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News: MoCCA Festival Enjoys Second Big Year
posted June 30, 2003
 

According to the crush of fans in attendance and the pleased but exhausted exhibitors on hand at day's end, the MoCCA Arts Festival enjoyed a successful second year at New York City's venerable Puck Building, Sunday, June 22. Basically a small press-oriented show of the type made popular at the Small Press Expo and Alternative Press Expo combined with an air of school's-out summer headiness and a touch of big city center-of-it-all importance, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Festival looks to not only be a viable fund- and attention-raiser for the Museum but potentially the arts-first New York show that's been on the wish list of many in comics for years. On a cloudy afternoon marking the end of the city's strange springtime weather, New York comics fans, those piqued by an interest in the arts and wandering locals sauntered between tables and into a panel room, soaking up much of the best the art form has to offer. Early estimates put total attendance well over last year's 2000 at somewhere between 2400-2500, with several hours mid-afternoon packed with flesh from table front to table front.

Big Books

The display space was split into three distinct areas. Working south to north, the first and smallest area consisted of restrooms, a busy food vendor and the speaking area for the show's presentational panels. The second room was fronted by the admittance area and consisted of several small press publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a couple of other comics-related organizations, and arts comics deans Fantagraphics Books. Connecting through a short, crooked hallway lit by white Christmas lights behind paper, the main exhibition area featured Top Shelf and Alternative at one end, Drawn and Quarterly and Highwater Books at the other, and four rows of mostly individual talent-driven small press tables between one and the other.

Between one end and the other milled what was at the fire code challenging crowd of young people of both sexes, established comics pros like Archie's Stan Goldberg and Mutts' Patrick McDonnell, and key local industry figures such as DC's Joey Cavalieri and King Features Syndicate Editor Jay Kennedy. Many exhibitors bemoaned any opportunity to leave their tables and check out the various other offerings for themselves.

The flurry of sales in the North room was paced by two monster books: the phone book-sized anthology Kramer's Ergot #4 on one end of the hall and what may be the biggest original graphic novel published in the West, Craig Thompson's Blankets. Kramer's Ergot editor and publisher Sammy Harkham, working out of the Highwater Books area, told the Journal that he sold 135 copies of the $25 tome at the show. "I don't know how that compares to others, but compared to my previous books at previous shows, that's really great for us." Harkham and several artists who appear in the anthology, such as Souther Salazar and Josh Simmons, used the show as the end stop of a North American promotional tour where more books were moved, and the editor/publisher was able to sell his remaining copies to local retailers and catalog people.

Cartoonist Craig Thompson seemed to sign enough copies of Blankets on the festival's single day for an entire promotional tour. Perched at the western end of the North room's wooden bar where Top Shelf made their home, Thompson barely looked up from the books placed in front of him for the duration of the show, except for chatting amiably to fans purchasing the massive follow-up to Goodbye, Chunky Rice. Top Shelf declared the festival their biggest one-day sales affair in the company's history, driving in large part by sales of that book, which proud publisher Staros calls a generation-defining work. According to Staros, 200 copies of the book, split between a $30 paperback and a special edition $75 hardback, were sold to New York fans. These were exemplary sales figures even for a publisher that so aggressively pursues convention business. "This crowd is amazing," whispered Top Shelf aide-de-camp Wayne Beamer on the day of the show.

Still other companies did well without such heavy hitters. Jeff Mason's Alternative Books line, with a large battery of talent in the New York area, did bang-up business all day and by the evening could call the Sunday show their best single sales day ever. For Mason, what was remarkable was some of the business done throughout his line. "We sold out all of the copies we brought of quite a number of books because I underestimated the sales potential for the eight hours of the show for certain books," Mason told the Journal "For example, Derek Kirk's Same Difference and Other Stories sold out of the 30 copies I had him send me at the show, he wasn't even there to help sell the book, we didn't display it other than plopping a stack on the table along with other books. Gabrielle Bell sold out of all of the 40 or so copies of her $4 hand xeroxed mini-comic 'Lucky' she brought with her and could probably have sold 40 more. I asked her to bring copies so that we could promote to everyone that we'd be publishing her books as a series starting at the end of the year as the first issue of a series. We sold 64 copies of Sweaterweather during the eight-hour show. That's pretty good. We sold well on everything across the table."

