December 2011 was absolutely insane for me as far as travel. I spent most of the first week out of the country for a work thing, then most of the second week in Los Angeles (which I wrote up here) and then most of the fourth week home for the holidays. Now, I love going places. If offered a choice between an amazing new TV and hi-fi setup, or the equivalent value in travel, I'd take the trip pretty much every time. I think new places add richness to life in a way that "stuff" doesn't. Personal preference, that's all. But man, that was a lot of being out of town for one month. I didn't realize quite how intense December's schedule would be when I scheduled a signing for the first weekend after New Year's at the amazing Third Eye Comics down in Annapolis, Maryland. Truth be told, I was a little burned out this past week, and I had to gear up a little to get excited for the event. I had a signing experience when I was in Los Angeles that wasn't everything I had hoped it would be, and the idea of slogging down to Annapolis for a repeat of that scenario didn't sound too appealing. Now, when I do one of these events, I'm not a prima donna about it, really. I know that I'm not anything that special in the comics world - there are tons of incredible creators out there, most of whom have bigger followings than I do. So, I don't need to be treated like a king, but it's still time away from home, and expense, etc. For me, it's about everyone acknowledging that we're all in it together and everyone doing their best to make it work out well.
I set up a signing at Third Eye on the advice of Jim Zubkavich of Skullkickers fame - he told me it was one of the very best he'd done, and he couldn't have been more correct. The folks at Third Eye went WAY above and beyond. I might not need to be treated like a king, but I'm human - it's pretty nice when it happens. Allow me to explain...
Third Eye isn't the biggest shop I've ever seen, but it's extremely well-organized and laid out. The store never feels cramped, even though it contains just about everything you'd ever want as a modern comics buyer. It also has what I would consider to be the secret weapon for a successful direct market - a guy behind the counter who goes the extra mile to make sure his customers are finding exactly what they want, as well as what they don't yet know they want. That's Steve Anderson, the owner. He's extraordinarily enthusiastic and upbeat, and very smart about how he positions himself and his store. He greeted every person who walked in, often by name. He stepped out from behind the register many times to hand-sell books to people based on things he knew they liked. Does it take a little extra energy, and a particular type of person to make an approach like that work? Of course it does, but from the conversations I had with Steve over the course of the day, it pays massive dividends. He passed along the numbers he moves on some of his titles, and it's phenomenal. There's no question that, well, giving a shit seems to work. If we had a few hundred more guys like Steve running around in the DM (and I know he's not alone in his commitment and skill as a comics retailer, but there can never be enough) the industry would be in phenomenal shape. Comics don't sell themselves - not these days. They're specialty, almost luxury items, and smart salesmen (like Steve) approach them that way.
So, that's the type of store you're dealing with. On to my particular experience there:
I came into the DC area a day earlier for some research on a new project (more on that after the signing writeup), and drove down to Annapolis early Saturday morning. The weather was incredible all weekend (mid to high 60s, which is weird for early January, but I'll allow it), and when I got to the store around 9 there were already people lined up waiting. Considering the shop didn't open until 11, that was a very solid sign. Steve had made sweet mix CDs for the first 15 people in line (he tends to do clever stuff like that), but it was still a cool thing to see.
I killed an hour reading the paper, then walked in at 10 to get set up. I met Steve, his wife Trish Rabbitt and their very able co-worker Torma, all of whom helped to keep things running like clockwork for the whole day. I didn't take any pictures, which was dumb, but the signing area was set up with a sweet display of 27: First Set trades and the Second Set floppies. We added in some Strongman Vol. 1s and some 27 t-shirts I'd brought down with me, and we were good to go. Spent the next little while shopping, since I'd missed getting to my NYC shop that week and Steve was giving me a killer discount. Landed some trades I'd been meaning to get for a while (Witch Doctor, Return of Bruce Wayne) and one I hadn't heard of - Chase, a collection of DC stories drawn by JH Williams III from the 90s that looks incredible.
