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November 11, 2012

A Few, Quick Notes On BCGF 2012


Here are some impressions of yesterday's Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, written less than 12 hours after its formal conclusion.

More later, I hope. I'm not sure, though.

image* one downside to the current, festival-heavy landscape is that it puts a premium on being able to get to the festivals. This involves significant cost in some cases, a bit of sacrifice in terms of work time and vacation time in others. I knew people that wanted to that couldn't make it to BCGF for each reason. I can understand how it might be worth it to attend as many shows as one can right now. I know that at the end of the year I'll be looking at this site's expenditures in terms of prioritizing getting to a few more shows myself. I think the shows are increasingly important, particularly the small-press/arts festivals, and I can't imagine being a younger person in comics without wanting to attend a bunch of them.

* traveling to New York for the Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival reminded me a bit of going to New Orleans a few months after Katrina. The effects of Sandy a couple of weeks on weren't wholly obvious the way the destruction of Katrina was obvious in Louisiana for months after that event, no were they near as widespread and devastating. Still, little scars were everywhere. It definitely had an impact on travel. My flight east was delayed a couple of hours because of airport capacity considerations. My train into the city was delayed an hour mid-transit because of a shared-track issue. The lobby of my hotel was filled with people from a submerged area who thought they had rooms for a weekend away from what they're going through. There were numerous stories of out-of-town visitors moved to different hotels or onto sofas. No one felt like really complaining because of what had been more egregiously suffered by others, but the storm's aftermath was certainly a factor.

* a local cartoonist pointed out that the last two weeks New Yorkers have been incredibly patient with a lot of storm-related inconveniences, noting how weird it had been to see people that usually complain about a train being three minutes late suddenly perfectly fine with no train running at all. That general goodwill was in the air, too, on BCGF weekend, if only just lingering.

* flash impression: I think BCGF 2012 was a) a very good show, b) a show run according to high standards which means a very good show for them is better than an excellent show run by some others, c) a show that was executed in a way that might see them settle into a basic approach that will take them through the next five years, d) a show that might have an impact on a lot of similar shows in the near-future.

* I think the distinguishing characteristic of this year's show was the rich calendar of satellite events. This included some store openings (Lilli Carré, Oily Comics, Koyama), and a small battery of very well received gallery shows (Michael McMillan, Ruppert and Mulot). This may be the first comics show I've ever attended where I found myself actively wishing I had come a few days early just to do more comics-related things. I would have loved to see what was basically an Arcade reunion at the McMillan opening. A health episode at one of the galleries -- that turned out 100 percent fine -- saw several members of one generation of cartoonists at various points during the weekend praise the actions of one of the younger generation that took charge.

* it seems to me that a strong slate of satellite events might eventually become crucial for a show that hopes to celebrate a local or regional comics culture as opposed to an approach where they bring a national show feel to a remote location. From a visitor's perspective, professional or press or attendee, it's difficult to see any sort of negative in having a bunch of different things to do, targeted to a specific publisher's or artist's needs, driving people to local merchants and different neighborhoods, perhaps even reaching an audience that wouldn't dream of going to the show itself. I hope it's a trend that continues, and I see no reason this can't be the case.

* this show was so good I totally missed seeing Lilli Carré and Olivier Schrauwen (shit!), and I didn't realize this until I after I got home.

* the only event I attended was the Oily Comics signing at Bergen Street Comics on Friday evening. That was by accident -- I just wanted to see the place. That's a nice store, kind of an ideal neighborhood store: high ceilings, knowledgeable salespeople and an attractively displayed, wide array of stock. Watching Tucker Stone take personal note of about 80 percent of the people coming in the front door reminded me how much good retail is about those kinds of relationships.

* I met Nate Bulmer, who crushed my spirit by telling me his Eat More Bikes is a daily rather than the few-days-a-week effort I thought it was. I think he's genuinely funny and consistently so. I had a nice talk about gag-writing with him. I found it interesting that Bulmer apparently worked with themes at first, partly for the structure that provided and partly to be divested of having to come up with a general idea before narrowing it down. He now basically works organically, just as jokes come to him, and they seem to have no problem finding their way to the surface.

* Bulmer was part of a Koyama Press signing on Thursday night at that same store. Anne Koyama has such a well-liked presence at these shows and was mentioned so many times a full day after, it was like she was in the room. Comics people are nice; Anne Koyama is aspirationally nice.

