case with conventions, we’ve added to our family of creator friends, which is the real joy of these shows.

Sunday ended with goodbyes, some running around to thank folks for taking photos with Shakes, and several trips to the hotel which made us realize that a handcart was needed for next time. Kelly Sue and Matt stopped by to offer words of encouragement, and Jacques and I said our goodbyes.

We made it back to the hotel, grabbed dinner from a pizza place across the street, packed our things and turned in for the night.

Construction in the hotel lot caused a huge issue that had me literally shunted onto the highway while trying to turn around and pick up our bags and my wife and Kidlet. An hour later I finally had them and our things in the car, and we were headed back home. (Stopping for biscuits on the way, of course.)

It didn’t take long after getting home for the memories of this HEROES to make us wistful for next year.

Special thanks have to go to Rico Renzi and Shelton Drum, and all of their colleagues, who make this show so fantastic. It is their enthusiasm and love of this medium that make HEROES so special. And, special kudos to Rico for maintaining his good nature considering all that he has to do in the months leading up to, and the chaotic days of, the convention. Plus, he colors one of Kidlet’s favorite books.

Thanks to adorable plush toys made by my wife, and a few friends, we came within $30 of making table, and overall sales were nearly 60% higher than last year. Next year, if all goes well, I will have three more books with me, and a goal to exceed this year by 30%. Also, if all goes well, I may have a cool announcement next year, so keep your fingers crossed for us.

The two biggest moments for me at this year’s HEROES, however, had nothing to do with sales.

Friday morning, as I exited the hotel to head to the show, I noticed an older woman asking for directions to the show. I walked up, and recognizing her, offered to escort her to her table. It was Ramona Fradon. She is an amazing talent, and has continued to work in comics for nearly six decades, providing a great role model for young girls who want to work in the industry. I had the honor (and, yes, blind luck) to walk with her into the show, take her to get her badge, and then down to her table, which was right behind ours. We chatted about comics, art, and the ridiculous cost of eating in the hotel. After dropping her off at her table, I sat at our table having a brief but quiet freak out.

The next day, Kidlet showed her the comic we worked on together, THE MIGHTY HIPPOFARTAMUS, and she liked it, so Kidlet gave a copy to her. Fradon was happy to take the gift, but only if the Kidlet signed it to her first. (As you can see in the photos, I think I’ve done a decent job of explaining how big a deal this is to the Kidlet.)

The other big moment was shared with our other neighbor at the table to our left, June Brigman. Brigman is a fantastic artist, and I loved her run on Power Pack. I was able to chat with her a little on Friday, and get a page of her work. Saturday, my wife showed her my Shakes books, and Brigman took her time to look through both carefully. She liked the stories, but was complimentary of my art, and said that she really liked the books.

HEROES 2016 was a good show for us in terms of sales, but finding out that Ramona Fradon, June Brigman, and the House DeFraction like my work? Those are the memories that will stay with me. (Well, that…and Matt Fraction’s photo with Shakes.)

Thank you HEROES. We can’t wait for next year.

(The photos below were part of Shakes’ MAGICAL MOOSTERY TOUR, and she provides the commentary.)

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