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October 30, 2016


CR Newsmaker Interview: Gabe Fowler

imageThis is a special era for comics shows and I believe the show in Brooklyn -- now called Comic Arts Brooklyn after emerging from the ashes of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival -- is an important show for that noteworthy era. CAB is a solo effort organized and run by the publisher (Smoke Signal) and comic shop owner (Desert Island) Gabe Fowler, working with a few key volunteers and sponsors. The Brooklyn show was one of the first to be curated in unapologetic fashion: it's a show of wide interests bound by the show's values rather than a commercial effort designed to pull traffic. It is its own thing; you never leave CAB wishing to prune it or shape it like a bonsai tree. CAB is.

Because of the strength of the NYC area in housing interesting artists and attracting excellent out-of-town visiting traffic, CAB has become one of the great marketplaces in the world for comics-buying (and supplementary items, such as art, related to those works). Until there is a massive public investment in comics art and a generation of fundamental acknowledgment by all arts patrons of comics' worth, the places like CAB where you can see comics, perhaps buy one or two works, and converse with a creator that interests you are going to be crucial for key aspects of the art form to move forward.

I'm happy Gabe Fowler talked to me during what sounded like a busy day eight days away from open. You should attend the show this Saturday if at all possible. I would, but I'm physically unable to travel. CAB is one of the shows we need, and I'm grateful for its existence. Thanks, Gabe, for this and the rest of it. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: We're exchanging e-mails on Friday the week before the show. Give me a snapshot of what you do a week out. What was on the slate today that is directly show-related?

GABE FOWLER: Today I'm working at my store and attending to customers and hyping the show on a person-to-person basis. Before work I went and hung up a few posters around the neighborhood and dropped of some material at the City Reliquary, one of our sponsors. I got in touch with my shipping service to get a count on exhibitor boxes that have arrived from across the globe. Several volunteers have shown up today to grab stacks of programs to help distribute at the subway exits, which is awesome. We purposely overprinted programs this year to use them as promo items. Tonight I'll go home and perfect my list of items to buy over the weekend and plan a presentation for tomorrow about my various endeavor at F.I.T. (which has a comics and illustration program).

SPURGEON: My impression is that this year's show was not a sure thing, and as I recall you announced a bit later than most shows might announce. Why the hesitancy? What put you over the top in terms of wanting to do another one?

FOWLER: I'm basically burned out. Organizing a show by myself is a lot of work, I care about it a great deal, and it takes a lot out of me personally. I also have seen a widespread proliferation of shows since I conceived of our first show in 2009, and I have mixed feelings about it. When I initially wanted to start a show I knew it had to be something vital to the culture and a kick in the ass.. I don't want to beat a dead horse. I want to make an innovative and fresh show out of nothing. Since I lack the funds or institutional support of larger festivals it becomes exhausting to create a worthwhile show while I'm running a business and working on my own creative projects. But in the end, I love it, and I can't not do it.

SPURGEON: Are you aware of how shows are different now than when you first started doing the Brooklyn shows? What has changed in a way that feels different to you, shows in general between then and now?

FOWLER: I don't travel much, but I'm interested in the other shows and I'm interested in participating in comics culture on a daily basis. But in the end I don't really care what other people are doing. I've always thought the way to make innovative art was to look inward. So I just try to make a show I want to attend.

SPURGEON: I hear all sorts of different stories about how shows relate to the nearby same-comics comics shop, whether a sponsor or in close proximity. Have the shows been good for Desert Island? Have they been a hindrance? How do they relate?

FOWLER: My comic shop is a daily practice that includes a wide range of humans and books. We go from extremely experimental work to children's books to zines to mainstream and indie comics. So the show is an impossible attempt to get everybody -- the creators and readers of this extremely diverse work -- in the same room at the same time. I like the impossibility of this pursuit, and I like that it sort of happens anyway. Every faction sends their representatives and that comprises the fest.

SPURGEON: How is your exhibitor pool at this CAB different than your first BCGF show? How much of it is the same?

FOWLER: The pool started to take on algae so we had to use chlorine. [Spurgeon laughs]

I guess you deserve a better answer than that -- this year we have less larger name-brand publishers and more individual artists exhibiting. Which is fine by me. Our whole thing is about focusing attention on artists. At mainstream comic-cons they always have an "Artist alley," which always offended me. Sure, let's take the artists and put them in the fucking alley with the garbage.

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SPURGEON: My take is that you're not doing a day of panels or a panel track after a few years about being very aggressive with that side of your show. What is it like putting together a show that's solely driven by the expo aspect of these things? Will you go back to a programming portion in future years?

FOWLER: Tom, I am just a human man. I'm up against real estate factors and logistical factors, and they seemed to get worse every year.

For the past several years, we have had a space for talks that was beautiful, but it only seated 72 people and the rental cost went up every year. Try telling a line of 300 people trying to watch Art Spiegelman that they can't get in. When they raised the rental price again, I considered canceling the show completely, but I still think it's worthwhile to have a book-focused event. And in the 11th hour, Kenny Filmer stepped in to program a day of animation screenings at Brooklyn Fireproof, an event I really believe adds value to the show without slogging through an imperfect scenario with the talks.

imageSPURGEON: I think Brooklyn and Toronto are the best buying shows. Can you name two to three works you think people should look forward to checking out at this year's show, personal favorites of yours?

FOWLER: I'm happy Dame Darcy will attend. She's one of my favorite people in comics and makes distinctive work which is almost unknown to a younger generation. I'm also very excited that Richard McGuire will be on hand to premier his new "Sequential Drawings" book, and Charles Burns will debut his Le Dernier Cri book collecting 180 pages of his self-published "Free Shit" zines.

SPURGEON: Is there a threshold you have to cross in order to consider a show successful? Or is that more of a feel thing? What makes it a successful show by your standards?

FOWLER: Success is always hard to define, but there are always financial and existential barometers. I'm happy if I can promote under-recognized work to a receptive audience, but I can only learn this through casual exit interviews after the show.

SPURGEON: Is there a memory or a series of memories that pops into your head initially when these shows are mentioned? What comes to mind?

FOWLER: Every year I climb up on the roof of Mt. Carmel auditorium with John Mejias, through the church offices and rectory, up and down metal ladders on the roof, carrying a heavy banner and rigging equipment, which we unfurl on the exterior of the building. This is always a key moment that announces to the neighborhood and ourselves: the comic freaks are back for one more stand.

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* Comic Arts Brooklyn 2016, Saturday, November 5, 11 AM to 7 PM, Mt. Carmel (12 Havemeyer St, Brooklyn, New York 11211).

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* art is either posters for the show, or art mentioned in context. All rights to the various picture makers.

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