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Newsmaker Interview: Chris Butcher
posted October 20, 2007
 

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The 2007 edition of the every-other-year Toronto Comic Arts Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday at that city's Old Victoria College. The free show brings a variety of skilled cartoonists working various corners of the medium into one place, and comes complete with judiciously selected but generally powerful programming and the social interaction that comes with several dozen cartoonists descending on one arts-appreciative city. I spoke with co-founder Chris Butcher, also an employee of the show's primary sponsor The Beguiling, about this year's festival.

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imageTOM SPURGEON: How big of an event are we looking at this weekend?

CHRIS BUTCHER: The 2007 Toronto Comic Arts Festival is looking like it will be roughly three times the size of our last event in 2005 (the show happens every two years), at least physically. We've got roughly double the guests lined up, and our conservative attendance estimate is 10,000 over two days, up on 6,000 over two days in '05. We're still a young show and we're trying to find a venue and set-up that best-suits the type of events we see in our heads, but this is definitely going to be a big one...

SPURGEON: Tell me how TCAF started. What were the important developments in its progression as a cultural entity?

BUTCHER: If you're reading this site and it's a safe bet that you know about The Beguiling. The store and its owner Peter Birkemoe were involved in a lot of smaller comics events in the late '90s and up through the early 'oughts. I had been shopping there since ought-one, and had more-or-less pierced Peter's icy exterior immediately, and begun 'suggesting' he put on a larger event to utilise and promote the vast array of talent in Toronto in a bigger way than a reading or signing could provide.

The biggest change is in TCAF moving out of mine and Peter's hands to become a larger, more shared effort. Our Festival Director this year is Matthew Seiden, a known art-collector, long-time customer at the Beguiling, and volunteer since day one. The fact that the festival could go on existing without Peter and I helming it is probably the most relevant cultural progression. That said, despite some pessimism about the state of the industry, I'd say a much higher percentage of our creator guests are making a living in the comics industry in 2007 than they were in 2003, and that's both important and gratifying.

imageSPURGEON: How did you get involved and what's the nature and extent of your involvement at this time?

BUTCHER: Well, in October of 2002 I weaseled my way into a road trip with Peter Birkemoe, Joe Matt, Marcel Guldemond, Marc Ngui, and maybe Jason to SPX ("The Expo," that year) in Maryland. After seeing what was great and what could be improved about that show, I basically berated Peter the entire eight hour car trip home until he finally said "Fine, you do it." and so TCAF was born. I ended up working on TCAF from the store so much that they finally made me an employee and since then I've become the Manager.

The extent of my involvement at this time is a little nebulous. My titles are "Guest Liaison" and "Co-Founder," but I'm working on a little bit of everything, bringing Matt up to speed, and getting ready to step back a little for next time and concentrate more on the guests and the promotion. But yeah, if you look at any aspect of the Fest I've either had a hand in it or done it entirely. I'm a bit of a control freak.

SPURGEON: What is it about TCAF that you think works as an actual show when compared to other conventions, the actual show itself and not the scene it creates?

BUTCHER: The atmosphere. No offence intended to SPX, but coming out of that fateful car trip the one thing we all decided is that we didn't want to be a "Hotel Con." Being in Toronto, despite being your neighbour to the north and all, it's just a different type of city with a different vibe than the states. We want to do a show that's integrated into the everyday of Toronto, that engages the populace as well as appealing to the comics devotee. Our locations have always been adjacent to the University district, either in historical buildings (a lovely old church in 2003, a 100+ year old University building in 2007) or smack-dab in the middle of the street in 2005.

I really think that guests who come here have a good time, and that combined with fair-to-middlin' sales from an open-minded group of attendees means that (with a few exceptions that were entirely our fault) our guests go home happy and with positive feelings about the show. Better still it primes the pump for all of the attendees to get out there and read, support, and create their own comics, and supporting publishers and encouraging new fans is what it's really all about.

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SPURGEON: Say I'm a guy who lives in a Toronto suburb who likes to read about five to ten graphic novels a year. I know who Dan Clowes and Jeffrey Brown are; I don't know the difference between Tim Hensley and David Heatley. I read Doonesbury at Slate, but I wouldn't recognize Chris Onstad if he carved a week's worth of his comics into my desk. I can't fathom being interested in going to a party with cartoonists. I haven't drawn a comic of my own since the fifth grade. Why should I go to TCAF?

