Milton Lawson’s TABLING Documentary Offers an Artist Alley View of Cons

Creators Workshop member, course alumnus, and filmmaker Milton Lawson (Roger Ebert and Me) recently released his full-length film Tabling: A Comic-Con Documentary on Vimeo! As the title implies, he sets out to offer glimpse at what life is like for creators behind the tables at comic book and pop culture conventions. Milton mostly focuses on the vantage points of writer Rick Quinn and writer/artist David Chisholm at HeroesCon in Charlotte, but the movie expands to encompass the perspectives of other creators – some of whom might be more than a little familiar to those of you who hang out on the forums!

Milton spoke with us about Tabling!

Comics Experience: How did you come up with the idea of Tabling and what did the organization process look like?

Milton Lawson:
I knew going into 2019 that I wouldn’t be tabling at any large shows this year, but I didn’t want to lose a whole year of shows without an opportunity to do something productive. I was also working on another short comics-related documentary at the time, so I thought, maybe I could do something in that space. Most of the video reporting I’ve seen from conventions usually focuses on timely material, announcing new projects, what’s hot at that show in that moment, but I didn’t recall ever seeing the basic experiences of creators reflected in a raw way. HeroesCon is always very high on my list on shows I want to attend or table at in a given year, and I knew some folks who would be tabling, so I thought, this is something I can do to justify the trip out there.

CE: Did you learn anything new about tabling at conventions during the creation of this documentary? What’s something that convention attendees don’t usually know about Artist Alley?

ML: I learned a ton, but two lessons in particular struck a chord with me. First, the idea that conventions really are a great place to find niche audiences. In the documentary Lindsay McComb relates a conversation she had with a creator who was considering adjusting their art to be more “mainstream” (whatever that means) – but she advised that person to lean into their individuality, their quirks as a creator, and that through that, they will find their audience. Second, I loved it when David Pepose said that when tabling and pitching it’s important to “get in your reps,” comparing it almost to a gym workout. That analogy really resonated with me. The first time I tabled, just in the first few hours, my elevator pitch for each of my books improved exponentially. Experience matters.

This may seem a bit obvious, but I think one thing convention attendees don’t quite know about Artist Alley is just how much extraordinary talent can be encountered in relatively humble situations. Some creators who don’t have long lines of fans at their tables and have self-published work – they might actually be a hidden gem, someone they’d want to be an early adopter on. Some of them have projects they can’t discuss publicly yet. Some of them are just on such a totally independent path it might be a while before they get on everyone’s radar. Many established big name creators, though, have a good eye for that kind of talent, so if you go up to them and ask for recommendations of new talent to seek out at a show, they’ll probably have some excellent recommendations and you’ll be able to say, “I knew them back when…”

CE: Even as a long-term veteran of comic conventions, what did you learn about tabling along the way?

ML: It’s hard to put into words what a startling transition it is to experience a con from the other side of the table, which is part of the reason I wanted to do this documentary. I’ve only done it a few times myself, but I was kinda overwhelmed by the experience and was eager to have my perspective informed by others with more experience. The main thing I’ve learned is that how a person “tables” is just as individual as the other aspects of their creative output – their scripts, their illustrations, whatever. There’s no set formula that’s a one-size-fits all solution. There are some general principles that apply, but, each nugget of wisdom I found in interviewing these creators – the level at which they’d work as impactful advice for each person is going to be a unique formula. I picture all of these streams of advice as raw input – and each person, they need to take it in like a recording engineer at a studio – pushing and pulling the EQ sliders up and down according to their individual voice and needs.

CE: How is film similar to comic book writing?

ML: I never would’ve thought doing a documentary would inform my comics writing in any way, but I was surprised to find a number of similar challenges. The primary similarity I discovered was that they both involve the manipulation of a finite space. In a comic, the units are panels, pages, issues. In filmmaking, it’s shots, scenes, sequences. In the editing process, especially in the fly-on-the-wall moments, I tried to cut and hone each moment to convey the essence of the main idea. I might not have always succeeded in finding that most-efficient route, but I learned a lot through the process and I’ll try to remember those lessons in my next comic script.

Make sure to check out Tabled: A Comic-Con Documentary on Vimeo here!