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KC Column: Conning the Pros (May 09)

by KC Carlson

 height=When I was going to comic book conventions as a fan a million and a half years ago, I practically lived in the panel rooms. I didn't have much use for the dealers' room, because I had pretty much all the books I wanted by then. I wasn't interested in the Golden Age books much, and I really couldn't afford them anyway. Besides, there was always a certain mystique about looking at those older books from afar - or at least from across a dealer table. Buying them would just ruin that mystique.

I was way too shy to talk to any of the creators face-to-face. I tried a few times, but all I could get out was a nervous "I like your work." For the first few years, I even went to cons alone. My comic-reading friends had pretty much given up the hobby by the time we could all drive. By high school, the only person I knew that read comics was this girl named Becky who kept stealing my bag of new comics every week, leaving me a note that said "I like comics!" And like the idiot I was at that time, I spent more time being annoyed with her than realizing what was really going on. I bet she never even read the comics...

But I loved the panel rooms! I could sit there all day and watch my heroes file in and out of the room and get up on the stage and tell funny stories and make fun of each other and just talk about how enjoyable it was to make comics. Occasionally, they argued. That was fun to watch, too, because I could tell that they really didn't hate each other - they were just passionate about what they were doing. I got to know a lot about them by watching them up there. After a while, I finally got the courage to go up to them and talk to them and ask questions. I always had a lot of questions.

One of the first panels I remember seeing was a Marvel panel. Little did I know that 10 or 15 years later I would be working with some of these folks, like Roger Stern, who co-wrote Legionnaires for me for many years. I also had no idea that another person on that panel (name withheld) would offer me my first joint on an elevator at a Minneapolis hotel at another con a few years later. I was still a fan, so this guy had no idea who I was other than "I've seen you around." I declined the joint - I was driving the elevator at the time.

I kept going to more and more shows, even after I started working for Capital City Distribution and Westfield, and I met more and more people. I hung around, trying to be helpful and friendly, and I learned a lot by being quiet in the background and absorbing everything I could. Eventually, I got invited to "pro parties" and other behind-the-scenes functions. I could never really figure out why. Eventually someone told me that I was being accepted because I was friendly, not obnoxious, honest, hard-working, and trustworthy - traits that they said were not always easy to come by in comic books. Some people had figured out that I was eventually going to end up working in comics long before I even knew.

As I've mentioned before, I eventually ended up at DC for a number of years, which was generally a lot of fun. Then it wasn't so much. That, and a number of other reasons, caused me to leave that company at the end of 1998.

Back to Conning

Pretty quickly, I ended up going to conventions again. I had come to hate them while was at DC (mostly because of the traveling - I realized that I hated to fly), but Shelton Drumm at Heroes Con in Charlotte made me feel like I had a new home away from home. Still do, in fact.

It was there that I realized that conventions didn't hold the same kind of magic for me after I had been sitting on the other side of the table for the past few years. So I got pretty bored if I didn't have something to do. Luckily, Shelton put me to work doing portfolio reviews or moderating the occasional panel. It was at Charlotte that I got to interview Alan Davis (who I worked with briefly on JLA: The Nail). It was a pretty big deal for me being able to do that. It was a lot of fun, and I was very grateful that someone videotaped it and later sent me a copy.

At some point - maybe at Charlotte, although we had probably seen each other around on the convention circuit while I was still at DC - I became acquainted with Marc Nathan, all around good guy and owner of Cards, Comics and Collectibles in Baltimore. I wanted to finish up some short runs of oddball comics that I was missing (certain issues of Jerry Lewis, Swing With Scooter, some of the Marvel Hanna-Barbera books from the 70s, etc.) and Marc was helping me find these, mostly because he was one of the only guys who didn't laugh when I asked about them. Eventually he convinced me it would be fun to finish my aborted Archie collection (I already had several hundred Archie comics from the 60s and 70s). He was right - it was fun! I am now very close to a complete collection going back to 1947, and Marc was instrumental in helping me find most of them by getting all his other retailer buddies to make sure they brought their Archie boxes to shows that I was going to be attending.

