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May 9, 2011


Notes From A Trip To TCAF 2011

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What follows is a selection of insights and observations from a trip to Toronto for the 2011 version of the Toronto Comics Art Festival. It was held on May 7 and May 8 in and around the Toronto Reference Library. Admission was free.

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* I don't have many broad, non-comics travel notes, but one thing that struck me this time out is that hotels are doing incidentals deposits differently than they used to. It used to be a four-day trip with three different, pre-paid hotels would mean making sure I had a hundred dollars available on my credit card. This time out it meant several hundred -- more than three times as much as I paid for the actual hotel rooms. It wasn't a hassle for me, and I'm happy to loan these business some money for a few days: I've seen Fawlty Towers, so I know the life of an innkeeper is a tough one. Handing over $300 certainly keeps me from my old routine of gutting a pig in the bathroom and setting fire to the curtains. Still, that kind of travel note is curious to me. I'm not exactly sure why the change other than that there's an obvious benefit to holding other peoples' money for a few days. It reminded me that it's more difficult to travel now than it was 15 years ago, maybe a lot more difficult, and thus conventions with a regional or even local element are becoming that much more important.

* the only thing more depressing than the nearest comics store being a bit more than two hours away and thus a place you only see on a three-hour trip to the airport is that store closing down and selling off its recent back stock of Final Crisis tie-ins and random issues of Locke & Key on several interconnected card tables of woe. Such was my experience Thursday the 5th at Dave's Comics And Paintball. I continue believe that geographical coverage is a fundamental issue facing the Direct Market, coverage both in absolute terms (any store at all in as many given areas as possible) and coverage with stores that meet certain, basic standards whereby they can roughly be said to represent the entirety of comics (not by an unreasonable standard, but by a "basic comics shop from 1988" standard) as opposed to one man's comics collection. You'd think it would be a bit more important for the biggest publishers to have their material represented in more markets in their most traditionally profitable way.

* Toronto seems like a great city to me. I probably don't need to tell that to anyone who's visited or lived there. It feels like Chicago a bit -- you even drive into the city proper from the outskirts via a Lake Shore-type highway drive -- with a more intensely lively downtown. Seeing all the storefronts in different sections of the city makes me realize just how much of a hit physical proximity shopping has taken in the US the last dozen or so years. I particularly liked a walk I took from The Beguiling to the art gallery that hosted the Doug Wrights, which was a little bit less upscale than most of the other neighborhoods I had a chance to see. It's certainly a town where you can enjoy certain aspects of it as value-added moments of your trip, or can even take a few days to hang out. Even as much as the hardcore professionals and industry folk may focus in on the cons and the bare minimum of outside activities, I think there's another kind of attendee for whom having something to do in addition to looking at comics is quite important. Toronto has all of these things.

* I stayed at a place called the Delta Chelsea: a proper, plump matron of a hotel. I had absolutely no complaints.

* I probably don't have to tell anyone this, either, but TCAF is a really good show. It's well-organized; it benefits in glorious fashion from being free and in a lovely, wide-open space; the juried guest list allows for some gotta-sees up top and a generally high level of quality table to table; Toronto is a vastly appealing city worth visiting; the off-site activities are suited for people young and old; there are bookstores and one of the world's great comics shops to visit. I could go on. Kudos to Chris Butcher and all involved, including the army of volunteers.

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* I made a point of asking after people's business as late in the weekend as I could (I left a couple of hours before things closed up on Sunday). Many cited best-weekend-ever sales, while only about 10 percent of the people to whom I spoke said that sales were off or disappointing. Drawn and Quarterly had their best weekend ever, Nobrow sold out of about a half-dozen books and Top Shelf I believe flat sold out of a couple of their debut books including Chester 5000. Fantagraphics' Mike Baehr said that his employers -- still a bit knee-deep in the water deciding whether or not to dive the rest of the way in -- had their best TCAF yet. Tom Neely and Dylan Williams had done well enough they looked like they had just eaten a big Thanksgiving meal and were ready to push back from the table and take a nap. (Williams promised a forthcoming blog post about this year's TCAF that will serve as a companion piece to his post-Stumptown meditation on the utility of shows.) Newer material did well across the board, no surprise there. I don't think it was a great weekend for everyone, but in general I think a lot of people moved a lot of product and most had a real good time.

