Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 4, 2010

A Conversation With Chris Butcher

imageChris Butcher is the public face of the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, the every-two-years comics show that may or may not go to every year after 2010's trial run at doing the event a mere 12 months after the previous one. They had by all accounts an extremely good show, and I wanted to give Chris a platform to talk about some of the reasons. My thinking is that other shows out there in a similar state of development might learn from his perspective. People rarely say so explicitly, but a sustainable, North American network of fine comics shows would be an overall good for the industry and art form.

An employee of the great comics store The Beguiling, Butcher is an outspoken advocate on a number of comics-related issues. I rather brutally shifted gears about 10 questions in to get his insight into some general industry concerns of the moment. I always enjoy talking to Chris, and hope you'll get something out of the fact we took this particular conversation public. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Can you provide me with a snapshot, hopefully as much hard information as you have as to how TCAF went this year?

CHRIS BUTCHER: Up front, this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival was our best ever by pretty-much every metric we can measure. In terms of attendance -- we get audited attendance figures from our venue Toronto Public Library because they have turnstiles set up -- we were up to about 12,000 attendees over the two days this year, from 10,500 last year. We also opened up a second floor space this year, The Appel Salon, which we branded "The Webcomics Pavilion" and we had off-site programming, so despite the increase in attendance the show flowed better and was much cooler than last year. I would say our floorspace increased by about 100% over 2009, which shows further integration into the library, which is our end goal really, to use this great public space to its utmost.

The vast majority of our exhibitors said they had great show financially... I feel it would be weird to name names but the feedback we received and the feedback that was posted online from our exhibitors was very, very positive. I will say that some of our more superhero-centric freelancers didn't have the big-money show they were hoping for, which they attributed to TCAF not being "their crowd" which I think is totally fair. Even then though they said they had a great time and ideally would like to come back, so that's heartening.

We had more than double the number of volunteers sign up for 2010, with something like 80 percent of our 2009 volunteers returning. That was amazing. They were amazing, actually. That was our second piece of feedback from exhibitors -- and the public actually. "We had a great time! And your volunteers were awesome!" Our volunteers are awesome, I cannot believe how fortunate we are in that regard.

On an organizational side we were much better I think, we increased the staff/executive of the show by three people up from 2009, including Miles Baker (MONDO Magazine) as Assistant Festival Director, which took a lot of pressure off of me. We were able to get a really lovely Festival Guide printed this year, we were able to get a professionally (and gorgeously!) designed set of floor maps done this year, the programming was really wide and diverse, and all of it was up and promoted more than two weeks before the show, those were all measurable improvements over 2009.

What really got to me wasn't the number of people telling me that TCAF 2010 was our best yet, that was kind of obvious to me working on it and on the days of, because of how much less stressed I was compared to any other year. What really affected me was the number of people telling me that TCAF 2010 was their favorite comics event of all time. I mean, that's amazing right? I would never have expected that, but really, that's what our exhibitors have said and that's the kind of feedback that lets you sleep well at night.

SPURGEON: How did the show go in terms of your doing it one year since the last one instead of two? Was it a different experience putting such a show together?

BUTCHER: Well, from the get-go with Toronto Public Library, they kind of made it clear to us that they'd like an annual event -- it's easier for them from an organizational and promotional perspective to slot something into their efforts and budgeting on an annual basis than something that's irregular like a biennial comics festival. So while working on TCAF 2009, I was keenly aware that we might be doing a show in 2010, and tried to make a map of when the due dates really were, what was stressing me the most, where jobs I was doing could be broken out of my responsibilities as director and then handed off to someone else entirely. When you've got two years to put together an event, you can take on a lot more responsibility, essentially. When you've only got a year and you've got dozens of other things going on, delegating and organization become your only two lifelines.

Honestly, I think the results speak for themselves. Doing an event every year, and really digging into the planning and organization of your next event three months after the last one means that you don't have to reinvent the wheel -- which, if you're approaching the media, or sponsors, or partner organizations, 18 months is a very long time to come back and say "Hey, remember us? Let's do the same thing again!" Between 2007 and 2009 for example, almost all of our media and sponsorship contacts had left their positions. It's much harder building a relationship from scratch every time, and that didn't happen in 2010. It was actually easy, and sponsorship and partnerships are so rarely anything but teeth-grindingly difficult.

In the end it was a very different experience, but much better. I think my work at The Beguiling suffered a little more though this time, and I know my blogging certainly did, but TCAF was the priority and I think with the organization and staff getting so much stronger year over year, even those will be running relatively normally the next time we do the show.


