Breda Strip Festival

John Carter Contemplates the Death of a Plantman

On Friday we (John Fleskes and the artists — and their wives — I mentioned in yesterday’s entry) toured the Dutch town of Breda. We had rijsttafel, one of my favorite Dutch meals, for dinner at a great Indonesian restaurant.

What’s rijsttafel, you might ask? Indonesia was a Dutch colony, so there are lots of Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. Rijsttafel means “rice table”. Here’s how it works: If you order rijsttafel you are brought two different bowls of rice (usually one yellow and one white). You scoop some of the rice onto your dinner plate. Then, about 24 small bowls of different foods are brought out to your table. They are often arranged according to how spicy they are (Me love spicy!). You spoon the different contents of the food bowls onto your rice throughout the meal and enjoy an incredible feast. A good rijsttafel is my favorite thing to eat in Holland.

The Breda Strip Festival was rather different from the comic book convention I attended in Áviles, Spain as a guest a few years back. Áviles was a much more mellow and low key event; the Breda show bristled with business. There were lots of artists and lots of vendors.

Some of Breda was like an old fashioned comic convention in that there were people actually selling comics. The big difference for me, however, with European comic conventions in comparison to US shows is what I call the Sketch Situation.

Artists sell sketches at the US shows. In Europe, however, artists are expected to create drawings (often quite elaborate and in color) for free. I saw an entire long table filled with top European comic book artists churning out (free) gorgeous drawing after (free) gorgeous drawing for long lines of comics fans. Some of the artists brought their best brushes and complete sets of watercolors with them with which to color their fairly elaborate and finished works.

I was, quite frankly, conflicted. In the USA I’ve worked out a system in which I draw my convention sketches in advance, price them and put them in a binder that people can flip through. If they want to purchase a drawing or two, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. That method frees me up to do what I would rather do: spend my time at a convention talking to people, telling stories and getting to know my fans on a deeper, more personal level rather than just sitting there drawing all day with people only seeing the top of my thinning pate. I also get to draw what I want to draw, instead of being the Human Art Jukebox (“Draw me Batman!”). In addition, conventions are exhausting enough as it is, much less being further and completely drained by having to crank out drawing after drawing at a show. Plus, creating art is what I do for my living. It is how I support myself and my family. I don’t ask (or expect) fans to give me freebies from their businesses. Chatting among other artists, I express a resentment when we’re treated like what I refer to as “art monkeys”. Also, many people (especially in the US) value something for whatever they paid for it. If they got it for free,then it’s really not worth anything at all to a lot of these folk.

Then there’s the Ebay factor.

A close personal friend of mine, one of the most famous and respected of comic artists, now refuses to do free drawings at shows (he used to do loads of them). This followed a situation where he was approached by a fan at Comic-Con who proclaimed himself to be one of this artist’s most ardent and loyal fans. The fan made a fairly elaborate sketch request. The artist fulfilled that request in spades, actually surpassing what had been asked for, creating a mini-masterpiece. The next day this beautiful personalized work was put up for auction on Ebay by the scumbag who requested it.

So, that’s one side of it.

The other side is that I want to build a much larger fan base and following for my work in Europe (I’ve been doing a lot of American conventions lately for the same reason. For me it’s like being in a rock band playing small clubs all over the States to build a following. I think that with the many personal connections I make and the good will that I create, that strong fan support and allegiance will be the end result, with the added bonus of making many great new friends).

I also like attending European shows as a guest. I always bring my wife and we have a great European vacation afterwards with our round trip air travel already covered.

I know going into European shows what the “rules” are there, that European fans expect free drawings. I have been a pioneer in many ways in the business end of comic art and illustration. This strong stance of respect for art and artists that I take has often hurt me — but by my breaking new business, contractual and negotiating ground, it has ultimately benefited the community of artists at large, something of which I’m very proud. I’m a Big Boy; I can take the hits. That said, do I really want to be known as the American asshole who destroyed the European system? Although, ultimately, I think the benefits to European comic artists as a whole would be enormous, I’m not sure what form the personal backlash against my efforts would take. The most obvious thought that comes to mind is that I would no longer be welcome at European shows.

I think about this aspect as well: Is it fair for me to draw for free in Europe yet charge my fellow Americans?

So, you can see my dilemma.

For the Breda show, anyway (as in Áviles), I ended up doing a lot of drawings for the fans who lined up at my table. It meant that the art I brought to sell went pretty much unsold. It made perfect sense. Why would anyone pay for something that they can get for free? Fortunately, I brought a stack of my sketchbooks. Those little babies sold like the proverbial Dutch pancakes. My luggage was a lot lighter after the show (not for long, though, with my subsequent art book purchases around Europe).

Before I started sketching at the Breda Strip Festival, I was warned in advance by Mark Thelosen and Guido about certain abusive fans who might come up to me and try various strategies to butt into the front of my line.

I had such an encounter on Saturday.

An out-of-breath, blustery fan approached me from the side, cutting in front of the other folks who had lined up for drawings.