* it's too big a show for a buzz book beyond obvious must-gets like Paying For It, but a lot of folks sent me to Nick Maandag for Streakers, while Neely and Jason Little cited some work they got in the upstairs salon area from local artists and 'zine makers. I liked the David Boswell t-shirts I saw; they were vibrantly colored.

* before I forget to mention it, Sunday was really busy and Saturday attendance-wise was a mere two clicks of the dial below "uncomfortable-crazy."

* it's a big enough show I never saw Paul Pope, Ludovic Debeurme and Sarah Glidden. I actually sat next to Brecht Evens for a dinner and had no idea I was doing so. I saw the very popular Kate Beaton once, when she was signing next to David Boswell in a formal signing area downstairs. The big manga creators on hand could have existed in some library space read right to left because I sure didn't stumble across them. Big show.

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* meeting the creator David Boswell and getting to talk to him for his TCAF spotlight panel was a real treat, for both adult me and 15-year-old me. I liked how honest he was about the outside motivations for key cartooning decisions. For instance, he said that one reason that the Reid Fleming comics looked different than the magnificent one-shot Heartbreak Comics is that each style reflected the story's lead, but he also confessed that part of the appeal of the Reid comics is that with the lead's white clothing and frenetic action working on his adventures freed more time for him to spend with the woman he ended up marrying. An initial impulse to become a cartoonist was to escape a job in a darkroom that took away his summer daylight hours, and an admitted impetus to plunging ahead was finding out how much New Yorker cartoonists were paid.

* I did ask after the screenwriting and film option process with a bit more interest than I figured Seth might in his "Giants Of The North" interview with the cartoonist that evening (I was right). I read Boswell's screenplay when I worked at Fantagraphics; we had a copy in the library. I thought it was very good, in addition to the interest it accrued simply being that rare screenplay penned by a property's creator. There were some interesting anecdotes in his film experiences. Jeph Loeb and his partner, still maybe students, attempted to buy rights for a very small amount back in the early days. Among the army of people conceived of as potential Flemings was Boswell's own choice Bob Hoskins, but there wasn't enough money on the table at any point to solicit Hoskins' real interest. Boswell talked about a staged reading done when Jon Lovitz wanted to do a film version of Reid, which if you've never heard that story had the stellar supporting cast of Phil Hartman as Crabbe, Ed Asner as Mr. O'Clock. Lisa Kudrow as Lena and Dan Castellaneta as Cap Cooper. Boswell praised Hartman as someone who could play any of the parts, including Reid, and I think he's probably right about that. He said there was no actor he saw as his title role right now, although interest may spike as the new book collections are published. It didn't occur to me following that summary dismissal to ask after potential Flemings such as Jack Black and Charlie Sheen.

* Boswell mentioned that we might see the second volume of IDW's collection of his Reid Fleming work in 2012, a year he hopes to be a special guest at Comic-Con in order to promote that release. If it's not clear from the above, Boswell was super-pleasant to be around, and a thoughtful, engaging presence -- he'd be a great if not perfect guest for CCI, so hopefully that comes off.

* the next Reid Fleming contains the full version of a second graphic novel-sized story starring the character, which this time apparently includes some sort of Milkman Olympic Games.

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* ran into CR's own Bart Beaty. We talked about L'Association, the number of cartoonists at the show with whom he's not familiar and how this is probably a good thing, his own now long-ago move away from serial comics (he quit them when he quit Cerebus), and the subject of his forthcoming book -- how comics were once written out of the history of 20th Century art and look to be mostly written back into the history of 21st Century art, and how this has an impact on everything from the reputation of individual artists to original art sales. That will hopefully be out this Fall or early in 2012. I'm looking extra-forward to it, because Bart's books tend to be crammed with idiosyncratic detail that can be informative above and beyond any academic thesis presented. It was great to see Bart; it had been a long time.

