Monday through Friday, Michael Bracco plays the part of a mild-mannered middle school art teacher. On weekends, he reveals his alter ego: the owner of the company Spaghetti Kiss and creator of the graphic novel series "The Creators." The series follows teens with the power to bring their imaginations to life through their artwork, and is inspired by his students, many of whom struggle in class to express their own internal realities through art.
"I've learned time and time again how much empathy kids build for each other through structured art making, and the book uses that as a jumping point and is an allegory for special education, mental health, and art ed, while still just being a fun, dark sci-fi," Bracco said.
Bracco supports his art by selling merchandise at more than 30 comic book conventions, or comic cons, each year.
On March 30, he set up a booth at Middletown's Galactic Con. The one-day event transformed Appoquinimink High School's 1,600-seat gymnasium into a buzzing marketplace where more than 100 artists and small businesses sold their goods to hundreds of fans.
Galactic Con is the largest privately run event of its kind in Delaware, with an average of 1,500 attendees per year.
"Delaware has a really positive and interesting reputation when it comes to comic conventions," said Bracco, "most of the [cons] are thought of as smaller neighborhood shows that people come out in force to."
"Small neighborhood shows" like Galactic Con hold a special place in the business model of companies like Spaghetti Kiss and creators like Bracco. Galactic's owners, Joe and Sapphira Manzo, designed the event to be an accessible option for locals and young families. Tickets are $5-$10 instead of $40 or more, and vendors like Bracco pay $50-$60 for a table instead of the hundreds they'd pay at a bigger con.
[caption id="attachment_163253" align="aligncenter" width="644"] James Duffendach (left) and Michael Bracco sell comic books and merch at Middletown Galactic Con.[/caption]
That low cost of entry has given small local businesses a pathway to success. After more than half a decade selling comics, toys, and video games at cons like Galactic, Brandon and Katie Coenen of Red Bandana opened their first physical store in Milford in late 2017.
"It's important to me that these small conventions are here," says Katie Coenan, who has volunteered at Galactic since its second year. "A 13-year-old isn't going to go spend $100 and travel five hours, so this is well within his realm of exploring geekdom."
Those opportunities create communities and customers: as of Galactic Con 2019, Red Bandana is getting ready to reopen in a new location, having outgrown the last two storefronts they've occupied in less than three years.
Other businesses embrace the freedom a con-based business provides. Artist, Marine, and Delawarean Ed Cawlo makes his living as Devil Dog Studios, selling his sculptures online and at conventions. Cawlo has been self-employed for just over three years, following his lifelong passion.
I got sick of what I was doing and decided to just do this full time," Cawlo said.
Cawlo can go home with several hundred dollars in his pocket.
Welton Burge, owner and executive editor of the Newark's Smart Rhino Publications, publishes horror anthologies by local Delaware artists. Like Cawlo and Bracco, he doesn't have a brick-and-mortar store, and cons represent a significant portion of sales. "For the types of books that we publish," Burge says, "comic cons are perfect. The kinds of people who come through here understand and enjoy this kind of fiction."
At 6 p.m. the vendors break down their displays. They tally profits and pack up unsold inventory, which they will return to car trunks, garages, storefronts, and closets in preparation of the next con and the next sale.