SPURGEON: Have you made a decision to return in 2011? If not, what's the timetable on such a decision and what factors will be involved in your making it?

BUTCHER: We haven't decided. Honestly, it's just been a lack of time to get together with the executive and have a real postmortem. I took off for Japan right after TCAF, and then this week has been preparing for a big convention experience for The Beguiling, which is Anime North here in Toronto, so without having had a chance to have a postmortem with our executive -- all of whom are volunteers -- it would be impossible to say that we're definitely going to go ahead for next year. Our postmortem is scheduled for next weekend, I'd say we'd have an announcement either way in early June.

In terms of that would be involved in making the decision? Making sure our staff is on board for it, honestly. If anyone isn't, I'd really want to know why. If one of our staff or executive had serious misgivings about an annual show, then I'd really weigh those concerns even if I wanted to do an annual event, that's much bigger than a gut feeling. Ultimately the decision is mine, our sponsors are on board for next year if we are, but I'd really want to hash it out with the folks that are responsible for the work.

SPURGEON: TCAF is one of a handful of shows with a reputation for first-rate volunteers, so I'd love for you to brag on them a bit. Who are your volunteers? I know that a big show will sometimes have volunteers that do it in order to attend the show, but that's not an issue with TCAF. Is it general comics enthusiasts? Your friends? Friends of the store? Is there a secret to working up a positive, year-to-year, core group of volunteers?

BUTCHER: As the lead sponsor of the show, The Beguiling runs comics events year-round, and has a growing and multifaceted business and a great group of employees, and they support and really love TCAF as an event, and as an extension of our day-to-day business. That sort of thing is invaluable when it comes to having a core group of trustworthy, punctual individuals as a base who know how to do off-site events. So any time you end up in a revenue-generating or monetarily-intensive situation, like book or merchandise sales or making change for exhibitors, you've got people who are experts doing that already, it sets a great tone.

But those are Beguiling staff, and we wouldn't generally put a volunteer into a position where they would be making money for the festival or The Beguiling, it's just awkward and there are legal issues (are volunteers bonded as employees, etc.?) that it's easier to just avoid.

As for accruing a great group of volunteers (and they really are the best show volunteers I've ever seen), a lot of that is the enormous goodwill that TCAF and The Beguiling generate within the city -- it makes those with a mind for it really want to be involved in the cool stuff we're doing. So we do an open call, first to The Beguiling's mailing list, then through the TCAF channels, and our Volunteer Coordinator happens to be my husband, and he's awesome at what he does, and he sets the tone as to the kind of volunteers we want and what they're going to be doing pretty early. He's used to working with big teams of people and getting them excited and organized -- he's pretty amazing really -- so I'm truly fortunate to have him involved. Not for the least of which is how much time I end up putting into the show.

And in the end, we work with our volunteers pretty well I think, in terms of their availability, their interests, their skills. We try to provide them as much info as possible, and empower them. They also know what the chain of command is, and if there's something they don't feel comfortable with to talk to their supervisor, or any of us. The exec is at the volunteer meetings (mostly), we try to be visible and available, and I think that helps too. They have a great time at the show, they get out of it whatever it is they wanted to get out of it, and so they want to come back next time.

SPURGEON: I heard that you changed how you used the library space. How so, and what are the special challenges to using that kind of big library as opposed to a single-room hall?

BUTCHER: As I mentioned this year Toronto Reference Library opened up a new second floor space, The Appel Salon, and so that basically doubled our overall square footage... and it's a beautiful room which is great, people like being in it. But we change the library space for TCAF every year anyway, because we're displacing furniture and customers and all of that.

Actually, it all boils down to a simple idea, for me: Toronto Public Library exists to engage the public, to engage readers, and to be free. Those are essentially the three core ideals of TCAF as an organization and as an event, so it's about trying to have as little impact on their regular library customers as we can, while introducing 12,000 extra customers for the day or two -- whom we hope will continue to increase circulation numbers and library usage throughout the rest of the year.

The challenges to that are we're trying to build a relationship, not just rent out a space, and existing library customers and layout and concerns don't mesh 100%. Noise can be a factor, crowding can be a factor, different ideas of 'engaging the public' can be a factor, but in the end we work with great people at Toronto Public Library and the Toronto Reference Library to mitigate those concerns and throw the best event we can.

imageSPURGEON: You're a successful show -- do you consider yourself a show that's growing? What would you like the show to look like 10 years from now? Would it be bigger? Would it be in multiple places around the city, for example? More days?

