TCAF 2013 wrap-up: 96% good

BKWEmSmCMAErY46.jpg large TCAF 2013 wrap up: 96% good
[Above illo via and © Matt Wiegle]

As usual I’m the very last out of the gate with my TCAF wrap-up (although I was early with my newsier report). But like many I feel compelled to write a memoir about it because it was so generally awesome. Last year’s TCAF — my first—was among the top five comics-related experiences of my life, and maybe partly because I hyped it so much, more people I knew made the first time trek this year. TCAF ’13 wasn’t quite as glorious as TCAF ’12, but it was still fairly glorious. But I also heard the phrase “growing pains” quite a bit. In my estimation the Toronto Comic Arts Festival is now the #2 North American show in terms of global comics and cartoonists—Comic-Con International will always be #1 just because of its scope and stellar guest list. But even this year they won’t have Boulet and David B. and Taiyo Matsumoto and Rutu Modan and Glyn Dillon and Michel Rabagliatti. (I will throw in an aside here and point out that New York Comic-Con could easily be the #2 international show since everyone from Europe shows up to drink, but spotlighting them isn’t really part of the show’s focus.)

I think I covered most of the salient business points re TCAF in my PW piece: sales were mostly good, the line-up of books was extraordinary, the day for librarians and educators gave the show an added dimension, and the focus on comics as the are READ by readers gave it an optimistic air that’s hard to top. I didn’t get to talk to as many people as I wanted, but that’s because when I walked around the floor, customers and readers were lined up three deep around most tables. It was hard to find time and space to chitter chatter. The two after parties I attended were also a little too hectic for too much spontaneous hanging (I liked last year’s Saturday venue better) but once a show hits a certain size, having a party where everyone shows up just isn’t possible. I did chance into the “grown ups” table a few times, where Art Spiegelman and Chester Brown and Gilbert Hernandez were hanging out and talking about this and that, and that was a thrill and a privilege.

Tom Spurgeon’s TCAF report is quite comprehensive, covering as it did the two most important events of the show: Peter Birkemoe’s formal shorts suit and Paul Pope lending his hat to Spurgeon. I’m kidding, but those still were highlights. If SPX is comics summer camp and Comic-Con is it’s Cannes, then TCAF is its family reunion. “Did you SEE what Helen was wearing!” “Uncle Buster is hitting the Fort Thunder again.” You know, that kind of thing.

Anyway, Tom went into details on the programming problems. The programming was done late and some people were non plussed at having to cram overnight for panels featuring some of the world’s all time greatest cartoonists. Tom wrote:

+ I stopped counting between 25 and 30 the number of people that sought me out to complain to me about the way programming was executed, which is an astonishing number to me. I probably got about 40 such complaints, and maybe got three more about other things the entire show. Seventy-five percent of the people saying something said so in an apologetic way. No one seemed to be axe grinding. A couple of people thought that programming was executed so poorly in a way they felt like TCAF itself and its good name was being used as a way to indulge some poor practices (a good-looking date that’s 45 minutes late because they can be), that people would be more likely not to flip the fuck out at being listed in a program without being directly consulted because they love TCAF. Others expressed the idea that they were so many good people on hand, so many competent comics folks, that this saved a lot of what could have been disastrous about these kinds of hassles.

murderers row1 TCAF 2013 wrap up: 96% good

I think this basically covers the alpha and omega of it. Upon my arrival Thursday in Toronto, I was also immediately and consistently assailed by people expressing alarm over the late panel assignments, which which still changing right at the fest. At one point, I stole away the Debuts panel (above) from the estimable Brigid Alverson because I was familiar with more of the books on the panel, and it went okay—how could a panel with Rutu Modan, Matt Kindt, Jess Fink Michael DeForge, C.F. and Pat McEown not go well? (Kindt had laryngitis thought and could only whisper into a mike.) It would have been better if it has had slides, but no one had time for that. After the panel all of the participants were flipping through each others books because none of them, except maybe DeForge and C.F., even knew the others work. It was a very sweet moment.

