TCAF 2011 :: The Best, But Better

Hello everybody! As I type I can feel my eyes crossing with exhaustion, but I have an enormously busy week ahead of me, so I wanted to get some thoughts down while the internet is still ablaze with the hot loving passion of TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which I just returned from.

To keep things quick and simple, I’m going to copy Tom Spurgeon‘s series-of-notes report style. If he has a problem with it, then we will become enemies and eventually I’ll be forced to slay him and absorb his powers, Highlander-style.

Portrait by Nathan Stapley

(portrait by Nathan Stapley, painted live in front of his table)

– TCAF is the most well-organized convention ever. I’m sure something went wrong somewhere, but if it did, I never saw it. And I have a more trained eye than most for what might be going on behind the scenes.

– And I think it’s important to point out that the way they treat their guests is a lot of the reason they have the reputation they do. If a cartoonist with a following has a crummy time at a show, they not only complain to their table-neighbors (“teighbors”), but more than likely they’re tweeting and Facebooking and whatever else, spreading those complaints out into the non-attending world. Think about the way the organizational problems MoCCA has had over the last few years have become something they’re known for. A couple of well-placed complaints can undermine a whole year’s worth of marketing. A lot of the goodwill–and free advertising–HeroesCon‘s gotten over the years comes directly from Shelton Drum being an enormous fan and bending over backwards to make every guest feel welcome at his–important point–HIS show. Often–even usually–to the detriment of a profit-based business model. Which we used to argue about all the time.

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TCAF is the same, but even moreso–Chris Butcher and his raging army of volunteers, led by his husband Andrew Woodrow Butcher, go out of their way to cover every base, and they’re becoming famous for it. I have made no secret of my intense, white-hot love for TCAF in the past, and when I’d talk to people about it this weekend, it always turned into a sort of awestruck bemusement at how perfect everything was going. Clusters of four and five cartoonists at a time, all talking about how great the convention they were at was. As opposed to bitching about their lines, or sneering at their fans, or complaining about amenities that had been promised but not delivered.

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TCAF does a great job of marketing itself, but I think the real secret of why it’s turning into one of North America’s premier comics events is the energy they put into treating their guests, exhibitors, publishers, and attendees with care and respect. All those people leave the Toronto Reference Library excited about what they’ve just experienced, and motivated to talk about it.

– Not to mention: when you’re really sweet to your guests, and something goes wrong, it’s a lot less likely that the guest is going to get all pissy about it, you know? Because they can see where your heart is. Where that heart be at, that’s an important place.

– Wait what was I talking about?

– One more thing about how well TCAF is put together: once again, the combination of a curated list of exhibitors and free entry to the public is a killer 1-2 punch. I heard a LOT of people talking about how different the attending public was, how much broader the demographic, and how many more times they encountered entirely new readers, rather than the same community of cartoonists and regular readers who populate a lot of comics shows. It’s hard to imagine the mid-level mainstream shows like HeroesCon or Emerald City going to a free entry model, especially as established as they are. But then again, they’re a different kind of show than TCAF.

If I started a brand new comics show tomorrow, the two things it would definitely be are a) heavily curated, and b) free. I was talking to Jeffrey Rowland at the afterparty, and he said “I’d gladly pay 25% more for tables at a show where the entry cost was free.” Me too. Free means a lot of things, but most importantly that new people walk in the door, people who might be seeing your work–and comics in general–for the first time–AND they have more money in their pockets to spend on the kind of impulse purchases you want them to make, having not had to pay $10-$20 at the door.. per DAY.

– Okay enough of that. Let’s get to the funtime memories:

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John Martz is a super dude, this was already known to me, but this week he was promoted from Major all the way up to Lieutenant Colonel in my super dude troops. Staying with him was not only a great way to save money and see parts of Toronto I wouldn’t have otherwise, but it doubled as having an amazing guide through the city. I would have just taken the cab everywhere, but that guy would gladly walk to Texas if he had the opportunity. Under his pants his calves are probably as big as his sweet thighs.

But while walking everywhere can be tough when you stand all day at a festival and then party all night, in retrospect it makes for much better memories. Toronto is a beautiful city, clean and dirty at the same time, filled with charming little houses right up to their downtown area. Walking through it, chatting with John about comics, process, people, and just regular friend stuff is probably my favorite memory in a weekend full of them. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the fair Lindsay Archibald except quickly Monday morning, as she was organizing her own big festival on the other side of town, but super thanks to her and John for allowing me to spend the weekend in their lovely home.

