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First Person: Bart Beaty Reports on ICAF and SPX, 2006
posted October 17, 2006

I'm just back in Canada after a five-day sojourn to Washington and environs for ICAF/SPX, and my first thought is that maybe I'm just getting too old for all this. I'd hate to be cynical about two events that were, by and large, well run, well attended, and enthusiastically embraced by their constituents, but my feeling is less than wholly enthusiastic. Here's why:

imageLet's look at ICAF [International Comics Art Festival] first. The three-day event (Thursday through Saturday) held at the Library of Congress was generally attended at all times by between 20 and 30 people. Given that there were more than 20 people presenting at the conference, and more than a half dozen organizers, it is possible to see that the move to the Library has not generated a huge boom in non-participant attendees, although there were a few at most of the panels and significantly more at the presentations of featured cartoonists.

This lack of public attendance is not something that bothers me. Comics conferences chase the public more than any other scholarly gathering that I've ever participated in (the non-participant attendance at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, for instance, must be less than one percent of the total audience), and it's clearly high on ICAF's list of priorities. To my mind, and I've been clear with this with many of the organizers, this creates an event that is neither fish nor fowl. There are too few papers to generate a scholarly mass (only six papers all day on Thursday, for instance) and the selectivity of the event limits choice and dialogue in a manner that I don't find productive. The papers were a broad mix of interesting and not interesting material that each attendee likely valued differently, but it's not the way that I would run this conference.

imageI attended two of ICAF's public events and each drew the type of audience that ICAF seems to want to solicit, so both should be considered successes. On Thursday night, the legendary Jules Feiffer walked the crowd through a slide show of his work and his influences. Feiffer was an engaging speaker, despite a cold, particularly when talking about the history of comics and his influences. Near the end of his presentation he dipped into simply reading some of his work, which is not something that I get much from, although he does a passable imitation of Jimmy Carter. His Bill Clinton still needs some work, but that might have been the cold.

The Friday night presentation featured the work of Rwandan-born, now Montreal-based, cartoonist Rupert Bazambanza (Smile Through the Tears), alongside Ellen Yamshon and George Washington University political scientist Steven Livingstone. Bazambanza, who lived through the 1994 genocide that took the life of up to a million people, was well-spoken about immensity of the atrocity and his efforts to assist the process of reconciliation through his work. Yamshon and Livingstone provided additional context regarding the atrocities. While the panel did not focus particularly on comics so much as the real life tragedy of the story, it was a powerful and disturbing presentation to a near standing room only crowd who had come to learn more about this terrible and terrifying piece of history.

On Saturday, ICAF hosted a number of panels about the production of American superhero comics and (I am told) drew a decent-sized crowd that didn't include this reporter. I took the train out and out and out to North Bethesda and SPX [Small Press Expo]. The train ride was about 40 minutes from downtown, which had me fearing that SPX had made a horrible mistake by moving so far from the city. The size of the crowd would indicate otherwise, as the floor was generally crowded throughout the day and organizers seemed pleased on Saturday night about how things had gone.

I first attended SPX in 1997 and I was struck by how much things have changed. Certainly, generationally it is now totally different. You know there's been a shift when Dean Haspiel, the face (or the hairy chest) of SPX is nowhere to be found. Ten years ago the guest list was comprised of the likes of: Ivan Brunetti, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Dean Haspiel, Yvonne Mojica, Jon Lewis, David Lasky, Lisa Maslowe, Steven Weissman, James Sturm, Sam Henderson, Ed Brubaker, Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, James Kochalka, Brian Biggs, Donna Barr, Colin Upton, Roberta Gregory, John Porcellino, Joe Chiappetta, Jenny Zervakis, Scott McCloud, Paul Grist and Shannon Wheeler. Whew!

imageOf that list, I saw only Brunetti, Lewis and McCloud back this year. To be sure, they have been replaced by the likes of Brian Ralph, Anders Nilsen, Kevin Huizenga, Gabrielle Bell, Andy Runton and Brian Chippendale (whose giant hardcover Ninja was the must-have book of the show), and others who are just beginning to make a noise in this field. But I will say that I felt very old at 37. It's probably my problem, and I can hear an entire generation now calling me a fusty old man.

And part of the problem is that SPX really hasn't changed very much over time. Yes, it has gotten bigger and moved to a convention center, but it's still a show where you pay $8 a day to shop. Bill Kartalopoulos organized some very interesting panel discussions (and the only one I attended, featuring Bill, Gary Groth, Ivan Brunetti and Dan Nadel, was excellent), but those were the only things to do: shop, listen to some panels, talk to people in the halls. I have to think that there's something more that can be done here.

At the SPX panel I attended, Gary Groth bemoaned the lack of critical discourse about comics, noting that nearly everything is generally described as "good". It was an interesting observation, and I'd like to live up to Gary's high hopes by writing a scathingly contrarian report about these events, but I really can't. They went smoothly, they did what they set out to do, and the people who wanted what they had to offer seemed to be happy with them. What they didn't do was move things forward in interesting ways, and that's too bad. So, yeah, I thought the shows were good.