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April 4, 2013


Festivals Extra: A Short Interview With Anelle Miller on MoCCA

imageA bunch of people I know and trust from the world of art comics asked me to interview Anelle Miller in anticipation of this weekend's MoCCA Festival in New York City. Miller is that show's primary driving force now, and has been since the assumption of the MoCCA name and resources by the Society Of Illustrators last year. She is that organization's Executive Director.

Once either the first or second most popular event on the arts/alt festival circuit, the MoCCA Festival grew to have a mixed reputation in the art comics world. It was still a New York show, and one with an honorable pedigree, but there developed in recent years considerable tension, I believe based on the disparity between how much the community valued having a show like that and how much the museum whose name was on it valued the show and its primary audience. In addition, the rise of other significant arts comics shows, primarily TCAF, and the resurgence of SPX have changed the context in which a show like the MoCCA Festival is judged.

This weekend's edition of the show is an important event in the progression of art comics festivals, and thus art comics. All eyes on New York City, and, for a few moments first, one hopes, this interview. I'm grateful to Miller for making the time. She even contacted me when I failed to check in at the discussed hour. She seems like a smart, hard-working person. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: We're talking 10 days out from the show. Can you give me a snapshot as to where you are right now?

ANELLE MILLER: Well, today I just finished getting off the phone with the electrician, talking about all of the power lines that we have to drop. Some of the vendors want to have electricity at their booths, at their tables. We need to have electricity for the programming room and the TVs we're going to have in the museum. That was my morning conversation, with the electrician, talking about how many power drops we need and how much people power that will take. We are finishing up the souvenir journal. It's in production, and it's absolutely gorgeous. It features a little blurb about all of the exhibitors. They gave us their visual and words. It's really extraordinary. It's 48 pages, full-color; it's very beautiful. We're very, very excited about that. That's being finished up. All the signage is in the works. Tara [Jacoby], who is our designer, is working on all of the badges for everyone. We're having a volunteer meeting here tomorrow night. We invited all of the volunteers. There are about 130 volunteers at this point. They're going to come here and we're going to give them a powerpoint presentation to show them the layout of the armory and the floor and where everything is going to be positioned. We're going to talk to each of them about their responsibilities, because Kate [Feirtag] has assigned duties to each of the volunteers. They'll get to meet all of us and know who all the captains are. If they have any issues, at least they'll be familiar with the faces. That way when we talk to them they'll know who we are. Hopefully tomorrow night we can give them their badges and their food tickets, as each volunteer will be allowed to go down to the MoCCA cafe and get some food during their shift.

Hopefully the t-shirts will be here. They should be here later today or tomorrow, so they'll get their t-shirts. So that's tomorrow night. I'm working on my questions for my panel that I'm moderating, so I have to get done this weekend. I want to get them out to my personal panelists.

SPURGEON: Which one are you doing, Anelle?

MILLER: I'm doing art as a mission, co-moderated by Peter De Seve. I've got Arnie Roth and JJ Sedelmaier and Nora Krug on my panel. It should be kind of fun. I think it's going to be really fun. We're going to talk about the business, and the industry, and teaching illustration and comics. Just kind of talk about a lot of great topics that I think people will be interested in. And of course introduce the Society to people that don't really know a lot about it. Talk about our history, the programs we do and our mission. The educational things, our initiatives, all sorts of good things like that.

SPURGEON: Clear something up for me. I found out you guys were going to do the Festival when someone approached me at the Small Press Expo last Fall. This person had been involved with the festival in the past, and said that a lot of the same people would be involved moving forward. I've been told since that not many people at all from previous iterations are going to have involvement. So tell me: is your personnel infrastructure people from past shows or newer people?

MILLER: The only person that decided they wanted to stick with us and work with us is Emma, the exhibitor coordinator, who's been amazing. Emma Rivera. She's been instrumental in helping to get all the information out to exhibitors, she's been doing the e-mail blasts, she coordinates the layout of the tables and gets the table assignments out to the exhibitors. She's been fantastic. But other than Emma, there are maybe some of the volunteers we don't necessarily know by name at this point. It's pretty much our infrastructure that has been managing the whole thing.