In 2000, Marc decided to run his own convention - the Baltimore Comic-Con, now in its tenth year. We missed the first show, but my wife Johanna and I went to the second one and have been to them all since (except for the year that Hurricane Isabel hit Richmond the day before the show, knocking down lots of trees and taking out power in our neighborhood). When we showed up at that second show, we were greeted with the sight of what seemed like thousands of people lined up all the way through the hotel parking lot. After a few minutes, we realized that the line wasn't moving. So we got out of line and walked into the hotel to see what was wrong and if we could help.

It turned out putting together the badges was taking too long. So Johanna and I dug in and started to assemble badges. It took us about two hours to get everyone through the doors. I was beat. I just wanted to crash in a panel room for a couple of hours to relax (especially since the show was so crowded that it was close to impossible to get into the dealers' room). Then I discovered that there weren't many panels, and that I had somehow missed them. I immediately started bugging Marc about having more panels for next year.

My New Adventure in Comics

I kept pestering Marc about ideas for panels so often that he finally said, "Why don't you do the programming?"

We butted heads a little bit the first couple of years, mostly because I was trying to show off, requesting the most obscure creators to fit into the strange ideas I had for panels ("Let's get all the artists who worked on House of Mystery!") or people who lived on the other side of the world (very expensive to fly in - I didn't realize the show was young and couldn't afford this yet). Marc finally sat me down and calmly explained his philosophy of doing conventions.

Comic conventions grew up from the old swap meets from the late 60s and 70s, eventually adding things like autograph signings, panels, film showings, Artist Alleys, gaming demos, etc. But the basic show was based on buying and selling comics. And Marc, being a retailer, felt very strongly about that. Plus, he was very protective of his retailer friends. They all put a lot of time and effort and expense into traveling from show to show - sometimes as many as 40 or more weekends a year. If the retailers didn't have a good show, he wouldn't have a good show, because he would have felt that he was letting them down. Marc was a bit leery of anything that changed the focus of the show away from the dealers' room. Dealers can only make money if people are in the room, and if they are at panels (or films or demos) they are not in the room.

The bottom line for Marc was that if everybody didn't accomplish their goal for being at the show (dealers making money, publishers promoting their products, artists meeting fans - and making a little money, fans finding the comics they needed or meeting their favorite artist), the show would not be a success. And I could get behind that. So does everybody who works the show, from the folks who take your tickets to the publishers who work the booths to artists doing sketches to the folks selling comics and toys and dreams. Everybody has a great time and everybody goes home happy.

Conning the Con

I don't think there are many quantifiable qualifications for creating con programming. There are, however, a few things that are essential to have if you are going to put together a convention panel schedule. First, this probably seems obvious, but you need access to a telephone and email that you can watch over fairly regularly, especially in the final few weeks before the convention. Plus, you also need freelancer phone numbers and email addresses. I was a fairly good choice for this kind of information because I already knew a lot of artists and writers from my years at both Westfield and DC Comics.

Further - and this is really important - I was trusted to be discreet with this information. My rule of thumb is that I never give out other people's personal information without checking with the person first. In most cases, people who have already said yes to attending the convention have given the con representative their contact info, so if I didn't have somebody's information, chances are that the guy who handles the travel arrangements for the con (and for Baltimore, that would be the ever-patient Brad Tree) would have it.

Second, you need to be a salesperson for the convention, especially if you are helping with cold-calling professionals (as I was in the early years) to convince them to attend. By now, pretty much everyone has heard of the Baltimore Con and they've built up an excellent reputation for being an established, high-traffic show known for treating its guests well. But in the early years, there was a bit of salesmanship to be done in convincing pros to attend the show. After all, there is much competition between a lot of conventions for key guests, many of whom simply can't afford the time away from their work to do all the major shows. Nowadays, and since Baltimore has a good rep to work with, it's much easier to get great guests, because most of our previous guests want to come back when they can.

Somewhat related is the ability to write good "sell" copy. In many cases the person setting up programming will have to write descriptions of the panels for the convention program, advertising, and con signage. Basic panel copy states the name of the panel, what the panel is about, who is on the panel (with some examples of their work) and most importantly - although frequently forgotten or in error - where the panel is and at what time. Good panel copy is entertaining (in a very limited amount of space) and compels people to attend your panel.

It's also helpful to have a good general working knowledge of comics, from knowing your comics history to knowing what books came out the Wednesday before your show. It's also very helpful to know who all your guests are, what kind of work they do, and at least a few of the works they are best known for. If you don't know this basic information, it can occasionally lead to embarrassing situations. (Trust me.)

