The mystery and joy of BCGF

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By now you’ve already read Tom Spurgeon’s Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival report and my own for PW. Throw in Robert Boyd’s more unhappy piece for triangulation and a complete picture emerges. And there have been dozens of BCGF paeans posted in the intervening 10 days. But for completeness’ sake, some further observations.

This was the third indie show of the year—TCAF and SPX were the other two—where I experienced the complete rapture of falling in love with comics all over again for the first time. Love, death, mystery—when the first time happens all over again, you know you’re in the right place. I wasn’t the only one feeling the love. My favorite Blue Monday tweet conversation went as follows:

bcgfblues.jpgI think everyone was feeling like that on the Monday after. The let down of your cool foreign friends—with their unfiltered ciggies and hand-printed portfolios—going home was a bit of a bummer, but they left behind so much to enjoy.

In its fourth year, BCGF found the right balance of satellite events to make this the mini-comics arts festival that the New York scene has needed for a long time. The centerpiece was really the art shows. I only got to the two curated by Bill Kartalopoulos, but I’ve been to enough of his shows to know that he knows how to put them together.

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Friday’s Ruppert and Mulot show in a still dodgy-looking block of Bushwick was a playful multimedia display, its centerpiece a story about an orgy of the disfigured that viewers could share via 2D animations mounted on old vinyl records and activated on a turntable. A single 3D animation was displayed via a similar mechanism. An entire wall was given over to views of Spider-Man—or perhaps someone in a Spider-Man costume—participating in a circus. I’m not too good at verbalizing art shows with the kind of prose that gets stenciled on the wall, but the Ruppert/Mulot show was very much about making the viewer a participant in the circus concocted by the two French artists. I’ve yet to crack open Barrel of Monkeys, the duo’s longform English language debut, but I’m sure the circus will add a ring or two.

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Sunday it was a show of Olivier Schrauwen, Blexbolex and Richard McGuire at the small Soloway gallery. Way too tiny for such titans, really. Cartoonists and their admirers, still hungover from the previous nights epic loft party, crowded the sidewalk outside, reliving the high with cans of gallery standard PBR. Despite the concise nature of the show, it was a strong statement. McGuire—represented by only two penciled pagesa wall of abstract Popeyes and Olive Oyls— is already well-known; Blexbolex is one of the most breathtaking imagemakers of his generation, and Schrauwen’s disturbing images radiated out of hypnotic abstract patterns. It was a good time.

A more conventional but no less enjoyable good time was had Thursday at Bergen Street Comics’ Koyama Press opening. Fantagraphics’ Jen Vaughn showed off her Carl Barks galoshes—surely the most precious objects ever sold in the Western Hemisphere. People talked about the hurricane, comics, what they were expecting.

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BCGF has matured as the comics it promotes have. This time, it was a little too crowded—and so hot and stinky from hipster armpits that the big festival sign literally peeled off the wall. If it sounds a little swampy and unhealthy it probably was, but how to solve this isn’t readily apparent. Fewer famous guests isn’t the solution—even though Chris Ware, Roz Chast and Adrian Tomine were the “only” US names “big” enough to fill the room, it seemed everyone knew that Spiegelman, Groening, and the other titans of the field would be hanging around and went to see them in action. None of the three founders had any ideas about expanding the show when I quizzed them on Sunday. Of course they needed some sleep and hydration before operating any heavy machinery, but the instinct to stay small is a good one.

The show is run by just three people, really, and making it longer or bigger would require more person-power and I suspect that would dilute the focus. I could see an additional day of panels, maybe held at a different, larger venue with a state of the art projection. But that would do nothing to relieve the crowding on the floor. An additional track of programming, or an official drinking spot (Muchmore across the street?) might hold some of the hordes at bay, but not really. Charging a modest entry fee? That could lessen the crowds to the point where it wouldn’t be as profitable for the participants who rely on the indie circuit.

