Grand Comics Festival 2013, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

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[ photo: Blaise Larmee, me, and Colleen Frakes man our GCF tables, by Pat Dorian. ]

The inaugural Grand Comics Festival was, in many regards, my favorite kind of fest.

  • It was small. Small enough that you could see the entire show at a liesurely pace, talk to pretty much everyone, and become at least passingly familiar with all the work on display. If you go to festivals for their social (rather than commercial) component, small shows are where it’s at.
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    It was good. This was a spectacularly well-curated show.* As Matt “Hic & Hoc” Moses put it, “There was not a single table that did not have awesome-looking stuff.”

  • It was cheap. Of course, I’m writing this in new York, where an implied “relatively” always precedes the word “cheap.” Exhibitors paid $50 for their slivers of table, which is actually kind of a lot for such a small and new show. But it was still inexpensive enough that I didn’t have to worry much about sales (which turned out to be key to enjoying the weekend).

    And I’m always happy to pay more for my table if it means I’m subsidizing people getting in the door. Speaking of which:

  • It was free to attend. I wish this were a given for small press shows. Because I really enjoy the Renegade Craft Fair, but if it had a door fee I wouldn’t even bother to go in and wander around. And people already know they like crafts. Self-published comics don’t yet have that much going for them.
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    It was nearby. Obviously this is a solipsistic compliment. But after all the traveling I’ve done in recent months to introduce folks to Old Town, walking to a show on a breezy morning was pretty much the best thing ever. I strolled through the McCarren Greenmarket for breakfast and snacks on my way to Williamsburg, stopping to smile at puppies and breath in the sweet summer smog, carefully selecting the right Instagram settings for it all.

  • It was neighborhood-y. With the proliferation of alt comics shows around the country, I find I increasingly value those that in some meaningful sense belong to their locations. But for a few well-chosen out-of-town rock stars (including my talented and prolific table-neighbor, Colleen Frakes), GCF was basically a survey of local talent. The show’s exhibitor list, its location in a community-focused arts space, its visibility and accessibility from the street, the many locally familiar faces among attendees, and the vast array of delicious food available within a 60 second walk of the venue combined to make the whole event feel very much of North Brooklyn. It felt like it was ours.
  • It was minicomicsy. Look, I know that non-micro publishers and printers-on-demand need to sell books, too. But unique hand-made small-batch artisinal comics** are why I fell in love with alt-comics fests, and they’re what keep me coming back.

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    Every table at Grand Comics Festival boasted work that was both interesting and hard to come by; it wasn’t like you could go home and get these things from Amazon later. Every table, including those representing small publishers and Distros like Hic & Hoc, Retrofit, and Birdcage Bottom, was manned by a creator; no one was being paid to like the work they were selling. And perhaps because few of us were selling books we’d bought from our publishers, it was the most trade-friendly show I’ve done in a long, sad time, and I came home with a killer pile of comics to read, as well as a lot of new friends, and influences, and maybe even readers. For me, that’s what it’s all about.

As far as I can tell, the show was organized and executed primarily by a single person, and I hope Pat Dorian is as impressed with what he was able to pull off as the rest of us are. I also hope he didn’t burn himself out, because I’d love to do this again next year.

So what’s a cartoonist to whine about?

My only real complaint was attendance. For the crowds that came, it probably should have been a one-day show.***

This is a common pitfall in our little corner of the world. Because we as a community have not yet done an adequate job persuading non-comics-makers that we have something to offer them, we give the unpaid, thankless organizers of the events we so depend on an uphill battle just getting people in the door. GCF seemed to take an all-social-media approach to promoting the show, which generated very high awareness of the event within a fairly small network. But as I bombed my various social feeds with reminders about the show on Saturday morning, friends who lived literally right around the corner from the event were asking me what and where it was.

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The result was a show basically by and for cartoonists. Fortunately, there are enough cartoonists in Brooklyn to pull that off. But even Saturday afternoon, when the crowd was solid and the room was noisy, the attendees seemed to be largely other comics folks who happened not to be exhibiting. I’m certainly not complaining about getting to chat with comics buds like Darryl Ayo (at right, blurry because of his feverish excitement about comics and not because I suck or anything), Marguerite Dabaie (who joined forces with Robyn Chapman and Ellen Lindner to form an unstoppable cat eye trifecta which, having not yet met Ellen, I sadly felt too creepy to document), and Brendan Leach. But for a neighborhood show like this one, it would have been nice to get some more of the neighborhood mixed in there. Obviously, someone has to pay for these things, but some posters in the bodegas and lunch-counters around the block would probably have helped.

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The irony here is that all of GCF’s aforementioned assets made this the kind of show to which I was excited to invite my non-comics friends. It was small enough that they didn’t get overwhelmed before finding anything they liked (as they invariably do at MoCCA), and good enough that even those with little exposure to comics could easily discern what about the medium has so captured my heart and ignited my imagination. That it was free and close and located in a fun, food-rich area meant I was actually able to get some of them to show up (although fewer than might have had it not also been my ten-year college reunion weekend (which I was skipping)).

Increasingly, I find myself hoping comics festivals will be effective evangelists for what we do. I know we make a lot of things that many more people could love than actually do. It’s time to find those people and show them what we have to offer, and our little comics parties/pop-up marketplaces can be a venue in which that happens.

The floor

This was a great show not just for the talent of the exhibitors but for their universal swellness. I tabled between Colleen and Blaise Larmee, who was a gracious neighbor despite the fact that pages from my first comic have been sullying his Google Image results since a shared review from Rob Clough years back.

