TCAF :: The Toronto Comic Arts Festival :: My Report, Part 1


I am still waking up after TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which was held last weekend. Even in the fugue state brought on in trying to catch up on sleep, my body likely fighting several things picked up on planes or at the festival itself, and just information overload, I can feel my mind churning over a LOT of ideas from over the weekend. I’m swamped trying to get ready for HeroesCon and letter Casanova (and do my daily comic), but I want to try and get some of these thoughts down here real quick. Especially my thoughts on the Doug Wright Awards, although those will have to wait for a post tomorrow.

Instead of flying straight to Toronto, this year I saved about $250 by flying to Buffalo and riding with Chris Pitzer, Matt Kindt, and head driver Jim Rugg. I was pretty sleepy and a little nervous/frazzled, but it’s always fascinating to talk to smart people about comics, the comics industry and so forth. It’s still a baby industry, a fledgling art form, so everyone comes up with their own business model; cartoonists by nature work in solitude most of the time, and in their little cartoonist bubbles they each reinvent the wheel in terms of their approach to their art, commerce, and audience.

Jim in particular is great to talk to about stuff. He’s argumentative (although when I said this in the car he argued with it), so he covers a lot of intellectual ground as he takes apart your position and builds his own. That sentence makes Jim sound maybe more catty than he really is, but I’m too sleepy to edit it right so SHUT YOUR MOUTH. I love Jim and try to leech as much out of his brain as possible whenever I see him.

So anyway, on we rolled into Canada, into Toronto, my favorite city in the world and home to probably 30% of my favorite people. I was sharing a hotel room with Scott Campbell, David Huyck, and the Annable family. I had never met Graham Annable‘s wife Malena (or their still newish son James), so it was doubly mortifying when, after the intitial introductions, I opened my bag to get my toothbrush and there in plain view were some condoms that have been in my backpack forever. Not that condoms in backpacks are so bad, mind you. But there in front of Malena, her young child (!!), and good ol’ Kate Beaton, I instantly felt like some skulking sexual predator, come to Toronto for Lord-knows-what sins (albeit protected from accidental pregnancy and or infection, natch). It took literally everything I had not to freak out on the spot and apologize to everyone in the room, which I knew rationally would only make it worse (for everybody). This is what it’s like to be in my body pretty much 24/7. I am a walking accidental condom exposure.

photo by Jim Zubkavich

That night we responsibly went to Ryan North‘s now-annual incredible house party and overdrank, ensuring a slow, mumbley start to the next day. Ryan’s house isn’t big, but somehow he packs 10,000 people into it. There were a lot of famous webcomickers in attendance; you could tell because Ryan and David Malki towered above them all like those big robot harvesters in the Matrix. Most exciting of these was Ryan Pequin, who was #1 on my want-to-meet list at TCAF. He was even cooler (and even smaller) in person than I expected, which was saying a lot. Also much smaller than I expected was.. well, pretty much everybody, but especially Britt Wilson and Vicki Nerino. Something in the Canadian water is clearly stunting the growth of all the coolest people–Ryan North alone has evaded its effect.

So the next morning, the show itself. I think I was greeting the crowd with a combined 8 hours of sleep over the previous 3 nights, so I looked and felt my best there between the CCS guys (Joe Lambert, Stephen Floyd, JP Coovert, and Alexis Frederick-Frost) and Kean Soo. I had brought only a few of my existing minis, but 400 of my new color newspaper, which sold like hotcakes–I think I sold probably 100 or so, and gave away another 100 to friends and The Beguiling, which is less than I thought but more than I deserved.

You know who I sold most of my copies too? Non comic-book people. I think TCAF is probably the best organized comics show in the world, just insanely well-run and well-staffed, and this is coming from someone who is one of the organizers of a famously well-run, friendly show. I would boil down what makes TCAF work so well to 4 main things, if you’ll allow me to become longwinded for a minute:

1) They show is run by paid staff, namely Christopher Butcher, who takes a lot of personal ownership of things and thus does his level best to deliver the best possible show every time. You can tell, and when there are hiccups (though I can’t think of any), you don’t worry too much because you know someone is on the case. Plus Beguiling owner Peter Birkemoe and Chris’s husband Andrew, who managed the Mongol-horde-sized army of volunteers. The other indie shows need to take note of how much of a difference paid staff makes. Working for free for something you believe in (like SPX) is okay on a conceptual level, but nothing beats a paycheck for prioritizing things.

