Have you ever walked into a store and noticed that a particular character is suddenly everywhere? Emily the strange is a great example. One day I noticed her on something in a shop, maybe a sticker or a stationary set. She seemed vaguely familiar, but I wasn't quite sure if I'd seen her before. A few months later I saw here again, maybe on a T-shirt. And then a year later she was on anything and everything that would take ink! "How does that happen?" I wondered. How did 'the world' suddenly find out about this artist's creation and more importantly how did 'the world' decide it cared enough about it that there should be two million different products with her on them? How did she go from being an idea in someone's mind and then suddenly being this ubiquitous creature on all manner of merchandise? And I guess the most important question for me was, how did her creator do it? How did he get all of those companies to sign all of those manufacturing deals? I became perhaps obsessed with trying to solve this riddle of how to achieve that kind of success with a character of one's creation. Why? Because I'm a creator of characters and I wanted to do it, too!
Emily is just one example. I have seen this happen with other creations like Ruby Gloom, Hello Kitty, Happy Bunny, Tokidoki's designs, Ugly Dolls and a host of others. So obviously it's something many artists have managed to do. The truth is, I had just never had that kind of success with my creations and it really killed me that it seemed so easy for others to manage it. I set out to try to find out how they do it. How one can take a character they've created, introduce that character to the world and have that character grow legs. By that I mean that the very popularity of the character alone propels it further. And of course, because we all need to eat, and no one likes a boring day job, I had an eye on how to make it lucrative, possibly even a living.
My quest started over a decade ago. I've had a modicum of success and I've learned a lot along the way. And since there are undoubtedly thousands of creators like myself out there who also yearn to see their characters beloved by many, I will share what I've discovered and give some tips on ... how to make your character famous.
1) The Character:
I don't know if this matters or not when it comes to being successful, but every character I've ever created, I did out of love. I have a deep emotional attachment to my first comic book character, Chi-chian. and my most recent one, Deady. Hell, I really love them all. And that helps and hinders along the way. Because they are like my children, I will fight tooth and nail for them against all odds. But if you are too attached to your characters you are likely to not take it well when someone asks you to change them in some way or to censor them. I've never created a comic book character just to try to make money of off him or her (and I hope I never do) so I can't speak for how to do that,. But what I can say is that if you love your characters as much as I love mine, you will likely have the passion for the fight ahead. And believe me, you're going to need it!
Who's your audience?:
Ask yourself some basic questions about your character like, "who do they appeal to?" We already know you love her, but would she appeal to boys? To the general public? To anyone other than yourself?
Is your character original? If your character is, let's say, "an adorable little dead girl", it's highly likely every response you get may be, "this is too much like Lenore." So make sure what you've created is unique enough that people won't constantly compare her to something else that already exists.
( One week before the Deady plush came out, I walked into a store and saw the Teddy Scares plush toys on display. I nearly had a heart attack. Apparently the world was big enough for more than one evil teddy bear, however I did once lose a big vinyl toy deal because I was told Deady was too much like Gloomy Bear. )
So keep it original. But keep in mind that the opposite is true, too. If your character is so way out that there's nothing to compare it to at all, you are going to have a really tough sell on your hands, because in many cases, the people who make the deals lack creativity and vision (more on that later). If your super-heroine is let's say, "a half Japanese girl who lives in Manhattan in the 31st century after the New York/New Jersey who wears a suit made of living matter that has an eye over her left breast, a cone over her right breast and can change into a giant dog to help defend Manhattan from zombies with caterpillars in their heads who are trying to kill some 8-foot tall, waltzing cockroaches with Russian accents" ..... GOOD LUCK!
Know your character:
You need to understand your character before you begin. If you get lucky enough to present it to a toy company or comic book company, etc, they will likely ask you questions about him or her. Have the answers. Write a list of your character's traits, their likes and dislikes. Print out a sheet (preferably in color. It can just be a color xerox at this point) that has an image of your character and a description of their personality.
example: "He's cute, he's cuddly, he'll eat you for lunch! The galaxy's greatest evil escaped confinement on its home world and disguised himself as a teddy bear here on Earth and thus Deady was born! He likes to eat cats (though no one has ever actually seen him do it ) and frighten children." etc.. etc..
