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April 24, 2013


CR Newsmaker Interview: Christopher Butcher

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If all goes well, CR is going to run a bunch of convention-related material over the next few days, including a long-delayed MoCCA/SPACE report and daily updates from the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland.

I'm kicking off this mini-burst of coverage by featuring an interview with Christopher Butcher, the driving force behind the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. TCAF is one of the two or three must-do events on the North American convention calendar and arguably the most influential show of the previous decade. I know people that only goes to TCAF. This year's iteration goes off two weekends from Saturday, with satellite events scattered on the calendar in the ramp-up. I hope to be on hand. I wanted to ask Butcher about TCAF's development as an institution to try and gauge where shows of this type are more generally. I'm grateful for his time. He's been sick. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Chris, we're rounding in on TCAF; can you snapshot what it is you're doing for the show right now, like one day's worth of tasks and assignments, just to give us an idea of what's on your plate?

CHRISTOPHER BUTCHER: I've been sick for the last week, so things for the next two weeks are a little more compressed than normal. On the schedule for Monday, I've got to finish the ads that will run with our media sponsor NOW Magazine Toronto, and get the floorplan for the Taiyo Matsumoto art exhibition back to The Japan Foundation for approval. Speaking of, I've got to finish going over the souvenir booklet for that event, too.

That'd be a full day usually, but I've gotta power through that and prep our media PR going out Tuesday, and to do that I've got to finalize all of the programming (which is in a good position, it's just committing it to paper and a schedule.

Plus an exhibitor email has to go out, a general TCAF e-mail has to go out, and I'll probably have some Beguiling and UDON stuff that's too time-sensitive to ignore.

Actually listing this all out is making me want to stay in bed tomorrow, now that I see it in front of me.

SPURGEON: This year's slate seems tremendously ambitious, more thoroughly conceived up and down the guest list than some of the top-heavy shows of recent past. Is that a fair assessment? Are you able to do more work securing a complete array of guests now that you've been doing this show for a while?

BUTCHER: Yes, definitely, this show is working on a number of levels that it never has before.

A big part of it is both the regularity and the longevity, doing the show every year, and doing the show for 10 years, means that we've got better relationships with publishers, with partner and sponsor organizations, and with our staff. Publishers and Arts organizations trust that TCAF will be a great place to promote their authors, work, and culture, because of our record, and so they come on board with support earlier, and so rather than 15 rounds of back-and-forth ending in sadness, usually a phone call or e-mail is netting a confirmation now. It's a hell of a lot better.

For example, if we didn't have such a strong relationship with The Japan Foundation in Toronto, and with VIZ Media, and with Shogakukan, stretching back 5-10 years, it would have been impossible to mount The World of Taiyo Matsumoto gallery show. Bringing Matsumoto-sensei to Toronto was first floated for the 2007 show, and it's taken us that long to build up a significant relationship with all parties, including Matsumoto-sensei (who is both incredibly busy and very in-demand), to make it a reality. But yeah, now we get an awesome original manga art show, incredibly rare even in Japan let alone here.

As for doing more work, I'd say we probably are. TCAF has become a part of every aspect of my life, traveling to Japan and San Diego, traveling for UDON to Seattle and Boston, all of it contributes to building a stronger TCAF. I'd say all of us are working on TCAF more, and also year-round, although it's no one's full-time job at the moment.

SPURGEON: Is there any regret in going to every-year-a-show status a few years ago? What was the biggest worry going into that shift?

BUTCHER: The biggest worry was honestly how much it would take out of me, because I was pretty-much the main source of energy behind the show. I'm still doing more work than I was in 2009, but we've also got a great executive staff, particularly including Miles Baker, Gina Gagliano, Krystle Tabujara, Andrew Townsend, and my husband Andrew Woodrow-Butcher, that have taken on huge roles within the organization that are absolutely essential to it happening. And of course, the Beguiling's commitment has gotten larger, probably despite owner Peter Birkemoe's best wishes, just because a larger store/commercial backbone is required.

imageSPURGEON: How far along are you in terms of TCAF's institutional development? How close is the show to being the show you want to have two, five, ten years moving forward. What's the biggest difference in a show ten years from now, do you think, if everything works out between now and then?

