Small Fish in a Big Con, Part 1: Journey to the Big Leagues
Last year, after I’d published the first trade of Rebirth of the Gangster, I finally felt like I had a good grip on the two motorcycle handlebars of a self-published creator: writing professionally and fine-tuning my publishing process. But I needed to rev the engine if I was going to go anywhere substantial, if I was going to bring my treasures to the fans. And to do that, I realized it was time to jump into the con scene.
I signed up for a few local cons that were relatively small. But I had my aims on one bigger con in my geographic neighborhood: the Midwest Comic Book Association‘s MSPSpringCon 2018.
Growing up in Minnesota (near Minneapolis and St. Paul, the MSP of the con), this was the only con I had attended as a fan in my high school years. I had even been interviewed for the local news, the only time I’ve ever had that honor. The question? Who was my favorite superhero? (OK, it wasn’t groundbreaking journalism). My answer? Batman, because he doesn’t have powers and prioritizes intelligence and logic. (OK, it wasn’t an answer worthy of Socrates or The Comics Journal). But I still loved the chance to share my passion (OK, obsession) with other fans and meet creators to see that they weren’t gods or superheroes themselves, my first step in becoming the creator I am today. And, for that reason–plus the con’s size–I knew this was the con for me.
Unlike other cons, though, I didn’t need to purchase a table. No, for MSPSpringCon, I had to submit an application and then pray to the Comic Gods, bending the knee to those figures of pulp royalty (King Kirby, hear my prayers! Stan Lee, take pity on a lowly writer–excelsior!). So, sweaty fingers typing up my application, I mashed together an application I was sure would get me in, and then I sent it to on its journey through the digital pathways.
Unfortunately, that year they didn’t think I was a good fit. I don’t know why, but I have a few guesses.
- I was still a new author and publisher, an unproven commodity with a small social media presence and following.
- Act 1 had been out for over six months by that point, and I’ve heard that MCBA prioritizes creators with new releases.
- In the application, I didn’t emphasize enough of my unique experiences, experiences that could put me on a panel at the con. I didn’t write about the Kickstarter I’d successfully run for issue 2 of RotG. I didn’t write about my experiences as a self-publisher.
- And I didn’t write about the fact that I’d created and teach a graphic novel class at the high school where I hang my hat for a day job (a teaching experience that you can read about here and here).
Regardless, of the reasons, I was rejected for that spring’s con. But I didn’t let it faze me (too much–we all suffer sadness at setbacks at first): it wasn’t the end of the story, just the chapter. And all that meant was that I needed to start writing a new one.
Refusing to give in to the rejection, I decided that I merely needed to build my way towards MSPSpringCon: the destination was still attainable, but I’d tried to take a shortcut that didn’t exist. To build that path, I needed to start small. In that time of training, I had the pleasure of meeting fans at many small cons (Mighty Con represent!) and local comic stores.
Before we get any further, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t look down on small cons or local comic stores–just the opposite. They’ve always been very supportive to a newcomer like me and offered me a great chance to dip my toes in the water before swimming against an ocean’s tide. In fact, read my glowing review about my first con as a creator–Mighty Con Madison–in “Big Fish in a Small Pond”. Below are just a few pictures from my first few cons–clearly my set-up wasn’t incredible, but I did well at the cons because of my passion and practice improving my pitch.
After traveling to a bunch of cons and local comic stores, the applications for MSPSpringCon 2019 rolled around, and I knew that my path lay before me. I just hoped MCBA saw it too.
The first brick I laid in this new path was making sure that the second trade of Rebirth of the Gangster was out in time for me to have a new work to promote, something that con creators said was essential. With that brick as a strong start, I kept laying brick after brick: Hey, I ran a successful Kickstarter for the second issue! Hey, I created and teach a graphic novel class! Hey, I can talk about any of these things on a panel! Yeah, there are a lot of self-published authors, but not many have this kind of experience. Oh, and I’ve attended your show before, because I’m a local boy (if there’s one thing I learned at local comic shop signings, it’s that the comic community loves to support local talent). Of course I’ll bring donations to the charity you’re running at the con. I was laying it on so thick that pretty soon I had a strong road all the way to the con. But would MCBA let me cross it?
The image above shows that I built a strong thoroughfare, one that would impress any comic architect and one that led me to the new territory that is MSPSpringCon. It’s hard to describe my joy at seeing this email pop up in my inbox, but it ranks close to when I got my first teaching job after 10 interviews and rejections. Yeah, I didn’t have as many rejections for this con, but because the con rejection was more personal–rejecting my lifelong dream–one rejection dug a deeper wound than a small town in Wisconsin saying they couldn’t hire me.
Now all that remained was waiting. And planning. And praying. Was I ready for this jump from the small pond to the big pond? Find out in Part 2!
CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher. He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website: cjstandalproductions.com.