A certain amount of creativity is good for coming up with the occasional cool, fun, or odd idea. Sadly, modern con programming is becoming a pretty cut-and-dried affair, due to some of the publishers simply doing the same basic news and announcement panels over and over again with the occasional slideshow thrown in. (More about that later.) Once the required items are included in the schedule, you might get lucky and have an open slot or two to play with.

Finally, it's also important to have good organizational skills, networking skills (you will be talking to a LOT of people), excellent follow-up skills, and the ability to think on your feet and make instant course corrections. Patience is also good, as is being able to deal with a lot of frustration without blowing up at your guests or staff. You will also need to devote a fair amount of time to the work in the two to three weeks before the show. Take care of everything else that you can before this, because once things are rolling, you will need to concentrate on a lot of details.

Getting Started

In the months leading up to the show, there's not a whole lot that you can do other than keeping yourself familiar with the growing guest list. Start formulating a general plan, but don't lock yourself into anything yet. Circumstances will always change when you least expect it. Start planning "no-brainer" panels. For example, if you have a Guest of Honor, generally he or she will get a solo panel. Also, keep an eye out for who your Big Names are going to be (i.e. creators who are going to draw big crowds and/or long lines for autographs). Try desperately to get these guys on at least one panel. Some of them might put up a small fight, because they like to be able to meet as many folks as they can one-on-one. But the reality of some shows is that this may be impossible, so a panel may be the only place that some of your attendees will get to see their favorites.

One thing that you can do early is start thinking about who you can use as moderators or interviewers. Sometimes it's not necessary - some creators have been doing these kinds of things for a while and are comfortable being solo on stage. Don Rosa is one creator who does very well by himself, and voice actor Billy West was quite entertaining solo (although with the hundreds of voices he does, the stage seemed pretty crowded!). In most cases, though, a moderator is necessary, especially for group panels (although if they agree, one of the group can be the moderator). Some folks don't enjoy being on stage by themselves, so a moderator becomes a necessity. Plus, a good moderator can prevent problems (covering for silences or redirecting a conversation) and keep the panel moving.

Some things I look for in a great moderator: gregarious, outgoing, able to think on their feet, should know a fair amount about comics history (especially the works of the talent on stage), able to keep an eye on the proceedings (watch for time, make sure the audience doesn't get out-of-hand, guide Q&A, etc.). And being able to put themselves in a secondary position so that the headliner can shine. When I can, I like to get fellow pros to moderate, creating a certain pro-to-pro vibe. I often try to pair partners or collaborators - Mike Wieringo and Todd Dezago were a great team on stage. Todd was one of my regular go-to guys because he can work a room like nobody's business and can be plopped down into almost any situation and flourish. Jimmy Palmiotti is fast, funny, and knows virtually everybody in comics and everything about them. Before he became a superstar in his own right, Mark Waid was the ultimate panel moderator because he knew everything and everybody, was riotously funny and unpredictable (sometimes too much!), and never lost that enthusiastic and infectious fanboy sense of wonder about comics. Nowadays, Mark's too busy (and famous) to moderate much.

One of the best things that ever happened to me while I was programming Baltimore was during my second year. Howard Chaykin came up to me after a particularly great panel and complimented me on doing a great job with programming, something I took as being highly unusual as well as heartfelt. He went on to say... well, I can't actually tell you what he really said, this being a family publication and all, but it was something along the lines of why can't there be more panels where real people talk about making comics instead of all that corporate BS. I replied that there should be and then gave him his own panel at Baltimore every year I did programming. Unofficially, I call it the Howard Chaykin Show. Every year, he tells me whom he wants to talk to, and I try to make it happen. Unfortunately, the first one lasted only 20 minutes, before being annoyingly interrupted by a fire alarm and evacuation. But several folks mentioned to me later that it was the best 20-minute panel they had ever seen. Since then, Howard has had some great conversations with Frank Cho and Adam Hughes.