BUTCHER: Actually, I think we hit the show I wanted in 2012. I thought that show was a really great execution of the kind of event that we patterned it after, that is best evidenced in North America by BCGF, SPX, MoCCA, and Stumptown (among others). The comics-as-art showcase, I think we did a great job there, engaged about as many people as possible given our set-up and mandate. I think that's still an important show model, and one we support and encourage.

I just I think we're onto some next-level shit, now.

TCAF 2013 is kind of like mine and Peter's wishlist, way back in the day, come to life. It's a little ridiculous. The "We won the lottery, what kind of comics show would we throw" dream... except neither one of us has won any sort of lottery, believe me. We have the first ever North American art show for Taiyo Matsumoto, and one of the largest and one of the only exhibitions of original manga art in North America. We're doing four institutional gallery shows of varying sizes, we've got governmental support from at least 10 countries, authors from 20. Art Spiegelman is flying up to debut his new career retrospective, Francoise Mouly is giving three days of presentations on subjects near and dear to her heart. I mean, even to me, it doesn't really seem real sometimes.

The biggest difference between now and ten years from now, is that this is kinda/sorta/almost still in that sphere of BCGF, SPX, MoCCA, Stumptown, and etc., but 10 years from now that exhibition will, I think, only be one small part of a much bigger series of events that celebrate the medium. I don't think Toronto is set up to play host to a large-scale event in the way Angouleme is, we'll probably never be that. But I think we'll be a lot closer to the Angouleme idea than to the current arts-comic show model, next decade. I think we've taken important steps in that direction this year.

Or, you know, not.

SPURGEON: I could be wrong about this, but it seems you have a lot of international guests this year. Do those require more support? Is there a distinct advantage to bringing in a David B. or a Gengoroh Tagame that you wouldn't get with otherwise, an audience to which they might appeal, for instance?

BUTCHER: High profile guests definitely require more support financially, the expense is much greater than bringing guests from the U.S. Though the state of travel being what it is, it's only $100 more expensive to fly from Paris to Toronto than to fly from certain parts of California... We've been fortunate in that most of our international guests are easy going and happy to be in Toronto, and I don't think they require much additional hand-holding beyond addressing the language barrier (when it exists).

I think the use of the word "advantage" there is really interesting. Let me unpack that a little.

It is of tremendous advantage to the publishers of David B. and Gengoroh Tagame for them to be present to support the launch of their book. The basic bookselling things -- an author on hand helps move books -- play out at shows, for sure. But there's also the media to consider -- it's easier to get a story landed if the author is there with the book to give it a human angle. And TCAF does whatever it can to support major authors attending with new books, including financial support, sure, but we also really beat the drum by having a 'debuting books' section on our site, by promoting debuts and authors through social media like Facebook, Twitter, and our new Tumblr, by maintaining those lists to get potential customers excited. As a publisher and author, the financial benefits are there.

The creative benefits are there too -- David B. and Gengoroh Tagame, or Rutu Modan and Ulli Lust, or whomever you want to mention, these are singular creative voices within the comics medium. Just bringing them to Toronto, to interact with 400 other cartoonists, thousands of members of the general public, the benefits of sharing their experience and vision directly, and indirectly through the promotion of their work, is of tremendous creative benefit.

For TCAF, I think there is a distinct advantage to bringing international creators to Toronto, but it's different than I feel people expect. Most shows, because they're charging admission, are concerned with getting people through the doors in order to fund the show (and, theoretically, more shows). But for us, our mandate is basically to celebrate Canadian graphic novelists, and we do that by creating a space where the authors can make money and engage the public, create opportunities for them for the future. Attracting international talent, and international attention, feeds into the recognition of Canadian cartoonists, draws parallels artistically between the creation of comics around the world. The advantage of bringing over Japanese, French, Israeli, or Austrian-by-way-of-Berlin cartoonists is that we get to fulfil our mandate, and increase the appreciation of comics across our city and country.

SPURGEON: What is something TCAF has, some element or feel, that's Canadian in a way that other shows can't quite emulate it?

BUTCHER: Well I was going to say we're humble, but this interview is kind of blowing that.

I dunno. Canadians always get tripped up when they try to discuss what's Canadian about themselves or their arts. The default response, and I apologize if this seems petulant, is that Canadians made it.

From what my American friends tell me, the fact that we've built such a strong relationship with Toronto Public Library, is a very Canadian thing. We're proud of that relationship, but I don't know if I buy its "Canadianess" though. I've had a lot of conversations about how to get NYPL on board for a similar event. I could see it happening I guess...

