The Toronto Comic Arts Festival

Last month I wrote a short piece about my thoughts on the MoCCA festival, the Stumptown Comics Festival and other shows. In it I mentioned how much I’ve liked the Toronto Comic Art Festival, TCAF.  And last week was this year’s TCAF. I went up there with Tom Neely. As usual we had fun at the border. Every year something nuts happens. This year, two of our books were confiscated. Not much to speak about really, but somehow it made more drama than the premiere of Gay Genius.

This year TCAF was just as amazing as the last time we went two years ago. I think I’d like to go every year. The reasons are many. But before I get to them, I’d like to go back in time and talk about the last article I wrote. Most people’s reactions were positive, some people wanted to know “how we can improve the comic convention situation” or why I am not advocating the combination of all worlds of comics into one all inclusive comics show. I need to answer some questions.

My biggest concern is the reaction to the idea of art comix being separate from indy or mainstream comics. Indigo Keleigh said something in his interview with Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter, which really stuck with me: “We’ve got the seasoned pros who make most of their living doing work-for-hire for the big publishers, there’s the indie-comics crowd wanting to work with Oni and Top Shelf, there’s art comix creators, ‘zinesters, webcomics artists, minicomics artists. So many people looking at comics from completely different directions and through different lenses, and it all just boils down to making lines on paper, using words and pictures to tell a story. But these communities are always so fractured here, there’s a terrible lack of crossover among these groups.” One of the hardest things for me to understand when I was younger was why all comics weren’t unified, but as I’ve gotten older it seems clear to me that the kind of comix I’m interested in making and those of a bookstore focused company like Drawn & Quarterly are really different. The difference between Sparkplug and a company like Oni is even further. Not good/bad just different. I still collect John Romita Jr. comics from Marvel. But I’m not a normal comics reader, and I don’t think that the rest of the world should understand why both Roy Crane and Amy Kuttab are geniuses. “Fractured” is more of “many-faceted” and complex, from my point of view. And like the many sections of a good bookstore, I think it is a good thing.

The idea of a show appealing to everyone is something that has been around a long time. Since before the days of APE and SPX. The older shows like Wondercon used to be more inclusive, and so did shows like San Diego Comic Con. The idea of a indy exclusive show is only about a decade or two old. Before that there were some Underground shows. But really, comics shows used to want to include everything. And then APE started. SPX started. It sounds like I’m going to say that was a bad thing. But, for me, it wasn’t. I mean, selfishly I love longboxes. I’ve been going to comics shows since the 70s but yeah, I like old comics a lot. But I’ve never seen the combination as a good thing. Old comics culture is insular, isolationist and exclusive. It isn’t going to ever grow the audience of comics.

I could spend a book arguing this point, and I’m sure there will be disagreement. But, for me I believe it is inarguable that the world of Diamond Comics, Comics Shops and collecting has only served to alienate the general public from comics. Comics movies and tv have opened up the doors, since they are more accessible to the public at large. It has increased a nerd world of comics/pop culture fans. As one friend put it, there are 90,000 comic book readers (a guess) in the world and 7 billion people. Anyway, I digress. I don’t think classic comic shows are a bad idea, and just like in the classic comic shows of yore, I don’t think that shows that mix old, new, art, web, small press, and zine are bad either. I think that was the biggest misinterpretation in the reading of my last piece.

For the kinds of comix that Sparkplug publishes, I feel like things are pretty different nowadays. They are changing. And, there are three shows we regularly go to where I’ve seen the change. At the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, San Francisco Zine Fest and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival things are really different shows. It isn’t that the other shows are bad. The first thing a bunch of people have assumed is that money is what I’m talking about. Making money at a show is important for any comics business or artist. You don’t do shows wanting to lose money. But it isn’t what I’m talking about here. Over the past three shows (TCAF, Stumptown, and MoCCA), all told, Sparkplug has made about the same amount. This is after you factor in travel costs. So, local shows are usually more financially rewarding. If that is what you are going for.