I don’t want to say BCGF’s success is a problem. Maybe open an hour earlier so exhibitors can check out each other’s offerings? Despite Robert Boyd’s complaints, I’m not sure there are really problems to solve.

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Perhaps the best part of BCGF for me was the programming Kartalopoulos has gone far beyond the 101s most shows offer and well into the grad school level program. Selecting a strong topic for the Ware/Spiegelman/McGuire summit made it more than just another hour of “Where do you get your ideas” and Bill’s facility and intelligent use of slides and PowerPoint was a major participant in the proceedings.
Other panels followed the same general plan. I only caught a portion of the one featuring Blexbolex, Schrauwen, and Lilli Carré, and the subject—using form and color in comics images—seemed abstract but once again the judiciously selected images carried the day.

The final panel was sort of the storytelling one, with Charles Burns, Tim Hensley and Anouk Ricard, and a little too abstract perhaps—”the possibilities and pleasures of crafting narratives that capitalize on the collage-like qualities of the comics form.” I think it was a promising topic that those particular participants weren’t entirely comfortable with.

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Hannah has a detailed write-up of the Ware/Spiegelman/McGuire panel, and it should be noted that Spiegelman and Ware, in particular are engaging speakers with a knack for quotable soundbites that hit hard truths. Despite their dislike of electronic media, they all have to address it, and McGuire’s proposed iPad version of “Here” hints at some breakthroughs. Ware gave out one particular dismissive soundbite—”Some music and a guy waving at you. How is that ‘interactive’?”—but the original idea for his digital comic in McSweeney’s was too complex for the existing technology/money equation. When people really start thinking about all this, we’re going places no one has been before.

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Saturday night’s after party was, as last year’s a packed bacchanalia of cartoonists, beer and cigarette smoke. Walking in from dinner we ran into a party of Kartalopoulos, Ware, McGuire, Spiegelman, and Burns. Entering the venue, the party was already in full swing—it’s safe to say Chris Ware didn’t hang around long, but he was there, as you can see from the above unflattering but accurate picture. As the loudness and smoke factor grew, the party become more and more of a challenge, but I found it impossible to leave, surrounded by so many smart people and great conversations about partnerships, and the hurricane, and the melting ice caps and Hergé.

As I told more than a couple of people, we are really in a place I could only have dreamed of a few years ago. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life trying to make comics more respected and more rewarding for the creators, and after the TCAF/SPX/BCGF acronym tour, I feel like we succeeded. And it was a total group effort. And finally the issues being raised weren’t margins or distribution or bad retailers or crappy publishers. We finally got back to the meat.

Twice on panels I heard people talking about mystery. Carmela Chergui formerly of L’Association and now of Fremok, spoke about finding books to publish. “We try to do things that have mystery and are sacred and beautiful. You can never explain why you are in love with someone and we want to do the same thing with books.” Earlier Blexbolex had explained his evolving art style. “When I put in a black line, it removed all the mystery.”

The current enthusiasm for the comics medium is propelled by an engine of fine works by a worldwide legion of thoughtful creators who engage with mysteries and life and death and love. These works have depth and satisfy. Many of them were on display at BCGF, and despite the often rambunctious hijinks of the participants, so many are young and engaged and trying to figure these things out on the page. It’s invigorating. Maybe I was just on a high myself, but events surrounding the show seemed steeped in mysteries and joys as well.
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A few reports have made allusion to a health scare suffered by one of the older participants in the festivities. I am told there was a collapse and C.F., he of Powr Mastrs fame, jumped in with an EMT-worthy display of CPR. The collapse happened with many of the giant of comics standing by. In my mind’s eye I imagine it a bit like Benjamin West’s depiction of the death of General James Wolfe except a) it wasn’t on a battlefield b) no one died. I picture the event something like the above only with the faces of Spiegelman, Ware, Dash Shaw and Gilbert Shelton superimposed. There’s something quite poetic in the idea of a younger cartoonist jumping up to fight for the life of an older one, and I’m going to stick with it.