I guess institutionally we have a few advantages, arts funding and the like, but TCAF operated without any government funds from 2007 through 2012, and we've just received some support this year for the first time. If we were able to truly integrate our festival into the cultural fabric of the country, there might be more governmental financial support available, but that would be TCAF-future, not TCAF-now.

For now, I'd probably say that the thing that sets us apart is our strong volunteer base -- more than 200 people signed up to volunteer this year, more than we might actually be allowed to use. There's a lot to be said for Canadians willing to pitch in and lend a hand, and we're greatly appreciative of all of the support we've gotten. We couldn't do it if we didn't get this level of volunteer support, and that's something that can be said of other prominent Toronto events like The Toronto International Film Festival, or HotDocs.

Toronto, and its citizens and graphic novel fans have really supported us, and they are awesome for it.

imageSPURGEON: Has the explosion of shows that have come along since TCAF started, and the reinvigoration of established shows, changed the context of what you do at all? For instance, with more shows on the slate, more options, do people want to be paid, or are they just harder to get?

BUTCHER: I think I answered that up top, to a degree, but specifically with "getting" guests... It's not something that we're worried about not happening, but it's something that we're happy about when it does happen. Does that make sense?

We work for months and sometimes years to make guest visits to TCAF a reality, publishers work to time releases specifically to coincide with TCAF and to bring creators on board, we're very cognizant of the work involved and we're grateful to the folks that work with us. But at the same time, there are guests that we've invited every year for four years now, that can't make room in their schedule or simply don't want to travel. Guests that don't like to fly, that don't have book releases coinciding with the show, that don't or can't get institutional support. Or people would rather go to New York or San Diego, because hey, those coasts are pretty awesome. It happens, and at that point it's out of our hands, so we don't dwell. All we can do is make the best possible case for TCAF and for Toronto, and every year our case gets stronger.

SPURGEON: Can you give a specific example of one way you partner with the city of Toronto? What do city official think of the show, or does it even register?

BUTCHER: Well probably the biggest specific example is our partnership with Toronto Public Library, which is a city institution.

For another example, this year TCAF received a community funding grant from Toronto Arts Council, the section of Toronto government responsible for supporting the arts. This was in recognition of what we bring to the table, for the arts, in Toronto. We'll use that to fund various aspects of the show, and to give back to some of the artists that we work with. We haven't applied for this funding since 2004, but we were happy to get it. It's less than 10% of our overall budget though?

As for what City officials think of the show, we know they're aware of us, and we've received positive and complimentary feedback from individual city councillors and people working with the city, and that's great.

SPURGEON: Is there a strategy you employ when putting together an exhibitors list? How many people that apply get in? Is there an element you'd like to add in future years?

BUTCHER: Our strategy isn't entirely public because we don't want people to try to game the system. I will say that it's really down to the quality of all aspects of the application. We privilege exhibitors who work on comics rather than in related media, and who have physical comics to sell. Essentially, the exhibition space at TCAF, at Toronto Reference Library, is a marketplace for the sale of comics and graphic novels. The other stuff, like prints or goods or shirts, is all secondary. So if an exhibitor only has digital comics and their physical work is shirts or prints, TCAF isn't a good fit for them. TCAF is about comics. Beyond that commercial concern, we look to see if the work is any good, is saying anything. There are three of us going through applications now, all with very diverse tastes.

We also bring in guest curators for separate areas as part of TCAF. We have a small press area which is administrated by The Wowee Zonk collective, Patrick Kyle, Ginette LaPalme, and Chris Kuzma. They're really well-connected within the 'zine scene, and they curate an amazing collection of creators in their area. Theirs was the favorite area of Pen (Adventure Time) Ward's at TCAF last year. We're also working with Miguel Sternberg and the folks at Bento Miso, a video game and design-oriented co-working space in Toronto, to accommodate a brand new, off-site exhibition area. It'll be filled with creators who are working in digital narrative and experimental games... it's called the Bit Bazaar and it's going to be down on Queen Street, and it'll be really exciting stuff.

As for the applications themselves, about 1/3 of the applicants get an exhibition space, and about ½ of the applicants end up participating in the festival in some way, like programming or through some of our off-site and outreach events.

I can't see things changing too much in the next couple of years. I think we've got a set-up that most people are happy with, or can at least agree is as fair as we can make it.