BUTCHER: We're definitely growing. One of our biggest concerns actually was that we'd outgrow the library space after this year, but a 1500 person increase over twice as much floor space is totally manageable J. For future years, we're hoping to use more of the space in different ways and on different floors -- more lectures, more installations, more workshops, more kids programming, more interaction with the on-site technology -- but that's a big leap for TPL and TRL. I would like to grow the show a little each year and continue working with Toronto Public Library, but one of the rules that Peter Birkemoe and I set out when we started this was that it wouldn't be a hotel con and it wouldn't be a convention centre con, there are enough of those, and we're trying really hard to hold onto that.

10 Years from now? I hope we're a little more important, a little more cosmopolitan, but not much bigger than we are now. I hope that more local shows and scenes take inspiration from TCAF and do cool stuff in their area. I like Dan Nadel's Brooklyn event a lot, I've heard really good things about the complimentarily named MeCAF, I hear rumblings of events starting all over.

We have The Toronto International Film Festival here, it's one of the biggest in the world. A dozen venues, parties galore, two-plus weeks... that's a bit much. But I like the idea of beefing up our presence in the city, holding more events in different neighborhoods, showcasing comics in different ways. More Academic programming, more galleries, more partnerships with the different events in Toronto. I want TCAF to really live up to our idea of engaging the public -- all of the public -- with comics, and not just hiding out at a convention center in the tourist district. We'll see how we do.


SPURGEON: Unless you just covered this, how much do you conceive of TCAF as a regional show and how much do you see it as a national or international show? Travel seems to be more difficult than it was five, ten years ago, and the convention calendar is crowded. People seem more grateful than ever to have a show they can drive to if they have one. How ambitious are you in terms of TCAF's scope?

BUTCHER: We -- and I think I speak for all of the executive and volunteers and sponsors -- we just want to put on a great show. We want something that our exhibitors love (and make money at!), we want something that's enjoyable for everyone who attends (and to make that as smooth as possible), we want it to go smoothly and we want it to be free. We want to remove the barriers to entry to comics as a medium; that's our scope. So any growth or change comes out of that desire. "Does going annual improve the experience? Does getting bigger improve the experience?"

As to where we see ourselves, well over half of our exhibitors are Canadian, and about half are within an hour's drive of Toronto. Our main goal, really, is to serve Canadian cartoonists, so maybe that makes us regional? But we've had a stellar international line-up of guests at TCAF, and that other half of our exhibitors are traveling a hell of a long way to get here... I don't know if we fit into the old-school idea of Regional/National/International Convention. We're not a convention for starters... But... yeah. We're pro-Toronto, pro-Canadian, and pro-Canadian cartoonists, and like it says on the website sometimes that means having the world's attention and inviting them to town.


SPURGEON: This is a multiple-part question. You recently wrote a post castigating the efforts by San Diego on a civic level to keep Comic-Con International. First, can you talk about the level of support that TCAF gets from Toronto? What are some of the things they do for your show?

BUTCHER: Why just this year we got a lovely letter from The Mayor to kick off the Festival and welcome people to town, which we printed on the inside cover of our Festival Program.

Honestly given the size and nature of the show, and our relatively low impact on the finances of the city, I feel we've received a good share of support from the City of Toronto. We're included in all of their event listings, we've participated in many of the festival/event displays at city hall, that sort of thing. We've received funding from Toronto Arts Council in the past too (though very early, we work almost exclusively with private sponsors now).

I'm shooting for "Toronto Comics Month" next May, though. I'll keep you posted.

SPURGEON: Second, in terms of your criticism of San Diego, can you identify maybe one or two specific things they should do for the show, or is yours more of a general criticism about lack of support? What would have had them do about the Hyatt bringing in a show? As cash-strapped as California is, can any city afford to turn any business away and/or not play things as close to the chest as possible?

BUTCHER: I've only been going to San Diego since 2000 I think -- I'm not Eric Reynolds or anything, but I was there before the crowds topped 100k. The infrastructure problems that the convention center and the city face -- let's pick "build a bridge over the traffic/trains and into the gaslamp" as one -- have been there since 2000, and been a problem since 2000, and have only gotten worse since 2000. It's been 10 years. 10 years of promised expansions, 10 years of promised solutions, 10 years of snippy-ass comments coming out of the mayor's office, and it's the threat of moving that finally gets them to come forward with a promise. A proposal.

It's the proposal -- which still comes up short so far as I can see -- that puts their anemic and insulting efforts of the last 10 years into perspective for me.