* ran into a charging-back-to-his-table Darwyn Cooke, who was nice enough to chat for a bit. He reiterated how devoted he was to his forthcoming digital-only project, and that he feels that these kind of efforts are crucial for comics over the next few years.

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* it was great to see Todd Bak, probably not the only cartoonist on the floor cutting his day at the show short to go do some homework but maybe the one with the best beard. He plans on continuing his really fine, recent Wild Man work for MOME in some sort of self-publishing effort; the cartoonist had never planned on doing more than one-half of the final work in serialized form in the first place, so that softened the blow of the anthology's cancellation.

* I love watching/listening/reading Lorenzo Mattotti talk about his own work, and the spotlight panel he did with Robin McConnell was no exception. He spoke of Fires as a work where he was struggling with modes of presentation and storytelling in a way that mirrored the rational/irrational, nature/reason conflicts within the work. He also said that many people thought the still amazing-looking Fires was his first work; I think I was one of those people. I missed his illustration panel on Sunday with Adrian Tomine and Jillian Tamaki; I'm told it was excellent.

* why European comics like Mattotti's don't sell to greater acclaim and profits in the U.S. was a topic of discussion that came up two or three times during my 56 hours in Toronto. My personal theory is I don't think the comics audience is big enough to encompass reliable sales in a lot of categories, no matter how great the work might be. While it's great that avenues exist to distribute those books that are potential, wider mainstream successes, a lot of worthy books from Europe are the kind where a devoted patronage might be necessary to help get them over, and we're not there yet. There are competing theories, of course, and they all likely overlap into something resembling the truth.

* I had a lot of fun talking to Chris Ware for an afternoon spotlight panel. This was in the first floor's largest meeting space, and it was standing-room only with a line before-hand. Chris has a pre-packaged selection of images that he can run through slideshow-style, and was nice enough to power through them in about 20 minutes. I like it when artists have something for people to look at, although I realize that this can be quite dull for the artist and I'm always wary of doing the entire panel that way. I hadn't seen some of the images before, and I think they focused the audience on the work and the prodigious amounts of craft involved.

* Ware and I talked a bit about his identity as a Chicago artist (he cited the lack of pretension as something he liked about his adopted city), the changes in his artistic life upon become a parent (it allowed him to do the parts of his current work that engage parenting; he says he's avoided stories about siblings for not having one, and wouldn't do a parenting story until he had that insight), and how much of Lint was about memory (a reasonable amount, both memory's failures and its subtle propensities towards misdirection). The audience's questions were very good as well.

* one thing I found memorable is that Ware cited the positive and upbeat aspects of his work a few times, and described Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth as a story about the world's beauty told from the point of view of someone completely unable to see it.

* as was the case on Friday night's group panel, Ware mentioned that he's been doing diary comics since 2002 and that this is a massive work that is too personal to ever be published. So there's your great unpublished comic of legend and whispers for the next 25 to 50 years.

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* Ware's signing line before the panel was humongous. I didn't pay much attention to formal lines with all the madness swirling around, but I did see extensive ones for Chester Brown (who had the new book) and Kate Beaton.

* another before-I-forget item or two that may only interest me: one person at the Ware panel I haven't seen in 15 years was Tom Galambos, who's been painting and is currently working on an installation presentation of some comics work. I noted that Billy Mavreas was in attendance at that one, too.

* I was happy to later relate to Chris Ware a story about working my occasional events-related job at Tony Fitzpatrick's World Tattoo gallery in 1991 and all of us talking about and laughing over what I learned was the very first ACME strip in NewCity (entitled "God"; I knew it was an early one but I didn't know it was the first one). Ware's Chicago fanbase was considerable when I was there, even though I'm certain there were the usual reactions from people that fundamentally didn't understand what Ware was doing. One thing that generally connects Ware to fellow guest Mattotti is how alarming it was to see their work for the first time in the context of comics of their era. You could argue that Ware is an important artist simply for how he changed the way folks approached art direction, which is a tiny percentage of his overall legacy.