– Also a super dude, lady-style, is the amazing Anne Koyama. In a way this was KoyamaCon, as a lot of the people she’s helped or worked with over the last year or so would gather in clusters to whisper wide-eyed about her. So much Koyama love this weekend, which is just how it should be. I might not have been able to afford the show if it wasn’t for her, and tabling as part of the mighty Koyama crew was a real honor. This was a show that I felt I levelled up at, and it’s due mostly to Anne’s kindness, support, and friendship.

– Sales were amazing at the show. I shared my total sales from FLUKE, because I like when people show their numbers, I think it’s instructive to others. But my sales were so much higher than I’ve done before that I feel embarassed to share them this time. Tom Spurgeon noted in his wrapup that I’d told him I’d done a whole SPX‘s worth of sales on Saturday, which is not exactly what I said. I only clarify because I worry it makes me sound bitchy about SPX, which is a show I do really well at and enjoy a lot. But it is true that I did 150% of my last SPX total, which at the time was a record for me. So. Pretty great sales.

– I heard the same for a lot of people, although a very few people didn’t seem to do as well. And were a little grumpy about it, but probably more because everyone else was skipping around with dollar signs in their eyes and high-fiving. I’d be grumpy too.

– Last note on sales: weirdly, I did more on Sunday than Saturday, which was shocking. I think it’s partly due to how incredibly busy Saturday was, meaning most exhibitors couldn’t get away from their tables to shop. And then when it was (slightly) slower on Sunday, they not only could shop, but had money to do so with.

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– Note to self: getting sloppy drunk the night/morning before a big show you spent weeks getting ready for, are debuting a new book at, and at which you’re hosting a 9.15 am panel with four talented and influential creators the next morning is.. bad policy. I blame Craig Adams and Nathan Vella of Sword & Sworcery fame, who were so exciting in person that I had to drink beers just to keep from exploding. Next year, Dharbin, just use barbiturates like most people.

– Like a lot of conventions, one of the coolest parts was meeting people you only knew online, or whom you don’t know at all but whose work you love. I got to slap palms with Hellen Jo and Calvin Wong, which was pretty great. I told Calvin at the afterparty that they should spell their collective name “Hellvin” with three l’s, which is my contribution this year to branding. Also got to meet Vera Brosgol, who I nearly got punched by when I tried to say her name in Russian 1000 times, failing each time. Will I always be compelled to say unsayable words? It’s possible. She was very patient with my clumsiness; I benefit a lot from people’s patience. Haw! Suckers!

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Also, like I said, Craig Adams and Nathan Vella, plus Kris Piotrowski, Jori Baldwin, Farel Dalrymple, Brandon Graham, Emily Carroll, Kate Craig, Jen Wang, Joy Ang, Bob Flynn… I can’t think of anymore. Anyway, it was amazing meeting all of them. The flattering thing about meeting people was how most of them said, “you look just like how you draw yourself.” Flattering in terms of my cartooning, heartbreaking in terms of how handsome I am (not). You win some you lose some Dharbin!

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– Also very cute was meeting Emily Partridge, who was collecting condolences for poor Ryan Pequin, who’d been unable to come. Ryan’s a very popular guy, and I myself was consumed with grief that he wasn’t there, but Emily nervously asking a million people to sign a card for him was probably the sweetest thing I’ve seen in a while.

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– The Doug Wright Awards were amazing, just much MUCH more fun and engaging than last year, and having all those bigwigs in the room added the right amount of… importance to the occasion. I’ll say more about that later though, next week. You’ll see, it’s going to be AMAZING.

– Getting to walk somewhere with Tom Spurgeon is always fun. We walked together to the afterparty–it always reminds me of how awkward I’m becoming as I get older. I like Tom and some part of me wants to impress him, so a constant stream of nonsense would just tumble out of my mouth. One day I’ll get to have more than ten minutes of conversation with him at a time. Then we’ll probably not be friends anymore though :(

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Joe Lambert got so drunk at the Saturday night event that I thought Elijah was going to show up in a flaming chariot pulled by the Anheuser-Busch horses to take him straight to Drunk Heaven. I heard there were a LOT of late-night shenanigans this year, but Joe’s sleepy-eyed drunk-style is the only one I feel like I should mention. But I like that people are comfy enough at TCAF to let their hair down and get spicy. Spicy is better than con-hotel humdrum, if you ask me.