The more you know about your character, the the better you will be at endearing them to whoever you are presenting them to.
2) Timing is everything:
Even the best character, no matter how vibrant or unique or entertaining can face difficulties succeeding if they came to be at the wrong time. One of the things I've learned is that trends don't happen by coincidence. They germinate at trade shows. Have you ever walked into the mall and noticed that suddenly everything has pirates on it? Or ninjas? Or skulls? Or fairies? It seems like a surprise to us, the general public. We wonder, how did they all know to put pirates on their shirts at the same time? Well, if you go to trade shows, you will see what's coming down the pike a year before it hits the store shelves!
For the longest time I was so confused! At one point I had designed a line of pixie dolls at at time when fairies were all the rage. I couldn't understand why no one was interested in talking to me about pixies and fairies. What I didn't know was what the manufacturers knew. They had all been to the trade shows the year before and saw that pixies were done and next year it was going to be all about ninjas.
So through no fault of your own, if you present a saucy Pirate Princess, no matter how amazing she may be, you may get a response like, "Pirates are done. What else have you got?" And then what?
Sadly, unless you go around creating characters just to fit the trend and cash in, there's really no way of ever knowing if the timing is going to be right for your character. Unless, of course, you start going to trade shows and see the writing on the wall. (more on that later).
3) Make contact:
Most of my first deals happened because I did something ludicrously simple; I went to someone's website and hit the contact button. Yes, it was that simple. I was walking through a Hot Topic and I saw the character Ruby Gloom on a bunch of shirts. She was super cute and Gothy and had a really original look about her. I looked at the tag to see who was making these shirts. It was a company called Mighty Fine. When I got home I went to their website. I saw that they also had shirts by two artists I respect, Roman Dirge and Junko Mizuno. So, I hit the contact button. I sent them a message that said something like, "My name is Voltaire. I'm an artist. I'm a fan of Roman and Junko's work. My work lives in the same sort of world. Would you be interested in adding some of my designs to your line?" I got a reply from Guy, the president of the company. I don't remember whether or not he was familiar with my work, but he was willing to show Hot Topic a couple of my designs. And a couple of weeks later, there was a Deady shirt for sale at Hot Topic. That was my first ever piece of Deady anything and being able to tell people that Deady was on shirts in Hot Topic, definitely helped open the door to other opportunities. So if I've never said it, let me say it now, "Thank you, Guy! Thank you so very, very much for helping Deady get his start!" And that was just the first amazing thing this man did for me, but I'll get to that soon.
I have another quick 'contact' story I'd like to share. It happened about a year or so later after I'd released a Deady comic book or two. I was at one of my shows and a girl came up wearing a little plastic bear key chain on her belt. I asked her about it. It was called a "Qee" (pronounced KEY) and it was sold by a company called Toy2R. I immediately went to the Japanese toy store near my house and bought a bunch. I discovered that they choose ten or so artists a couple of times a year to design their version of their bear and then release what they call an "artist series". My next stop was their website. I'll never forget it. It was three in the morning. I had drank too much coffee. I went to the Toy2R website and hit the contact button. I typed something like, "My name is Voltaire. I have a comic book called Deady. My character is a bear and apparently you make a toy that is a bear. I see that you choose several artists a year to put their design on your bear. Would you be interested in making a DEADY qee? I'm sure the readers of my comic book would be interested in buying them."
I got a reply in about fifteen minutes. It was from Raymond Choy, the president of the company. Apparently he'd seen the ads for the Deady comic books in Diamond's PREVIEWS catalog as well as the ads for the Deady T-shirts. I think he realized that I work very hard to promote my character and saw there were already people who knew who he was and agreed we should make a Deady qee.
The first one we made was a two and a half inch Deady qee on a key chain. We released them at Comic Con in 2003 I think it was. As I recall they sold out and I've been making toys with them ever since. I'll never forget showing up at the convention center. Raymond met me outside. It was my first time meeting him. He excitedly said, "Mr Voltaire! Many people wearing black are lined up to buy your toy!!!"