2) TCAF is curated, which means everything you see is of a certain level of quality and panache. There are no empty tables, everything is in place for a reason, every exhibitor you see has been CHOSEN. So rather than just being a conglomerate of whomever purchased a table first, regardless of how much of an actual asset to the convention and its attendees they may be, there is a rhyme and reason to things. I have to say I’m flattered to have made the cut the last two years, and hope to do so in the future as well.

3) Toronto is a world-class city with an active and passionate arts community. So people are INTERESTED in the festival, they are like hmmm, what’s going on this weekend? Oh I’ll try that. Not to mention that Toronto is filled with a rich diversity of ethnic populations–as a visitor to Toronto, I could eat food from a different nation with each meal (although usually I kept forgetting to eat and would just grab whatever). Not to mention that all of those communities are part of the city–coming from immigrant-fearing America, I was stunned when we were walking through Koreatown and the streets were lined by little South Korea shaped street-light thingies. Toronto doesn’t just have a diverse population, it’s proud of it. This might seem silly to mention to you, but to me it was impressive. And relaxing, does that make sense? Just relaxing. At night there is no shortage of things to do out in the city, although the cartoonists I hang with always seem to pick karaoke, which means Sunday at the show is always a hoarse-voiced challenge.

4) But without a doubt the thing that REALLY makes TCAF so good, and this is something I confirmed with pretty much every pro I talked to at the show, is the fact that it’s FREE.

FREE. Free! And not only free, but in the public library. Most conventions, HeroesCon included, charge admission fees, which represent a large–sometimes the largest–percentage of any earnings from the show. As a result, you get a smaller, more exclusive subset of attendees. If you charge $10 a day, you get only those people who think (or who know by experience) that a day at that convention is worth that much. But you cut out a number of other subsets, including those who might be interested in attending but only for an hour or two, and most importantly those who might not be interested in comics at all. This is the oft-wondered-about sector of the public that doesn’t already read comics–when people talk about “growing” the comics industry, this is who they’re talking about.

I’d say somewhere between 30 and 40% of the people I saw pass my table were of this group–obviously this is me making generalizations and summary judgements based on appearance, but I like to think working for a convention for the last 15 years gives me a leg up on this sort of profiling. Not only were these possible new readers passing by, they were LOOKING at everything. I got a lot of questions from older ladies about my newspaper: “And you did all of these? Well you are so talented!” OLDER LADIES! How many comics shows do you see not just women, but women above the age of 60? Now, I’m not sure how not charging admission affects the business model of the festival; but I suspect the business model is not aimed at profit, or at least not centered on profit. So that changes things a little bit, but you JUST CAN’T understate how having a diverse group of attendees changes the vibe of a show, not to mention sales, I’m sure.┬áLots of families, lots of young people; lots of people who were simply library patrons looking to see what the hubbub was all about. And such a hubbub:

The place was packed all day. I sold out of DHARBIN 1 and 2 by 3 in the afternoon or so, although I hadn’t brought nearly enough, maybe 15-20 of each. Having a $1 item to sell, especially one as big and as good a value as my newspaper, was great–I sold it to a lot of this “new” public whenever they’d ask. So nice to have something cheap they could try out; too bad it was MY comics, but caveat emptor I guess! Suckers.

I have a lot more to say, but I have too much work to get to today to say it, so tomorrow I’ll talk about the Doug Wright Awards, which I am STILL thinking about, plus the rest of the show. But for now, if you are wondering how TCAF was this year, it was the. best. comics. show. I have ever tabled at, just amazing on every level. The only way it could have been better is if I had had sleep and a lack of hangovers instead of a surplus, but that’s on me for me. I’ll try and fail to learn that lesson for next year.