When Prince Adam of Eternia would raise his mighty sword above his head, he could exclaim “I… Have… the… POWER!” and with it transform into He-Man. This would turn his pink and maroon body suit into merely a manly loincloth and pec-harness combo. He would be granted a physique that would make Vince McMahon want to give him the main event at Wrestlemania. Most important, he was now the mightiest mortal on his alien world – able to dispense of evil with but a flick of a forearm, and nary a tussle of his pageboy haircut.
When Marc Alan Fishman, Kyle Gnepper, and Matt Wright want to transform from slovenly suburbanite husband-dads into cantankerous comic book creators, they hold up their mighty laminated sign that reads “Can I tell you about my comic book?” and look mildly pathetic. But much like Prince Adam, that singular phrase has bestowed upon the lads a power unlike any other on their alien world; the power of a personal brand.
Making it in the indie comic scene is not unlike those mythical tasks undertook by Hercules. Unless you have untold fortunes lying around, the burden to even create original work (more specifically, comic books) comes with the unfair disadvantage of essentially committing to a second fulltime unpaid job. Once work is actually created… it’s time to market it. That in and of itself is somehow even harder than the act of creation!
From the very start of our first show (Wizard World Chicago, 2008), Unshaven Comics has committed to a very long game. We staked a claim to a table in artist alley, placed our first book on the table – along with some silly and snarky signs we just knew would get us plenty of attention (and they didn’t, not at all) – and sat with arms folded, awaiting untold riches.
And so we sat. And sat. And sat some more. Our smiles faded. Our fingers tapped. Our eyes darted to our neighbors in adjacent rows. How are they surviving this hellacious landscape of scavengers?! Soon thereafter, our neighbor took pity on us. “You have to put yourself out there. Just ask people as they pass by. I mean, what’s the worst they could say… No?” It was perfect advice to our green ears and yellow bellies. Kyle stood up. He asked the next con-goer sheepishly. They stopped! From there we launched into our pitch, and desperately tried to become their new best friend.
And then, perhaps out of actual interest, or perhaps pity, they bought our book.
And therein lay the rub to it all. The indie comic scene is built on the backs of personal brands. When virgin eyes and ears traipse across the convention floor, our wares are signal flares in the sky. As lookie-loos take a chance to hear us out, we not only pitch the pulp we put in their paws. We serve up a slice of our personality to boot. Each indie creator comes with a unique mystique that pairs to the work they make. For Unshaven Comics specifically… we’re unabashed in our formula:
We are brothers-from-other-mothers, who have a 25+ year friendship. We each bring separate skills that simmer in a singular pot, and present as a single brand. We are cheesy, but not ironically so. Our books are all-ages, not because we have a crucial need to appeal to the largest audience possible, but because the stories we want to tell are genuinely relatable to just about anyone who loves action and adventure. We are upfront and passionate about our product.
Whereas Kyle is always the most energetic presence at our table, I am working too; scanning the crowd, crunching the numbers, and spreading the word socially. And Matt anchors the table with his incredible and versatile art – attracting people to stop and enjoy his take on everything from superheroes to Cenobites. We are a singular machine, with a simple purpose. We promote what we do. We love what we do. And we need the world to see that and go all-in with us.
Look over each artist at a show, and you’ll see how they cultivate their own brands. Like Katie Cook and her mini-paintings that eventually landed her official Star Wars, My Little Pony, and Marvel gigs. Or Dirk Manning, whose mouthless maw has marketed his macabre books with equal parts solid professionalism, and DIY attitude. Or even perhaps Victor Dandridge Jr., “The Hardest Working Man in Comics!”, who started off with a single hook – an eight-bit art challenge – and has built a litany of indie comic series and convention-panel-emcee gigs that make him a well-known name across the Midwest comic circuit. Or, dare I ever forget my own frenemy Dan Dougherty, who has built his own brand by way of building up not only his own newspaper strip-style series Beardo into a brand, but a half-dozen other pieces in collaboration with his carefully chosen cadre of cohorts (including the aforementioned Mr. Manning from time-to-time).
Beyond the con floors though, you’ll find us all building those brands brick-by-brick. Be it on a day like today, where we’ll each be sitting in on Free Comic Book Day at our local comic book stores to promote our work. Or on social media, where we host live videos to interact with our homegrown fanbase. Or in our handcrafted newsletters. Or when we host classes at local park districts and libraries; teaching the next generation that the best way into comic books is to forge your own path. It all boils down to the simplest of truths…
To build our brands takes honed skill, patience, and determination to succeed. Without all three working together (be we islands-unto-ourselves, or three-headed bearded monsters), there is no brand to build. While any of us strive to stumble over, we’ve each committed to that aforementioned long-game. Cultivating one earned fan at a time, and hopefully producing enough to keep them on the hook until our dreams turn into reality.
We have the power, because we make the power.