And that leads me to the next important piece of the puzzle...
4) It's all about the numbers
I've been very lucky because I've worked with insightful business owners like Raymond and Guy who understand what they are doing, understand what's good or bad and are artists in their own right. But honestly, almost all of the deals that get made out there have little to nothing to do with how good your art is.
It's all about the numbers, baby. Believe me when I say that for every time someone was kind enough to answer my email when I hit the contact button on their website, there have been dozens of other who did not. And why? Because they simply weren't convinced that I had the power to sell lots of units. Let's face it. Art is art and business is business. It's nothing personal, really. The fact is that a business, like a toy company for instance, is a bank. They are going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to make one character into a toy. And they want to make that money back, with a profit. It's an investment. So really, are they going to choose to make a character everyone has heard of and will want to buy, like say, Mickey Mouse? Or are they going to gamble huge amounts of money on your "Pirate Princess Buttercup" that no one outside of your small circle of friend has ever heard of? What would you do? Actually, don't answer that because you are an artist and you are driven by your heart. Business is not a place for people with hearts (or souls it seems a lot of the time). I swear, I have taken meetings with people who had absolutely no idea what was good or bad and frankly, they didn't care. But they sure as hell knew what was likely to sell. And that is obviously going to be the big licenses. Superman, Mickey, Pokemon, etc...
You can't take it personally. You really can't. I mean, you're an artist like me, so I won't stop you from crying and blasting the Black Parade and screaming about how unfair the world is (all of which I do!). But that's not going to help. So okay, what will?
5) Grow your audience:
The bottom line is that money talks. If you can show the people considering to turn your character into a comic book or a toy or tv show that they are going to make back every penny they spend a million times over, the deal is as good as in the bag. Don't bother telling them how wonderful your creation is. Don't bother telling them how deep and meaningful the story is. What you need to show them is that you already have X number of people waiting to buy whatever it is that they are manufacturing. Those are people you will call "fans" and they will call "customers".
So how do you go from having made a drawing of a character that you love to having several thousand fans?
At the risk of being an old curmudgeon, when I first started creating characters, the internet did not exist (or at least was not being used by the general public). My first character, Chi-chian was conceived in 1989. The world (outside of my long suffering friends who had to hear me talk about her all of the time) did not get introduced to Chi-chian until almost ten years later when the Chi-chian comic book came out around 1997. My other universe that I'd created, "Oh My Goth!" started out as an ashcan. For those of you who don't know what that is, take a sheet of paper, draw a comic on both sides. Take it to Kinkos. Xerox it several hundred times and fold them into little min-comics. And how did people find out about it you ask? I handed them out to people at Goth clubs. And I collected snail mail addresses from people and mailed them out to them. Yeah. In a good year, I might reach a couple hundred people.
You guys have it much easier. These days, anyone can start a website and reach millions. So do that. Make a site and dedicate it to your character. Put up images of your character, stories, games, if you can afford it, make a flash movie. Start a weekly comic strip. Write a blog. Give people a reason to come back again and again, not because you tell them to but because it's entertaining.
Collect email addresses on your site. Start an e-list so that whenever there's news about your character you can send them a newsletter.
Start a Myspace page. Start a Facebook page. Start a Youtube page. Reach hundreds then reach thousands then reach tens of thousands. And if what you provide on these pages is entertaining, you will indeed attract people. And those people will become fans of your character. There are people getting tv show deals because they have millions of viewers to their blogs. There is a tremendous power there. Use it.
Promote your website. Believe me, traffic does not find its way there by itself. Join forums. If your character is a doll, join doll forums. If your character is a metal head, join heavy metal forums. Chat people up there. Post links to your website. Invite people to come take a look. Remember, they should be coming because it's entertaining, not just because you want them to.
Now when you take that meeting and the toy/tv/comic book company asks you how many people know about your character, send them a link to your Myspace page or your blog. If there are enough people on there, you just might have a deal.