Conning the Publishers

Before you can start working on the "fun" panels, you have to make sure that the publishers' needs are covered. Since you have limited time (Baltimore is a two-day show) and space, you are limited as to the number of panels you can do at the show. It's often a matter of setting up a few guidelines to make things as fair as possible. Do give preference to publishers who set up at the show, because you like having publishers at the show, because you know that fans like that, too. (It also means more places for creators to sit when artist areas inevitably fill up!) Give preference to publishers who offer a line of books as opposed to self-publishers who have a single title. I don't actually like doing that, but since panel space is limited, I have to make sure that most of our panels have the potential to appeal to the largest number of people possible. You also need to know that the people requesting panels actually have an hour's worth of material. We've had a couple of situations in the past with folks who only had about ten minutes of talking to do and thought they could fill up the rest with Q&A. Might have worked, too - except for the fact that no one showed up for the panel!

The other thing to watch out for is that the Big Two don't take over the panel programming. The competition between the two has gotten so fierce over the past few years that I think that the two companies would request all of the available panel time to hype their wares if they thought they could get away with it. They ask for - and get - multiple hours of time at the bigger multi-day shows. But with limited hours, we can't always do that. We do strive to give them enough time to hype their stuff, drop news bombs, have intimate discussions, and occasionally play silly reindeer games - because we know you like what they have to say (or at least like to complain about what they say).

OK, time out for my two cents. If it sounds like I'm not always thrilled about the "corporate" panels it's because - as a fan - I'm not. Most of them are just too corporate-ee for my taste. It seems that some of them think they're actually at a Professional Trade Show, with a slow-moving slide show, narrated by some scared office boy who's afraid of crowds or some Jackie Vernon-type (Ooo... that's a reference that will date me! - Um...think Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller!) telling us exactly what's on the slides in a mind-numbing monotone. ("Next month we're publishing Moth Man. Here's a picture of Moth Man. *click* Here's a picture of Moth Man next to a very bright light. *click* Here's another picture of Moth Man next to a very bright light. *click* Here's another picture of Moth Man next to a very bright light. *click* Would somebody please turn out that light?")

Or there's the other extreme: some used-car salesman of a blowhard that turns into an insult comic as soon as he gets a mike in his hand. "You want to know about Amoeba Boy *snort* [off-mike] Didn't we kill that loser [on-mike] ABOUT A BILLION YEARS AGO! Yes! We're bringing him back! Just so we can kill him again!!! Does anybody have a REAL question?") What fun! You go to a nice panel to ask a question about your favorite characters and leave feeing like you just got punched in the face! When I go to these kinds of panels nowadays, there seems to be very little in the way of actual information presented. But posturing, hype, and insults? Plenty!

Fans go to panels to see their heroes - the artists and writers and other professionals who create the comics! Nobody wants to hear "the marketing guy" (Sorry, Marketing Guy!) or the corporate guys (exceptions made for those who used to be creators! Hi Stan! Hi Paul!). I'm not even sure that they want to hear from the editors any more - and I used to be one! Although there are a lot of really entertaining editors out there... they'll do in a pinch - but only if the creators aren't available!

(Come close... this is a secret. Once a corporate-type person explained to me that they didn't want the creators talking so much on panels because they might say the wrong thing or give away secrets. And yet, a lot of secrets are given away by the corporate types in the heat of the panel. Sometimes it pays to watch the faces of creators sitting on panels while the "bosses" are taking about their projects. Sometimes you can just tell that the creators would have never given up the info that the corporate guy just accidentally spilled.)

In the last year or so another wrinkle has developed in preventing some great panels from happening around the country. Let's say that you want to put a Moth Man panel together and you want to get as many Moth Man artists and writers as you can on the same panel. Problem is that "writer A" is now exclusive to "publisher A", and his long-time collaborator "artist B" is exclusive to "publisher B". Inevitably, one or the other publishers (maybe both) is going to say "we don't want our guy (like they own them...) on your panel with their guy." Really. So the greatest team that ever worked on Moth Man can't do a panel together - because they may accidentally talk to each other. Even if that's the most important work they've ever done, they may not be allowed to talk about the other company's character.


End of rant. I just want comics - and comics panels - to be fun again. I'm betting you do too.

Other Rules of Thumb

There's a lot of common sense to building a panel program and successfully running it. Many of these rules are no-brainers, but then again, sometimes the obvious is hard to see. Some things that I have learned while doing this:

* Never have a panel at the same time the doors are opening (i.e. first thing in the day). It always takes time to get everybody through the doors in the morning, and most people need some time to get acclimated to the show (and have time to read the panel schedule). Plus, a lot of folks have an errand to do first thing in the day (like get on a sketch list or get a ticket for a long autograph line). Or they might just want to shop for a bit. Panels should not start until at least an hour after the convention opens.