Anyway, I spoke with both programming coordinator Gina Gagliano and TCAF director Chris Butcher at the show about the programming. Both of them acknowledged the problems immediately and pledged it that steps would be taken to assure it didn’t happen again. Since they are both smart competent people there’s no reason to think this won’t be the case. Chris also responded to Tom’s comments here:

But yes, the programming was very late this year, mostly down to my being sick for a week or two a few months ago back, and that throwing our schedule off badly. Ultimately, we had to make a decision whether to lean on our exhibitors, guests, and friends to make the full programming happen for our attendees, or to just skip large parts of it for this year and disappoint the public. We leaned on people, and I don't blame them for not appreciating the extra weight. Programming Coordinator Gina Gagliano and I have already drafted a letter to the folks who were actually a part of the programming (moderators, subjects, participants) that is part thank-you, part-explanation, and part apology, for how things went down behind the scenes this year. It'll be going out Monday. I screwed up, I take full responsibility. Next year will be different and better.


I just received the letter, and yeah, moving on.

That said, I’d cosign on the idea that people were complaining but not upset or on the warpath (well, a few were) because everyone loves the show and likes Chris and Gina so much. If this had happened at certain other shows, the complaining would have been public and relentless.

In another long long post, attendee/cartoonist Dustin Harbin splits the difference between Chris and Tom and I think his comments are worth noting in light of his years of experience helping run HeroesCon, but he takes a different and very, very germane tack:

Gina Gagliano does not get paid for running the programming at TCAF. I actually had a conversation with her in the bar on Friday night about that, discussing how that economy works. It’s an economy I hate. I hate that Gina Gagliano doesn’t get paid to run that programming. I’m sure she would disagree; I’m only guessing, but I’m a good guesser, and I’d guess she’s happy to donate her time because she believes in TCAF and feels like it’s a way she can add value to the show and benefit it. It’s enormously expensive to put on a show the size or quality of TCAF, especially when there’s no entry fee, thus no profit for the promoters beyond cultural profit and some advertising value. So someone like Gina gives her time, which is of course commendable.


I think the main thing about TCAF in light of growing pains is that…it isn’t intended to be a money making venture. They don’t charge admission and, as I understand it, they don’t charge for tables either Thank god, they do, they do. The show is sponsored by the comics shop The Beguiling, and by the many mysterious ways that Canada supports the arts. O Canada, God keep our comics shows glorious and free.

I don’t think anyone running TCAF doesn’t know how important it has become for the economies of the publishers and cartoonists who attend. And I don’t think they are unaware that doing such a thing on an unpaid volunteer basis leads to problems. Hello (and goodbye), Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival.In a conversation on Sunday, Chris Butcher hinted that some structural changes would be made, and I have no reason to suspect that they won’t be sensible and positive.

In a larger sense, the indie comics circuit has reached a size and import that makes a few kids putting on a show not really feasible at the highest levels. (Although that’s happening in a few weeks, too.) Comics are a larger part of the cultural fabric of more places now. Embassies and arts councils are more involved. People travel from Malaysia and Australia. God forbid that America support the arts on an institutional basis, but we love our toys and stickers and support the creators of properties that lend themselves to toys and stickers.

I read a lot of TCAF reports, and a couple of things jumped out at me. #1 is that one person’s Dash Shaw is another person’s Art Spiegelman; many cartoonists who emerged in the last 10 years are heroes to their followers. Another is that although TCAF was an overwhelmingly positive experience about comics of most kinds (but not superheroes) some people still had to engage with it in a different way. So with that in mind, a few quotes:

§ Brad McKaye has a looong report on The Doug Wright Awards complete with video. A second part is promised.

§ Here is a very happy reader named Joey Comeau who got to meet Matsumoto:

And then he did a SECOND sketch in my other book, as an apology for the Kimura sketch he thought was somehow less than his best? (I love it!) He kept apologizing to Jocelyne for taking longer than he was supposed to take per person, and I had such a huge grin on my face the whole time. I do NOT get antsy around celebrities, usually. I just figure they’re regular people like you and me, because, you know, they are. So all this ridiculous nervousness and then euphoria took me completely by surprise. It was such a great experience though. Afterward I felt like I was gonna cry.

§ Cartoonist Oliver East’s show involved much walking and blisters, and excellent tablemates:

Dash Shaw bought a copy of Proper Go Well High and I signed it for Dash Shaw and now Dash Shaw has one of my books. Dash Shaw.

