The 22nd Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo, aka SPACE, was held on May 21-22 at the Rhodes Center on the grounds of the Ohio State Fairgrounds.
That’s the top-line explanation, but then there’s what happened inside. I’ll try to share what little I could see from my vantage point, as well as my personal experiences from the show. Not necessarily in that order.
As I said in the headline, I don’t think I’ve been an exhibitor at a show since being part of a Mass Press table at a Sunday Funnies show in Boston back in 1987. And, candidly, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve been to the local Buckeye Comicon show a few times here in Columbus, but the small “local flavor tables” were overwhelmed by the long boxes and toy sellers. I went to Terrificon in Toledo this past March, but their artist alley, to me, was hard to dive into in the madness of cosplayers, (more) long boxes, purveyors of Japanese manga and anime stuff and celebrity tables. Those shows didn’t really tell me what I needed to do beyond “Have your stuff ready to sell.”
Fortunately, YouTube came to my rescue. A British comics writer named Matt Garvey has, among his many videos, a handful of shorts on how to prepare for, set up and comport oneself as a creator at a comic convention. This was GOOD stuff. I largely followed his advice to the letter. (Except for the credit card reader bit. Should’ve listened better…) I can’t recommend it highly enough to those who are new to “tabling”.
The show itself was in the Rhodes Center, which clearly was not the newest of the Fairgrounds’ buildings. But for the crowd, it kinda fit like a glove. Small pressers and alternative comics makers aren’t a fancy lot — we’re working on the margins of our checking accounts, trying to squeeze a few pennies to make a couple more books and cutting corners where we can. “Thrifty” is a good word for our work, and the Rhodes Center screamed thrifty.
Except for the $5/day parking. That wasn’t great, but at least the show didn’t charge admission.
Setup was reasonably straightforward. Following the aforementioned Matt Garvey videos (especially this one), we did the following:
- Used a black plastic tablecloth to highlight our books, obscure the tired wood table and shroud the boxes under the table.
- Put all books on sale upright with display copies in bags to allow for price cards to be taped.
- Placed browsing copies on the table closest to the peeps, opening them as if to say, “Please take a look.”
- Set up our retractable sign on the table next to our mailing list signup. Our sign isn’t anything close to the cool, 6-8 foot high ones that sit on the floor, but it’s still a bit of an attention getter.
Beyond Mr. Garvey’s advice, we also:
- Put out business cards (which he may have mentioned, I can’t recall) and stickers.
- Bought a bunch of small and large-size brown paper bags, imprinting each before the show with a custom Phoenix Productions label. We pre-filled them with business cards and stickers to go with the books that people were buying.
- Printed and laid out our Heroes Now #1 reproduction posters. (It was supposed to be a freebie add-on for those who bought the book, but we ended up giving them away to kids who walked by. Because posters of superheroes on a kid’s bedroom wall are inherently cool.)
- Mints! I haven’t tabled at comic shows in forever, but I have attended more than a few trade shows. And those little, individually wrapped Life Saver mints are a sweet treat that says, “Be our guest”. Actually, my daughter put a sign in front of the bowl that said, “EAT ME!” Heh.
- Brought cash. A lot of cash. $5’s and $1’s. We had to watch that envelope like hawks.
- An electronic payment sheet with QR codes for PayPal and Venmo. Both worked fine, and we learned that Venmo is much more popular than PayPal.
- FOOD! We were unsure of the concession situation coming in, and the Fairgrounds were going to charge extra for in-and-out privileges (but how could you leave the premises while staffing the table with a 9-year-old?). So we grabbed giant sub sandwiches at the grocery store the night before, subdivided those, and put them in a cooler with apples, individual bags of salty snacks, granola bars, cans of pop for her and a gallon of water for both of us to refill our bottles. It worked great.
What we learned (because we didn’t bring):
- We need to get a credit/debit card reader. Fortunately, we lost exactly zero sales because customers were kind enough to get out their phones and do Venmo/PayPal. But the default in our cashless society is credit/debit cards. Garvey even made a whole video about this, which I was unfortunate to watch at midnight the night before Day 1.
Once set up, we had about 30-45 minutes until the show doors opened to the public. Figuring that I was largely going to be chained to the table (to let my daughter roam), I wanted to get some “con must do’s” out of the way.
First was getting our books in for consideration for the SPACE Prize. After dithering for a week on how to best present the new books – which books, which of the three categories to submit – and driving poor Tony Lorenz crazy with my imposter syndrome, I took Tony’s advice and submitted everything. So we’ll see which books SPACE show organizer Bob Corby and his judges like.
My daughter also submitted her book, Bird and Frank, which she created just for SPACE 2022. The submission form says that books from creators age 12 and younger automatically get a prize, and my kid is all about winning prizes, so she made an 8-page digest about our Boston Terrier, Frank(lin), and a toucan-like bird who meet a cat and become a trio of friends. More of that book later.
Once submissions were done, we needed to introduce ourselves to legendary creator of Cynicalman, Matt Feazell. I knew of Matt since high school and have admired his often hilarious stick figure creations since but never met him! My daughter knew of him through his participation in the wonderful “kids graphic novel of the month” service called Hey Kids! Comics!. Feazell is a regular contributor to the service’s magazine that accompanies the graphic novels, giving kids tips on how to make their own comics while imparting classic Feazell fun.
So we hit poor Matt with the high-low while he was still setting up – old me had his 1987 Eclipse Comic book for him to sign, and young daughter had a Hey Kids! Comics! magazine for a signature as well. Matt was such a wonderful guy, even trading a few of his minicomics for my daughter’s Bird and Frank (which she said was inspired by his work for Hey Kids! Comics!).
