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Can independent comics artists make it at Comic-Con?

As Hollywood slowly devours SDCC, small press publishers carve out their own space

By now, San Diego Comic-Con has long since outgrown its name. It's a show about Hollywood movies, blockbuster video games, and basically anything with the slightest whiff of geek appeal. Yet each year, independent artists and publishers still descend on the convention looking to find an audience. But is that even possible when all their would-be customers are stuck waiting overnight in the Star Wars line?

While the internet gives indies a way to be discovered, many still live and die by the convention circuit. The Devastator, an independent comedy publisher based in Los Angeles, says that around 70 percent of its revenue comes from conventions, even though it also sells books online and in around 40 stores. "That's about average for every indie press we know," says Amanda Meadows, one of The Devastator's founders.

Many publishers still live and die by the convention circuit

And with conventions going more mainstream, that could present a problem. The Devastator, like the other small publishers here, are selling a niche, geeky product: most of its books are parodies of properties like Goosebumps, Dungeons & Dragons, and MegaMan — the kind of products that rely on people with very specific interests finding and falling in love with them. And bringing those books to Comic-Con in hope of finding an audience isn't cheap. A booth can cost a small publisher around $3,000, which may mean making hundreds of sales before turning a profit.

Meadows has been bringing The Devastator to Comic-Con for several years now, and she says that she's seen some change as the show's focus continues to shift from comics to huge films and video games. A bigger show means more people who can potentially find her booth, but now, Meadows says, "You have to go through so many people to find the right people." Plus, getting in is expensive and a huge commitment for would-be attendees. "The young hipsters with not a lot of funds can't step in to find the weird stuff," she says.

And yet, Meadows and other independent artists and publishers at Comic-Con don't seem to mind the changing interests and audience. "I don't see it as a negative," says Yehudi Mercado, the artist behind SuperMercado comics. A few years back, "People were mad because Glee was here," he says, shrugging off the concern. "Some Glee fans will like something I do, I'm sure."

"Comic-Cons were the first way we got the word out."

The independent artists and publishers making it at cons are taking different approaches to success, but the general consensus is that they just need to be aware of the Con's audience. Mercado isn't selling only his comics — which includes a graphic novel about a pizza delivery boy — he's also selling small prints featuring his takes on famous characters, something that the discerning fan might want to pick up even if they aren't ready to buy a full book.

Immediate sales aren't the only benefit of showing up at a con either. Artists and publishers see it as a way of slowly building an audience. Even if someone doesn't stop by their booth this year, they might recognize it the next year and finally take the time to check it out. "Comic-Cons were the first way we got the word out," Meadows says.

The show is also a place to build connections with other artists and publishers. The entire industry descends here — it's an obvious place to do some networking. Part of it, Mercado says, is being able to "walk away from a convention with gigs," like being hired to do cover art for another publisher's comic.

Lonnie Millsap, a webcomic artist who's been posting single panel jokes since 2009, says he'd rather walk out of Comic-Con having met someone who can help him sell several hundred more comics next year than move a few more units at this year's show. "There's no expectation that we're gonna be the next Warner Brothers," he says.

"Being in the small press section at Comic-Con validates what I do."

In fact, these independent publishers and artists aren't even able to make a full-time job out of it yet. Meadows says that she and another founder of The Devastator are both only "80 percent full time." Millsap has a management job, and Mercado is the art manager for Disney's Playmation.

Still, there's an emotional component to being here. "Being in the small press section at Comic-Con sort of validates what I do," he says. And it allows him to actually meet the people who are buying his books, something that Millsap says he's taken a surprising satisfaction in. Meadows says the same is true of those running The Devastator, that part of being there is for the existing fans. "Enough fans would be disappointed if we weren't [at Comic-Con]."

Those familiar faces may become few and far between as Comic-Con's focus grows and it becomes harder for all audiences to show up, but that growth is still bringing in people who love geek culture and are looking for something new. "It widens the audience," Mercado says. "That's the best thing. That's better for everybody."

And really, it's not like there are many geeky publishers that would want to skip Comic-Con, anyway. "You can't not do this show," Meadows says. "It's Mecca, right? Everything's here."