§ Self confessed DC enthusiastRab Townsendwas disoriented.

As soon as I entered the Toronto Reference Library, where exhibitors were all set up, I realized that this was a place where there were going to be a lot of people brushing up against me, and that they were all far more interested in the independent graphic novel/cartoonist scene than I. This filled me with an overwhelming angst; a self awareness that made me feel as though the pleather jacket I was wearing was entirely inappropriate, despite the unseasonable FUCKING HAIL STORM that was happening in the middle of May. In any case, I wandered around, trying to figure out just how exactly I was supposed to comport myself when it appeared as though everyone else there knew exactly what they had to do: stand in front of tables and look interested.


Townsend managed to meet a few DC and webcartoonists he admired however.

§ Scott Vanderploeg of Comic Book Daily also adjusted expectations but came away happy:

TCAF focuses on indie and non-mainstream comics and creators, and to be honest that’s not really my interest. While I don’t read much if anything from Marvel or DC I enjoy non-superhero works from Image, Dark Horse, Humanoids, Fantagraphics, IDW, and many more. I guess that makes me a mid-stream reader, foregoing all imagery that might conjure. After the show Saturday a bunch of us went out and they were sharing in the small press and self-published works gleefully purchased that day and I realized I wasn’t a fan of any of it. What then brings me to TCAF every year?  Fantagraphics, SelfMadeHero and Blank Slate are three publishers whose work I really enjoy, and they have a lot of their catalogue available for browsing. And that is a strong reason to attend: the chance to look at books that are rarely carried by retailers. Flip through them, get a feel for the work and experience what you probably only saw as a cover on a website. Plus these publishers usually bring along creators to sign and sketch in their books.

I don’t mean to dwell too much on these fish out of water stories…whether it was kids freaking out over being in the same building as the Homestuck guy or people lining up for Gengoroh Tagame, good times were flowing. I’ll leave cartoonist Becky Cloonan to sum it up:

I always have so many starstruck moments of meeting artists I am totally in awe of, and then having like, conversations where I’m wiping the dribble off my chin. Bought hundreds of dollars of comics, and swapped books with a few people! Got my copies of SPERA signed by Josh Tierney, Afu Chan (omg!) Kyla Vanderklugn (OMG OMG!) Aaah! I met Yuko Ota and Rebecca Mock and Sam Hiti and and and got my Tiny Kitten Teeth signed by Becky and Frank, and I can’t wait to wear the leggings that Dani Vulnavia made and gave to me! AAAaaaahh!! So much awesome. So little time.

[snip] This was just an awesome weekend. I know I am neglecting to mention a ton of people, but don’t be upset- the memory of TCAF 2013 lives on in my heart as a golden treasure I will relive over and over in my dreams. Now I gotta get some dinner in me, sorry dudes I’m hungry.


In closing I want to thank my roomie for the weekend, Deb Aoki, who is one of the smartest, nicest human beings I’ve ever met and just about the perfect person to share a great comics experience with. And TCAF ’13 was, above all, a great comics experience.

Comments

  1. Tables are not free at TCAF — I mean, I’m sure they are at a certain level; Taiyo Matsumoto did not need to settle up after the show. But they are paid tables for regular exhibitors. I would estimate — and this is just my estimate, not knowing anything really besides the broad strokes of how these things work — that the revenue from table fees does not come close to paying for the whole show. TCAF is free to the public, and I think that’s a huge part of what makes it so magical — but it also means there isn’t the buffer there that admission can cover, in terms of cost overruns, salaries, etc.

    I’d also like to clarify a little bit — it is perhaps not entirely clear in my post that TCAF was wonderful for me. It improves every year, and it improved this year. Even though it sounds like I’m delighted that there exists any criticism of TCAF, I myself consider the show to be peerless, impeccably well-run, and extremely well-conceived. I wish more shows had as their worst organizational problem “panels were announced/changed later than usual” or “there are a lot of people at this party.”

    Also I would reiterate that, while maybe the year-to-year jump in quality and zing might have been less this year, for me it only seems that way because *every* *year* has been a giant leap forward, and this year was a regular leap forward. 20% better than last year, and 50% better than every other show, as opposed to 50% better than last year, and 100% better than every other show.

    There are worse problems to have :)

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