BUTCHER: Hah, that's the thing. In a Toronto suburb, you're much more likely to know who Seth and Chester Brown are than Clowes or Brown, and they're at the show (actually, Jeffrey Brown is as well). I see what you're getting at, but at least on the guest front we're really fortunate to have Canadian "Brand Name" artists attending that speak to readers of literature and fiction, comics or otherwise.

imageBut if you're just sort of aware of comics and you need a reason to come down, the big messages we put out there are about access and knowledge. A show like TCAF offers an unprecedented level of guest access to the 'known quantities', whereas someone like Seth or Joe Matt or Darwyn Cooke or Paul Pope are relatively elusive figures at a lot of shows, at TCAF they're doing appearances for 3-5 hours a day, including lots of signing time. As for "knowledge", we work with local media to increase the public knowledge and perception of comics and graphic novels through interviews and feature articles, and then provide plenty of free on-site programming to give newcomers something to really sink their teeth into. This years panel on manga, for example, features Paul Gravett, the guy who wrote the book on manga, Jason Thompson, who's read every manga in the English language, a host of "World Manga" creators including Svetlana Chmakova, Becky Cloonan, and Bryan Lee O'Malley, and then a translated manga re-writer from Tokyopop named Lianne Sentar is moderating the whole thing.

If you're a parent who wants to figure out what the hell your kid is reading, you're going to come away from a panel like that with a very, very good idea (maybe even too good.)

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about the Beguiling? Has the Beguiling seen exponential growth in success the way the DM sales figures and new markets for comics would indicate possible? How would you quantify or specifically qualify your store's success beyond descriptive adjectives? What's different about the business today as opposed to 2002?

BUTCHER: I guess we can talk about The Beguiling, seeing as they are the premier sponsor of The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, this weekend in Toronto, Canada. [coughs]

The Beguiling continues to grow, but not exponentially. We're on a very steady upward curve, which is gratifying and lets us build our staff and systems in a more considered way. As sales grow larger and larger, we have to hire more and more staff to make those sales work, and there's higher delivery bills and more shows to set up at, etc. etc. You can look at things like our employees and see that there are three times as many people on the payroll as there were in 2002, or even just the volume and the density of the stock and go "alright, there's a lot of growth here." The joke amongst our customers is that after five years of constant renovations and fixture upgrades, the only other place to put new stock is on the ceiling (and believe me, we're trying figure that one out).

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SPURGEON: Has the Beguiling been uniquely suited in any way to capitalize or make good on this latest round of interest in comics, in ways not available to other stores? How?

BUTCHER: I think The Beguiling is a more-or-less wholly unique store in North America. We're on a side-street that's known within the city as an "artists' community" and we fit in nicely next to cafes, two art-book stores, a decorative glass shop, and an antiques store. We're designed to appeal and be interesting to the general public, sort of like a "curiosities" shop where the main curiosity is "I didn't know they made comic books I might enjoy!"

The mandate when I joined the store was to carry one of everything, and that really hasn't changed much. We were already working with book market distributors, with Cold Cut, and sourcing new product lines when the success of yaoi manga or books from Pantheon made those things a necessity for any comic store worth their salt. I don't know if our way of doing things is any easier, it's more like a necessity; a snowball rolling down a hill gathering more and more snow, getting heavier and faster at the same time. We don't currently have much of a choice, but as I mentioned we're constantly building systems so that we can be a little choosier, if we want.

imageSPURGEON: Let me ask you about some of your muckraking. If I'm reading my e-mails correctly, I think some people may see you as someone who likes to criticize without caring to so much if there's a solution. Ideally, and granting you a wide range of powers that would make any initiative you put forward likely, what would you have mainstream comics companies do right now in terms of their comics' pervasive sexism? What would you have DC Comics do with ZudaComics.com? What one thing would you for comics in general?

BUTCHER: I'll admit that I'm not afraid to put a critical thought or two out there, but I try to restrict myself to situations that I feel could be solved, whether by common sense or a swift kick in the pants. I rarely bitch just to see my words on the screen -- I simply don't have the time. I also think it's just... well, what's half way between pointless and immense hubris? I think it would be arrogant to assume I had all the answers, but I can quite easily look at something and go "That's not right, and here's why" and I think that's valid and maybe even necessary.

