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Tuesday, January 31

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Interview Wed Aug 22 2012

Creative Lessons from Wizard World's Artist Alley

This year the Chicago edition of Wizard World completely reconfigured its Artist Alley layout. The concentrated block of browsable aisles from previous years was scrapped for a random arrangement spread across the furthest wall of the Stephens Convention Center, possibly in an effort to make room for all the merch and celebrities.

The convention organizers also upped the price of registration to $400, making it the most expensive Wizard World city to get a spot, out-pricing Austin, Ohio, New Orleans, Philly and Toronto. With this in mind, I ventured out to Con on its last day in town to chat with the artists who'd paid for a table along the long, lonely stretch of Artists Alley. I expected some desperation, desertion and maybe even some discounts. But what I discovered were warm smiles, sales/showmanship and some brilliant thoughts on art making.

The following encounters shed light on the insights of the unsigned, the overlooked and the independent makers of Chicago's Wizard World Comic Con.

Make Moves
Entering the convention I made b-line for the few remaining rows actually selling comics and quickly spotted the amazing work of Chicago's Sarah Becan and her table mate Eliza Frye. Chatting with them, I learned they'd managed to relocate to a better booth on the fourth and final day. They both agreed the last minute change up was the worth the higher profile spot, even though it meant the organizers now required Frye to stick impromptu pasties on her screen printed nudes. Had the two stayed at their originally assigned spot--the last booth in farthest corner of the Alley--no one would've noticed or complained.


Eliza Frye & Sarah Becan (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Entertain Flights of Fantasy
In the second-to-last spot I found soft-spoken newcomer Elliott Junkyard. Inspired by The Peanuts, Garfield, and The Muppets (random, right?), Junkyard's work was a peculiar mash-up of art class illustrations and memes that haven't been discovered yet. Her self-published comic series, Vampire Kitty & Space Bat , were "made for everyone" because, "you're either into vampires, cute things or sci-fi." While I wasn't totally convinced of this logic, her reason for liking The Muppets was so spot-on. "The Muppets are weird because of their personalities, not weird because they're puppets," Junkyard said. "People don't see Kermit and say that's a puppet. They recognize and accept Kermit as a talking frog. And don't see any problem with that." Suspension of disbelief is a beautiful, powerful thing.


Elliott Junkyard (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Don't Be a 'Darger'
A few tables over, I met self taught (and incredibly self-aware) artist, Joseph Morris of Torc Press. On his blog, Morris describes himself as "too stupid to realize that comics will never make him enough money to live on." And his pitch was the antithesis of Junkyard's. "My current work is violent, sexual, weird and over the top," Morris said. "At this point, I don't even care what people think. I'm making this stuff for myself."

Surprised by his apparent disregard for an audience, I asked why he even bothered paying for a table at Artist Alley. He said he didn't want to end up like Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago custodian who became famous for his posthumously-discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript and several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating the story. A table at Wizard World was Morris's way of preventing a "sad little man" from being found dead in a small Illinois town without ever sharing his work--even if no one likes it.


Joseph Morris (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Borrow, Build and Make it Better
Bob-Bombshell Pinup owners Chris Kulak and Mary Talerico were just fans at last year's Wizard World, until they spotted a superhero pinup calendar for sale at Artist Alley. "We knew we could do better, by actually making a calendar for us... for nerds," conceded Kulak. The two sourced modeling talent from their sexiest friends, styled them in cosplay and shot a year's worth of high quality, well-lit glossies. "It's 'nude enough' while keeping things tasteful and nerdy," Kulak said. "Did you notice we matched each month's font to the logos of the featured character?" It's those details that make all the difference and why there will almost certainly be a 2014 Bob-Bombshell calendar.


Bob-Bombshell Pinup (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Pilot & Prototype
Another duo, The Idea Monster, used the Con to explore new media and subject matter. Even though they do plenty of fun design and illustration work for clients like Target and Disney, Mud and Melitia appreciate the tight-knit community and fan exposure Artist Alley affords them. "We've been playing with these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle canvases and looking for ways of making them more 3D. They're like a hybrid of plush toy and wall art. This is the perfect place to test them out and see what people think," said Mud. The Idea Monster's method of experimenting above the comfort of a peer safety net allows them to play with new ideas and get them ready for primetime (and maybe even their corporate clientele).


The Idea Monster (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Risk It All
Trying something new might involve fresh methods and materials, but sometimes it requires a fresh start all-together. That's what artist Chris Hamer decided after his second layoff when he left behind the 9-to-6 grind in favor of full-time art making and touring the convention circuit. "You only get this one life," Hamer said. For the last four years he's worked under the moniker UrbnPop, recycling found ephemera and junk into art. He's on the road all the time now and loves it. When I ask Hamer if he sells any work online, there's a twinkle in his eye. "I don't like to charge people for shipping if we can meet in real life at a comic convention," Hamer said. "This conversation we're having right now is why I do this. The first time we meet you're a fan. But we grab some food or a drink and then we're friends. Nearly all my friends are now fellow artists and people I've met at these conventions."


Chris Hamer / UrbnPop (photo by Kunal Bhat)

Every artist I interviewed at Wizard World mentioned what a raw deal Artist Alley was. They talked about how confusing the configuration was for visitors and it how it impacted their traffic (and sales). But despite all this, they all seemed upbeat and optimistic--cheerful even. Maybe its because no one likes to admit they've made a bad investment. But I think the Alley artists' optimism has more to do with the general good nature of comic book creators and illustrators. For the most part, they're happy-go-lucky people, passionate about storytelling and art-making. Their work is literally and figuratively character building.

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