As for what to do about the Hyatt? Well while I'm personally overjoyed that many of my peers can't give any money to Doug Fucking Manchester this year because he's holding a conference full of the creepy healthcare industry -- sort of enforcing the morality that I'd really hoped they'd bring to the game anyway -- the convention's dates are known years and years in advance. I'd be hard-pressed to believe that the conference couldn't have been bumped a week. Nothing like a Vice-Presidential Security Detail to keep nerds outta the Hyatt bars after the show.

What could San Diego do? What could any city which is as tourist-dependent as San Diego do to work with a venue whose primary clientele is tourism? Hell, right in San Diego's proposal to keep the show there's a line or two about offering the show more meeting space and more hotel space, and that offer comes on the heels of... this. Almost unbelievable.

It's not a solution that's necessary, it's a discussion. And if the discussion didn't work, I'd love to heard from the city and from the Hyatt that -- at the very least -- the discussion happened. That the city or the Hyatt give a shit. Because wow, does it ever continually look like they don't.


SPURGEON: Do you have a favorite in the cities in the running for CCI?

BUTCHER: I've only personally been to Vegas, and I think that'd be the most hilarious fit for a show I've ever seen. But seriously, LA holds shows three times the size of San Diego. E3. I'd have a hard time believing they couldn't accommodate it.

The thing that bothers me about a lot of the rhetoric about the move to LA, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, is that people are worried that it'll change the nature of the show too much. It'll make it too much about Hollywood, or Movies, or whatever. To which I can only answer "Have you ever been to the Comic-Con? Like, ever?"

Comic-Con isn't what it used to be, and by all accounts (and some truly excellent interviews with their staff I must say, thanks Tom) I really don't believe the show has any interest in going back to that either... and that's totally okay. Seriously. Let the show be what it's become, there's no shame in something evolving over time. Sure, there's a little sadness because you want it to be what it was, but man... It's a big fandom show, not a big comics show, and if fandom is what it's all about then let it move to a city that can accommodate that.

There are other shows that are about comics, and it's probably in everyone's best interests that are really upset about all of this to go to those instead. Like you said, the convention calendar is full, pick another event.


SPURGEON: You wrote an interesting piece on the recently canceled DC manga line CMX, that it was a poorly conceived line with not as much support as might have been necessary to make that work. Is there anything positive with which to walk away concerning CMX? Did any of their books succeed in a way that might suggest they were fulfilling a specific need in the market?

BUTCHER: Wow, big switch in gears there...

SPURGEON: Sorry, I just wanted to get to some general industry stuff before we closed the book on this one.

BUTCHER: Honestly the best thing to take away from CMX should be a warning: Just having money and access doesn't guarantee success.

The second part of your question there, "did any of their books succeed," is an interesting turn of phrase. Because for the most part manga that are licensed are already commercially and artistically successful in their original language and original country. Success publishing manga in the U.S. is almost entirely down to marketing, and how/how well a book is marketed. So since none of the books sold very well and the line closed, then no, I don't think any of the books succeeded in a way that might suggest they were fulfilling a specific need in the market. They were failed entirely by the publisher, and the marketing.

I have friends at DC (I'm a retailer after all), in the marketing department. I am not speaking lightly here, if anyone's offended they've got my number. But they had a bunch -- a bunch! -- of great books in their line. Really well-done manga, artistically exciting and creative and fun. The audience for good books is as far as I'm concerned limitless. The ability to get those good books to the audience is a valuable one.

SPURGEON: Are we done with the manga-related bad news do you think, or can the North American version of that worldwide industry shrink even more? What do things look like a few years from now, do you think? I mean, on the one hand, none of this news encourages; on the other hand, it seems to me that we were do to see some of the infrastructure shrink, and maybe this was a necessary market adjustment.

BUTCHER: More bad news to come. Good news too, though! That's business as far as I can tell. Market's down one day, up the next. Market expands, then contracts, then expands. New initiatives start, old ones fold, circle of life. You're bang on at the end there -- market adjustment.

There was a period where you could print almost any manga and it would sell, and then a glut killed that. Then there was a period where you could publish good stuff and it would sell, and piracy killed that (seriously, scanlators of licensed material: You're Killing Manga. Here and overseas. Please stop.). Now we're entering a time where good works with good production values and good release schedules can find an audience, in print and digitally, through multiple channels, and they can sell. They won't all sell. But they can. That's all you can ask for.

imageWhat I think is going to be the key is positioning mangaka as people, positioning the creators of these works as flesh-and-blood real people that produce the work, people worthy of respect and support. Making CLAMP or Tite Kubo or Moto Hagio seem as real to people as Yoshihiro Tatsumi does. Or Daniel Clowes, for that matter. I think that's part of how the war will be won. I wish all publishers good luck in encouraging mangaka to travel.