"Solutions" are also not always forthcoming because I am smart and those solutions are likely worth money to the people who need them, and I am available for freelance consulting. However, since you're doing this interview, I'll play along:

The number one thing I'd do to stop pervasive sexism at the majors would be "Bring Your Wife and Daughter To Work Day." DC (at least the DCU) and Marvel editorial are pretty male-centric heterosexual environments, so I'd start "Bring Your Wife and Daughter To Work Day" for all of the editors, assistant editors, anyone with decision-making power. And then the editors pass their books to their wives and/or daughters and say "Honey, do you think this is offensive? Do you think this portrays women in a negative light that has nothing to do with story concerns?" and the editors can't use the excuses "But the fans love it!" or "He's a fan-favourite artist!" to defend the work. And if it doesn't pass the wife/daughter test? It either gets sent back to the drawing board or scrapped altogether. Those books would look awful different in about 60 days.

As for ZudaComics.com? I keep hearing about this "iTunes for comics" idea that no one has gotten to, yet. I bet DC could beat Joey Manley to the punch if they wanted to. Zuda as a method to do digital distribution of existing DC properties, Zuda as a talent-search for existing properties, Zuda and their reader as an attractive platform for creator-owned work that would be based off of an ad-sales revenue model, I dunno. The sky's the limit there...

The one thing I would do for comics is to magically let everyone know exactly what their talent, enthusiasm, and ideas are worth, in the hopes that so many people would stop settling for less.

SPURGEON: Do you feel you're under-read or paid too much attention to?

BUTCHER: A little bit of both. With the blog at comics212.net, I've had two very interesting conversations in the past two years. One with Calvin Reid and one with Darwyn Cooke, and they both said the same thing: People Read What You Say So Watch It (in fact, I've gone back and edited my answers to this interview twice already). I have the site stats and I'm comfortable with my readership, though I'm certainly not at the level of you or Dirk or Heidi. I tend to be read by industry people and other bloggers more, and the general public less.

On a day where I get a measly 400 unique visitors, I'll write a post that inspires five or six other folks to write about (and link to) what I've written, and the next day the hits are through the roof. If I bitch about CompanyX or AssholeY, the next day it's everywhere... I've had to give that sort of thing a lot of thought when deciding about whether or not to write about company trips to the strip clubs at Wizard World. Sure, it'll make my point for me, but then I get angry letters from comics professionals and I have to keep trolls out of the comment section and the stress usually isn't worth it.

I'm annoyed I didn't get an invite to the Zuda Party at San Diego though, I would have liked to have been bribed with free food and drink. Apparently I need to be doing Tom Spurgeon business to score a DC invite.

imageSPURGEON: What's the best comic you've read in the last five years?

BUTCHER: Scott Pilgrim. By Toronto Comic Arts Festival guest Bryan Lee O'Malley. I think that because I lived a lot of it I have absolutely no distance when it comes to the work, but it is quite literally the comic written for me. So I love it. Luckily, I could pull four or five hundred other people out of the woodwork to say the same thing, so that makes me look a little less biased.

My non-biased answer is probably Curses by Toronto Comic Arts Festival guest Kevin Huizenga. I think Kevin is one of the most important creators in comics, blending formalism and experimentation and compelling narrative and real drawing chops and a design aesthetic and vitality into something really... I don't know if I'm allowed to say this, but "transcendent." Man, this is going to make seeing Kevin this weekend awkward. But yeah, I think Kevin Huizenga is doing work right now that, while he might consider it 'fumbling' or something similarly humble and understated, is going to last a very, very long time and be capital-I Important to comics.

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* text from TCAF publicity
* photo of Butcher
* Darwyn Cooke art from TCAF FCBD offering
* Chester Brown art
* please tell me if this isn't Becky Cloonan
* old Beguiling logo
* recent sexist Marvel cover
* stand-alone Scott Pilgrim image

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Editor's Notes:

1) The bias Chris talks about in answering the last question "Scott Pilgrim" is that he is a close friend and I believe former roommate of its artist, Bryan Lee O'Malley.

2) Speaking of biases, I had to check the front page to be sure, but TCAF is an advertiser on this site.

3) Despite Chris's assertions to the opposite, the traffic here at CR is almost certainly dwarfed by TCJ.com or PW. I say "almost" because I don't look at numbers (mine or theirs) to know 100 percent. I'd bet a few of my fingers on it.