* one thing I learned at the Oily Comics show is that the small press has done well enough it's becoming a bigger factor in Chuck Forsman's overall vocational profile. That's very encouraging. I like their subscription model; I like that they have a model.

* personal travel note: I liked my hotel just fine. Condor Hotel in Brooklyn. It was about a 25-minute walk to the show, which I wanted for the extra exercise. BCGF is likely to always be a show about people crashing in different places rather than taking hotel rooms, and people I know run hugely hot and hugely cold on the closest hotel to the show, so I was happy to find an alternative I liked. It was a big room for a New York room, too. If you ever try that one out, I would look for a discounted price. I'm not sure I'd feel the same way if I had paid the usual rate on that room; I didn't pay anywhere near that.

* the line for the first panel of the day at the Knitting Factory, featuring Art Spiegelman, Richard McGuire and Chris Ware, wrapped around the block. A lot of people didn't get in, including, I think, Matt Groening. I was snatched out of my place in line last minute for a seat with Karen Green and Jonathan Gray. Gray made fun of my Midwestern amiability in waiting to get in or not or stand or whatever, and insisted that as press we needed to be there to cover any panels we wanted to cover. I appreciated his pride in our profession.

* congratulations to Gray on recently securing tenure in his teaching job, which apparently includes teaching Paying For It. It was fun to see him around.

* the McGuire/Spiegelman/Ware was a phenomenal panel, buoyed by about 18 billion powerpoint slides from moderator Bill Kartalopoulos. All three men were smart, articulate and funny. Ware at one point ripped off a sentence where about five of the 12 words would win you a game of Scrabble -- it made the person next to me gasp. Even the casual asides were pretty good. Spiegelman made this fascinating and almost fundamental point about scale in comics forcing you into completely different decision about reading comics on the page -- if something is really big, you have fewer choices about where to place your eyes -- that I hadn't really thought about before.

* Ware told Richard McGuire that reading "Here" changed his life, and I think that probably wasn't the last time McGuire heard that during the weekend. He was the special-guest belle of the ball. A lot of people were thrilled to meet him, I know I was, and he was as genial and pleasant and accommodating as can be imagined. I know that writing about "Here" for TCJ a hundred years ago changed the course of my life, and it was nice to be in the same room with its creator.

* the programming received generally high marks from people I talked to, and was always just about packed or even overly-stuffed with bodies. Between this show and SPX, Bill Kartalopoulos' basic approach of focusing on a few, strong panels over trying to get as many people as possible a platform to do whatever (usually sell books) seems to be making inroads as a dominant way of thinking about these kinds of opportunities. Or at least a competitive way of approaching that element of shows. I know there's no one I'd rather see setting up such a slate of talks right now.

* BCGF could probably make use of a much bigger space, although I'm not sure one's available.

* Robert Boyd was there! Robert worked for a bunch of comics companies in the 1990s and into the 2000s. I think the list is Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Roger Corman's Cosmic Comics, Kitchen Sink, Crossgen and ADV Manga. He now works in the financial services sectors and runs the Houston-focused arts blog The Great God Pan Is Dead. It was great to see him. I saw a lot of old friends and friendly acquaintances I hadn't seen in a while: Anne Ishii, Jordan Crane, Jon Lewis, Kevin Scalzo. Scalzo used to live in the same house on a different floor. Great day for catching up.

* with that in mind, I do wonder at times if I'm kinder to shows than I might be if I didn't find them enormously -- and sort of inexplicably, in some cases -- enjoyable on a personal level. That may be something for you to keep in mind when processing what I'm saying, at least.

* okay, the set-up. The hall itself was set up like last year, basically two figure eights with an outer, arch-shaped three-quarters ring. The day started slow and steady but built to a bustling high point about 90 minutes in and stayed there basically all the way to 7 PM.

* it was really hot in there, and a significant people complained to me about the general oppressiveness of the room. Part of that may have been the novelty of being able to say that about an alt-con, but I do think people were genuinely uncomfortable at times. I'm not sure what can be done. A couple of the aisles, like the far aisle on the upper floor, were pretty narrow. One person confided in me that the heat and the number of the people and the difficulty of getting around made it hard for him to even look at what the tables offered. It could be this is just part of the flavor of the show, that there's just going to be a kind of effort involved in hitting the floor.