* that new TCJ, the fat one, looks really beautiful.

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* I'll fix this paragraph if I have to when I get full Internet access again, but until then: Ed Chavez was apparently promoted at Vertical to a more general publisher's position, building on his management of their manga titles to encompass more work with the prose. He'll have a bigger say on what comes out generally. As for the book's on display, Chavez says that 7 Billion Needles is doing very well and that Twin Spica is only doing okay. He cited game changing reveals in volume seven of that series.

* lots of writers about comics milling about. I saw Deb Aoki for like five seconds. I met Chris Randle, who's been writing for various mainstream publications and apparently contributed something to CR years ago, which I don't remember because I'm old. I also got to meet Jeet Heer, who seemed to still be on big high from recently adding a member to his family. Heer was so nice that when I told him I would be taking the subway across town to see The Beguiling before dinner, he walked me to the subway station and gave me a token. I'm just glad he didn't pat me on the head or hand me a bagged lunch, but I'm not complaining. Nice goes a long way with me. I got to meet Sean Rogers and Robin McConnell, both of whom are carving out significant space in the comics commentary world. McConnell figures there might be 350 Inkstuds interviews at this point and had on hand a DVD with 300 of them.

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* no surprise here: The Beguiling is as incredible as you've heard. It rests in what seems like a reasonably well-trafficked, young person-dominated but not exclusively so neighborhood, in a building with two floors. The star, I think, is the stock -- there was stuff in there I haven't seen since I stopped working at Fantagraphics, like the various softcover Frank Frazetta art books and a full run of the old NBM Wash Tubbs books. I expected an insanely well-stocked store; what I didn't think I'd see was a store that was as well-stocked as that one but still funky in that primary sense of making you want to dig around and look at stuff. There's a fine line there, but they manage it with aplomb. The atmosphere was fun, too; a friend of mine said that when she shopped there they played the best music she'd ever heard in a store.

* another thing that was surprising about The Beguiling is that I was by far the oldest person in the store of about 20-25 people that stopped by during my visit. My friend Gil Roth explained this as "well, you're old now" -- thanks, Gil -- and that's partly true, but usually when I'm in a comics shop I'm joined within three to five people walking in by someone similarly ancient, if not many people. I later told Gil that if CR ever launches a podcast, we'll have a feature that's just his reading of weird comic shop names; it was great to have Team Roth along for a different perspective on what I was seeing.

* speaking of my friend Gil: he wrote recently of how ill-served he is by standard bookstores, but I noticed that none of that cropped up during his Beguiling visit. He was effusive. Gil nearly broke down and bought a beautiful-looking Dupuy and Berberian art book he hadn't heard of before; he did take home a Sammy Harkham print, which is the kind of two-pronged shopping decision you make in a really good, print-focused shop in Belgium more than it is the typical North American comics shop. It's as good as you've heard, maybe a little better, and totally worth the stop-by and dropping a few hundred dollars. From the number of cartoonists that hoped to move product into The Beguiling's hands at the conclusion of the show, I'd say they're particularly stuffed with a lot of hard-to-find work right now.

* Joe Ollmann and Pascal Girard really are that amusing when together.

* I don't want to exhaust what should be an obvious point, but the ability to sit down in a variety of restaurants and take a great meal is part of what makes Toronto a city worth hosting a comics show. People need to want to visit the city in question, and that is a full-service city. This is doubly important with Toronto if the show continues to grow in scope and importance, because it's expensive to get there.

* I enjoyed the Doug Wright Awards a great deal. It really helps that the ceremony only focuses on four awards -- its avant-garde award, an emerging talent award, a book of the year award, and a single induction into their Giants Of The North hall of fame. Seth and Brad Mackay are able administrator-type sub-hosts. Seth's interview with new Giant Of The North David Boswell was as genial as any interview I've ever seen and certainly so for the circumstances of being on stage with a bunch of folks staring at them. Boswell lived in Toronto and had a ton of family on hand, many holding Reid Fleming placards, and it was really nice to see him honored in the sense I think it meant something to him to come back to a place he lived to receive a nice award for work accomplished. He showed off his medal at the afterparty. Seth remains as impressed by Heartbreak Comics as I am. Don McKellar was a fine host -- Tom Devlin refused to believe that I knew who he was, probably because he'd never been in a Bill Forsyth movie -- and the animated sequences starring the playwright and actor proved generally amusing. I liked that someone gave a supplementary speech about each award winner as the winner accepted an award; it focused attention on the recipient.

