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News: MoCCA Festival Turns Three
posted June 28, 2004

June 28 -- For a comic book show only three years old, the annual Festival thrown by New York City-based Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art in the venerable Puck Building in Soho at times seemed more like a delightful yet inconsistent teenager.

The year 2004 marked Festival's expansion from one day to two, and a series of small cosmetic changes were made to reflect its growth. Some of the changes were hailed as positive ones. For instance, use of rooms upstairs within the building for programming meant that traffic on the floor itself remained, with the exception of a jam-packed late Saturday afternoon, busy but pleasant. A few of the changes led to mixed results from the point of view of attendees and exhibitors, such as the move to go to two days at the show. Many exhibitors felt like Sunday sales were dead in comparison to Saturday, while others reported steady sales over the weekend. The move to go to a second day, with its attendant costs for accommodations and living in or near New York City, forced the show to remain alternative friendly but somewhat lacking in the freewheeling mini-comics creator atmosphere that charmed many in 2002. A two-day show did not lead to a corresponding increase in attendance. According to museum officials, the greater overall attendance numbers were greater than years past, but not twice that of previous years' one-day shows.

Other elements of the show left a slightly more sour taste. Processing exhibitors on Saturday morning proved slow enough that the Festival took care of a portion of registration at the individual tables to avoid the risk that the show would start with only a few staffed tables ready to go. Communication from Festival officials to exhibitors was uneven in the months leading up to the festival. One publisher reported having to cut a check and overnight table reservation mney after receiving no previous, standard updates as to deadlines.

Perhaps the most important complaint had to do with money, as MoCCA explored ways for the Festival to serve as an avenue for the fundraising so important to that group's continued development. Cartoonists who exhibited were the subject of appeals to buy sponsorships or tickets to the Harveys and in several cases to contribute original art to the museum that the cartoonists would mount and then pay to have shipped -- a virtual economic impossibility for many of the attendees.

More dramatically, Executive Director Charles Brownstein of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund confirmed the Fund was required to pay for its exhibition space, a rarity for the organization. "Conventions generally donate the Fund's space as a matter of professional courtesy," Brownstein told the Journal. "We paid full freight for our space at MoCCA." Paying for its display space makes a show like Mocca a difficult place to raise the funds necessary to keep the organization active. "It didn't make MoCCA a cost effective show for us. We did turn a modest profit, but in strictly monetary terms it was a disappointment." In addition to the bottom line lost of funds that came with paying for exhibition space, the added expenditure also affected the way the CBLDF approached the weekend in terms of special guests and people signing at the table to raise money and awareness. Brownstein: "Because we were paying full freight for our space, it wasn't going to be cost effective to fly in a special guest nor to have signers. We needed every square inch of our space for merchandise in order to make our fiscal goal."

Despite his disappointment in the way the Fund was asked to pay to exhibit, Brownstein informed the Journal that he sees the problems he had as something that can be addressed in the future. "I haven't talked to the MoCCA staff since the show, as I've been consumed with preparing for the late summer conventions. MoCCA's a young show and a young organization, so I'm sure we'll frankly discuss the pros and cons in a way that makes it more beneficial to both of our organizations." Brownstein denied a rumor that the CBLDF was solicited for art to donate to the museum at the show, and says that the Fund's return to the Festival in future years rates as "Most likely. I think it's important for NY to have an art comics marketplace and equally important for literary cartoonists to have a NY show to sell their wares at. I think it's important for the Fund to reach out to that audience. It just needs to make better fiscal sense."

MoCCA Fest had a slightly off year in terms of presenting new works to the public as well. Unlike 2003, which saw the debut of two massive books that generated corresponding on-site buzz, Craig Thompson's Blankets and Sammy Harkham's Kramer's Ergot 4, the interest at the show was spread among solid debuts by mostly established talent. Dan Clowes' first issue of Eightball in more than two years sold out quickly, as did the greatly anticipated oversized hardback of Gary Panter's Jimbo in Purgatory. Cartoonist Sam Hiti's visually accomplished graphic novel End Times, funded by the Xeric Foundation, took up much of the sitting room in the discovery portion of this year's MoCCA Festival experience.

Subsequent festivals should enjoy the advantage of an established format -- unless the Museum's goals change radically, there is no reason this year's Mocca Festival cannot serve as a template for those to come. Ken Wong, an officer at the Museum, told the Journal that things are pretty well set. "It is our intention that the Festival remain at the Puck Building, and it is our intention that the festival remain two days. The feedback from the surveys we do indicate that most people like the two days." Issues that remain on the table include the date -- the 2004 festival conflicted with this year's Gay Pride weekend, which organizers believed drew some crowds away but may also have added to them at different points of the weekend. More years under the organization's belt should help improve through repetition the various administrative snafus that characterized many exhibitors' 2004 experience. Still, as much as people may have complained about one or two particulars of this year's show, everyone spoken to seemed interested in coming back to New York City's biggest comics event.