In May this year, I headed to Canada for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival with my friend and fellow comics maker, Ian Williams (AKA Thom Ferrier). We did some teaching and exhibited and sold our comics. Here is my third and final report from the weekend.
[Edit: in this post, I am speaking mostly about large, UK comic events which claim to represent both mainstream comics and the small-press scene (Thought Bubble, MCM, Kapow, Bristol Expo etc). We do have a host of more diverse, radical and progressive shows in the form of Zine Symposiums, the Alternative Press Fair etc., but this post isn’t about them. I’m going to be writing about those in a forthcoming post].
Now I’m back in the flip-flopping British weather, back at work and the buzz and energy of the TCAF footfall has faded, I thought I’d reflect on what made TCAF so special for me and what, if anything, we can learn from it in the UK context. TCAF is not like any show I’ve done before and I think that can be put down to a few key reasons.
Firstly, the way it is organised. Small touches like a green room for exhibitors, the offer of free refreshments – often delivered to your table; the volunteers manning your table while you needed a break for lunch, or to run a session; a place to get cash change from so you don’t have to send people away from your table; these are all small things in some ways, but incredibly BIG things in others. I make zines for a small audience, but the TCAF organisers and volunteers treated me like a pro and for that I am grateful. UK shows I’ve been to - by oversight or by constraint - haven’t had this kind of service.
Secondly, the sense of pride in the event was palpable. This was underlined by the speeches given by organisers Christopher Butcher, Peter Birkemoe and Miles Baker at the after party on Sunday night. Their caring and thoughtful thanks underlined the faith that the organisers have in the event and all of the people that make it happen. Moreover, the very fact that there were public announcements of thanks to the people involved was a great touch because it created a sense of communal value and ownership of the event. In the UK scene, more often than not the lights come on, the tables come down, and we leave. Perhaps it’s a non-demonstrative, British thing. But thanking everyone, making it part of the celebration, was another simple, but positive touch.
Photo by Ian Williams
Thirdly, the audience was engaged and interested. They didn’t mind moving from table to table and seeing so many different material expressions of comics: photocopied zines, colour comics, books, newspapers, and letterpress prints all sat alongside one another. They happily browsed and flicked and asked questions. I think this is down to the event being free to attend; comics fans mixed with the comics curious, old and young. While I understand the challenge of making an event of this scale both free, and in a public space, must be huge, I think it is incredibly important that this be done wherever possible.
This is because at home we still tend to try and sell comics to comic fans. Don’t get me wrong; I love the audience at British shows, defend utterly their right to express themselves as they will, to be who they want to be in a safe space, but they are not the only audience that a lot of us makers need to access. So the problem is not the presence of comic fans, but the absence of people who are interested in art and stories and publications but don’t, necessarily, see themselves as comic fans. The ones that probably wouldn’t pay for a comics event, or go out of their way to find one. For my part, I need to find more ways of selling outside of the comics audience. That is my responsibility. However, I think British shows need to respond to this as well, or run the risk of losing the patronage of small-press makers who are simply overlooked or undervalued by a mainstream comics audience (more on this in a moment).
Fourthly, the quality of the work on display was incredible, and the attitude of the other makers was positive and encouraging. I understand that as a curated show, there will always be people who were accepted and others that weren’t. As someone who believes that everyone has a voice that is worth listening to, and that said voice can be given expression through comics, regardless of technical ability, it sometimes feels a bit odd to make that suitable/unsuitable distinction - after all, everyone deserves a chance to find an audience. At the same time, however, an element of stratification helps to push, pull, inspire and move makers into a realm where they find that voice (I certainly feel that I wouldn’t have been ‘ready’ for TCAF until this year). Furthermore, the diversity of the featured guests, the number of panels and events supporting events for all kinds makers, for kids, for whomever: this kind of programming is progressive and positive. I’m not even getting into the lack of gender/genre/format etc diversity in shows like KAPOW, Bristol Comics Expo and so on. So yes: curate, but with a light touch, and programme bravely.
Fifthly, and finally, I feel TCAF reflected my attitude to the way in which I make comics and envisage their future. That attitude is this: I don’t want to join an industry, I want to be part of a community. At home, there is often an emphasis on one-way-to-get-into-making-one-type-of-comics at shows, including signings, portfolio sessions and the like with artists or publishers acting as gatekeepers for a specific genre or iterations of comics. For those of us who do not recognise that world – DIY publishers, zine makers, self-publishers who do it because they must and they can – it can be very alienating. At TCAF, however, the emphasis on independently produced work, the DIY aspect of self-publishing, or the high-quality of published work by guests (many of whom began by self-publishing) was refreshing. TCAF seemed, to me, to respect the model.
I think TCAF also emphasised this approach to comics as art over the strange and erratic practices of the ‘mainstream’ comics publishers and the dominant, but over-valued and over-emphasised, genres they peddle. This model isn’t about portfolios or the big two publishers or becoming an illustrator for a big company. It’s about sharing work, experience, ideas with other makers. Some of those makers or fans might be able to help others put more work out there, because they might be publishers, or run a distro, or know someone somewhere who does. I am not saying I don’t want or need to make money from what I am doing. This is not an anti-economic argument. But it’s about the ethics of that economic argument, the willingness to share, understand our collective similarities and differences, and to support one another. It’s about recognising and respecting the artistic imperative to create and narrate, and the multiple voices that produces.
We have some good bigger comics-specific shows in the UK. Thought Bubble really stands out as one of my favourites, and I get the impression that it shares a lot of values with TCAF. I’m excited to see it grow with the expanding market of a whole new host of British comics makers and readers, not bound to traditional preconceptions about what constitutes the tropes of the format.
In conclusion, TCAF left me feeling that I was part of a community of varied, passionate international makers, in a scene with a bright future who respected the breadth of the work being undertaken. I valued the work of the volunteers and the organisers and felt valued and respected by them in return; I recognised the role played by makers and the visiting public in making it a great event, and felt humbled by that too. I’m definitely going to apply for the next one.
You can read TCAF’s official wrap-up post here.
Bad photos of me by Ian Williams (it’s not Ian’s fault they’re bad: I do not photograph well)