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* one unexpected highlight was a photo of David Boswell and his wife with a bunch of emerging cartoonists superstars from 1990 or so, popped onto the big screen. This included a long-haired Chester Brown, who responded to a crack made about his current lack of hair by noting, Reid-Fleming style, "I get my hair cut this way."

* there were some slip-ups. Chester's speech about David Boswell included a description of him watching cable TV in the 1950s, something Brown corrected mid-course. A young actress that presented told a bunch of Archie jokes that didn't go over well, basically about the Riverdale gang being super-skeevy. Eye-mmonen. There was a curious, general attention to penises -- a full-frontal image on a piece of art for one of the scenes; McKellar drawing his dong for a joke -- that seemed like some sort of collective, phallic-oriented Tourette's. A number of people expressed concern for what Doug Wright's widow must have made of all the elliptical dirty talk. Mostly you noticed the small stuff because the show was solid, and I don't think any of it came close to having an impact on anyone's bottom-line perception of the show. I also have a sense most of the glitches will be ironed out in future years. Brad Mackay in particular seems passionately devoted to pulling of a strong ceremony every year, and it shows.

* the DWAs had Bob Sikoryak draw throughout the show off to the side of the stage, which was really cool if you could get over your personal concern for Bob having to work his ass off for the entire ceremony. He seemed to enjoy himself, though, and it was indeed interesting to see what graphic elements he would seize on to communicate a particular moment on stage. He told me the next day that it took him a second to figure out what they wanted him to do, but once he did, it was fun.

* spoke to the Kathryn and Stuart Immonen at the end of the awards show, briefly. It's really cool that Stuart Immonen can be up for a comics arts award like a DWA at the same time he's doing art for a giant mainstream comics series released through Marvel. I'm not sure that aspect of his career is appreciated to the extent it should be. Saw Chris Pitzer, too. We talked briefly about his time at Eclipse because of Boswell's proximity. When I mentioned that Pitzer had Eclipse Comics roots to someone later on that evening they were stunned because they had always thought Pitzer had started AdHouse with no previous experience in comics.

* I got to talk to Dan Nadel of PictureBox and The Comics Journal at the DWA afterparty, and he swears that he and Tim Hodler are thus far enjoying themselves on the Journal. He reiterated that he didn't like the movie Thor, and that Gary Groth has thus far been enthusiastically supportive of their efforts with the site.

* I spent most of the after-party in a comfortable corner of the bar's second floor with the lady employees of Drawn And Quarterly, including a young woman I'd never met before who is apparently the granddaughter of Frederik Pohl. I was too terrified of saying something stupid to drink, and too wary of being teased once out of ear shot to go to the restroom. We were joined about halfway through the short evening by Pascal Girard, who was carrying around a fancy red box with his prizes in it. This year that prize set included a DWA edition of the winning work, with a special Seth-designed cover. A significant chunk of the cartooning talent on hand bailed from the afterparty early, it was decided most likely to attend some sort of Sons Of The Kingdom style super-meeting of elite North American cartoonists they weren't allowed to tell anyone about.

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* Michael DeForge was very sweet, I thought, in his heartfelt thanks to his publisher Anne Koyama. (In general you could float an ocean-liner on the love that Koyama's cartoonists have for their publisher.) It was also great to see Alex Fellows win, because that's someone who's worked hard to get consistently better.

* I hope Jim Ottaviani doesn't mind if I share his suggestion that a way of understanding the structure and tone of his forthcoming Richard Feynman biography is to look to Feynman's anecdote-driven writing about his own life.