Fantagraphics Books quickly sold out of its debut books, although the publisher admitted to a conservative stocking strategy due to its distance from New York City and its confidence in eventually moving copies through the traditional bookstores and comics shops. "Well, we only brought 12 Quimby's because they had to be air freighted from Hong Kong so we expected to sell out of that right away," Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson explained to the Journal. "We sold out of the half-dozen Frank books almost right away, that was just a misjudgment -- we should have brought 12 or 15 at least -- we chickened out because the book is expensive (and expensive to ship). We hit the new Krazy and Ignatz and Dicks and Deedees about right, I think about 15 and 8 respectively -- they sold out toward the end of the day. We had plenty of Raisin Pie #2." Thompson elaborated further on Fantagraphics sales strategy. "On a convention of that size we generally don't bring more than three to five copies of any older book (more if the artist is signing). It's ultimately so expensive to ship books forth and (if unsold) back so we're usually pretty conservative. (If we were driving a van to the Con, thus making total weight of books essentially returned immaterial, we'd be a lot less so.) Our lesson at MoCCA was that we can probably adjust our totals up a bit next year. I'd rather sell out than have to ship a whole bunch of books back to Seattle. And the way we look at it, it's not a 'lost' sale, since whoever was going to buy the book will probably buy it later at a store, through our website, or through Amazon.com."

The few exhibitors that expressed that they had enjoyed less than extravagant sales told the Journal that what they had on hand has already enjoyed deep market saturation, or was material that was slightly inappropriate to what was being sought by those in attendance -- pen and ink drawings seemed to sell much better than original pages of comic book art, for example. "We knocked ourselves out making all these silkscreened prints and t-shirts for the show," Ariel Bordeaux told the Journal, "But for the most part people were only looking at the comics." Bordeaux also reported that she and artist Rick Altergott received more specific interest at their half-table than in doing signings with publisher Fantagraphics, and would likely pursue their own space at subsequent shows.

Hey, Look -- It's the Harveys

The festival offered a steady diet of comics-related programming from beginning to end, an added attraction for potential guests and a way to keep people at the show longer for a wider variety of activities. A special presentation to and talk from New York cartooning legend and guest of honor Art Spiegelman was packed, and a line for the comics author and Francoise Mouly to sign their various works was swamped for up to an hour after panel's conclusion. A panel on the continued viability of newspaper comics featured one smashing Saul Steinberg anecdote from New York Times illustrator Mark Podwal and an upbeat but sobering presentation of strip syndication's grim realities from Nina Paley of The Hots and Isabella Bannerman of Six Chix. Moderator Phoebe Gloeckner began a panel on the undergrounds by claiming a place for arts comics legends under the emerging voices spotlight usually thrown on small press-dominated shows like MoCCA's. Attendees of the cross-discipline panel feature comics and animation educators got to see noted alternative cartoonists James Sturm and Ted Stearn in their give-me-an-apple hats, as both spoke strongly to the difficulties of engaging students at their various points of need. A presentation of animated shorts was quickly packed with fans of that art form.

Kent Worcester was pleased with the overall tone and result of the day's events. "Partly because of the strong word of mouth after the first Festival, but also because of our location in NYC, we were able to pull together a great line-up of speakers. The program brought together a diverse mix of participants, from illustrators, animators, and comic strip folks to journalists, academics, and entrepreneurs, few if any of whom would be found at a standard issue comics convention." A particularly highlight was the academics panel. "There seemed to be a general agreement among the participants in the Words and Pictures panel that the discussion had been unusually productive. In the next few weeks I will be transcribing the tape and sending it to John Lent, for possible inclusion in International Journal of Comic Art." Worcester noted that any frustrations came in the area of the festival's physical plant. "The program itself was fine; the venue is arguably flawed from a programming standpoint. The Puck Building is a wonderful space for tabling, but mixed at best for panels. The Festival's organizers worked hard to ensure ample seating, clear signage, and a good sound system. Unfortunately, we were working within the limitations of the space, with a noisy air conditioning system and sounds trickling in from the rest of the Festival. Furthermore, not every panelist spoke into his microphone. Clearly the next Festival will need to address the venue's physical limitations. But there seems to be a lot of support in the broader comics community for the Festival and I hope to continue to help out in any way that I can."

Perhaps the most interesting panel was the announcement of this year's Harvey Award winners and brief presentation regarding that event's future. The festival was pleased to announce, with representatives from the Harvey Awards board in attendance and looking on, that the day's event would be the new home for the esteemed awards ceremony. The Harvey had taken the year off from formal presentation after previous stops in Dallas and Pittsburgh, but the match between the New York based show and the awards ceremony named after one of that community's artistic giants seemed a fortuitous match. "I couldn't be more thrilled," new chairperson Nellie Kurtzman told the Journal. "I think moving to New York is way more in tune with what my dad would have wanted. For one thing, I think we'll be able to attract more artists to the event -- we always had great winners, but it was hard for many of them to get to Pittsburgh."

