TCAF report (part 3 of 3)

TCAFter

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].

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

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)



TCAF report (part 1 of 3)

Pre-CAF

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. This is the first of three posts about my trip.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

After an extremely difficult 4am start, and a wholly insufficient four hours of sleep, I managed to marshal my faculties sufficiently to get to Bristol airport. What followed was eighteen hours of aeroplanes, Parisian airport food, Parisian airport navigation failures, Parisian airport shuttle buses and food in little trays, Canadian buses and subways, and a grateful arrival in our hotel in downtown Toronto. I had met my comics comrade, and roommate for the week , Ian Williams, at Paris CDG, and soon after arriving in Toronto, he got in touch with Suley Fattah, man behind Drawing the Line. Suley promptly appeared at the hotel to give us a driving tour of downtown: Yorkville, the frat houses, the Royal Ontario Museum, the streets. We met his wife, magician Julie Eng, and her colleague David Ben. Then it was beer, thunderstorms, rainstorms and 12 hours sleep.

On a muggy and sunny Thursday we headed to the University district, where I was to give a talk in the Geography department. The talk was based on a paper I am working on, which is drawn from my PhD. A small but receptive audience fed-back some good suggestions, and my jetlagged and somewhat hazy performance was seemingly forgiven. After the talk, Ian and I headed down St George and saw hipsters and students and posts thick with staples from years of flyering. We drank beer before heading into Kensington Market. Kensington Market is most similar in my experience, perhaps, to Camden in London, a sort of chaotic area, marked by similar shops and similar spaces and similar people, but with its own logic of restaurants, bars, clothes shops, vintage shops, junk markets and vegetable shops. Here, we once again met Suley and British magician Will Houston. We ate burritos and talked about the history of magic and sleights of hand, before taking another ride around a thunderstorm smeared city in Suley’s car.

Photo by Ian Williams

Photo by Ian Williams.

On Friday we headed out to University of Toronto Mississauga, a newly revived, shiny campus out in the green suburbs and big houses. We skipped through the rush-hour traffic as our gracious host Shelley Wall showed us various blocks of town on our way out to the campus. The purpose of the visit was for Ian and I to run a workshop on comics and narrative in stories about health and illness. We spoke about our own work and experiences, got the students and staff to participate in making some jam comics, and led them on a Lynda Barry-inspired guided visualisation exercise. The resulting comics were ace (you can read more about this workshop on Ian’s blog). The faculty were incredibly warm and enthusiastic, as were the students. Feeling buoyed we were taken to lunch, where we learned of MCA’s passing and a friendly, if persistent, waitress found repetitious ways to hear me speak and demonstrate my accent.

Photo by Ian Williams

That night we headed to the Pilot Tavern, where I put a whole host of faces to names of Twitter friends, including (but likely not limited to) Box Brown, Chuck Forsman, Melisa Mendes and Doug and Emma of British publishers Self-Made Hero. Bed at a sensible hour, hazy but happy.

Tomorrow: TCAF itself.

Bristol Comic and Zine Fair (a belated report)

Chalkboard, handily decorated by Lando


The inaugural Bristol Comic and Zine Fair was held on Sunday 25th September 2011. The venue was the friendly and trendy Start the Bus, companion pub to The Nation of Shopkeepers in Leeds (which hosted the recent Leeds Alternative Comics Fair). Organised by the Bristol-based Bearpit Zine crew (whose number also includes Dave ‘Decadence Comics’ Lander and Nick ‘Misinterpreted Complications’ Soucek), the event was underpinned by a focus on underground, alternative publications. Mainstream comic fans and artists are catered for well by the regular Bristol International Comic and Small Press Expo each May, but we wanted to push something a bit different. Instead, it was the DIY ethos of the zine movement and the belief that creativity begins anywhere and is for anybody – as much as the medium of comics itself – that inspired us to organise this event. That and the strong desire to flog our wares to an unsuspecting public.

Decadence Comics.

The well-stocked and splendidly maintained communal table.


The breadth of talent who made it out for the show was genuinely exciting. Stallholders familiar to the world of small press comics included Nick and Dave, new-Bristol resident and artist behind webcomic Private Study, Graham Johnson; Thom Ferrier, Gareth Brookes, Paul Ashley Brown, Rob Jackson and comics-scene stalwart and Comics Bits Online head honcho, Terry Hooper. We also had a number of zine distros present, including Kebele Community co-op, anarchist press Last Hours, Bristol printers Pigeon Press and a host of other excellent makers.

Comics by Gareth Brookes and friends.