* Leigh Walton was nice enough to slip me a copy of Lucille, which I devoured on the plane ride home. That one is going to fairly slaughter some people. Pascal Girard pointed out to me as we shared a shuttle bus to the airport that part two of that work has just come out in France, so hopefully Top Shelf sells enough copies of their version of volume one that the second volume is possible.

* it was nice to finally meet Rina Piccolo. I mentioned how much I appreciate the sheer amount of work in terms of comics and writing she manages to put onto her web site, and she immediately responded with news she'll be taking some time away from the site. This kind of conversation happens to me way more than it should.

* it was fun to talk to people about getting to meet Chris Ware, a formidable figure for cartoonists as well as for comics fans. I didn't observe Chris a whole lot, but he seemed to handle these encounters and his signing times with a lot patience and class.

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* most of Sunday was spent catching up with creators and their future plans. Lucy Knisley has been coming to some version of this show since she was 19 years old. That food-related book of hers from First Second may see the light of day in late 2012; it's full-color, which I'm not sure I knew. Jason Little had the first part of a serialized work on hand; so did James Turner. I hadn't heard of the imminent arrival of either, so this was good news. In not-comics news, the extremely talented and affable Graham Annable is excited that Laika has announced their next animated project, ParaNorman, on which he and Vera Brosgol did a lot of early work. It was great to finally meet Barry Deutsch, Frank Cammuso and Maurice Vellekoop. Dave Roman's Teen Boat moves closer and closer to publication, which is a wonderful and, let's face it, at one point slightly far-fetched thing. I'm happy for him and John Green. Brandon Graham's next big thing is Multiple Warheads, original pages from which I was too chicken to touch because I was afraid I'd sweat on them. His stuff is amazing-looking up close, and he and Marian Churchland couldn't have been nicer. I met Sam Hiti and Ben Towle, too, but I'm not certain I asked them about upcoming projects. I'm likely forgetting 18 billion people.

* there were a few Mother's Day-related things going on. A lot of Sunday breakfast plans were shifted around because of the devotion of some spaces to reserved-in-advance holiday brunches. Joe Ollmann got up at 5 AM to have breakfast with his mother over in Hamilton before heading back to the show, endearing him to everyone in proximity. More than a few tables had Mother's Day-related art or sketching services available.

* I wrapped things up at the show by doing a panel with John Porcellino in the same room I kicked off my time at TCAF with David Boswell. It was great to talk to him, and it was one of those panels where it felt to me more like a personal talk than a presentation to an audience, although they laughed throughout and no one left. Porcellino also thinks of himself as a Midwestern cartoonist and as someone proud to be linked in any way to cartoonists like Frank King and Chris Ware. He talked about having a foot in both the 'zine world and the comics world, and that he's still attending events related to the former as much as he is the latter. I asked him to describe the 'zine world now as opposed to 15 years ago when I maybe knew more about that particular publication world, and he says that the Internet migration means that most of what gets printed in classic 'zine form tends to resemble the cream of the crop stuff from the busier era. He talked about being proud of the Walden project for Hyperion, and said the funniest complaint he got on that project was from someone who reminded him that Thoreau didn't have a beard at that point in his life. He talked about his involvement in the The Next Day interactive project about failed suicides, and how his own depression and anxieties have left him sympathetic to people experiencing psychic trauma. I wish I could type out every answer -- he was so engaged and present it was scary, and doing that panel was a total thrill.

* something fascinating that John Porcellino said about his business is that the ratio of handsold/subscribed-to books/directly ordered books to books moved through retail channels has reversed in the last 15 years, and now favors the books he sells in stores. For that reason, Porcellino mentioned he is worried about the decline in comics shops for the reasons that they've begun to do well by King-Cat Comics And Stories. The latest issue of King-Cat, by the way, is two-thirds done.

* I left the library at 3:10. On the corner, in front of a cold, glass building, a young lady sang with what sounded like a trained voice as on-lookers stopped and stared. I have no idea what that was about, but it was nice.

*****

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*****
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