Make Stickers and fliers
The internet did not completely erase the real world (though it sure is starting to seem that way this far into my first blog! Sheesh, this is long!). People still spend most of their time walking about the planet. Help them discover your character by making fliers for your website and leaving them in your local coffee shop. As I mentioned before, my first Oh My Goth! comics were hand-made at Kinkos. I handed them out at clubs, I left them in clothes stores, I left them in cafes. Eventually, people were actually stopping me in the street asking me when the next one was coming out! No one likes a commercial and no one wants a flier advertising something so make it entertaining. Make it a one panel comic book, make it a short poem or story. Give people an experience they enjoy for free and they might just take the time when they go home to look you up on the net.
Stickers are cheap! Make some with your character on them and stick them about. Give them to your friends, Hand them out at shows, at school, at the mall. Be sure to discreetly put your website on them in case people are just curious enough to learn more.
You can make 250 black and white stickers at http://contagiousgraphics.com/ for as little as $23 dollars! Come on, you have that! You want to be famous? You want to be a millionaire? You have to spend money to make money and stickers are the cheapest real-world way to spread the word.
You can also make glossy 4-color fliers with your character on the front and information on the back. If well designed, you may hook someone right there! Get 250 of them here: http://4over4.com/postcards.aspx for about forty dollars! You can get them cheaper as well if you look around, but I really like this company. Their printing is great and customer service is excellent. And their turn around times are excellent for procrastinators like me.
Promote a night:
Club nights are always looking for flier art. Offer your local club night free art of your character. The Goth and Industrial promoters in NYC have to make a new flier every week. Believe me it gets hard to find art after a while. If your character is a little bat, maybe they can feature your art on the flier with a line like, "Free sticker give-aways from (insert name of your bat character here)". The same formula can work for any genre: techno, rap, rock, metal, etc...
Take out ads:
It will cost a million dollars to place an add in People magazine, but none of us read that crap anyway! Smaller, alternative magazines have more reasonable ad rates than you'd think. Place an add in Gothic Beauty, or Clutter, or Juxtapoz. A small add with art of your character and your web address would cost you a couple hundred bucks, maybe a lot less. Make it good though, this is real money you're playing with here. You want to make sure it attracts traffic to your site so it should be enticing.
Eventually, you are going to have to make some kind of merch. Making a weekly web-comic takes a lot of time and doesn't pay (because you give it away for free). But if you add a T-shirt to your site that people can buy, you can actually start to make some money from your character, and also, wearing a T-shirt with your character on it, gives people a sense of community they do not get by just looking at your comic on-line, perhaps because it's happening in the real world and it's actually on their bodies.
A word of caution though, do not make TONS of them. If you're just starting out, you do not need 300 shirts. If you can find someone who'll make fifty of them, that's probably a good start.
6) Trade shows:
A few years ago, I was home in New York City and I got a call from Guy, from Mighty Fine. He said, "What are you doing today?" I was working on something or other. He said, "Meet me at the Jacob Javitts Center, I'm going to change your life." Okay, now, I'm not used to people telling me that they are going to change my life and I am a cynical New Yorker after all so I really wondered what he had in store. I thought maybe he'd arranged for me to have dinner with Tim Burton and Bjork in the nude! Nonetheless, I went down there. He met me outside, gave me a badge and we went it. There was a huge sign in the lobby that read, "Licensing Show". I had no idea what it meant.
So we walked through the show and inside there were all of these booths and large pavilions. DC comics was there. They had the bat-mobile hanging from the ceiling and Disney had built a big castle. Marvel comics had a huge area as did Hanna Barbera and Cartoon Network. Guy said, "Well, what do you think?" I said that it was all very interesting but I had no idea what it had to do with me. He said, "Look around. Everyone here is someone who creates characters. Just like you. Sure, a lot of them are super famous, but the only difference between something like Mickey Mouse and your Deady is how many people know about them." He then went on to tell me that years earlier he and his wife had rented a small booth at the show. "We taped pictures of our characters Ruby Gloom and French Kitty to the wall. That's all we had. We signed a couple of deals and it just went from there". And frankly, it lead to the building of an empire. I saw the light and I shall never stop thanking him for taking the time to show me that and teach me the term "licensing".