“I need you to do my sketch right away. I’m in a hurry.”

“Well, I don’t think that would be fair to all the people who have been patiently waiting in line for their drawings.”

“No; you need to draw mine right now. I need to leave within an hour.”

“I’m sorry, my friend, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. It just wouldn’t be fair.”

“BUT I HAVE TO LEAVE SOON!”

I turned back to the next person in line and asked them what they would like me to sketch. Mr. Buttinsky stormed off in a steamy huff.

I tried very hard but I just couldn’t feel very bad about this obnoxious guy not getting a $200 drawing from me for free — and ahead of everyone else.

I had a huge line and was determined that each fan would get a decent drawing. My publisher John Fleskes knows me pretty well by now, especially the business side of me. He was pretty shocked that I was doing such elaborate drawings for free.

Sure enough, at the end of each day of the show, I was completely exhausted — and I was not able to spend very much time talking to my European fans, many of whom came from as far away as Belgium, France and Germany to meet me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

11 Responses to “Breda Strip Festival”

  1. Rick Catizone says:

    Bill,

    I certainly understand the dilemma. I don’t think it is right for a convention to promote that artists will be doing drawings for free, whether that has been a tradition or not. As you say, you want to spend time ENJOYING the convention and meeting fans, not working. And even if you “had” to work while you were there, who wants to work for free. The few conventions I do, I really enjoy getting into in-depth conversations about the work they admire or have questions about.

    And it is hard to be the only guy charging…or only the Americans charge..what jerks. I probably would have wound up doing the same thing for good relations, but I don’t think I would ever attend with that understanding again. Who wants to travel around the work and work constantly…and for free? Doesn’t make sense.

    As you say, the ebay factor is a serious concern as well. And also, if anything is free……while it would honored by a real fan of your work…..it could be just another freebie somebody wanted to get because they paid an admission fee. It might wind up torn or crumpled or in the trash.

    What a waste that would be! Just my first thoughts. But I think you had little choice in this particular situation….and made the right choice, painful as it may have been.

    Best Always,
    Rick

  2. Rick Catizone says:

    Addendum: Similarly I hate to charge for materials and signing things, but the whole convention circuit has changed over the years (much to my surprise). Still I have to make enough to cover travel expenses, food, etc. for my wife and I.

    At the last con we were both at, since there were so supposed to be so many fans, and because there were so many big name guests, we decided that charging half the normal rate would be a good idea. We figured that since everyone has limited dollars to spend, we might do better this way, as well as give more people a chance to get a signed piece of memorabilia. Big mistake. Just broke even, more or less, or made a couple of bucks.

    By the time we realized what was happening, we didn’t feel it would be “right” or fair to raise the price to “normal”. Some people may have been around and waited until Saturday to pick something up, and we felt we didn’t want anyone to think they were then being taken advantage of by a price change.

    Hard decisions sometimes…but necessary to keep the integrity….

    Best,
    Rick

  3. Bill says:

    Hi Rick,
    The promoters don’t ever actually promise free sketches at their shows; it’s just something that’s kind of tacitly understood over there as the norm at conventions.

  4. Matt Mulford says:

    I like your method at the American shows Bill, I’ve bought some beautiful sketches from your binder. And thanks for bringing a good supply of books and prints for me to gorge on as well. No need to do sketches when you have lots of cool product to buy. It’s kind of a shame that sketch expectation is the tradition at European shows. Speaking with artists is my favorite part of any con. Talking technique, hearing stories or just shooting the bull. It’s always a turn off when I see a huge list on an artists table of sketches they need to complete at that weekends show. Not to bad mouth Adam Hughes, BUT, I’ve only had the opportunity to see him in my area once and he barely looked up from his sketchbook the whole time I was at his table and literally had to ask his associate, sitting right next to him, specific questions about Adam’s work. I actually felt I was being rude or impinging on his ability to finish his mountain of requests. I still love Adam’s work and he’s probably a nice guy but I had no way of finding that out that day. As an aside, my advice for people who want sketches at conventions, bring a large SASE with a heavy card board backer so the artist can finish it at home and send it to you. As for the eBay assholes, one of the sweetest guys in the business, Don Rosa, is definitely one of the poster children of people who get screwed over by these character devoid, pieces of crap. As if the industry hasn’t screwed him enough. The artist you mentioned at Comic Con reminded me of Don. There, that felt good. Thanks for all the interesting posts Bill.

  5. This was a great post.
    I think you would have been right to treat the European convention just like you would one in the US. Conventions should be social and so why spend it hunched over a drawing board. That’s the 9 to 5 and a convention should be different. I know some illustrators have found a quick way to do a straddle. I’ve seen a certain illustrator sign a book with a quick drawn outline of a hat and a nose. In two seconds he’s done a sketch that hints at the signature character he is associated with, but without sitting down for twenty minutes. That seemed like a great solution.
    My philosophy about free sketches is definitely changing as is my thinking about long term business and how my business conduct may extend beyond myself.