This being a primarily young and single crowd, other mysteries involved affairs of the heart. At one point at the big party I spotted two cartoonists who live in far flung areas surreptitiously holding hands. You have to take these things where you can get them, and all the signs were right. Comics YOLO.

Despite Tom Spurgeon’s all too accurate observation that the kids don’t blog any more, there have been many spot on posts about the show. It was that wonderful. And most of them try to get at that central mystery and joy. As we head into the gloomy, seasonally affect gloom of winter, checking back on Tom’s Collected Memory to buoy spirits might not be a bad idea. Here are a few that struck me.

I do not know the work or the person of ∅livia F∅x but her aggressively flashing modernist Tumblr makes me want to, and made this message all the more touching:

Hello, this is my third year checking out this con, first time tabling. It’s always made me very happy. As a weirdo multimedia artist, the whole ~~GRAPHICS~~ part makes me feel very included. Also, I find it to be a unique (and mangeable) crowd comprised of creative, innovative types that cultivate excitement and smart discussion. I tabled with some truly inspirational humans, check all them out at CRYSTAL CLUB. Overall I felt warmth and acceptance, which is something I haven’t been feeling in the other places I inhabit. I drifted around person to person like a happy cloud.

 

Secret Acres’ Leon Avelino writes yet another one of his disgustingly well-written and insightful columns, but this time its set against the reality of cold, dark ruined homes that so many of those in the Northeast have had to deal with.

Barry and I left the gang at the table and went to get pizza, maybe some of the best pizza in the city, which is up the block from the show. We ate in silence. This has been perhaps the worst and most difficult year of both of our personal lives, featuring abandonments, deaths and, just recently, devastating natural disaster. Throw in this kind of chaos, a panicked lack of preparation and days worth of unraveling, and you are looking at the kind of seething exhaustion and resentment that renders conversation impossible. We were having our best show ever, in many respects. Secret Acres is having a year so strong, it makes us feel schizophrenic when we step out of the hive mind and back into real life. Still, right then, it didn’t matter much. We were completely drained. We weren’t Secret Acres or the hive mind, we were just two guys eating pizza.

As I did at TCAF this year, Avelino found fellowship and a safe haven in his comics comrades:

Standing in the after party, knowing that we had just set a single day’s sales record, watching Mickey Z, the Hottest Chick in the Game, get her ass kicked by Lale Westvwind and finally getting caught up with the kids and the old guard, and those folks who are my family in this, our little, wonderful corner of the world, I felt blessed.

For an even sweeter reduction of the essence of the show, Rina Ayuyang’s report captures the spirit of wonder and joy, quoting old time songwriter Vernon Duke for a title as she wanders around a damaged but resilient city, seeing sights, eating pork belly, meeting friends old and new, and seeing everyone being happy about comics.

Being happy about comics. There was a long time where I couldn’t write those words with a straight face. Now it’s our usual state.

Now, as I’m a fatalist at heart, I feel like there’s a pretty good chance that the van we’re all riding in is going to stall on the railroad tracks just as a freight full of chickens bound for slaughter is barreling down at us, and we’re all going to get killed in a horrible accident just as a surprise shock and badly written ending. But until that happens, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this day.

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A few more links that I wanted to mention:

Kris Mukai has THE perfect picture of the show if you can make out some of the faces.
Jen Vaughn always has great write-ups.
As does D&Q’s Julia Pohl-Miranda

A nice Flickr set
And Inkstud’s Robin McConnell has a great photo set from BCGF and the previous week’s Short Run.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] it was off to the After Party at Cartoon House, where show organizer Bill K (among others) hangs his hat. It was pretty insane. Good times, I [...]

  2. [...] In a mostly enraptured piece on the state of comics c Brooklyn Comics and Grahpics Fest 2013 I wrote [...]

  3. [...] show will be back in some form…it was already one of the best days in comics in the year and I for one will miss it terribly. [...]

  4. [...] show will be back in some form…it was already one of the best days in comics in the year and I for one will miss it terribly. [...]

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