Money wasn’t what I was talking about though. I am talking about shows that reach a wider audience outside of the regular comics 90,000. Of course the next thing I think about is the wide audience that shows like San Diego Comic Con or Emerald City, New York City Comic Con or Wondercon are bringing in. They are doing quite well, financially. They have thousands and thousands of attendees but even my indy comics friends like the wonderful Lisa Eisenberg talks about the real reason for all these people. The William Shatner effect. The mix of pop-culture and comics brings in fans of Dr. Who, Buffy and Zombies (among others). Not bad, especially if making money and lots of foot traffic is the goal. But, I’ve been going to these shows since Wondercon 1987 in Oakland, CA. I’ve exhibited since 1990 or so at them. And, there is a common problem. It is why I’ve decided to quit going to San Diego this year. Getting a wider audience once a year from people who aren’t there to buy comics isn’t as interesting to me as it used to be. Especially when those people aren’t returning the next year. It used to be more interesting because I was happy to get comics into the hands of anyone and make money doing it. But lately, I’m realizing a lot of things.

Sparkplug makes a relatively unique kind of comic. But lately, there is an audience for them. More and more every day. Because of more and more like minded comics being made. I’ve always believed that this would increase the audience for art comics and it seems to be working. I know, this is another digression, I’ll get back to TCAF in a minute. When we started in 2002 there were a handful of small comics publishers, mostly just Alternative Comics, Fort Thunder and Highwater Comics. Drawn and Quarterly had their classic line-up of art/alternative comics. Fantagraphics had been forced to dump many of their best art comics by financial forces. Since 2002 Picture Box started publishing art comics in earnest. Lamano 21, Buenaventura/Pigeon Press, Secret Acres, Bodega, Teenage Dinosaur, Hidden Agenda, Conundrum, Tugboat Press, Revival House Press, Anne Koyama, Ad House and countless other small publishers have all started publishing (and some stopped) publishing books that would qualify as art comix. Even Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have gone after art comix again. This doesn’t even include the rising amount of self-publishers and collectives in art comix. It seems like the more people make art comix the larger the audience is. It is the opposite of the conventional logic in comics. The logic that the audience is finite and that comics fans don’t like experimental bullshit isn’t sound. The truth is that more people from outside comics are reading unconventional comix.

As a fan, publisher, retailer, distributor and artist of unconventional comix I’ve always felt that the rest of comics gave anything that had pretensions of art the short shrift. It isn’t intentional sometimes, it is just that people who like action or humor are often annoyed by shit where they have to figure out what is going on constantly. It makes sense. I don’t always like to read complex stuff. I’m watching a Diehard movie as I write this. But the problem is, I love making art comix. I love everything about them. And it hurts when they get written off over an over again by the wider comics world. And lately, things seem to be really different. There is a growing audience for art comix. But they aren’t the ones who are going to shows like Emerald City, San Diego or Stumptown. People buy them there but it is regular comic audience (at Stumptown) or the pop-culture fans (at San Diego). When I wrote my last piece on conventions I was talking about how I want to do more shows where I’m getting at the art comix audience and less where art comix are all stuck staring at a cement wall next to the bathroom all day. I don’t want to stop doing all shows like Stumptown or SPX, just the ones that cost a lot to get to and are held in hotels or expensive cities. I see encouraging a general young arty public to come to comic shows as increasing the audience for art comix. This isn’t the same audience that goes to the comic book store every wednesday or downloads full sets of Being Human.

I want to really focus on going to shows like MIX in Minneapolis where there seems to be a focus on increasing the attendance by fans of art comix. I need to be clear again though, this isn’t the future of all comics shows and doesn’t need to be where everyone goes. It is where I think art comix should go though, supporting like-minded businesses. It is the same problem I have with small comics stores only buying from Diamond. If you are running a small business you should try to support other businesses like yourself. As a publisher I prefer to work with small stores that support art comix and distributors that carry art comix. Of course, I think it would be stupid not to try and make our business self-sustaining so if we have time we deal with bigger distros and chains. I would never advocate that you should shoot yourself in the foot over values like that. But if you have a chance to support somebody in your same spot, hell yes you should do it.