SPURGEON: What don't people know about your job, Chris?

BUTCHER: No one wants to know how the sausage is made, Tom.

SPURGEON: I'm intrigued by the fact that you've been doing this for a while now. Where does putting on a show like this fit into your general life plans? Is this something you'll continue to do for a while?

BUTCHER: Yes I'll be doing this for the foreseeable future, though I have no idea how it fits into my life plans. TCAF has been a wonderful experience for me personally, and it's positively affected thousands of people. I won't be giving that up any time soon. But my current schedule is probably unsustainable... a number of people have told me that the closer I get to 40, the harder this is all going to get, and I can feel it already. Oh, getting old, it sucks.

TCAF is here to stay, and I'm going to do my best to remain a part of it.

SPURGEON: Is there a dream guest you haven't gotten yet? Has anyone ever turned you down?

BUTCHER: Oh yeah, we get turned down all the time, for lots of reasons. There are creators who were formative to my own understanding of comics as a medium, at different stages of my life, that I would love to have at TCAF... mostly to try and share what is so important to me about their work with the folks attending. We've never had Lynda Barry, Junko Mizuno, or Julie Doucet at TCAF, all for different, very valid reasons and all 3 are cartoonists who we'd love to celebrate at the show. Schedules, their artistic and commercial interests, and the timing of their graphic novel releases just hasn't worked out.

Japan and Europe are almost completely untapped markets, in terms of very important creators who should come to North America. I could rattle off dozens of names, but won't, for fear of who I would forget.

SPURGEON: What's the moment of greatest satisfaction for you in doing this job, Chris? What element, what moment, do you enjoy the most?

BUTCHER: I usually have a better answer to this after the show, this close to the next one, it's all just excitement and stress swirling around me at maximum speed.

Hmm. Probably, on the macro level, it's that TCAF and its success have inspired other shows, and created an alternate distribution system that has made individual works, whole publishers, actually possible. I'm not trying to take credit for that in any way, really, there's so many cooks around that particular pot, but I can see the patch of TCAF in that particular quilt, and it makes me happy to know that we're contributing to putting dollars in artists' pockets, consistently.

The other thing I really like about my TCAF job is that it's really helped mitigate all of the shit I did/said online for years and years before TCAF. I've mellowed a lot in my old age, I'm not quite as consistently angry about the shitty state of the comics industry, and am consequently picking fewer fights and making fewer enemies. The fact that I've given back so much helps mend some of those wounds from when I was picking fights and making enemies, and that lack of stress is nice.

If I ever stop working with TCAF though, it's knives-out.

SPURGEON: What would you have people know that may be sitting on the fence about going or not going to this year's Festival?

BUTCHER: My friend Meredith Gran ran an awesome event called "Webcomics Weekend," and then she followed it up a year later with another one. Even by the second one, both artists/authors and members of the public were discussing the show in an "I don't know if I can make it this year, I'll just have to go to the next one!" sort of a way. A "this will always be here, so I'll get to it when I get to it," type of attitude which, realistically, has gotten all-pervasive since the beginning of the internet age. Well there wasn't a next Webcomics Weekend, and it's been 3 years now. It was an amazing pair of events, ones that I personally not regret getting to attend, and really captured a spirit and zeitgeist that likely can't be repeated. If you missed out, you missed out. I feel like TCAF is like that, every year.

We haven't had Jamie and Gilbert Hernandez in Toronto together for 16 years. There are amazing creators who visit us every year to take part in the Festival that will probably never get to attend again, that never have again. The level of access to our international artists, creators like David B., Blutch, Taiyo Matsumoto, Gengoroh Tagame, Judith Vanistendael, Ulli Lust, Frederik Peeters, Chihoi, Eric Lambe, Rutu Modan -- I can tell you, flat out, we will not be able to do this again. So I think people who are on the fence about attending need to ask themselves the question "Can I afford to miss my only opportunity to meet _____, to hear them talk about their work?" rather than "Can I afford to miss TCAF this year?"

TCAF will probably be around next year, but with nearly 40 percent new/first-time exhibitors every year, exactly what TCAF is will likely be very different next time around.

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* TCAF

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* photo of Christopher Butcher by Charlie Chu provided by Butcher
* this year's basic show information
* Maurice Vellekoop's ten-year poster
* Taiyo Matsumoto's 2013 TCAF poster
* a header from the on-line presence for the Festival

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