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[ a monster mangled by J.t., C.M., and me. ]

To my left were my humbling Greenpoint neighbors Chris “C.M.” Butzer and Jen Tong, both of whom were selling elaborately screenprinted posters and comics like nothing I’ve seen before, as well as a risographed mini about Mexican wrestling cats made collaboratively with their studiomates. They also instigated during the slower hours several rounds of exquisite corpse, a game which inexplicably but reliably turns cartoonists into overachievers.

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[ Andrea, Alexander, and Keren flash their winning smiles at unsuspecting buyers-to-be. ]

To my right were R. Sikoryak of pop-classical mash-up Masterpiece Comics fame and Kriota Willberg with her elaborate and biologically precise infominis, whose dinner conversation, incidentally, is beyond compare. And just beyond were my book party pals Alexander Rothman and follow MoCCA Award honoree Andrea Tsurumi, who, along with Andrea’s crazy talented SVA classmates**** Keren Katz and Molly Brooks, had assembled a beautiful new collection of full-color comics poetry comprising a broad range of styles, techniques, and influences.

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[ Jess, Sophia, and Chewie. ]

Across the way were J.t. Yost, Jess Ruliffson, Jess Worby, and Sophia Wiedeman, all of whose work was well worth staring at for a couple afternoons.

Other noteworthy exhibitors included everyone else. Seriously.

Recommended Reading

As I was saying, lots of great trades. Too many, alas, to discuss them all (though I’d like to). But a few really demand mention:

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Post by Molly Brooks is so well-executed I’m not sure where to begin praising it. Molly’s lines are loose and lively but accurate, her palette limited but versatile in its utility. Her faces are expressive and her figures are dynamic. Her dialogue is believable and naturally rhythmic and lettered in an absurdly charming hand. And her title is a clever little double-entendre, to boot.

The story is totally self-contained, but I’ll be excited if she revisits its world and characters.

***

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Having read some of J.t. Yost’s bleaker comics stories, I was a little surprised to discover how jovial and generally delightful he is in person. I was excited, then, to read Thinger Dingers, an appropriately named collection of his odds and ends. Ranging from memoir to talking animals and from personal tragedy to situational comedy, this comic reads a lot like chatting with its creator; his sense of humor, his affection for melancholy and morbidity, his thoughtful intellect, and his driving moral center all come through clearly. These comics manage to present some pretty serious subjects (the troubling roots of beloved traditional music, for example) without losing their playfulness and whimsy. Good stuff.

***

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In this post-Sandman era, a lot of writers and artists and directors have sought to build worlds vast enough to contain the multitude and diversity of human storytelling. Sophia Wiedeman attempts something roughly opposite that ambition in The Lettuce Girl, braiding a tangle of folk tales and traditional themes into a single, strong, cohesive story. It has echoes of Spirited Away and Into the Woods, but its own ominous tone and richly textured visual vocabulary. I tore through the existing three issues, each of which is more compelling than the last.

Until next time…

which is like two days from now, in Chicago. CAKE will mark the end of Old town’s unnecessarily long and far-flung introductory tour, after which it’s back to the drawing board until S.P.X.

I have half-finished write-ups in the cue for the rest of this spring’s festivals, so maybe some of those will make it onto the blog soon. But you know, I wouldn’t hold my breath about it.

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Notes

* In theory, I prefer un-curated shows; I don’t much value exclusivity, having seen how it stagnated so many other corners of the art world and alienated their audiences. Ours is a participatory scene, where those who love comics are generally encouraged to make their own. Because anyone really can make comics; they’re the acoustic guitar of narrative forms, inexpensive and accessible and immediately rewarding. That we invite everyone to play along is one of my favorite things about us.

But this openness, combined with the relative obscurity of what we do, has caused growing pains for basically every alt comics show this side of Niagara Falls. If we learned anything from this year’s SPX registration imbroglio, it’s that pretty much everyone who shows up at an indie comics festival would like to be behind a table. And from several other recent shows, we’ve learned that when everyone who wants a table gets one, we stand around staring at each other most of the day.

Let me be the first to admit that I started tabling well before I had enough to offer festival attendees. I occupied valuable space that could have gone to other artists and generally degraded the quality of the floors on which I was exhibiting. And while those were valuable and humbling learning experiences for me, maybe some of those shows should have had gatekeepers telling me “not yet.” I wouldn’t want every show to work that way, nor would I want all curated shows to use the same methodology to weed through prospective exhibitors. A diversity of tactics is key. But in general, I think a 100% lottery isn’t the best way to serve attendees, and we’re already not serving attendees well enough.

** what we would call our minicomics if we had any marketing sense.

*** I say this even though, as a rule, I much prefer two-day shows. It’s nice to spend a little longer reaping the benefits of all the prepratory work involved. And it gives us cartoonists a little longer to work up the courage to speak to one another.

**** This was a really SVA-heavy show. Not being a member of that particular clan, I’m not entirely sure why. But damn, that illustration MFA churns out a lot of killer artists, right?

  1. Robbi:

    Great write-up. It almost makes me sorry I don’t live in Brooklyn. As always, your reviews are compelling, thorough, and really thoughtful. Someday, I hope you can make a living doing it, because you’re really good at it.

    Your comics are alright too (and shush with the “I generally degraded the quality of the floors” nonsense. Though your comics have become more lovely and interesting over time, your starting bar was well above most).

    Also: you are frickin’ damn straight about those SVA students. They’re amazing.

    Reply...

    • Kenan:

      Well, pretty much every one of your blog posts makes me wish I lived in Chestertown. This was a retaliatory maneuver.

      And I, too, hope I can someday make a living doing something.

      Reply...

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