Is San Diego Comic-Con still worthwhile for independent cartoonists?

Every year, we hear the complaint that San Diego Comic-Con is less about comics than it is about movies, television, and the spectacle of comics-adjacent media spilling through the San Diego Convention Center. And yet independent cartoonists still flock to San Diego each summer, setting up in Artist's Alley, the small press area, and various dealer's booths hawking their frequently self-published wares. So what keeps some cartoonists coming to SDCC each year as comics vanish from preeminence? And why have others washed their hands of the show?

Photo by jtrummer.

This year has been a particularly difficult year for folks hoping to attend SDCC — be it as an exhibitor or an attendee. The new system for getting badges and hotel rooms was bureaucratic, confusing, and filled with bugs. As for the show itself, it can be expensive to attend between hotel rooms and travel, and it's five long days of work, competing with video game companies, toy booths, traveling apparel shops, and aisles and aisles of free swag.

For some cartoonists, it's just not worth it. Randy Milholland, creator of Something Positive and Super Stupor and a staple of the comic convention circuit, announced over Twitter that he was skipping SDCC this year. He explained, "[B]ooth problems and SDCC revenue hasn't justified the costs/work the last two years."

Danielle Corsetto, who does the immensely popular Girls With Slingshots and makes a sizable percentage of her income from conventions, tends to agree. She attended SDCC for the first time last year when she was able to hop onto a larger table. Although she was pleasantly surprised by the presence of comics on the SDCC floor and she turned a profit, she told us that found it less profitable than smaller shows — and a great deal of work at five days. Ultimately, she found SDCC to be more valuable as an anthropological experience than a business enterprise:

It's nice to have some perspective on SDCC when other cartoonists talk about the show, but... I'd liken it to knowing a bit about art history. Great to have that knowledge for comparison and conversation, but you don't need to make it the focus of your master's degree…. Neither the sales nor the experience are worth the trip for me, and I can afford not to go far easier than I can afford to go.

And perhaps that's the key. For Corsetto, who is as much a household name as anyone in webcomics, SDCC isn't essential.
Kel McDonald of Sorcery 101 makes a point of tabling at SDCC because she feels it's necessary for getting the word out about her comics, and, since she can get a small press table (as opposed to the pricier dealer's tables), she turns a good profit. Similarly, Andy Grossberg, the Chief Creative Officer at the webcomic reading service Comic-Rocket (mentioned last week in our "Sites that Make Your Webcomics Reading Easier" post), feels that exhibiting at SDCC is invaluable for independent cartoonists. He told us:

If they can do it they should do it at least once! Especially webcomic creators who give their work away for free and then have to sell art, books, and merchandise to recoup. If they can find a way to rise above the noise level and afford the expenses then what better way can they get in front of a hundred thousand people to sell their stuff? if you have good booth placement you can get a ton of foot traffic. It seems to work pretty well when artists group together with others so everyone can share table duty as well as split the costs.

There really is no substitute for getting the kind of exposure that SDCC offers to creatives. Just have realistic expectations about what you're going to accomplish. Marketing is key as with everything in the business of comics these days.

However, folks like McDonald, who has four books in addition to the multi-artist anthology Cautionary Fables and Fairytales, hits a sweet spot in SDCC profitability that not all cartoonists share. Gordon McAlpin, whose comic Multiplex has only one print volume, decided to pass on SDCC this year. "If I had two or three books," he told us, "or if Multiplex were popular enough that I could make a good chunk of that on sketches, that might be more realistic." At other, more comic-specific shows, like Seattle's Emerald City Comic Con, Alpin finds his books attract more buyers and it's far easier for him to break even — plus, the nearby hotels aren't nearly as expensive. But, when he has more Multiplex books to put on the table, he says he'll reconsider exhibiting at SDCC.

Of course, there are plenty of cartoonists who exhibit at SDCC because they enjoy it, because that's where they connect with certain fans and see friends they only see at conventions. Twitter is, well, atwitter with cartoonists excitedly planning their trips to San Diego, figuring out whom they'll be able to meet up with, wondering what costumes they'll see and what panels they'll attend, and feeling generally chipper about the whole experience. By the same token, some cartoonists assiduously avoid the show because it's not their cup of tea. Julia Wertz, creator of The Fart Party, Drinking at the Movies, and Museum of Mistakes, doesn't attend SDCC simply because she doesn't connect her autobiographical comics with the superhero and other genre media that dominate San Diego. "[I] prefer to stick to indie cons where the work is stuff I'm interested in," she said. Still others find their energies better directed toward conventions where it's easier to make professional connections. Richard Fairgray, creator of Blastosaurus, I Fight Crime, and Chewing Zombies, is attending the London Film and Comic Con in lieu of San Diego, which, despite being a smaller show, affords him more opportunities to meet with distributors and publishers.

For those who are considering exhibiting at SDCC in the near future, McDonald notes that there are ways for independent cartoonists to make the show less stressful and more profitable. Rather than deal with the hotel lottery, she booked a hostel a year in advance, which puts her just a few blocks from the Convention Center. Her other advice for newbie tablers: bring your own food, key an eye on your smaller items (other cartoonists have complained that folks tend to think items on the table are free), prepare a good elevator pitch to break through the noise, and, if you're afraid you might run out of books, you can always provide people with sign-up forms, so they can pay for their books at the show and then have you mail them out later.

And for those of us who do attend SDCC hoping to see the latest and greatest in independent comics, the good news is that the Small Press Pavillion and webcomics areas are just as large as they were last year, suggesting that the show is still committed to giving independent and small press comics their physical foothold. It is up to the creators themselves to determine whether San Diego continues to be a worthwhile show.