Ben Templesmith, artist for acclaimed vampire comic 30 Days of Night and creator of titles like The Squidder and Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, spent much of his time at San Diego Comic-Con holed up inside a bar at the nearby Gaslamp Hilton hotel. He didn't tell the bar that he was coming, let alone that he would spend hours every day drinking, chatting and drawing for fans. "I just came down and decided to be an awesome customer," he says.
That plan, which he calls SquidCon 2015, worked. Templesmith and his friends and fans kept the bar content with their tabs and tips while selling his art. The artist was set to break even on his expenses for hitting up the convention and he had the chance to hang out with fans for extended periods of time and chat in relative peace. If Templesmith had gone for a booth inside SDCC's mammoth exhibit hall, this may not have been possible.
The Seattle-based artist describes SquidCon as an "experiment," a chance to manage his presence at the massive pop culture convention the way he sees fit. "I'm doing it my way this year," he says. Templesmith, who is from Australia, but has lived in the U.S. for seven years, started attending SDCC in 2001. Two years ago, though, he called it quits on a convention that had ballooned into a major destination for people with a greater interest in blockbuster films and television epics than comic books. "It got too expensive," he says.
That's a complaint that plenty of people have had about SDCC. Attending the convention can be a complicated, and pricy, ordeal. Whether you're going for fun or work, the process of getting a badge requires a rush to the online registration site months in advance of the July gathering. Status as a media professional is not a guarantee for a badge, let alone a spot in one of the hotels that take reservations by lottery. Lodging comes with a hefty price tag too. Even if you are part of a large group crammed into one room, you can expect to pay at least a couple hundred dollars to stay the duration of the con. Then there are the fees for parking and other transportation-related needs, plus food. If you're an artist, you can add the cost of getting your work to San Diego and running a booth from Wednesday through Sunday to your budget. Even for someone like Templesmith, who has enough of a following to have run several successful crowd-funding campaigns, that's big pressure to produce sales.
This year, Templesmith decided to come back because he found a good deal on a hotel room in nearby Coronado Island and he and his wife could visit family while in San Diego. But his return to the convention itself would be unconventional. Before SDCC started, Templesmith tweeted out the location of the bar and the times that he would be there. He advertised his prices for commissioned art, ranging from $100 to $350, and advised fans to email first to reserve a spot on the commission list.
On Saturday afternoon, he flips through the pages of his portfolio, showing off the commissions inside of it. There are well-known pop culture characters, like Conan the Barbarian, Ghost Rider and Furiosa, from the latest installment of the Mad Max franchise, re-imagined in his own style. He says that fans often ask for characters that he doesn't usually draw. "It's good training, really," he says. "It makes me a better artist."
In front of Templesmith is a kaiju, a Japanese-style monster, that he's drawing for a comic book shop in Houston. He orders a Bailey's from the bar and says that he has been pacing himself during the course of SquidCon. With Templesmith are his wife, Ashley, as well as a Chicago-based comic book writer named Chris Smits and a Comic-Con attendee named Chris Fulford-Brown, who has played piano at the comic book-centric Eisner Awards that take place during the event. For Fulton-Brown, Templesmith produced a commission centered around the piano.
Others come and go, but the group remains intimate in size. Templesmith estimates that, by the end of the weekend, he will have met about 50 people at this location. That's less than the several hundred he can expect to meet at a convention booth, but it's good for this setting. "That's 50 dedicated, hardcore people," he says. "You don't get as many comic book people coming to this show anymore, so that's pretty good."
Templesmith isn't the only artist working outside of the exhibit hall. Early Saturday evening, L.A. based artist Shing Yin Khor, who L.A. Weekly shadowed at WonderCon in 2014, takes a break on the back steps of the convention center. Khor has had a booth at SDCC in the past, but, last year, she couldn't get one. This year, she continued her work in the Comic-Con crowd by tweeting out her location and giving away free zines. This has become a way of promoting herself at the con while keeping costs low. "You make a lot more money than other conventions," she says of SDCC, "but the cost of coming to Comic-Con and staying at Comic-Con are pretty high."
Since giving up her day job to pursue art full time, Khor has to take that upfront cost into consideration. "At every con, I now have to make a fairly significant profit to do this for my job." Plus, she has the chance to check out panels and relax by the water, things that she wouldn't be able to do if she were working a booth.
In recent years, plenty of major companies have been taking their campaigns outside the convention center as well. On Saturday, several parking lots and grassy areas surrounding the main event were filled with activations promoting everything from American Horror Story to Assassin's Creed to the forthcoming Peanuts movie. These attractions help capture the attention of people who lack the badges to get inside the convention center, as well as SDCC attendees. But, much like the official convention events, they can feature incredibly long lines. They're also part of the SDCC image that Templesmith essentially protests with his own small event. "It's me kind of thumbing my nose to what it's become over there, the gaudy marketing side," he says of SquidCon.
This year, Templesmith anticipates that he will attend 17 or 18 comic book conventions. This scene has become a large part of how he markets himself as an independent comic book creator. It is also how he connects with fans who have latched on to his horror-centric work. He explains that, at the other conventions he attends, the emphasis has been on the artist alleys where comics creators sell their products and take commissions. But at SDCC, before he left two years ago, he saw the emphasis gravitated towards other media, leaving comics creators a little lonely. "Most of the conventions I do have very healthy artist alleys," he says. "For a long time, in San Diego, it was like you could see the tumbleweeds."
This year, though, Templesmith noticed another shift inside the convention center. "The artist alley here this year looks quite vibrant," he says. Indeed, when this reporter walked around the exhibit, the crowds in the artist alley appeared larger and livelier than they had recently. "I am tempted to maybe try to get a table next year," Templesmith says.
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