  6. Aaron says:

    I agree that the way you handle the situation by having sketches in advance makes the most sense. To me the ebay situation is just heinous. The problem it creates for fans like me is that artists have to suspect everyone. On the other hand art by artists that I grew up loving are sometimes out of my price range.

    I’ll share one story about my own feelings in requesting art. Several years I go I found it was possible to get a book with a sketch done by Frazetta. It was expensive but just affordable if I stretch the meaning of that to mean go into debt for a little while. In addition to getting a drawing you also had the option of requesting a warrior or one of Frazetta’s big cats. I asked if it would be possible to get a picture of a male lion. Awhile later I got an e-mail saying the Mr. Frazetta was working on my request during breaks from watching the World Series on TV. I was completely amazed by this. That Frazetta would say sure I’ll draw what you want just seemed kind of miraculous to me. I have a vampire drawing done for free by another favorite artist. My reaction is the same. He drew a classic vampire at my request. I paid for one of the drawings, but to have a craftsman work his magic for me, makes both of them the most wonderful gifts.

  7. Bill says:

    Hi Matt,
    Adam Hughes is a great guy. It kills me to see him working so hard at shows and not surfacing from Sketch Hell to enjoy himself more. I can totally understand the frustration of wanting to talk shop with Adam and not being able to do so.

    Heck, I’d love to do that with Adam and spend some time with him, getting to know him better — but I know Comic-Con is not the place to do it. We’re both so darn busy there! My days at Comic-Con are filled with manning my booth; my Comic-Con nights are all booked with business dinners.

    I love good ol’ Don Rosa. He always brings me beautiful hot peppers from his garden! I’m sorry to hear he’s been abused by some fans. Don wasn’t the guy I was writing about, though.

    Hi Andy,
    My publisher John Fleskes also brought up the point that when I’m doing sketches for a long line of fans it not only severely limits the interaction I can have with my fans, it greatly limits the number of fans with whom I can just talk. With my drawings-in-the-binder-buy-’em-or-not method I can hold forth and tell stories to a series of individuals or a small group of fans if I like.

    Hi Aaron,
    That’s such a funny little glimpse of Frank! I can see him, sitting in his boxers, enjoying the game and occasionally sketching. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Jake says:

    Bill,

    I have paid you the $200.00 for an original Stout, and love it. That being said that’s why I buy your books direct from your site. I feel like I’m coming out ahead on the deal. But nothing beats meeting you at a show. It was Comic-con 2006, and I knew your art but I didn’t know “you”. I was able to tell you how much I loved your dinosaurs, and that your Jurassic Park work was one of the reason I became an art fan. Having read your blog for the past few years I think I have a better understanding on how to interact with you…but I will ask to get a picture with you next time.

    Jake-

  9. Scott Rosema says:

    Hi Bill,

    Quite the sticky wicket there in European conventions. My thoughts on approaching the physical problem you’re describing is a variation of what we’re doing here.

    You could prepare a simple, yet handsome art/print/handout that politely spells out this very problem with it ending in a curious question for each attendee “What is your suggestion I do?” Try to get this handout in the convention-goers hands early on (as well as having a stack on your table) so when the line forms you can least be sure both you and the attendees are all on even ground. Each person can approach you with a REAL option of paying or not instead of behaving purely out of tradition. People usually don’t mind facing change if they can be a real part of it happening instead of feeling like they’re a victim of it.

    Could be the start of something interesting …. let us know what you decide, pal.

  10. Ken Steacy says:

    Hey, Bill!

    Great post, as always! My first encounter with this phenomena was wa-ay back in ’72 when I attended a one-day show in Paris. I was fortunate enuff to receive a “petite dedicace” from a number of artists, including Druillet, Gotlib, Franquin, Fred, and Morris, all of which were quickie sketches, and all gratis, of course. Years later I was a guest in Angouleme, and witnessed many French artists tirelessly produce gorgeous dedicaces, sometimes full-colour, usually on the inside covers of their respective albums, also free of charge.

    Flash forward to 2007, when I did a signing at Librarie Album in Paris – by then I knew the drill, and spent a wonderful afternoon conversing with the dozen or so fans who’d actually heard of me, and the rest who were just interested in meeting a foreign author/illustrator – tho I had to keep reminding them that I’m a Canuck, and not a Yank, eh? B^)

    Those who requested a sketch always did so with respect, and received their dedicace with appreciation – I kept the drawings fairly simple, so as to ensure that everyone in attendance got one, which also left me time to chat (they were very patient with my atrocious highschool French!). At the end of a tiring but most enjoyable day I had made new friends, sold a bunch of prints, and gotten a few lucrative commissions – what more could I ask?

    Cheers! -KEN

  11. martin says:

    hi william,

    i hope i was not one of the irritating persons !!we traded books with each other i dont know if you remember the book was called stendhal syndroom

    greetings from the netherlands!!

    martin pikkaart

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