SPURGEON: How much of a unique experience is this for you and the Society? Do you have experience doing this kind of show on any level?

MILLER: Not to this huge scope. We put on big events here, and certainly in my past, in my prior professional career I hoped to organize huge sales meetings for the Estee Lauder companies, which were pretty extensive and detail-oriented. But here at the Society this is a first for us. We know there are probably going to be some glitches, and you can't help that. We're trying to cover all of our bases, and trying to think of every details, but it's hard to do that. Until you actually experience something like this, you don't even know the challenges you face.

SPURGEON: Is there a challenge thus far that's been difficult for you, that maybe surprised you? Is there a specific aspect you've found challenging?

MILLER: I think based on information that had been given to me about MoCCA Fest, I think some of the challenges like hiring a professional electrician. I guess from my background I'm used to doing things -- I want to be politically correct in saying what I'm going to say -- a very professional way. That's really the only way I know how to produce things. I think for us here it was a little bit surprising that certain things hadn't been done before. We're hoping that the things we are doing will make it more fun for the exhibitors and also the people that come to MoCCA Fest.

SPURGEON: So I take it you mean there's been some significant investment on your part into the show.

MILLER: Yeah, yeah.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about that a little bit? There's a widespread belief in comics that MoCCA Festival is one of the things that worked about the museum in its previous iteration. I have to imagine if there's investment that needs to be done, that means a greater cost and, as a result, some risk in doing the show.

MILLER: There's definitely more of a financial cost with the show now. We're doing things like -- and I knew there would be some expenses involved when I had some ideas about what I wanted to have happened, like creating a room within the room. When you do that, you have to think about the walls within the walls, which cost about $5,000 to rent. You have to think about the lighting for the art -- that was part of what I was talking to the electrician about this morning. So yes, there a lot of additional costs. Clearly, creating the ability to have a cafe downstairs = much bigger cost. We're actually having signage!

I can tell you exact numbers if you want, because I have the budget right here. [Spurgeon laughs] I told everyone I'd be transparent about this stuff. Yeah, my signage is coming in at $5,550. We're going to have giant banners hanging from the ceiling to designate the aisles where people will be exhibiting. It's aisles A through G. When you walk into a trade show, you always see that kind of signage, so we're having that. Anything you think of when you produce this kind of event, it costs money. You have to be prepared to spend it upfront. Hopefully you see that in revenue in return. I'm hoping we will break even in this first year. Hopefully that will allow us to see what works, what doesn't work, what people like. I always think signage is important and it's going to brighten up the whole armory. A lot of people have talked about the fact that the Armory is kind of... I don't know, not an appealing environment. And it's not. It's kind of a big open space. Our industry is about being visual, so I feel it's important to have that visual thing going on.

We're bringing wi-fi in, which we didn't have in the past. So there's a cost related to bringing wi-fi in. I'm looking at my whole budget now... even the audio-visual equipment we're renting, there's a significant increase in the cost of that because we're going to have a professional technician on site, making sure the programming runs well. We're going to be videotaping the programs. For me, I like to have things run smoothly. I think it's important in certain aspects to have professionals. It's great to have volunteers, and volunteers are wonderful, and we couldn't do it without volunteers. But in certain areas we need to make sure we're covered professionally.

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SPURGEON: You know, I always think of the old show... I think of that old show as a crucial fundraiser for that organization. But it sounds like you have outreach goals, and mainstreaming the MoCCA stuff into what you do at SOI more generally. The necessity of MoCCA Fest making as much money as possible has perhaps been reduced because of your institutional strength. Is that a fair observation?