image* one thing I love about the current set-up is that Rosebud Archives gets the prime position at the front of the upper-level room. That's a publisher that had a ton of material -- they have a ton of material generally -- yet still gets an enormous number of "I didn't know you guys existed" talk from new customers. I didn't walk away with a better-looking book than the Harrison Cady portfolio-with-a-spine Kids At Play. They said business was really good, and that their best selling cartoonist was Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

* there was an significant amount of quality material on the floor, as the excellent preview at The Beat indicated. It suggested that there is way more material being produced than any infrastructure comics has right now can facilitate getting that stuff into the hands of customers. As much as individual players in the festival and comics shop networks do amazing work, and as much as mail order on-line also plays a role, I'm not sure I disagree with the notion that comics' accomplishments of the last quarter-century favor creative endeavors far more than business innovation. There are a lot of exciting opportunities over the next several years in that end of comics, I think.

* three things I saw that I liked that weren't books were original art from Josh Simmons (crisp), Karl Stevens (really lush-looking, hand-painted pieces) and Lisa Hanawalt (who was blowing through a bunch of original art for $20 and $40 a pop). I bought this piece from Lisa. It was the only thing I bought at the show, and I'm very happy with it.

* Most people I talked to had a very good day. Leon at Secret Acres said they did a day equivalent to a day at SPX, a strong a day as they've had. The dozen or so people I surveyed seem to score out on the top end of solid, if that makes any sense. I didn't detect a must-have book of the show -- I was recommended work ranging from the Michael McMillan exhibition catalog to the Anders Nilsen re-issue to the Ruppert and Mulot book to a new Jordan Crane handmade mini. There was a lot of praise generally for what Tom Kaczysnki is doing at Uncivilized Books.

* I got to talk about the late, great Oliver Harrington with Art Spiegelman and then meet David Mazzucchelli outside of the show at one point, so that was a fine day all by itself right there. Mazzucchelli said something I hope he doesn't mind me sharing, that I hope I get right. He does a pantheon-building exercise with his SVA students where he provides them with a list of 100 important comics-makers and then asks them to make a list of 10 of their own. He then compiles those lists of ten into a single master list. The difference between now and when he started doing this assignment is that the lists are more personal, varied and idiosyncratic. I think this indicates something about young cartoonists going through a very different process than the previous generation in terms of building a meaningful past from the art form in which they find themselves working.

* speaking of young cartoonists, the current wave of cartooning schools as an organizing force and mini-network for the graduates may end up being a greater contribution to the comics culture than any actual cartooning being taught. That's hyperbolic, but if you're in my generation the closest thing the bulk of comics-makers and industry folk have to going to comics school is that first or most intense job in comics, or maybe a group of friends you make at shows that are all at the same point in your careers, or maybe your cartooning friends if you live in one of a half-dozen different cities with a number of comics people there. More of these younger folk are actually going to school together, and that seems to me a huge difference in the bonds they're forming. The key is how they re-form those bonds as different people drop out and others keep going.

image* I was happy to finally meet the cartoonist and now-publisher Rina Ayuyang. She admitted that getting her Yam Books underway was both harder and ultimately more rewarding than she thought it might be going in. I think that Tim Hensley's Ticket Stub is a fascinating, attractive book, one I'm glad to have available for sale because I missed most of the mini-comics from which it's built. Ayuyang is working on a dance-related comic for her own next work; I enjoyed her first collection a lot.

* I caught up with John Porcellino, for whom this was the last show of the year. I think that was true of a lot of people, actually; I know it is for me. It had a last day of summer camp undercurrent, for sure. I missed seeing Tim Hodler and Frank Santoro and Gary Groth and Caitlin McGurk among many others that couldn't make it.

* I was told at dinner in a fine restaurant picked for us by Adrian Tomine that Tomine is the best picker of restaurants in comics. That is not a bad skill to cultivate. It was nice talking to Tomine and Anders Nilsen at dinner. Tomine and I entered into comics at about the same but haven't really had much interaction over the years so it's like getting a fresh perspective on a lot of stuff I've already experienced.

* Nilsen moved back to Minneapolis this year. That's a potential comics-city juggernaut.

* not as many kids at the show as I remember. More people left the show to do kid things than actually introduced me to their progeny.

* Jen Vaughn ran the Fantagraphics table basically by herself, although Kristy Valenti and Jen Vaughn both wrote in to say that Anna Pederson the ex-Fantagraphics and current CBLDF intern was on hand and extremely, extremely helpful to Vaughn. Anyway, a newer employee (even if only relatively newer) running a publisher's booth always impresses me both in the doing of it and that the Fantagraphics and D+Q identities easily encompass representation by newer faces like Vaughn and Julia Pohl-Miranda. That's healthy, I think.

