Inclement weather conditions throughout the afternoon delayed many of the panelists; however, the MAD Event Management team quickly changed the program structure to accommodate presenters stuck in traffic. Additionally, Lion Forge’s Managing Editor Beth Scorzato quickly stepped in to moderate the program with the upmost efficiency. Once Scorzato communicated the program changes, she introduced the keynote speaker for the afternoon, Lion Forge Senior Editor Joseph Illidge.
In the main ballroom, Illidge took the podium and began with his origin story within the industry of comics. Although he started reading comics in the second grade that his mom bought him, it wasn’t until he was in fourth grade that his life was forever changed by comics, specifically from Uncanny X-Men. The idea that the characters fought in spite of being hated resonated with the young boy. Jump ahead some years later and at the start of 1993, Illidge was without a job and could not even afford comics, which became acute when he saw Icon, which he really, really wanted. And it was that want for a comic that got him to an interview for an intern position set up by a friend. After the interview, he felt it went well; he was sure he nailed it. It was years later that he found out he blew the interview, but that his friend – Dwayne McDuffie – had stepped in and said to give Illidge a chance. Fondly, Illidge said McDuffie taught him what editing was all about.
Over the intervening years, Illidge worked as a temp at DC Comics before moving on to Simon and Schuster, for all of seven weeks, to work on the Star Wars IP, because he received a bat signal from DC Comics, to edit Batman. Eventually, he moved on to Archaia, where he worked with creators. His focus shifted when his mentor died and Illidge reflected how “it could be better” and that he could be better. He explained that while at Milestone Comics, he learned about inclusion, and through his experiences, his understanding of the meaning of that word and all that meant was expanded. As a result, he offered the audience “meritocracy” instead of the familiar terms “diversity” or “inclusion.” How does that translate to everyday life? Illidge suggested a good place to start is to admit, “I don’t understand, but I want to understand.” He added that it is okay to say, “I don’t know.” As an example, Illidge related a conversation he had with his fiancée about which film was better, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. From that poignant conversation, he gained appreciation for the female perspective. He read up the Bechdel-Wallace test and looked at the comics he was editing at Lion Forge to see how they stacked up – they did. And, while he was recently reviewing a comic book in which he thought was fine, one of his editors pointed out that the female character in one of the panels suffered from an unusually thin or unrealistic waistline, an issue that has received much attention, especially with Disney princesses. Illidge related he is learning everyday.
In the larger context of the industry, Illidge stated that he is seeing a gap with discussing the entire creative process, which should include the colorist and letterer, two roles that are often overlooked and excluded. Why is all of this so important, and why we should speak in terms of merit? He explained that comics are making an impact on our popular culture and our society. As such, we are leaders, so why not practice meritocracy – lead by example and be the first industry to do so. Illidge wrapped up his speech by adding that we must recognize there are fears in the industry, so we all need to work together. We cannot be afraid of change.
Following Illidge’s inspiring and thought-provoking address, participants were able to stay in the ballroom rather than split out into one of three panel tracks that focused on marketing, law, and Hollywood. Rather than attending three panels, attendees got to listen to eight shortened presentations instead. Given the weather, it was surprising that only one panel was cancelled. Two panels stood out for this attendee: “Know Your Brand” with writer/illustrator Travis Hanson and Aspen Comics VP/Editor-in-Chief Vince Hernandez and “Going Global” with Top Cow President Matt Hawkins.
Hanson and Hernandez took a different approach by opening their panel by taking questions from the audience first. An initial question asked if the person should brand themselves and/or their project. Hanson advised branding your properties but also stressed the need to brand oneself, too. Hernandez concurred and added that it was crucial to brand oneself first. No one else was going to believe in you other than yourself. A question came up about the use of social media. Hanson stated that while he engages in the various social media venues, his favorites were Instagram and Facebook. He said that it was also important to engage in the communities related to your interests and projects. Hernandez also utilizes social media and encouraged the audience to diversify their social media mediums in order to build one’s exposure and brand. He advised being genuine, honest, and suggested providing “behind-the-scenes” posts, which should build interest in your projects. Hernandez stressed being neutral in social media. Hanson agreed with this last point. He said it was okay to speak your mind, but sometimes it is best to keep silent. Hanson suggested giving away freebies. For example, he gives away pages that his fans can color and repost. Artists should post content everyday, and both panelists said it was important to understand social media demographics and to use it to your advantage.
With the evening starting to wind down, Hawkins took to the stage to deliver an hour-long presentation on global marketing into approximately 25 minutes. He explained that international markets were driven by language rather than by country; however, he did provide a short list of countries where most of his revenue is made: France/Belgium, Germany/Austria, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Another benefit of selling comics and graphic novels overseas were invitations to comic conventions. Hawkins suggested using Comixology, because it has worldwide distribution, and to use translation software. He also advised offering free content in order to generate visibility to your product. Hawkins negotiated an agreement with international publisher Panini, which replaced many, if not all, of the individual agreements he was managing on a monthly basis. The Panini contract was also good for three years, unlike the individual contracts of one year. Additional tips from Hawkins included completing the tax form 6166 to avoid double taxation and to be well versed with the business etiquette of the country or countries you are planning to pursue.
Scorzato returned to the stage and introduced Jeremy Atkins who had been severely delayed by the weather. Several panelists returned to the stage for a Q&A session, and Atkins opened the floor so that audience members could ask additional questions that they hadn’t gotten to ask during the various panel sessions. Afterward, panelists and audiences congregated in the lobby for the event’s reception, and this provided an opportunity for creators to network over appetizers and drinks. Although the weather had impacted conference attendance and the structure of the program, for all those that attended, I think that all would agree that the conference had been a worthwhile event. For those interested in this conference next year, then save the date for Friday, February 16, 2018.