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December 5, 2011


Notes On The 2011 Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival

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What follows are a few notes and impressions from the just-past 2011 Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival, held on December 3. A Collective Memory for the event has been started here.

* I didn't get to attend all of the ramp-up events, but what I did get to see was of a high quality. Gary Groth's interview with Jack Davis at Strand Books on Thursday night was pretty swell. Davis turned 87 the next day, and was in spirited form. You could tell he was really pleased with the book; he kept plugging it, and he spoke appreciatively of the opportunity for people to see a broad range of his work. Gary told me after the presentation that the archival work on the volume was pretty intense, and involved a lot of contacting collectors -- there was a great deal of material in there that I hadn't seen, and I'm a fan of Davis' work. Davis is on the short list for greatest living cartoonist, if you stop and think about it, and it's nice to see an art book like that done on his behalf. One guy bought four copies. Davis has a wonderful, southern-tinged speaking voice, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He told a great story about a bullfight in which he participated (?!) during one of the MAD trips.

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* among the comics luminaries in attendance were Peter Kuper, Jim Salicrup, Batton Lash, Miss Lasko-Gross, Bob Fingerman and Jeff Wong. I hadn't seen Jeff in 15 years face to face, I don't think. That is one exceedingly nice and super-talented man. There were apparently a number of illustrators in the room, but other than Wong, I wouldn't know any of those nice folks from Adam.

* I saw Gary approached after the Davis presentation by a former reader of Fantastic Fanzine.

* my friend Gil said to me of the crowd later on, "I haven't read superhero comics regularly in 25 years and I still recognized Jim Salicrup."

* Peter Kuper is making a move into e-books, which I'll try to track down for the publishing news column. He seemed excited to see his work distributed that way, and I have to imagine it looks really good onscreen.

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* I stopped by the Jim Hanley's Universe location near Penn Station on Friday morning. It was a slow morning, with only a few people in the store. They took out that long counter that used to dominate the east side of the store, and I think the store looks much, much better for it. They also may have thinned their stock dramatically, or at least their display stock: I can't tell, and this would still give them more stuff than 95 percent of stores out there. I liked their Christmas-discount array: good hardcovers, even, for less than $8. I bought some Jeff Parker superhero comics.

* the night before my first jaunt into New York City I went to more of a standard funnybook shop somewhere in New Jersey (all those train-stop towns look the same to me, I'm afraid). You know, if you don't shop for comics every week, a wall of new publications can all but destroy your visual input processing abilities for hours at a time. It's amazing people can process that kind of information on a regular basis. I tried to find a copy of the latest Casanova comic. I found it a bit odd that the store clerk -- clearly knowledgeable about all aspects of mainstream comics -- didn't know about it; wasn't so shocked they didn't have a copy. Super-friendly and enthusiastic guy, though. I bought the latest anniversary issue of Fantastic Four, which, as I recall, cost $49 (don't quote me on that).

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* I got to see the current CBLDF offices. They're nice, and there's a lot of room in the space. The people on the elevator on the way up spoke in very dramatic tones about some sort of fashion emergency their company was facing. I got to meet Alex Cox for the first time, and he assured me that his recent promotion at the Fund is substantive as well as administrative, involving a shift in some of his duties. We talked comics, which was additionally great because Charles Brownstein has been making more time to write about comics, and had a lot of interesting thoughts on the current landscape.

* I hung out with Drawn and Quarterly Associate Publisher Peggy Burns for several hours on Friday; she was visiting stores and I tagged along. We got to meet a couple of really good, thoughtful managers at the Union Square Barnes And Noble and the nearby Forbidden Planet store. Tony Shenton was ensconced at the latter location, working on behalf of his small press clients. I hadn't been to that Forbidden Planet store in ten years, and they looked like they're really jammed for space in what is a reasonably sizable store. Peggy and I also looked at speaker spaces for future D+Q events. I rarely get to see comics people work, even in that kind of relaxed, out-of-the-office way, so I greatly appreciate being invited.

* in between store trips with Peggy, I had lunch with Brendan Burford, the editor at King Features and maybe the most unassuming, solicitous powerful industry figure in comics history. He's also an alt-cartoonist and anthology editor. Dan Wright and I worked with Brendan when we did Bobo's Progress/Wildwood for Jay Kennedy a decade ago. The Hearst offices are stunning, and the King Features suite is the kind of workplace you wouldn't believe could actually exist if it were replicated on a television show. If you're a cartoonist with a new strip and you go there for a sales meeting, that place has got to impress the heck out of you. I got to see Claudia Smith and Karen Moy and meet some new people as well. It looks like a smoothly functioning office to me.