* it was great to talk to Jillian Tamaki, currently about 100 pages into a 300-page graphic novel. I think her work has been consistently strong for quite some time now and I hope that there's enough of an industry to support as much work as she wants to do. She told me when I asked that there are about 200 pages of her great SuperMutant Magic Academy comics now.

* I was sad Evan Dorkin couldn't make it out from Staten Island, although no one on Earth would blame someone for not leaving Staten Island given the state of things out there post-Sandy. The CBLDF pinch hit during Dorkin's signing time with Ben Katchor. Quite a bench.

* general items of conversation were the storm -- a lot of people from around New York comparing notes -- Adrian Tomine's New Yorker cover, Building Stories more generally, the rise of all these festivals, and general career-like commentary about book deals and business-type possibilities. That last sounds horrid when I write it like that, but I witnessed a lot of hopeful thinking. Even Chris Ware at one point described the national mood as one where America is trying to figure out how to move from adolescence into adulthood. I think comics can be described in those same terms a bit. As Charles Brownstein pointed out, if you look at the period of 1995-2005 as a series of business traumas, comics' adolescence can even be said to be memoir-worthy.

* it was nice to see Warren Bernard from SPX in attendance, shaking hands and enjoying himself. Barring someone moving in a directly competing show in roughly the same geographical area into the same weekend or, potentially, into a weeked on either side of an established show, there's no reason all the major shows shouldn't get along. Not that I can think of, anyway.

* nice, nice, nice.

* it was good to see Box Brown in attendance, checking out a few things and showing off a Chris Ware-based tattoo. Leigh Walton did at least one walk-through as well, as Top Shelf wasn't exhibiting. I had hoped to see Brendan Burford, but he was nowhere to be found.

image* one thing about the panel I moderated stuck with me: the notion that cartoonists like panelists Charles Burns, Tim Hensley and Anouk Ricard work so exclusively to their own tastes and creative decisions that making the work universal is something artists internalize independent of any commercial pressure to make a work more presentable or salable. It's not something you think about as remarkable because it's such a part and parcel of that culture.

* I had an excellent time talking a bit with Karen Green about the efforts of librarians with comics and graphic novel holdings to archive a lot of the existing material, how they deal with one another and the specter of eBay or an auction house swooping in. I think there's going to be a lot of activity in that realm over the next five years, if only as more institution start comics programs and thus consider adding collections of one type or another.

* the major festival afterparty was packed and crazy, particularly around 12:30 to 1 AM: a lot of happy, primarily younger people operating in a mostly collegial and comfortable atmosphere -- a lot of people knew a lot of the other people, even at a party like that one. Also: booze. I snuck away for a while to have a lengthy and not-as-boring-as-it-sounds-I-swear discussion in a bar about the general future of comics' economic prospects, the delicate balance between accepting a diminished economic outlook and skillfully negotiating a realistic appraisal of what's available for reward regarding one's art.

* I didn't really feel old this weekend, I felt like I belonged. But the one moment I did like in terms of being slightly older was when someone constructed a scenario that was obviously meant to include my own, older experiences -- they projected out to someone age 34.

* I got to see some comics-related stuff on my way out of the city Monday. I had coffee with Brendan Burford, who reported that King Features' Dustin has slipped past the 300-client mark and seemed generally upbeat about working in comics. Brendan's one of my favorite people in comics, and it was a great conversation. I stopped by a Midtown Comics location for the first time. I only buy mainstream comics in comics shops, because I have a handle on securing just about everything else, and that's a good place to buy mainstream comics for sure. I had a chat with Alex Cox over at the CBLDF offices. He snapped this silly photo of my most precious BCGF 2012 weekend memento.

* I don't think this year's BCGF had the jittery shock of the new that comes with an emerging show finally putting it together or the joy of rediscovery at a show where everything falls into place at once. The matter-of-fact quality of the show -- assured exhibitors, confident programming, a certain expectation as to the way things should go -- may have been its best feature. Of course we should have shows that good now. We deserve good shows like that now. BCGF is winning arguments for the value of a show tied into a location, a certain programming strategy, an extra emphasis on outside events and the one-day model. (It is at least holding its own on curating the exhibitors top to bottom.) With the festival and convention season all but over, it's up to everyone else to respond. On to 2013.

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