It may seem odd to show an Amy Pond print when talking about this American artist and Fan Expo regular. Ken Wheaton is more well-known for his work on The Simpsons and Popeye comics series, but it was this cheeky print of the Doctor Who companion that caught my attention at Fan Expo five years ago.
Ken drew this print (which was coloured by his friend Meg Casey) just for the convention, and over the last few years, we have gathered quite a little mix of Ken’s work. You can always find some great creations at his booth. The Simpsons, Popeye, Doctor Who and Jurassic World just to name a few. Not only is he a talented artist, he is also a really swell guy (yes, swell) and we always make it a point of stopping by his booth to say hi.
I couldn’t think of doing a blog about artists and not include this guy, and he was kind enough to share a bit about himself and his convention experiences with me.
What training have you had and how long have you been in the industry?
The only formal study I had to become an artist was a childhood of practice and a few classes in High School and College. Becoming a good artist, to most artists, is an ongoing process that sways between narcissism and self-loathing, and I constantly practice and study the work of other artists in an effort to improve.
I’ve been working in the industry, albeit part-time, for over ten years. I supplement my comic book work with a day job (not worth mentioning, but is a fact of life for many artists who want a steady and reliable paycheck and heath coverage), as well as freelance advertising assignments and teaching library and after-school cartooning workshops.
When did you start attending conventions as an artist?
About a dozen years ago, I started showing my work to artists at conventions, and got my first big break when independent comic creator and pop art painter Chris Yambar asked to print some of my spot cartoons in the back of his comic, Mr. Beat. As it turns out, Simpsons creator Matt Groening was a fan of Mr. Beat, and hired Chris to write some stories for Bongo Comics. That was my opportunity to audition for work there, thanks to one degree of separation. I wasn’t a shoo-in, but knowing someone who knew someone definitely got my work more serious consideration than someone sending in blind samples of their work. After several auditions, I got hired to work on a story for one of their comics, and have been doing freelance work for them ever since. Around the time of the initial Simpsons job, I got to work on a number of licensed properties, such as I Dream Of Jeannie, The Phantom, Kolchak:The Night Stalker, Mister Magoo, and Buckaroo Banzai. When I started to do that kind of work, I made the transition from attending fan to attending professional.
How many conventions do you go to in a year?
I’m a creature of habit, and usually attend the same cons year after year, less than ten, ranging from some of the larger 3-4 day mega shows to a handful of smaller regional one-day cons. I haven’t missed a Motor City Comic Con or the Fan Expo Toronto show in years. They are my favorites of the larger conventions. Some smaller shows that I quite enjoy are Ithacon (in Ithaca, NY) and Twin Tiers Comic Con (in Elmira, NY).
Have conventions changed when it comes to how they promote artists?
These days, there is certainly more of an emphasis on media guests and cosplayer guests. The term ‘Comic Con’ is somewhat of a misnomer, since comic book professional guests often take a back seat to these other guests. I admire cosplay immensely, but I feel it’s something that many, many attendees do. I’ll never understand why there are suddenly ‘professional cosplayer’ guests that have table space and charge for pictures and autographs. Some of them receive more space on the fliers and websites than the comic guests, which can be quite distressing and disheartening. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think this takes away from the hundreds of fans who attend conventions in costume ‘just for fun’, many of which have better and more imaginative costumes to begin with!
Do you see a difference in how they support a “featured” artist like yourself versus other independent artists?
I’ve never considered myself a big deal or a particularly big draw as a professional. My fan base is based upon the wonderful fans who are passionate about the projects that I’ve worked on and who I’ve befriended over the years. Having been fortunate enough to have worked on a number of high-profile properties, I’ve sometimes received favorable billing, for which I am grateful.
What is the best thing you get out of attending conventions?
This may seem like a cliché, but I do enjoy interacting with fans who are passionate about the characters that I draw. I had a father bring his three young children to get their three-volume collection of the recent Popeye series signed. I drew a little sketch with an inscription in each copy, and I received an email from the father several days later telling me that I was the highlight of their convention and that they were still talking about meeting me and that I had made them Popeye fans for life. That’s the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile!
What is the worst thing about attending conventions?
Being a fan of comics and pop culture, I miss attending as a fan. As a professional, we don’t get to leave the table much, and I don’t get much time to look around at old comics and meet actors and fellow comics professionals that I admire.
How has attending conventions helped promote you as an artist?
Well, it helps get my name out there and people can check out my website and buy commissions. I’ve also been hired, on occasion, for freelance illustration work, which can sometimes be more lucrative than drawing comic book pages.
What is the best/worst or strangest commission that you have ever been asked to do from a convention fan?
You’ll get the occasional creepy fan who’ll want characters drawn naked or engaging in lewd behavior. I remember when I was working on the I Dream Of Jeannie book, someone wanted me to draw the character in a compromising situation (and sent me some of his own lewd ‘fan’ art). Of course, I refused and immediately deleted his email. Most fans have great requests, and many are quite imaginative. I’ve done a few cover recreations, where I’ve been asked to homage a famous cover with different characters in a similar situation. Those kinds of things are pretty fun. A lot of people like drawings on those blank sketch covers, and I’ve done a few which have been rather popular.
What advice would you give to an artist that wants to use conventions as a way to promote him/herself?
I would tell them to invest in a banner and business cards, as well as a website. I’d also tell them to have plenty of examples of their work to sell and be friendly and engaging with everyone they meet. It’s all about making a good first impression, and if a fan likes and remembers you then they’ll make more of an effort to follow you online or visit you at the next convention that you both mutually attend.
Thanks very much Ken, for sharing your convention experiences with us. Don’t forget to stop by Ken’s booth and say hi this September.
Until then, if you would like to see more of Ken’s work, check out his website at:
Text © Written In Geek blog (2016) All rights reserved
Pictures © Written In Geek blog or used with subject’s permission (2016)