MILLER: I think that's true, Tom. We see this as here as an extension of our mission. We see this as a place where MoCCA Fest can grow, and become bigger and become more of a -- how can I put this? I was just talking yesterday to Paul Levitz. He and I were brainstorming a little bit. We were talking about how when we were done with this we were going to sit down and talk with city official and see if we can extend MoCCA Fest next year. You know how some trade shows have events going on in other venues. Maybe we can... yes, we'll have MoCCA Fest happening in whatever venue that takes place -- we'll look at the Armory and see if the cost is right for us to even be renting the Armory or if there other venues that might be better. But maybe there's other things that are going on at other places in the city during MoCCA Fest. Other programming, screenings, things that really extend the visibility of this industry. We're always looking to extend the visibility. That's the whole point of our community and of our mission here with illustration. How can we get it out to more people? How can we include more people into knowing what's happening with these artists? That's going to benefit the artists. That's the bottom line: benefitting our artists.

SPURGEON: Speaking have spoken highly to me about your personal touch on this show. I get the impression that there was -- maybe not going so far as to call it bad blood, but there were a certain number of personalities involve with MoCCA as it existed previously, sometimes difficult personalities. Is there something to your efforts in terms of explicitly getting people back on board with MoCCA, say targeting key exhibitors? Are you interested in restoring the shows luster within the comics community? Has that been part of a process for you?

MILLER: It has been. I had to mend a lot of fences. I did. I had to do a lot of outreach, and talk to people. Yes. Yes, I had to do that.

SPURGEON: Is there a way you can summarize what the issues in general were with some of these folks, or maybe what you were able to tell them that got some of them back on board. Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, for example.

MILLER: I think... I think...

SPURGEON: Why are people in a good mood about you, Anelle?

MILLER: [laughs] I'm a fun girl, Tom! [laughter] And I'm very passionate, and I'm very caring, and I'm aware what people have to spend, what costs are. I understand that coming to a festival is expensive, especially for people coming from out of town. Fantagraphics, they've got a lot of costs. They have to put people up, they have to ship, they have to do all sorts of things like that. So one of the things we tried to talk about here at the Society is how we can help people make this a more pleasant experience. How can it be fun? The bottom line is that it be fun. Art should be fun. There shouldn't be any bad blood, and there shouldn't be any bad feelings. It's about having a good time. When we saw the charges some of the exhibitors had to incur in the previous MoCCA Fests, like they were charged for shipping their boxes here, and then they were charged for having them brought over to the Armory. We were like, "No. We can't do that anymore. They're paying a lot for a table. We don't want to add that cost on in addition to what they're already paying for a table." So that's a cost we're incurring. The boxes are shipped here, and then we're hiring... we have a 17-foot truck that's going to come to the Society Friday morning. At 7 AM. One of guys here, one of our wonderful staff, is going to pick up the truck and drive it here. All of our volunteers are going to load up the truck and we're going to get everyone's stuff to the Armory. So that's a cost we're just going to absorb here, and not put it back on the exhibitors. So that's one thing that we had heard, that exhibitors weren't so happy about. It might sound silly, but I guess it's not really. I don't know.

SPURGEON: Another difference I think for the Fest now is that it takes place in an entirely different context for shows. When it started there weren't a whole lot of shows that were similar to MoCCA. All shows are different, but there are a lot of shows and festivals to choose from now, for both exhibitors and fans. There are even some of those shows in New York. It sounds like you're pretty concerned with your own gameplan right now, trying to execute that, especially this first time out, but do you give any thought to the context in which MoCCA takes place as a comics show? For instance, how much of a New York show do you see this? Do you see it as the Spring show for comics, potentially, moving forward if you hit on all cylinders, or one of a few heavy-hitters, say?

MILLER: I think once I get through one I'll have a much better sense of how I can answer that in a way that will make sense, but I think for certain this show always has to be about the indy comics community. I don't see it turning into superheroes or anything like that.

SPURGEON: That is a question. In a way, that focus is assumed, but there were indeed rumors in past years that it might be opened up to mainstream exhibitors at some point.

MILLER: That's not going to happen. The superhero thing is great at New York Comic-Con, where people get all dressed up and do their thing. That's great. That's the perfect venue for that. That's not what MoCCA Fest should be about. Young people... indy comic... alternative things -- it should be all about. It shouldn't be commercial in any way. What I would love to see is some of these young people being exposed where they can get work, or jobs, or published in a bigger way. Would I love to see that happen for some of these young people? Of course. That's always our goal here.