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* the Jack Davis show at Scott Eder gallery was super-packed, and not just because of the table of free eats. Mr. Davis sat in a chair at the far end of the show and received visitors, of which there were several, all with beaming faces and in many cases books to sign. He looked like he was enjoying the attention, or at least managing it with a gentlemanly smile. That's a pretty small space, but the art was well-selected. It favored the illustration/portraiture parts of Davis' career, although an added bonus was that the comics art (and to a lesser extent the illustration) feature the sports/action material that Davis loves and that tends to get passed over for the humor and western material when appraising his long career. He has a real sense of weight and motion and impact that serves him well there; Spain Rodriguez' analysis in the new Fantagraphics book engaging that aspects of his work most directly. I think I noticed that Davis corrected less as his illustration career flowered. Certainly his use of color grew more confident. If the coloring on those Barks' Disney comics will force us to reappraise the use of yellow on the comics page, Davis might have us look again at how we use tans and light browns. My favorite was a picture of the 1984 Presidential candidates, for its work with hands and gesture and outlining to suggest breaks between figures. But it was all pretty damn lovely.

* Heidi MacDonald really does seem to know everybody.

* I greatly appreciated running into a reader of this site at that show's physical location -- in a pretty abandoned neighborhood -- and not just because I was initially too dumb to find the gallery itself.

* Brooklyn is a weird place to have a comics show if only in that 87 percent of the people walking the streets look like a cartoonist. It's like that half block around Comic-Con International but over 50 blocks instead of the half, the irony being that 99 percent of that 87 percent have nothing to do with comics at all. Also, I think the Williamsburg costumes may be more entertaining.

image* The Union Pool show was fun. I got to see the show organizers, Sammy Harkham, Dash Shaw, Matthew Thurber, at least a half-dozen people I'm forgetting, Zak Sally and the great Frankie Santoro (pictured). The band in which Gary Panter played was onstage when I got there; they sounded great to me. CF's short set was really interesting, too. Our nation's young people lead all previous generations in their employment and application of beards, that's for sure. Santoro made the trip out from New Mexico by train. He described several aspects of the trip in slightly distressing terms, each of which he declared awesome.

* I had a nice, quick conversation with Shaw and Harkham about the tremendous inadequacies of current critical dialogue, which ended with Sammy pointedly telling about one or two aspects of it, "Well, that's your job" and me sighing in response. I had a shorter, just as nice conversation about the new Kramers and what Sammy set out to do with the volume. Strangely, I didn't talk a ton about comics that weekend. Those two quick chats stuck out, though.

* the Le Jolie hotel worked great for me. New York is expensive enough that most people couch surf or guest-room pounce, and I did that most of the long weekend for sure. But the night I stayed in the hotel worked out pretty well, and it wasn't over expensive as far those kind of establishments go. I'd stay there again.

* had breakfast with Brian Ralph the morning of the festival, after not being able to find the place because God wants to make sure I'm totally aware of my onrushing senility. We talked about teaching, and the 1990s comics scene, what Savannah is like and even football (Ralph was a lineman at a high school I'm guessing was named "St. Mark's School For Undersized Children"). It was a great pleasure.

* the parking situation around the show was surprisingly great, I imagine as a) it's in what I'm told is "not the greatest" part of Brooklyn, b) most people in attendance probably walk over or take the subway. I ran into future Billy Ireland librarian Caitlin McGurk right around the corner from the show parking her car, and my friend that came later in the afternoon found a space about 200 feet from the front door. That's not always the festival experience.

* the show itself is split between two levels, D+Q maybe the biggest "name" publisher from that realm on the top floor, Fantagraphics on the lower floor. That show is better characterized by its deep bench and people spread out everywhere than any headliners, though. The programming was at Union Pool about a five-minute walk away. When the weather was warmer during the day, a lot of the younger people spread out on the church building's stairs. There was a grocery store a half-block up on 8th that people used. They sold t-shirts and posters for the show on the landing leading to the top floor, and hotdogs on the landing in front of the lower-floor entrance. Those hotdogs were pretty darn popular.