Denis Kitchen, who with the day's events and formal transfer resigned as chairman of the award committee to become a consultant to the awards, told the Journal that the ceremony will be held in conjunction with the weekend but not at the venue itself. "The awards will be presented off site and in the context of a banquet, as it was in Dallas and at Pittsburgh. [Newly announced chairperson] Nellie Kurtzman is heading the search for an appropriate venue. It may in fact be a separate night preceding the show as well." Kurtzman confirmed that a previous-night banquet is what she was thinking at this time, and that finding a home would be interesting because instead of working with a convention center or exhibition hall, "we have all of New York to play with."

On his on-line web journal following the weekend of the Festival, cartoonist Evan Dorkin indicated that he will be returning as Harvey Awards emcee, a recent role in which he had been well-received. Kitchen confirmed. "I've indicated to Evan our wish to have him stay on as M.C. and it is my understanding that he will." According to Kitchen, the move to New York will be an advantageous one for the cartoonist/host. "As a New Yorker, I'm sure he prefers MOCCA to Monroeville. He'll also presumably have more award nominees and winners at the banquet, which will be a big help preparing gags and ad-libbing with recipients. Publisher stand-ins are tough to parry with." Kurtzman added that Dorkin's presence was part of the awards being administered the same as in previous years with the exception of the change in venue and her own presence bringing the family aspect of the ceremony slightly more to the forefront. "I'm looking forward to it so much," she said.

Growing Pains

The Harvey Awards aren't the only body with work to do between now and next year's show. The festival itself has a number of issues to contend with in deciding how the successful event will continue to grow without sacrificing those things that have appealed to exhibitors and attendees the first time out. The organizing committee circulated a memo asking for opinions on various steps to be taken, including raising table prices, moving to a two-day event, and inviting the mainstream companies to formally exhibit.

Most exhibitors seemed to embrace the thought of two days of sales in a prime city location like SoHo's Puck Building, believing that sales would more than offset an increase in costs. "That would be good," said Kim Thompson succinctly. Some single-artist exhibitors expressed greater doubts about a mitigating crease in income, but also affirmed that two days would certainly be within a reasonable profits expectation as long as the raise in prices was as modest as the less than $100 suggested in the festival's circular -- in fact, at that point for many of the artists simply finding housing in New York would become a bigger hassle than on-site costs. At least one cartoonist suggested that increasing fees might be good for the show in the long run. "Hiking up the MoCCA costs for a two-day event will make for better exhibition," Dean Haspiel told the Journal. "Poor yet talented cartoonists have a year to break bread with publishers and/or get noticed so they can buddy up and/or crash a table with like-minded exhibitors. That's what these shows are about. Get noticed. Hawk wares. Shake a frickin' hand and swing a deal. Everyone else? Go fly a kite. I know I work very hard just to get my measly comic out there and I expect nothing less from everybody worth their salt."

Jeff Mason pointed out to the Journal that showing on Saturday at the Puck Building would almost have to be more expensive given the costs of the facility on that day. "I would be more than happy to pay higher table prices to keep the show viable. I would love it to become a two-day show. Expanding it to two days would certainly mean much higher table prices because the Puck Building is about three or four times more expensive to rent on Saturday than on Sunday. I am all for making it a two-day show." Mason added that while he thought a second day to show might mitigate some of the intense crowd presence, he still felt the building would be too small for 2004's expected crowd.

As for mainstream publishers making their presence felt at future festivals, there seems to be a greater difference in opinion among those publishers contacted by the Journal. Fantagraphics' Thompson said he voted against the notion but if they started to come, "I wouldn't slit my wrists." Jeff Mason saw an opportunity for a directed presence at the show. "I never knew that the mainstream companies weren't invited. I say why not? If the show organizers felt that the show should have a specific flavor, they could ask companies such as Marvel or DC to make a point to display their flavored imprints, such as Marvel's non-superhero comics or DC's Vertigo, etc. As a comic book reader I would have been interested in seeing Marvel showing off some sneak peeks of their Marvel 1602 mini-series. If it were up to me, I wouldn't care if mainstream superhero comics being promoted next to my comics."

Sammy Harkham was adamant about the issue from the other side. "I hate the idea of big companies being on the floor with the small press. What's the point of that? Even if they limited Marvel to one table, it brings an unneeded crowd to the show. Once they start letting in big corporations into MoCCA, is when I (and I am sure others) will stop going." Concurs Ariel Bordeaux of the possibility, "That'd be a major deterrent. I think it would possibly ruin the spirit of the event, which I thought was all about showcasing independent artists and small publishers." One exhibitor told the Journal anonymously that the success of the show's first two years were proof of an interest in a New York City arts comics show "whether MoCCA organizes the show or not."