SPURGEON: What would you have the comics community know about the Society, if you would have them exposed to what you do through the Festival.

MILLER: That's one of the reasons we're going to try this year the Awards Of Excellence. We're have a panel of five wonderful people who are going to judge some of this work. I have work pouring into the office. I have five huge boxes sitting here with incredible work that's being sent to be judged, with wonderful notes from artists. They're grateful their work is going to be seen by not only these five jurors, but if they're chose their work is going to hang here at the Society. It's a big deal, a really big deal.

SPURGEON: I wish I had a better question for this moment, because while I know there's been some blowback on those awards I'm not sure I understand its exact nature.

MILLER: What has that been? Heidi tweeted something about that, and we put a call into Heidi this morning like, "What's going on? Did we do something?"

imageSPURGEON: I think... again, I'm not the best person on this. But I think some people questioned the process of it at the beginning. They wondered about the ability of the jurors you've chosen to get a sense of that material in a way they can give out a prize. I think that was it. So I think it may be doubts about the execution on this. I do know that I had one person that e-mailed me that wondered if Gary Groth, for example, would be able to find enough time to make a decision or if he'd do so in a hurry.

MILLER: Gary is the one that came up with the whole process of how this was going to be done. [Spurgeon laughs] That can be public knowledge. Gary and I had a long conversation about a week and a half ago before he went off to Spain's memorial service. I had thought it should be done a certain way and Gary said, "No, Anelle. The way you're thinking probably isn't going to work. We need more time to look through these comics. If we all go around on the day of the Festival, we're not going to have enough time to judge fairly. Here's how I think we should do it. You should put out a call for entries and have all the work shipped to you. Have everyone send five copies of everything. Create these five boxes." On March 29, this Friday, I will be sealing these boxes up with all of the entries and shipping them to each juror. They'll have a whole week to look at this stuff. So all of the jurors were excited about that. Karen Berger had the same concern, having enough time to look at the work. If they have a week, they should have the time to come to their decisions. That's how it's happening. They'll have the work on Saturday.

SPURGEON: What is the basic approach as far as presenting this year's Festival to the public? Is there someone in mind that you'd like to see attend the Festival?

MILLER: I need to see how that's going to go. I hope there are a range of people, that if they don't already come to MoCCA Fest that are fans of this kind of work, but also collectors, people who maybe don't understand what this level of comics and cartoon art is about the indy world. Even people that think of the comic and cartoon world as superheroes. We're hoping that maybe the public that comes, maybe they can become a little more sophisticated and look at this work in a different way. I really hope that happens. I think it can. Maybe it won't happen in the first year, but I think it can really happen. I really do.

SPURGEON: You've put a lot on reacting to this first year. Will others have input? Do you have a feedback process in place so that you can hear about other experiences at the show?

MILLER: We have a questionnaire in all of the exhibitor packages seeking feedback. They can tell us what they liked, what they didn't like, what they think we can do better. They'll have something to fill out to send to us or getting something to us at the show. Getting feedback is critical. We have to know what people like. We may think something is great, but when we look at the survey we may find out it's not so good. So what do we do to change it?

SPURGEON: The comics community as recently as nine months ago didn't know if the Festival would continue. When you were making the decision whether or not to do the Festival, do you remember if there was a key moment or something about the show or some possibility for what the show can become that made that decision for you?

MILLER: I always knew it was going to happen. There was never any doubt in my mind. It was part of my conversations when we transferred the assets over. I said, "We are going to make this happen." I wasn't sure how I was going to do it because I had never done it before [laughs], but I knew we were going to continue this. There was no way it wasn't going to happen.

*****

* photo of Miller supplied by Miller
* MoCCA Fest 2013 poster
* Gary Groth, whose idea for how to do the Awards was accepted and utilized
* photo of Miller as a child supplied by Miller [below]

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