Doors opened at 11, and wow. Line stretched through the store, and I was busy signing and talking to people for the next three hours and change. We had a few dips here and there, but by and large traffic was very steady. Steve and his team made sure everyone knew what was happening, who I was, and what 27 and Strongman were all about. It was a great mix of people who were already fans and had brought in their issues or trades for me to sign, plus folks who were hearing about my stuff for the first time. Totally gratifying and fun. I'd take my books down there in a minute, and I know we'll do something again once Strange Attractors, Letter 44 and my other 2012 books start to hit.
I could say more, but the whole thing just left me with a really optimistic feeling about the industry. Just a great rah rah "go comics" sort of day.
Other items - happy new year! 2012 will be epic, I think. In the week between Christmas and New Year's, I finally got a greenlight for Letter 44, a project I've been working on for nearly a year, and pitched back at NYCC. I can't quite announce who it's with yet, but I'm extremely excited about it. I'm deep into research, some of the heaviest I've done since I wrote The Land of 10,000 Things back in 2000-2003. I like research, though. It feels like I've enrolled in a self-guided adult education class about weird, hyper-specific things. In this particular case, I'm researching:
- Executive branch procedure
- US government covert action and black-ops
- Bleeding-edge plans for manned spaceflight
I know something about all of those subjects already, but as I'm going through the research process, I'm learning how much I don't know. Still, it's fun. Once we're grown up and sort of set in our lives, reasons and opportunities to gather in-depth knowledge about new subjects are rare. Life is busy enough just trying to keep the lights on, without tracking down a copy of Executive Order 12333.
I came down to DC a day before the Third Eye signing in order to get some in-person perspective on US government. That included a visit to NASA Headquarters (just the lobby so far, but still cool), the Capitol, National Mall, and the Air & Space Museum. I only had a single afternoon, so I'm sure I'll take another trip, but it was definitely worthwhile. There's no substitute for actually going to a place you're going to write about. Your observations aren't going to be the same as anyone else's. For example, I was impressed with the scope of DC. The streets are quite wide and the buildings are generally low, so the sky seems broad and endless (unlike in NYC, for example). A small thing, but a detail I wouldn't necessarily have been aware of without the visit. And of course, Air & Space is absolutely incredible, and I'll go there every chance I get whether I'm writing Letter 44 or not. Apparently they've just opened up a secondary location down in Virginia with bigger air/spacecraft they can't fit into the main museum, and I can't wait to check that out.
I've got six serious, active projects right now (by which I mean projects that have other people involved, with deadlines and publishing plans and money in the mix, no matter how few or how little), and I'm in a phase I recognize from times I've been in this situation before - one where I'm always, almost unconsciously, evaluating my activities minute-to-minute to decide whether they're "productive." So, I justify writing this blog because I consider it to be productive in that it's connecting with readers and potential readers - it's marketing/outreach. I chose to take a train to DC and back because I would get the 3.5 hours each way to work. I let myself do something for entertainment purposes only if I decide that I need to balance out work with something "fun," in the way that you sleep in order to recharge to be able to get things done the next day. I've been turning down social occasions unless I think there's a secondary purpose to going (which is just awful, I realize.)
In the past, this type of situation has been temporary. I get through the crunch and I can let go of the reins a little bit and let life just be life. It feels a little different this time, but I'm hopeful that I'll get to downshift again. This is okay for a few months, but I could see the fun factor starting to fade a bit if it goes on too long.
Wow, after the exciting stuff at the beginning, this got a bit depressing, eh? To end on a high note, here are the six projects I'm working on, in greater or lesser detail depending on where they are:
1. Strange Attractors - OGN about a guy who turns NYC into a sort of engine, and what happens when he turns the key. Due Q3/Q4 from Archaia.
2. Letter 44 - limited series about the research items I mentioned above. Coming Q4 from[_________]
3. [Project Jazzhands] - 6-issue series being drawn by [____________]. My first foray into superheroes, sort of. Inspired by old Stephen King books.
4. [Detroit book] - 5-issue limited series about bringing Detroit back from the brink. Probably out Q2/Q3 2012.
5. [Untitled Edie Sedgwick project.] Basically what it sounds like. Due later this year, I think?
6. [AR] - sci-fi action adventure. Just about to start scripting, probably 6 issues. Release date unclear.
So if I turn down an invitation to do something ostensibly fun, now you know why.
This is going to be a hell of a year.