MoCCA Chairman Lawrence Klein feels confident that his museum's festival will remain that special New York show. "If we're going to make it bigger, it has to be better," Klein told the Journal. "We want to keep the show's integrity. Not everything is going to please everybody, but this is a great way to spotlight up and coming talent and a variety of artists and we want to keep the focus that way." As to the issue of mainstream companies being involved with future festivals, Klein noted Marvel's shrinking convention presence in general and admitted that as the companies were never discouraged from coming in the first place, there's no reason to think they'll come now. "I think people may have read too much into our questionnaires. We're not moving the Festival to Secaucus and we're not becoming a mainstream show."

A particularly close, looming issue for Klein is the one-day show versus the two-day show strategy and how each would have an effect on the Festival. "Two days would cost more wherever we went, and the class that the Puck Building brings is a large part of the success the first two years." Other options the committee plans to explore is moving programming to its own day and/or off-site ("although I'm not sure that programming doesn't help bring people into a show") with that space being given over to exhibitors. The committee plans to meet in a couple of weeks to explore various options, and according to Klein will have a rough idea of 2004's event in place by early September. At this time, he fully expects the show will return to the Puck Building for 2004, and for prices to definitely be raised -- Klein told the Journal that cost increases this year were not passed onto exhibitors, and that the museum has been alerted to further increases to take hold starting in 2004. Although making a few decisions for 2004 and then seeing how things go before deciding on the year after that is one possible strategy the museum will pursue, the committee will also look into the year 2005 festival and make advance plans if they feel it's in the greater good for the show.

"The biggest complaint that we heard was that it was crowded and everyone made a lot of money," Klein laughed. In terms of the general success of the show, Klein characterized the Festival as a very successful way among the many utilized by the museum to get the word out about its plans for a permanent home in New York City. "As publicity, marketing, awareness -- it's fantastic. We couldn't beat the press we got out of it. Local radio, print and television ran featured stories before the show, and certain national magazines listed it as an upcoming event. The industry pre-press was great, too -- what are going to get, what are you going to premier, where are the parties... That kind of anticipation and the awareness it builds, it showcases we can do any kind of event. The festival is an event that brings a really positive awareness of the museum, away from the comic book stereotype." As a fundraiser the Festival is less efficient. "Well, we make a few bucks," says Klein. "We cover the costs make sure we have enough as a base for the next. Maybe in a few years it can be a serious money maker for us, but right now we're happy not to lose money."

As it heads into a planned third year and beyond, the MoCCA Arts Festival has problems similar shows would kill for. With its combination of boundless social opportunities, easy press access, natural audience, early summer date and proximity to a significant portion of the comics community, New York seems a natural setting for a comics show for years to come. Yet with issues looming of cost and the show keeping its identity through its inevitable growth period, and the twin masters of running an effective show and a worthy fundraiser, the festival committee will have to scramble to keep the show's backstage administration from becoming more interesting than the show itself.

SIDEBAR

Dino Solves It All

The Comics Journal asked Dean Haspiel, a popular cartoonist local to New York City with new projects at both Alternative Comics and Marvel, what he would do with MoCCA's 2004 festival given full power over its planning.

Here are my two cents for MoCCA 2004:

Make it two days (Saturday and Sunday). Allows more programming, more browsing, more people, and more sales. Keep it at the Puck Building. Brings all kinds and keeps it classy. The cost across the board will weed out the punters in the cheap seats. Hold the Harvey Awards at the New School Auditorium on Saturday Night (at 8:30PM -- allows time for quick dinner) with an after party close-by or at another venue that has an auditorium/dance floor/bar in lower Manhattan (below 14th street, please). Friday evening is the night where Highwater, Alternative, Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, and whoever else get to party naked with all the folks who are flying in the day before the weekend event (a bar like Parkside Lounge with its pool table, juke box, and back room is always fun -- the first Comix DeCode was held there). No franchise publishers allowed. Sunday night BBQ and Frisbee toss to be determined...

Also, I'm sure there are a few local galleries near the Puck Building that could hold a show concurrently with MoCCA's weekend event. The two events should launch together and the gallery should run for a month, selling the leftover comix from MoCCA to folks who dig the art hanging on the gallery walls. Your comix are still working for you three to four weeks after MoCCA closes its annual doors.