* the crowds were decent at first, growing to great a couple of two hours in and sort of staying there for the duration. A lot of local-looking folks, and a small cadre of older, comics-interested folks. I'm sure if that's your only festival the crowds might seem daunting or oppressive, and I've read a bit of passive-aggressive tweeting from enraged Kings Of The Internet about various Crimes Against Them. But really, as far as comics shows go, I think that was about a .5 on the ugly crowds scale 1-10.

* it was fun to see some of my fellow writers about comics on hand to cover the show: Jog, Chris Mautner, Douglas Wolk, Tim Callahan, Matt Seneca, Tucker Stone, Heidi MacDonald, Dan Nadel, TIm Hodler, Derik A Badman, Calvin Reid and Sean Collins. I'm forgetting a bunch of folks. When Jog and Matt Seneca stood next to one another, it's like they were taunting the rest of us with their youth. Calvin's lost 10-20 pounds, and looks fantastic.

image* it was good to hear that Jillian Tamaki is working on a massive new work in collaboration. Josh Simmons was sporting a bear and his usually placid demeanor; he has a book out next year from Fantagraphics. There was a constant stream of people waiting to meet with Benjamin Marra. The Pizza Island crew had a constant stream of customers. Julia Wertz's family-focused collection should be out in the first half of 2012 from Koyama, and a sequel to Drinking At The Movies may come out some time after that. Lisa Hanawalt isn't quite sure what her next project will be, and Sarah Glidden (pictured) is working on a bunch of shorter pieces, as well as a book about a sojourn to Iraq and Syria with a group of journalists and a soldier-escort. That new issue of kuš! with all the female contributors looks like a lot of fun. There are two more books coming out in the Bow Wow line, according to Mark Newgarden. It was funny seeing a couple of people initially processing the mini-comic of Chris Mautner's 10-year-old as if it were Chris Mautner's. Gabby Schulz wouldn't say when he might go back to his sickness comic, but assured me that he was healthy now. John Porcellino told me his mini-comics distributorship is building some momentum. Karl Stevens is in Brooklyn now, but has kept his Boston alt-publication gig. His book will come out 2013 or early 2014 if all things go well. Ben Catmull showed me a beautiful silent comic that Fantagraphics may or may not take on. It's about 80 percent done. Geoff Grogan says he's focusing on his web site's comics right now, at least until he can figure out a new way to pay for print. There should be a new book collecting the original run of True Swamp out in 2012. Phoebe Gloeckner is still working on the Juarez book. (Plus she got tenure, which is great.)

* I didn't ask a lot about specific sales. Generally, folks seemed positive, and only one prominent alt-comics guy told me he wasn't doing very well. D+Q sold a lot of the Moomin books and sold out of Adrian Tomine's latest Optic Nerve. Brian Ralph did well for them, too. Fantagraphics sold out of their Gahan Wilson, and termed the day's sales as generally positive. I think Benjamin Marra sold out of his latest, just based on the empty space at his table, but I couldn't swear on it. It wasn't really the kind of show where you name a "comic of the show" but I'm 99 percent certain PictureBox sold out of Kramer's Ergot Vol. 8, and that impressive signing line-up was consistently at work.

* Chris Pitzer was pleased as punch to announce that AdHouse was finally going to get to do Angouleme.

* my photo not-gets were David Mazzuchelli and -- I'm 80 percent sure that was him -- Ben Katchor.

image* speaking of Mazzucchelli, I heard his panel with Chip Kidd (pictured) was a sharp one. It certainly had a sizable audience. Jeff Wong got a book signed by Kidd, I forget which design. Someone I know decided against giving Kidd a business card in case there was an appraisal of its design.

* I would imagine that something needs to be done about the size of the programming room. It was an awesome little room -- with a stage and a bar -- but it was too small for the more aggressively-in-demand panels. With two full exhibitor floors now, I have to imagine this isn't an easy thing for which to find a solution.

* my understanding is that Charles and Alex did well at the CBLDF table, although I think some of the glee that Charles takes with the show is that the road warrior has to travel minutes from his place instead of the usual hundreds if not thousands of miles.

* I apologize to anyone that had to deal with me after about 4 PM or so. I got really, really tired -- that kind of tired where people take one look at you and encourage you to go sit down somewhere. It was my first weekend away from home since March, and the weekend began to wear on me. I especially apologize to the person I don't know that gave me a mini-comic and to whom I responded. "Thank you. I love you."

* I heard Gary Groth was tired enough to try and give someone $80 of change on a purchase made with a twenty-dollar bill, which made me feel a little bit better.