– Speaking of Joe Lambert, one of my very favorite things of the weekend was visiting John Martz and Aaron Costain‘s houses and seeing both of them had Joe’s originals and prints on their walls, then Matt Forsythe also bringing him up. Joe’s an amazing artist, and it’s exciting to see how well thought of he is by such talented people. It bodes well for his future work, I think–one of the things that helps move people forward and expand the base of their readership is well-placed friends, and Joe seems to have admirers in every corner of the comics world. I expect pretty amazing things from him, in addition to the amazing he already is.

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– Let’s see, what else? Dinner with Joshna Maharaj, Laila Emir, John Martz, David Huyck, Matt Forsythe, and Aaron and Rachel Costain–having dinner with foodies is the best, especially for a hic like me. Plus the conversation was hilarious. Joshna in particular likes her conversation RAW–such a good time.

Getting to participate in a Team Society League jam at the Sunday night party was great, except that my shaky hands and tired, drunk brain made for terrible drawings. Oh well, sucks to be you, other collaborators! Caveat Emptor.

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– As on the way in, on the way back Tom Scioli, Chris Pitzer and I drove to Buffalo to save money on our flights. Unfortunately, I didn’t leave enough travel time in their to account for traffic and border crossing, so I missed my flight, but luckily didn’t get charged for a new ticket, and made it home just 4 hours later. So exhausted after TCAF, but the good kind.

– Anyway. Thanks very much to Christopher Butcher for putting on a great show, the best yet iteration of an amazing event. Thanks also to Peter Birkemoe for being the silent Daddy Warbucks behind the whole thing, and a chill dude who I really enjoy talking to, although it’s always in thirty second bursts in a bar or in the middle of a crowd or something. Thanks also to Andrew Woodrow-Butcher and the mighty, friendly army of TCAF volunteers. It was also heartening to see how much Chris thanked the volunteers in his own remarks, and how often they’re mentioned in other guests’ reports. Super good, those guys. And thanks again to Anne Koyama and power couple John Martz/Lindsay Archibald, who made my trip not only possible, but a lot more fun too.

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I’ll continue to add little bits to this report, as well as pictures, as I find them or they occur to me, but for now I have a Casanova issue to finish, and a lot of comics to make for a special thing next week that is going to make your face melt. Get your asbestos face ready if you have one.

9 thoughts on “TCAF 2011 :: The Best, But Better

  1. Leslie

    Great to meet you, Dustin! It was my first time at a con, and I’m excited to go again next year.

  2. Tom Spurgeon

    That’s exactly what I remember you saying, Dustin, and I have a pretty good memory for that kind of thing.

    E-mail me if you want to press for a correction; I’m happy to do it, of course.

  3. DHARBIN! Post author

    No no–it’s not the sort of thing that’s a bad error, and it’s entirely possible that I said that. I was probably nervous that you were about to start our Highlander battle. But the reality is that I did about 150% of my last SPX over the weekend, almost exactly. And last year’s SPX I did better than I had ever done at a show before. I only pointed it out because I didn’t want it to sound like I was griping about what was an incredible year for me at SPX last year.

  4. Aaron Costain

    Didn’t you know that shaky hands and a tired, drunk brain are the PREREQUISITES for Team Society League drawing action. That’s why con parties are the best places for those honey jams.

  5. Jen Wang

    Dustin, it was super nice to meet you! I totally regretting not leaving the table to get some comics from you. Agh!

  6. Emily & Kate

    Dustin, whatta delight to finally meet you! Thank you for being such a welcoming, friendly gent. And what a lovely TCAF write-up! We were both completely charmed.

  7. DHARBIN! Post author

    Huzzah! Yes, meeting you guys was pretty much the top of my excitement list, and I’m super glad you didn’t disappoint, forcing me to smear you on messageboards. I haven’t read the mini yet; I’m sort of saving it for a “special occasion”, which it most certainly will be!

  8. Pingback: TCAF Highlights & More | Koyama Press

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