Once a basic tenet of the comic book ecosystem, now, they almost feel like a science fiction, maybe even horror movie idea in the new status quo established by the coronavirus pandemic. The premise of being packed into convention centers with thousands and thousands of others, bumping into people as you make it from one place to another, seems genuinely nightmarish in a time where even visiting a grocery store can be a harrowing experience.
But in a normal version of our world, they’re a source of joy, entertainment, commerce and connections. For someone like me who lives in a far-off place – Anchorage, Alaska – touring an Artist Alley at a convention can be a transcendent experience, where the next aisle can bring the unique opportunity of meeting one of your most beloved creators or finding a new favorite. While not every engagement is quite as magical as I’m making it seem – there are bad interactions along with the good – the potential for wonder is always there. And I love that.
One of my favorite random aspects of the Artist Alley experience is seeing how people manage their tables, as each setup is almost like a signature, acting as an immediate insight into the person and how they want to represent themselves. Sometimes that means witnessing arrangements that reflect months of thought and research, delivering a highly tailored and considered look. Other times that might mean a blank table with at most a banner behind them. Depending on the person, that may fit perfectly as the former setup, a treasure in its own way. Regardless, it’s always a thrill to see how the presence matches the creator, and how they even evolve year-over-year.
While I’m not a constant con goer, I have started to see a change in the makeup of those presences and even in the alignment of Artist Alley floors themselves. That’s for one main reason: creator collectives, or larger groupings of creators under one management team, 1 are taking over. These groups unify collections of primarily artists and sometimes writers into specific sections where there’s a certain level of standardization and management that takes hold, from the looks of the creator’s setup to management of product sales. At larger conventions in particular, these groups have started to swallow up huge portions of available real estate, leading to a slight shift in how fans experience the floor and interact with creators.
Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It really depends on who you ask, but in my view, it has certainly become an increasingly capital T Thing at the very least over the past decade or so. And with every significant trend comes a story, as well as pros and cons for everyone involved. That’s what we’ll be exploring today, as well as how that landscape has shifted in a time where conventions have effectively ceased to exist because of the pandemic. 2
My desire to write this article was inspired by this past year’s New York Comic Con, where I endlessly wandered the convention’s Artist Alley, perpetually staggered by how prevalent these groups were. 3 Whether you’re talking groupings of artists managed by reps like Felix Comic Art and Cadence Comic Art or the conglomerate formed by art dealer Essential Sequential’s marriage to comic creator management outfit Comic Sketch Art, there were times where I’d walk down an entire row and find myself astonished by just how dominant they could be.
The latter pairing of Essential Sequential and Comic Sketch Art was particularly notable, as what had to be at least a tenth – maybe even an eighth – of NYCC’s Artist Alley was consumed by this supergiant. And it wasn’t just random groupings, but the biggest names in comics who also typically command the largest gatherings at these events. Tom King with Mitch Gerads and Evan “Doc” Shaner to his side. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. The Kuberts. You name it, they were there, and when they weren’t, an armada of helpers maintained the table presence, took orders for commissions, managed lines, booked signatures, informed fans about schedules, and, of course, sold comics and merchandise.
Like Comic Sketch Art, Essential Sequential, Felix Comic Art, and beyond, but they’re most often aligned under an art representative. Also, they’re not officially called “creator collectives,” but they’re also not officially called anything. So that’s what I’m calling them!↩
Quick note: this article was conceptualized and researched before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Since then, I’ve been trying to find the right direction for it in a time without conventions. This feature is what resulted from that, as well as follow up conversations I had with people.↩