* Never schedule the Marvel panel against the DC panel. Or, similarly, don't schedule Bendis against Jim Lee. That's just asking for trouble. At Baltimore, we try to run two (or more, when we can) separate "tracks" of programming - one a "mainstream" track with all the "big" publishers and creators (and big crowds), and the other track with "alternative" or cult-interest (and smaller audiences).

* Avoid putting major panels at the end of the day. By then, creators and guests alike may be pretty burned out. I always tried to schedule game-type panels (like trivia challenges), tribute panels (because people tend to get sad and need some time to recuperate or commiserate), or kids' panels (because they often are the only ones with any energy left) at the end of the day. Also, it's been my experience that a lot of folks like to make one last circuit of the dealers' room (looking for last-minute bargains) or Artist Alley at the end of the day, so you don't want to schedule anything too big.

* Try to avoid putting the same creators on back to back (to back or more) panels. Just common sense. People need time to eat, relax, etc. Also, you don't want to overexpose guests.

* When you have a choice, try to avoid programming the same panels you see at every convention. Do something different to help your show stand out. But don't be weird for its own sake - make sure that what you propose is agreeable to the panel guests; substantial enough to cover about an hour of time; and interesting enough to have attendees show up for the panel.

* Make sure there is plenty of water for the guests all day long. And make sure that the air conditioning is on the the panel rooms first thing in the morning. It doesn't take long for the rooms to heat up.

* Make sure there are plenty of signs (and announcements) to inform folks where the panel rooms are (they are usually well hidden) and what's going on in the rooms at least once an hour.

* Inform creators that you have scheduled them for panels several times. It's a very nice gesture to have a volunteer (someone who won't get star-struck) responsible for checking with everyone on the same day they're going to be on a panel to make sure they're aware of the time, the location, and no conflicts have arisen at the last minute.

* Make sure that someone announces what the panel is at the beginning of the panel. (It's easy to accidentally be in the wrong room.) Also announce to people to turn off their cell phones. Like Luke on Gilmore Girls, I don't tolerate cell phones in my panel rooms, and I do not hesitate to escort offenders out of the room. Just to be clear on this - no one is in the panel room to hear your phone conversation. If you are talking while the guests are trying to speak - you are the rude one! If you must be available via phone, set it on vibrate and if it rings, leave the room before answering it.

The Wrap-Up and an Announcement

Well, that's a big chunk of what it takes to program a convention. It's not everything you need to know, but it's a good start.

You may be curious as to why I wrote such a piece this time around, as it probably seems unlikely that many of you would get the opportunity to actually program a convention. But you never know... every convention needs some volunteer helpers to run the show. If you live in a city that does a show, why not volunteer to help out? The downside is that you would have to actually work for part of the show, but that's a pretty good trade-off for getting into the show for free! If you are trustworthy and reliable and continue volunteering year after year, some day you may get a shot at one of the cool jobs - like running panels for the show! It happened to me!

But the real reason I wrote this was as a checklist for my pal and editor Roger Ash, who has been selected to come up with and run the programming for this year's Baltimore Comic-Con (October 10 & 11)! Marc has asked me to backstop Roger for his first year and teach him the ropes, so I'll be there, too. It's the 10th Anniversary of the convention, and there's already a great guest list. Look here for details. Roger is going to do a great job - just look at his great interviews with hundreds of creators over his years at Westfield. I can't think of a better person for the job! See you all there!

And now here's Roger with a few words:

I'd like to thank the Academy... No. Wait. That's not right.

Thank you KC and a great big thank you to Marc. I was positively floored when I was asked to program the panels for the Baltimore Convention. I'm very excited about the possibilities yet nervous at the same time. When I look at the guest list that Marc has put together for the show, I think my biggest problem will be choosing among the many possible panels. Yes, I already have some ideas brewing. This should be fun.

KC CARLSON. Stronger than dirt. Older too.

That's why he occasionally gets cranky about something and the corporate types at Westfield have to run some disclamer that says his opinions are his own (debatable) and that whatever stupid thing he says is not necessarily reflective of Westfield blah blah blah infinity.

(Actually, there are no corporate types at Westfied. They all have better sense than that. Hopefully I won't need a disclaimer for saying that.)

To link to this interview, use this link (right click and copy)

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