In short, at these shows, guys who represent manufacturers that make stuff like hand towels and tooth paste walk from booth to booth. Their mission is to find something that will help their product sell better. Now, generic toothpaste may sell just fine, but put Superman on it, and POW! You'll have millions of kids begging their parents for it despite the fact that contents of the tube have not changed a bit.
The following year, I got a booth. I'm not going to lie, it's crazy expensive! It costs about five thousand dollars for a ten foot by ten foot booth. I filled it with my CDs and T-shirts and Deady vinyl toys and stood there and waited. Lots and lots of people came by and struck up conversations and one of them happened to be a gentleman named Gary Fox who was the president of a plush toy company called Toy Network that serviced the games and amusement industry. That means that they made the prizes you see in crane machines and amusement parks. And you guessed it, we signed the deal to make the Deady and Pocket Goths, for which I am eternally grateful. Now, Deady would be in every amusement park in the country.
So if you have developed your character, if you have built a fan base and you are ready to go to the next step, I highly encourage you to exhibit at a licensing show. You just may find your character on a beach towel at Sears!
In the meantime, you should be exhibiting at conventions. San Diego Comic con, Dragoncon in Atlanta, NYC Comic Con, etc... Getting a booth at these shows will put you in front of tens of thousands of people. And there are bound to be people who will find your character interesting and will want to know more. Have stuff to sell because there are lots of people at these things and they are there to buy stuff! And if you sell enough shirts or other stuff, you just paid your expenses! If you've done your homework and have a fan base, you will cover your expenses AND bring home some bacon! (not literally, of course)
Also, I've noticed that if you do enough of these things, you get to know the other exhibitors. That booth next to yours might be DC comics or Kidrobot. If you see these folks again and again, getting a meeting with them is as easy as craning your head into their booth and saying, "hey do you guys have a minute to look at something?" And let me tell you that this can be invaluable.
Just a quick note about the cons.... I have seen some people spend thousands to get a booth, fly themselves to the city the con is in, book a hotel room, ship in all of their merch and then blow the whole thing to hell because they simply didn't have a nice sign to let people know who they were. Signage is everything! If you have a nice, big, colorful banner with your or your character's name on it and perhaps some nice graphics, it will arouse people's curiosity and they will come over to look. There's TONS of stuff going on at these cons which is to say that the customers' attention is pulled in a million different directions. So you have to reel them in and you have to do it from way down the aisle.
Hot, scantily clad ladies working your booth also works very nicely!
7) Prepare for rejection
Let's do a little exercise. Find a hammer. Now put your thumb on a table. Slam the hammer as hard as you can on your thumb. Come on, do it. Okay, now do it again. And again. Okay good. Again. And now, again. Okay, now turn the hammer around so that the pointy, stabby part is facing down, now ram that into your genitals as hard as you can. Now do that several hundred times and you may just be ready for this part of your journey.
In the process of introducing your character to the world and working to make deals, you are going to experience a lifetime of rejection. And it's going to make you very, very mad and very, very sad and it's going to hurt.
Please understand that creating a character and hoping that someday he will be a household word is right up there with starting a band and wishing you'll someday win a Grammy. It can be done, but it's going to be a long, hard, terrible, painful road and you may never make it to the end. And the worst part is going to be the rejection.
If you related to the beginning of this blog and you love your character, then it's probably safe to say that you feel they are a part of you. Well, let me tell you that people will look you in the face and tell you that they don't like them. It will feel like someone saying, "Your children are ugly". And it will really, really hurt. As I said before, it's business and you can't take it personally. But you will. You will pick yourself up, hopefully, and show them to someone else. And they will tell you, "Your children are ugly". And you will want to kill them and you will wonder why the world is such a cruel place and why Emily the Strange, who I suddenly realized is that girl from Nate the Great, is so famous despite being such a simple concept and why your character who is so rich, and so meaningful and so adorable keeps getting rejected. And you will want to quit. And you may quit. And that will be that.
But if you don't... you will realize that this is the life of someone who creates characters. It's just another day. And because they are your children, you will fight on. And you will prevail.