And then we were off to the races. Bob Corby opened the doors, and the public slowly trickled in.
I’ll tread lightly here, but this was not a packed house. There were quite a few vendor tables unstaffed, and crowds apparently didn’t hit the levels of past shows. Why? I’ll offer a few suggestions.
- COVID forced cancellations of the two prior years’ live shows.
- The prior event (2019!) was held at a different location.
- The State Fairgrounds charged for parking.
So here’s my take: The “SPACE habit” of the casual reading public had been broken by COVID. That’s the big one. And remember, many people lived like hermits for two years (raises hand), and some (raises hand) are only now timidly coming back out into the big bad world. Some still haven’t. The other issues are negligible in my opinion.
And lest you think otherwise, none of this is a slight against organizer Bob Corby (and his team, if he has one). As a bounceback show, it was pretty darned good. I applaud the obvious effort that it took to rev up the engines after two years off and think that most exhibitors understand the challenges of COVID-era events.
Still, I feel bad for those whose expectations of SPACE 2022 exceeded reality. But there’s a little more to the story.
Again, I’ll fall back on my naivete with comic show tabling. I was doing everything I could to figure out what to do, how to do it and what to avoid. And again, I fall back to Matt Garvey’s tips for how to sell at a comic con. There may be a couple others, but these are the big four:
- Do not sit down. Stay standing. People respond better to those who are at attention.
- Greet as many passers by as possible. The simple act of saying hello shows kindness and causes them to pause and at least briefly glance at your table.
- Stay off your devices! People don’t want to interrupt those who are sending messages on their phones.
- Have an elevator pitch ready. (So important that it gets its own video.)
With that knowledge, my daughter and I got to work:
- I stood for almost the entire show – the only notable exception being when I was trying to hide the fact that I was eating. My daughter’s only 9, so I figured she could sit all she wanted.
- We both said hello to everyone we could. In fact, my daughter took to running around the floor, passing out posters to kids. We did our part to be the nicest people in the show.
- In the rare instance that I was on my phone, it was on the table and behind a sign. I really tried hard to stay off, which surely was annoying to my wife.
- The elevator pitch? My daughter understood the assignment. Bird and Frank was “a story about friendship.” Combine that with “Would you like to buy my first comic?” and you had a sales juggernaut. Me? I need to polish up my different pitches for my different books.
Even with my shortcomings on the elevator pitches, we still moved enough books to 1) cover our table costs, 2) cover the program ad costs (which was as much as the table), 3) cover my daughter’s printing costs and 4) give us a little walking around money to buy other books and stuff. I definitely overshot the mark by running second printings of every book, but those books will eventually sell somewhere.
So yeah, not the ideal con sales environment…but not impossible if you roll up your sleeves and start hustling.
And Bird and Frank? Sold out by 10:32am on Sunday. That kid was on top of the world for the rest of the day. (Our neighboring vendors, not so much.)
Now I say all this from the vantage point of a table at the far edge of the room, perhaps as far away from the registration/sign-in table as anyone, in a ring of tables that started the show with 5 out of 10 tables filled and was down to two tables by 2pm on Sunday. (Not that sparse populations are a bad thing right now: It appears that the crowded Megacon in Orlando last weekend turned into a bit of a COVID spreader event. Haven’t heard anything of the sort from SPACE!) It took work to succeed at this show, but it COULD be done.
In fact, one of our immediate neighbors took the absolute opposite of our approach. They put up two wire towers with pictures with no indication of costs, then proceeded to sit around on their phones. Most everyone blew right on by. I think they made two sales before bailing after five hours on Day 1. They said they had an appointment, but I told my daughter that they were being polite; they tore their plastic tablecloth out.
Lastly – and I probably buried the lede, saving the best for last – SPACE 2022 was as much about meeting other creators as the father-daughter team doing out thing.
I had a chance to meet folks with whom I interacted by mail in the 80s and by social media today, but never in person:
- SPACE majordomo Bob Corby (who has some really nice minicomics of his own)
- The prolific, talented and congenial Michael Neno, who essentially swapped me a HEROES NOW #1 for an ODYSSEUS REX, his retelling of The Odyssey through a Rob Liefeld/Image Comics lens.
- Ian Shires, who was kind enough to come down to the show despite his health not being fantastic.
- Matt Feazell, who was kind enough to contribute a little sumthin’-sumthing’ to HEROES NOW after being so kind and generous with us at the top of the show.
- The Eisner Award-nominated Columbus Scribbler team, who are passionate about comics, self publishing and their community.
- And, of course, fellow UFO’er Joseph Morris! Joseph was a big help for me in getting prepared for this show, offering a perfect laid back vibe to my near-hyper worker bee persona. And we got a photo to commemorate finally meeting:
I’m sure I missed a few folks, but wow was there a lot going on!
If you’re interested in more coverage of SPACE 2022, go check out the community Facebook page. Curator Bob Corby has compiled tons of photos, a few seminar videos and more. Good stuff!
All in all, we had a good show. We didn’t lose our shirts, we sold a few books, we met a lot of people and we had some priceless daddy-daughter time in the most unlikely place.
Will we be back for SPACE 2023? According to my daughter, absolutely! She’s already plotting Bird and Frank #2. Me? Obviously yes if she says so, but I learned a lot out of this experience and will take those lessons into the next show.
What a weekend! Did we sleep well on Sunday night or what…