This event took place in August 2013. Unfortunately, computer problems got in the way of my writing and publishing this article at the time. However, I feel like Creator Owned Expo and its organizers have a lot of potential, particularly because they focus on building more connections between independent artists and fans.
Unconventional: South Florida’s Creator Owned Expo 2013
By Andrea Dulanto
Comic book conventions are big business. Superhero and sci-fi films, video games, and the rise of the graphic novel (and of course, comics) have transformed comic cons into massive pop culture events. What used to be geeky is now trendy.
But The Atlantic Wire’s “How the Nerds Lost Comic-Con” argues that the “mainstreaming and co-opting of ‘nerd culture’” has transformed the most prominent comic book convention, San Diego Comic-Con, into a Hollywood marketing event—one driven by revenue more than anything else.
Yet at the same time, independent creators (artists, writers and publishers who own the rights to their work) are developing alternatives to what used to be the alternative. For example at Comic-Con, events outside of the main convention such as Trickster provide a place for artists not only to share and sell their work, but to interact with other artists and build more of a community.
This movement towards celebrating independent creators was also seen in South Florida at the first annual Creator Owned Expo (COE), which debuted on August 3, 2013 at the Universal Palms Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
In an interview during COE, the main organizer, Ron Kerronian of Lucid Element Entertainment, who is also an artist himself, emphasized that “this is not a convention; it’s an expo… people can be educated and walk away with connections.”
Later in a follow-up email after the event, Kerronian elaborated on what motivated him to start COE: “I wanted to create a place where… [independent creators] could have a platform to present their work to old and new fans alike.”
During the planning process for COE, Kerronian met writer/ artist Laura Diaz who became the COE anthology designer; artist/ cosplayer ZipperTan who became the COE events coordinator; and artist Mervyn McKoy who became the COE branding specialist. Through social media and grass roots marketing, they worked to promote the event.
Their efforts paid off because over forty independent creators offered their work at COE; furthermore, an estimated 341 fans came out to support them.
One drawback was the limited amount of space. Only two conference rooms had been reserved at the hotel, and each room served multi-functional purposes, placing artist booths on the main floor, and discussion panels on a small stage.
Yet, the space never felt overcrowded and Kerronian was omnipresent, ready to resolve any issues.
Events coordinator, ZipperTan, 26, of Fort Lauderdale, hosted the costume contest for the cosplayers at COE. A self-taught seamstress who has been to over thirty cons, ZipperTan has won awards for her own costumes. She noted that events such as comic cons and COE are “a great way to meet new people.”
Artist/ writer/ fashion designer Gmoss, an independent creator at one of the artist booths, expanded on what brings individuals to these events: “People have a love for comics, animation… they have a passion, and want to share that through stories and art.”
With the help of his father, Robert Moss, Gmoss promoted his illustrated science-fiction novel, The Chronicles of Ann & Lo, as well as his clothing line inspired by the book. He appreciated that COE “is for individual artists…to give us exposure.”
When dealing with larger comic cons, this exposure can often be limited to the days of an event.
However, the publication of the COE anthology, Love.Resistance Parts 1-3—a collection of short stories, comics and illustrations from COE artists—provides an opportunity to build more of a connection with fans and other creators. It is also a way to give back to a larger community because all sales proceeds are donated to 4KidsInNeed, a nonprofit children’s charity.
During the event, COE anthology designer, Laura Diaz, spoke about the desire to “achieve a sense of community” through the anthology as well as future projects, and to encourage connection between indie creators. Diaz is a writer who collaborated with visual artist, Mary O’Neill, to create an illustrated ebook series, Splitting Seams. Reminiscent of a fairy tale, Splitting Seams is about twin girls who must be sewn together in order to survive.
Diaz discussed how indie comics often highlight diverse voices. For example, people of color, women, older as well as very young artists may find it “hard to break into the [mainstream] business” because their work is often “pushing boundaries.” Indie publishers and creator owned works give artists the “ability to do it our own way.”
“We are not waiting for someone to accept or deny our work,” said Diaz.
Other independent creators at COE shared their experiences as artists, writers and publishers.
South Florida based indie author and filmmaker Jeff Carroll published his latest novel Thug Angel: Rebirth of a Gargoyle, with his own company, Hip Hop Comix N Flix. This sci-fi horror story centers on a gargoyle who seeks to protect his mortal fifteen year old daughter from the beings of the underworld. In an interview during COE, Carroll cited Watson and Holmes and City of Dust as works that appeal to him—both are indie comics.
He observed that “comic book cons and fans… tend to be more multiculturally tolerant.” Carroll also noted that the main character of Thug Angel may be black, “but he doesn’t live in a black world… there’s a whole lot of everything.”
“This isn’t Twilight,” he added.
Self-published Florida sci-fi author, Jade Kerrion, has not only taken on the indie route but shares her experience on her blog, detailing the complete process from building an author’s platform to promotion.
When asked about why she decided to self-publish, Kerrion responded that “the barriers have dropped… and it is very possible” to reach an audience without a traditional publisher. Kerrion had considered traditional publishing when her novel Perfection Unleashed garnered attention and awards. However, self-publishing allowed her books (nine, at last count) to immediately connect with audiences.
Animator and illustrator Baroka Thompson of West Palm Beach has not published a book yet; but he was at COE with prints of his work-in-progress, Insektika, a story with fantastical wasp-like characters inspired by female warrior tribes. Thompson shared that he is drawn towards characters such as Ripley in the Alien film series. He also conveyed that his vision is informed by the personal experience of growing up around strong women.
The strength of women characters could also be seen in the steampunk and Firefly inspired webcomic Daughters of an Industrial Era by artist Andie McDade, 22, of Orlando. Her work explores characters that identify as either “queer, bisexual or gay.” McDade described how her protagonists are smugglers on a Victorian era airship, the Good Ship Sappho, “going outside of what society expects.”
“They do bad things but they are good people,” she said. “They all have their own insights, flaws and positive traits.”
Another COE writer and artist, Jamaal Ephriam, is founder of Key Jay Compound Comix (KJC Comix), “an independent comic book and graphic novel production and publishing group” that distributes projects such as the free biweekly webcomic, DRIFT. This surreal story features Maji Mayo, a game tester who starts to experience an intense connection to his work.
When considering the differences between independent creators and the “major industries,” Ephriam brought up his experience at Florida Supercon 2013 in Miami—one of the most noteworthy comic cons to emerge in Florida over the past few years.
“All the independents were on the same floor upstairs… far away from the main industry [on the first floor],” he said.
Ephriam “felt like it discredited” the indie artists. However, he recognized that this arrangement was likely due to the lack of adequate space—Florida Supercon had outgrown the capacity of its venue.
Fortunately, Florida Supercon 2014 is scheduled for the Miami Beach Convention Center, which can accommodate more vendors and more fans. Ephriam observed that there should be enough space for the independents and the main industries to interact equally with each other and with the fans, which he viewed as a step towards “a fair playing ground.”
Yet, he also hoped that COE grows just as much as Florida Supercon has grown throughout the years, in order to “give more center focus…. to independents.”
As evidenced by the audience at COE 2013, there are fans who want to support creator owned works. Independent artists, writers and publishers are not afraid to break new ground, and COE is there to support them as they do.
After the event, Kerronian responded via email about what’s next for COE.
“We also plan on having other events throughout the year, maybe some cross promotion opportunities,” said Kerronian. “We are still discussing events for the 2014 COE…All we are pushing for is that we create a spark that allows lightning to strike twice.”