 The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

Shows like MIX, STAPLE, SPACE, The Olympia Comics Festival (next week!) and the like aren’t going to make you rich but going there supports local scenes and these shows are much more open to art comix than many of the bigger shows. Of course, they still don’t fully reach the wider art comix audience. And that is where TCAF, Brooklyn, and SF Zine Fest come in. Each of these amazing shows has figured out a way to reach the art comix audience. As well as reaching a general public that is interested in art and not pop culture. I rarely get into deep conversations about Jack Kirby or Dr. Who at these shows, unless it is with the exhibitors. More often than not, I end up talking about watercolor techniques, what is going on in town or what it is like to live in Portland, OR.

The crowd at TCAF last weekend was amazing, like it has been since the first time we went four years ago. They are doing something to bring in a group of people who are looking for art. The biggest indicator of this is that at TCAF or SF Zinefest, for me, is a minor thing. People don’t stay in the center of the isle when walking around. People go down the whole row looking at everything. At shows like Stumptown or MoCCA most people are there for specific things, things they know about and know they like. It is almost a badge of honor to avoid looking at “comics I wouldn’t like”.  Another big factor is that those shows are free. I don’t think this means that people are coming in with more money and so they are spending more. I do think it broadens the gene pool.

If I lived in Toronoto, we’d be doing amazing at TCAF. Brooklyn wasn’t a big money show for us this year. SF Zine Fest has always been great. I think the audience is just more open to unconventional comics. I also don’t believe in curated shows being better than non-curated. I don’t think there is any actual factual evidence that they are. All of it is just perception. The only show that switched from non to curated is Stumptown and the attendance was about the same as last year (in spite of what official numbers may have been). It didn’t make the show better, just more complicated and more alienating to a bunch of great creators.

TCAF was packed to the gills with amazing comics of all kinds. Stuff I’d never heard of and even a print room that had tons of amazing hipster multi-colored freak outs. Even zines about bicycles. And of course indy comics like Becky Cloonan and Brandon Graham, loads of different stuff. There wasn’t a Marvel, DC or Darkhorse table. But from my point of view the show brought in tons of new readers and people who were open to all kinds of different comics, most importantly, art comix. If I worked for Darkhorse or thought that Marvel’s survival had anything to do with the future of comics I might be mad. But I don’t.

Tom Neely wrote a much better description of the virtues of TCAF at his blog, I suggest you read it for a real feel of the positive flavor of the show. Tom and I talked a little about the negative aspects of the show, and neither of us really experienced any first hand. I did hear from a friend that the placement of artists wasn’t all that great, and this is a side effect of the curatorial approach of the show. Her table was in between to un-like minded artists who are both really popular and had their fans blocking my friends table. And because it is curated, we don’t really have an idea of who wasn’t at the show. But besides that, a great show was had by all.

The future of comics, for me, is important. And in that, the future of art comix and small business are the most important. Shows like TCAF offer an established venue for personal art comix. This culture is just beginning but the fact that there are three established shows with consistent interest in art comix is pretty amazing, considering 10 years ago there were only two shows in the country for Indy Comics in general. Things are changing. Shows like Olympia Comics Festival and Minneapolis Indy Expo are trying to break new ground and support local scenes. This is a change. Indy shows used to be focused on getting big names to come to their small towns. This doesn’t really work for getting people who don’t know comics, but that is another story.

For now, I just want to say that if you make art comix, you need to try and get a table at TCAF. If you are a fan like me, and want to find the coolest stuff like Zach Hazard or Anne Koyama Press then make sure you go to TCAF next year. You may even find something you’ve never seen or heard of. And if you are in San Francisco on September 3 & 4th, make sure you go to the SF Zine Fest. I don’t think there is some quick fix solution for getting out of the old and into the new. It is more that if you have a vision of what you’d like to see in comics and work for it by doing it yourself and supporting others doing it, it is completely possible. 20 years ago I never would have thought that John Porcellino would have a film crew following him around TCAF, a film crew that was different than the one that is making the documentary about him. Or that there would be a art comix friendly show that was in the downtown Toronoto, Ontario public library.

  The San Francisco Zine Fest