In 1968, Robert Crumb patrolled the intersection of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, selling copies of his comic Zap out of a baby carriage. On October 3, 2002, I stood on the corner of Broad and Wall Street in New York City, selling copies of my comic Titans of Finance out of a Nike sports bag. How times have changed.
But still, one thing remains the same: if you try hard enough, you can find your audience. I was there with hundreds of other folks for Ralph Nader’s “Crackdown on Corporate Crime” rally. Nader’s goal was to “focus attention on the vast array of corporate misdeeds and to propose sound remedies that will help shareholders, taxpayers, workers, and consumers tame the reckless and out-of control corporate bosses.” Nader was joined by such progressive luminaries as former NYC mayoral hopeful Mark Green, NY Green Party Gubernatorial Candidate Stanley Aronowitz, singer/songwriter Patti Smith, and talk show host Phil Donahue.
Needless to say, this was a perfect opportunity for me to hawk Titans, billed as “True Tales of Money & Business,” featuring stories of greed, betrayal and indictments, and starring folks like Revlon chairman (and ex-Marvel Comics owner) Ron Perelman, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, and bond trader Monroe Trout. As Pete Seeger says, “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose.” Last September, when the book came out, the last thing people wanted to read was business-world satire. After all, we had just seen thousands of Wall Streeters massacred in the fall of the World Trade Center. But, a year later, what with the Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Haliburton scandals leading the business news every day, there’s a built-in audience for what writer R. Walker & I have to say.
You see, despite Titans being favorably mentioned in the New York Times, Money magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Kiplinger’s and Fortune Small Business, we’ve had very limited sales, somewhere in the 1500-2000 range. Obviously, this is because the book targets those with an interest in the business world (and a good sense of humor) — not your typical comics specialty store customer. But Barnes & Noble won’t carry it because it fits neither of their rigid definitions of a book or a magazine, and how else to get eyeballs? Well, with Nader’s rally, I had finally found my audience.
The day was overcast, giving the tall downtown buildings a gray brooding presence as the crowds began to gather. A giant pink inflatable pig dominated the intersection in front of Federal Hall and the Stock Exchange. The police had set up barricades, sending demonstrators out in two directions away from the stage, yet still allowing passers-by to reach their destinations.
As rally organizers got things going and folks started to congregate for the speeches, people of all political stripes and agendas began to appear. There were your expected bands of Green Party student activists, the obligatory Socialist Worker flacks and miscellaneous single-issue protestors. As I donned my “costume” of suit, tie and sandwich board and prepared to enter the fray, I was joined by Pot Whore, a blond-wig-red-lipstick-wearing woman in a g-string and black bra. She bought the first copy, and I was on my way.
My buddy and fellow cartoonist volunteered to be my sidekick for the event, and I couldn’t have done it without him. As a freelancer who more often than not works in his underwear, I found the oppressive monkey suit (a $5 thrift store purchase from my college days) a real challenge to endure. But Dean kept me on topic, spied out the best venues for prospective sales and steered copies into the hands of interested buyers. My sales pitch stressed that Titans featured real stories of corporate CEOs, all taken from the business pages, hand-drawn by yours truly. People were intrigued by the sandwich board’s slogans and my verbal hawking and came over to see what I had to offer. Over 90% of them ended up buying a copy. Many people were excited to buy directly from the artist, and I even signed a copy and did a sketch for one middle-aged woman (using Dean’s broad back as a writing surface, natch). Always looking to do my part in the fight against corporate greed, I sold the book for $3.00 — 50 cents off the cover price.
What was wonderful about the rally was how diverse it was. I sold books to people you wouldn’t see in a comic shop in a hundred years: middle-aged working class black men, red diaper baby boomers, college-age radicals, and activist grandmas. In two hours time, I sold almost 40 copies, more than I’ve vended — total — at three separate comic conventions (Baltimore, MOCCA, and SPX). I love the idea of all those disparate people taking the book home and enjoying the fruits of my labors, having a laugh at some of the stories inside, and maybe even learning a thing or two about the business world.
At one point, Dean reached across the barricades to show Titans to some local stock traders, who were lounging outside the Exchange watching the rally. “Hey, number 273,” Dean yelled to one, “Check this out! You might like it.” “I wouldn’t wipe my ass with that shit,” the trader retorted before he stomped off in anger. Apparently, he didn’t approve of our implicit criticism of the hyper-capitalist system. Dean grinned and shrugged, and we immediately sold a few copies to some nearby observers.
My suit-and-tie outfit must have given me some kind of goofy look of authority because at one point a very well-dressed man approached me for help. It turned out he was Lebanese, newly arrived from the old country, and was anxious to meet his long-lost relative Ralph Nader! You see, his grandfather and Ralph’s father were brothers, and this man hoped I could arrange a family reunion. He even pulled out a beaten-up copy of the 1973 book, Citizen Nader, showing me a chronology of the Nader family which proved that Nader’s father had immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1912. I was touched by this family drama but admitted I had no special access to Nader. I encouraged him to try talking to Ralph after the rally, handed him a free copy of Titans, and sent him on his way.
Finally, the speeches over and the strains of Smith’s “People Have the Power” echoing away, the crowd started to disperse. Dean and I headed up Nassau Street to start the journey home to Brooklyn. I felt like I had achieved a small but significant victory. What had begun as a publicity stunt had mutated into a full-fledged “marketing success:” I had found my audience, and they had responded.
To top it off, as we left the Federal Hall/Stock Exchange area, Ralph Nader himself, with entourage, passed by. I pressed a copy of Titans into his hands and gave him a quick spiel. As we walked off in opposite directions, Dean looked back and remarked, “Hey, Nader’s reading the book — not listening to the guy talking to him anymore!”; What more could a humble cartoonist want?[ here’s man-size’s version ]