Pat Race and Aaron Suring Talk the First Alaska Robotics Mini-Con

While it’s hardly a defining characteristic of the site, SKTCHD is entirely operated outside of the robust comics hub that is Anchorage, Alaska. And by that, I mean an area that is far off to the periphery of everything that is comics. While Alaska is a big state, it’s one that has a pretty quiet comic book scene, except for pockets you can find throughout, like the Alaska Robotics crew down in the state capital of Juneau. This team does a little bit of everything, as they’re webcomic creators, filmmakers and they run a comic shop/gallery of the same name in Juneau. And now they’re adding something new to their list of roles: convention organizers.

This April, the first Alaska Robotics Mini-Con is coming to Juneau, and it will be an event unlike any other, really. While there’s a con like day on Saturday, April 23rd, three nights and two days will be at an artist camp that takes place in a rustic (but cozy!) multi-cabin campground in the kind of setting Alaska is known for. It will feature workshops, lectures, board games, group meals, campfires and all kinds of other things. And this mini-con has an incredible guest list, featuring Raina Telgemeier, Kate Beaton, Kazu Kibuishi and Ryan North to name a few. It should be a heck of an event.

With the con getting announced just a couple weeks ago, I reached out to the Alaska Robotics team to learn about how this endeavor came together, why they wanted to do something a little bit different for an Alaska based con (of sorts), how the guest list came together and much more. It’s a bit of a commute, but if you’re interested in a unique and fun event filled with phenomenal creators, consider making the trek up to Juneau. They’re still accepting applications for the artist camp portion as well, so if you’re interested, make sure to sign up.

So the first Alaska Robotics Mini-Con is happening April 22 to 26th this year. It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind convention like experience. How long have you been developing it, and how closely does it reflect the original idea you had for the event?

PAT: I originally wanted to have the whole event on a state ferry and tour it through multiple cities in southeast Alaska. It’s changed quite a bit since then but I think it will still have a lot of that same spirit throughout.

AARON: We have been hosting various comics artists in Juneau for several years, we first worked to bring Kazu and Amy to town in early 2008, just before the first Amulet even came out. We love meeting creators and getting to understand them and their art. It’s inspiring. We go to comic conventions and while that is a great way to meet people, we find it’s even better to bring them here to share that inspiration with our whole community.

Smile Raina Telgemeier
Raina Telgemeier’s Smile

For those not in the know, what is the Alaska Robotics Mini-Con all about, and what makes it a bit different than most cons? Besides being in Alaska and the only con that talks about bears in its FAQ.

PAT: I go to conventions and the things I really value are around the edges, the hanging out and the conversations and meals. So we squished our convention down to one day and made room for three nights of camp time. It’s going to be small and personal. Also, we’ll be in a forest.

AARON: Thanks to some support from the Friends of the Library we aren’t charging admission to the one-day convention. We’re also trying to engage as many younger artists as possible and inviting students to have a booth at our convention alongside many of these wonderful guest artists we were able to bring. We want it to be very fun, and also very community involved.

As you’ve been developing it, has anything about the experience of coordinating and setting up a convention of this sort surprised you? Or has it been – knock on wood! – relatively smooth sailing?

PAT: The budget fluctuates a lot. We’ll get a donation on one hand and then find out something else costs more than we anticipated. The best thing is how amazing the guests have been about offering feedback. They’re really putting their hearts into presentations and activities for the camp.

AARON: Well, we’re still pretty new to this, and I’m sure we have a lot of things yet to overcome. I’m thrilled and excited and a little surprised how many of the people we asked said yes! We still have a lot of sponsors to get and need a lot more applications for our artist retreat to make it work financially. Getting the whole thing to pencil out might be the hardest part.

PAT: Candlewick Press just pitched in some sponsorship money to help get Jon Klassen to the convention. That was a nice surprise!

Step Aside Pops
Kate Beaton’s Step Aside, Pops

It’s a mini-con in name, but I have to say, the guest list is spectacular. You have arguably the most popular cartoonist today in Raina Telgemeier, two people who aren’t far behind in Kate Beaton and Kazu Kibuishi, and a bevy of other immensely talented and notable creative (even Alaskans!). When you were developing the guest list, did you have a certain type of creator you were aiming for? And how close to your original wish list of creators is this final lineup?

PAT: Yeah. Raina turned the New York Times Bestseller list into a personal bibliography. The best thing is that she’s super modest and nice and exactly the kind of person you wish would have that kind of success. Everyone on the guest list has that in common, amazingly talented while also being incredibly thoughtful and kind.

I think the most identifiable connecting thread is that several of our guests were published in the Flight anthologies.

AARON: We have had several of these artists visit our little town before, and we were looking for an excuse to bring them back. Having a great relationship with them helped convince others to join us. We didn’t get everyone we initially asked, but we weren’t that far off. I was very pleasantly surprised with the response we did get!

Emerald City Comicon’s just a couple weeks before. Did having a big con in the area play a part in the timing of the event?

PAT: Not really. Nope.

AARON: April and May are generally the best times to visit Juneau from a weather and beauty standpoint, and we want to provide the best experience possible for our visiting artists. May can get a bit busy around here with the tourism season getting rolling.

Amulet Vol 1
Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet Vol. 1

It was just recently announced, but what’s the response been, both in Juneau and beyond?

PAT: It’s been a very positive response but there are a lot of people who can’t afford the travel costs. We’ve been suggesting that artists who want to attend seek support from local arts councils or employers, they often have career development grants for just such an occasion.

AARON: Everyone I’ve talked to is excited about it. We were hoping to have more applications for our artist retreat by now, but some of the ones we have received are pretty fantastic and could have been guest artists in their own right.

PAT: Agreed. I feel like the people applying have been pretty incredible so far.

While there is a comic convention element of a sort involved – there’s one day of a con like experience at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center – the main event is actually the two-day artist camp that follows. It’s like a super casual perpetual panel/learning experience from the sounds of it. Why was that an angle you wanted to take, and how did your guests first take to it?

PAT: The typical guest response was THAT SOUNDS AMAZING!!!

AARON: We have done the convention scene ourselves and had our most fun outside of the scheduled events. Having a convention built around those moments seemed like the best way to do things. Besides who wouldn’t want to hangout with Kazu, Katie, and Jon?

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, art by Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi

This certainly isn’t anything like today’s era of mega comic conventions. What made you want to go for something smaller and more personal?

PAT: That’s Juneau, smaller and more personal. I like going to San Diego but my favorite part of it is hanging out by the fire pits or going to the beach with friends.

AARON: It just isn’t realistic to have a mega con in Juneau.

PAT: We would run out of lightsabers.

While we have tangentially related events in the state, this is – at least to my knowledge – Alaska’s very first comic convention. That’s pretty cool. As a pretty prolific Alaskan who also serves on the Alaska State Council for the Arts, is it pretty meaningful for you to bring this type of event to the state?

PAT: I can’t imagine this is the first comic convention in the state. Mayyyybe the first comic convention in Juneau. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a member of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, it’s that there are a lot of seriously talented and seriously weird people up here who are doing all kinds of things that most people don’t ever hear about. Just because the mountain doesn’t have a little flag on top doesn’t mean no one climbed it.

AARON: It’s all about my ego and my legacy. I can’t wait to see what kind of statues they build of me when I’m gone.

PAT: I hope it has giant googly eyes.

Learn more about Alaska Robotics Mini-Con on the event’s site, and if you attend, maybe you’ll see me there. Maybe…

Header image from Alaska Robotics Mini-Con site.