The day itself got off to a damp start, with the stallholders braving the unappealing swathes of early morning rain for the 11am setup. There was a bit of trepidation on our part: the tables supplied by the venue were a bit saggy and wonky – the sort of spindly, spidery wallpapering aides, so familiar from family DIY disasters – and we were worried there wouldn’t be sufficient for our stall holders. But it turned out just fine: we had plenty, and besides, they were lent to us by the excellent folk at the venue for no cost and we’re not about to bite the hand that feeds. So it turned out our organisational skills were even more accomplished than we thought; we even had a tick-sheet. There was also free cake, baked for the stallholders by stitcher of fine goods, maker of fine foods, and provider of fine photos, Bianca. This was nothing if not an inspired piece of bribery to curry good favour from our stallholders. Initial reports suggest success…

Terry Hooper (l) and Paul Ashley Brown (r) point and laugh at someone.

Overall, we feel the day went really well – and the feedback from the stallholders was similarly positive. Any event like this can do with improving: there’s some refinement to be done on table layout, advertising and the like, but generally we’re pretty pleased with the way it went.

Our thanks go to the Start the Bus for their help, to Claire Carter for staffing the communal table and to everyone who helped spread the word or who came down and checked out what was going on. Watch this space for announcements about the next event. Alternatively, email the Bearpit Zines crew to join our mailing list!

For more reports on the fair, look here and here.

All pictures © 2011 Bianca Soucek.

Bristol Small Press and Comic Expo 2011, Pt. 2 - The Event Itself

This year, by a mixture of design and accident, the task of getting up early in the morning was not hampered by a hangover. Given the shenanigans of last year’s event, and the London Small Press event earlier this year, this was a relatively novel (and refreshing) experience, meaning that we arrived at the venue bright eyed and bushy tailed (actually, that’s a lie) and ready to sell lots of comics and have a good time (that bit’s true). Our table was in the main hall, tucked in a corner at the back of the room (I chose the table, so cannot complain about this). We tethered our banner betwixt a dreadful ‘painting’ (wallpaper design on canvas, but then, this is a hotel) and a fake bush in the corner (ditto). We spread out our wares. We were ready.

Saturday went by smoothly, and sales were good. In the afternoon, we took part in a panel on Comics and Mental Health, organised by Ian Williams. We spoke alongside Katie Green and Ian about our own experiences with mental illness and making comics, and it turned out to be an important, and in many ways, empowering experience for me (more on that in Part 3 tomorrow). After the panel, the last couple of hours of the Expo slipped by, and Nick, Ian and I retired to the pub for a quick pint, before Nick and I headed to mine to watch Eurovision (Moldova were our favourites, should you be curious). Sunday also rolled by much the same as Saturday, slow and steady. As usual, the delirium and fatigue of being sociable and approachable took its toll, and by the end, I think Nick and I had lost the power of coherent speech (if we ever had it). However, we hung on to the last minute while others packed up around us, hoping for one more sale. Our patience paid off with an 11th hour sale to a nice man whose name we don’t know, but who was who good enough to take pity on the needy look, writ large across our wan, Dickensian-urchin faces.

It was a strange couple of days in some ways. On the one hand, it seemed slow, quiet, and there also appeared to be an ever-present patch of carpet in front of our table upon which nobody seemed to be prepared to walk. This phenomenon was noted by the chaps on the tables either side of us, as we pleadingly looked to the passers-by not to cut the corner and come see us. Things definitely never got busy – not in the way we had experienced at previous events, and that felt mildly perturbing. On the other hand, we met interesting folk, had interesting conversations and had, overall, a good time. Also, the Sorry Entertainer, which was enjoying its debut, went down a storm, and we actually made more, and sold more, than we have at any Expo to date.

I guess, in many respects this year was a bit of a full circle for me and Nick; Bristol last year was our first ever Expo, and I think the anticipation, the lovely weather, the new faces and new experiences of the 2010 event lent to it an air of the unknown, that made the experience much more exciting. This year, I think, we were just a little more familiar with the process of selling at an Expo, and with it being in our home town, we felt like it was less of an adventure. I think also, although we know there’s not a great deal of money in this game, our own circumstances meant that the pressure to make more, so that we could afford to eat and whatnot, was greater this year. There were fewer trades than last year, too (though that also has as much to do with capacity in my little flat, as it does with anything else). In all, however, it was worthwhile, and depending on where life takes us, we have every intention of being back next year.

Here we are, me scaring the punters, Nick (Mis-Comp) looking on. Note the delicious fake painting.

Tomorrow – Bristol Comic and Small Press Expo 2011, Pt. 2 – On Comics and Mental Health