SPURGEON: I was wondering if you might wish to comment on a couple of general retailer issues that have come up in interviews/letters at CR recently. Brian Hibbs and I talked about coverage issues; Amanda Emmert and I went back and forth a bit on the ultra-conservative nature of such stores and the fact that so many stores don't even meet the bare minimum of what you'd expect in terms of their being welcome places for everyone to buy stuff. Additionally, are there looming issues for your kind of bookstore that you think might be worth talking through or to which we should pay attention?

BUTCHER: Honestly the number one concern I have these days is keeping up with all of the people doing great work. Diamond's problems distributing comics have increased the amount of one-to-one ordering I do dramatically, as I predicted. Stuff gets missed. Great small pubs and boutiques are popping up all over. Just staying on top of all the great new product, that's the hardest thing right now. I mean, thank God Anne Koyama of Koyama Press lives in town -- she's the most interesting new publisher in years, all of their stuff is great, and she just comes by the store to drop it off whenever it's printed.

I'd hate to think how lame I'd feel if I wasn't carrying Michael DeForge's Lose #1 & #2, you know?


SPURGEON: Do $3.99 comics make any difference at all to Beguiling customers? Are there any concerns in your guys' corner about the potential for same-day sales via digital platforms?

BUTCHER: There's always concerns there, and we like our DC and Marvel dollars a lot, but I can't help but feel like even if digital comics magically took away half of our business on single-issue comics we'd soldier on. Maybe books, too... ? I dunno. There's really no way to predict what's going to happen, except for us to look back and realize that there have been book-lovers for a few hundred years now, and it's increasingly apparent that they're not going to disappear in my lifetime at least, thank goodness.

You can play Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon and all of that online, the physical aspect is entirely duplicated digitally, and with near-infinite choice for cards and all that. Enhancements even! But people still buy packs, people still get together with friends and play, there's something about playing cards with friends around a table that's still compelling -- even nerd cards! It's not the same as it was during the boom times (or the history of playing cards), it's more of a niche thing and harder to track down and all that, but even changed and rare it's still there.


SPURGEON: Finally, I wondered if you could share what you're reading, what you're excited about right now. If you were my favorite retailer in the world, and I went to your store just to buy what you recommended, and say I had about a hundred bucks, what would you recommend?

BUTCHER: First, I'd ask why I'm not your favorite retailer in the world already.

Second, I'd ask you what you already enjoy and try to suss out what you'd be likely to buy. Because that's how I roll.

The aforementioned Lose #1 & #2 by Michael DeForge are great and I think any comics fan who flips through can see the attraction. Actually knowing what I do about you, I'd probably set you up with all of the Koyama Press stuff, as well as other small Canadian pubs like Pop Sandbox's Kenk biography or Conundrum's new collection from Dave Lapp, Children Of The Atom, or some of French publisher La Pasteque's new comics by Pascal Girard, the creator of Nicolas (D&Q published it in English). Mostly because it's stuff I'm not sure you'd have seen otherwise, and you seem to dig discovering new things.

I'm actually kind of enjoying the big X-Men crossover right now -- reminds me of the comics of my tortured adolescence in every way. Much better covers from Adi Granov, though. I tend to put The Walking Dead in everyone's hands who comes through the store, it's probably my favorite serial comic right now.

We've got a wall of books that debuted at TCAF that I am aching to read. Actually, there's two Lucy Knisley books in there that I'm extra looking forward to, and the new Erika Moen DAR collection specifically, amongst like 50 or 60 other totally-new books. It's a goldmine!

As for what I'm most excited about? I'd probably make sure that you had read every single one of my favourite mangaka -- Matsumoto, Tatsumi, Taniguchi, Urasawa, Inoue -- before I'd let you leave the store with money in your pocket.

Then we'd walk over to the Tezuka spinner rack.


* The Beguiling
* Comics212


* photo of Chris Butcher from a MoCCA about five years ago
* image from Dan Clowes' 2010 TCAF poster
* this is what the crowds looked like in 2009
* Dave Collier, as regional as they come, photo by Gil Roth
* two photos taken at CCI
* a CMX book
* Taiyo Matsumoto image
* Lose #2 cover
* Kenk cover
* (below) another image from Clowes poster



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