* the crowd was also reasonably kind, too, on the whole. I left my camera at Union Pool on a table for 40 minutes while I looked for it elsewhere, and no one touched it. There wasn't any significant problem with traffic flow as far as I could tell. Mautner and Jog and some of the other writers stayed in a cluster in the center of an aisle for about 55 minutes in a way that would have had them pepper sprayed at San Diego (okay, not really; they sure would have been asked to move along by someone in a yellow shirt, though). People dutifully gave children extra space.

* Matt Groening was there and was his usual, nice self in terms of taking pictures with people and generally being the enormous figure in cartooning his success has made him into. A lot of staring and "Was that...?" Those of us at a certain age that saw his kid Abe there, with a beard and definitely at least college-aged, were taken aback given the memory of he and his brother signing Bongo books and making sketches at a CCI show several years back. One recurring item of discussion the entire weekend was why someone hadn't done a complete Life In Hell as of yet. That material is consistently strong, not a lot of it has been published, and it would be a nice seller for some enterprising company. According to one such potential home for that work, Groening claims to have a deal in place to do more books from the series, although with whom exactly they didn't know. I'd love to see more of those books.

* there were so many children on the floor by late afternoon I got to use that joke about "finding the table where they're selling kids" three times.

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* Calvin Reid seemed happy to mention that the PWCW effort is gaining advertisers.

* the panel I was privileged to do with CF and Brian Ralph went extremely well. Full house, hungry audience, the guys were both funny and engaging. I hadn't met CF before, and liked him quite a bit. They talked about Fort Thunder -- I thought they might not. This included the age differences of the artists maybe too easily lumped together as group (CF was much younger than the other cartoonists linked to that place) and the fact that the Brian and CF met when a maze had been put up in the collective space and at the end you only got to leave if you wrestled Brian, who was dressed up like a werewolf. "I think that was a way for me to meet girls," Brian opined.

* there were a ton of interesting moments in their exchanges. CF talked about being inspired by classic cartoonists. They evoked completely different relationships to their respective audiences. Brian mentioned that it drove him a little nuts for people to tell him they loved his TCJ comic-con diary comics so much because it was so tossed off, but did so in a charming, funny way. I think the audience really enjoyed it, and I hope someone out there recorded it.

* one potential pair of future news items discussed that I'm not sure I knew about: apparently the Union Square Forbidden Planet and the Billy Ireland set-up at OSU are both due a major move soon, to buildings with more space.

* I got to meet Tucker Stone after the show, and talk to Tim Hodler again. I got to see Al Columbia -- living in New York now -- for a brief moment, after not seeing him for maybe 12-13 years. That was a good thing to get to do. I exchanged small talk with Adrian Tomine as I crammed my pile of stuff into my backpack. He seems really happy with and invested in being a dad.

* BCGF is a good show, and certainly can hold up its end as an east coast anchor for small press festivals in the extreme second half of the calendar year. The crowds were pretty amazing, most of them were buyers, it was a cool group of people selling and looking to be sold to, and the programming was solid. Things ran extremely well, I think to a certain extent because of the kinds of people in attendance. Is it for everyone? No. No show is for everyone. It's hard to say what the eventual range of the show will be, as there hasn't been enough time for people and publishers to develop strategies about who they have on hand and how to promote their appearances. But not every show needs to be for every comics fan. For the most part, I think there are lot of advantages to this one. It's a good time of the year. People want to go to New York if they can, doubly so if there's a way to help defray costs, so I think they're always going to have folks interested. I think their strategy of having at least one non-typical guest -- this year's was Jack Davis -- works, too. (Mort Walker turned them down.) The thing about Davis being on hand was partly that people are glad to see a guy like that, and partly that it gets the other cartoonists and people that write about them thinking about that particular artist. He came up in the Brian/CF panel, for instance. It's a fine, still-new show, this BCGF. Perfect for some people, not all that useful for others, but with that basic, on-display chemistry between audience and the bulk of the exhibitors from which one can build something of lasting value.

* it was really nice to see everyone.

*****

* inside the festival (photo by Gil Roth)
* Jack Davis at The Strand
* inside Jim Hanley's Universe
* the main work room at the CBLDF
* my favorite Jack Davis from the Eder show
* Frank Santoro
* Sarah Glidden
* Chip Kidd
* Calvin Reid
* table after table of lovely, lovely comics (below)

*****

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*****
*****
 
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