Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

%@&*! - Panels of a Journalist at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival

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TCAF Poster 2013. Artist Taiyo Matsumoto.

Outside on Bloor:

“Where do we go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it here or over there?”

“Yes. Somewhere here. But I forget what room we have to go to, some ballroom.”

“Just follow the herd of people heading in one direction who look like they read comics.”

It’s Sunday, May 12 and kc, my travelling companion, and I stand just outside the Toronto Marriott on Bloor, in the way of everyone, desperately looking for an alternative entrance to the revolving doors, a weakness of ours. We’re there to cover the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF for short, pronounced “Tee Caf”). I’m the writer, but socially awkward, kc is the “buffer,” the one who excels in alleviating awkwardness and allows for a decent conversation or interview to occur. Together, we hope to somehow cover our day at the festival.

[The Gutter: the gutter is the space between the panels of comics; it is where the reader’s imagination is triggered to conjure up what happens between two panels. Let the paragraph breaks be gutters! The breaks contain my own and others’ editorial deletions, and so the breaks between two paragraphs are where I and others have silenced myself for your sake (and your imagination).]

Inside the Marriott:
We enter through the doors that ask us to “please use revolving doors,” and so our adventure begins on rebellious footing, following the people who look like avid comic lovers (this being after I refused to follow these people, preferring to wait in line for the information booth, only to be directed towards the same herd of people crowding around elevators). But rest assured: kc and I are avid comic lovers, too, so fortunately you’ll be following us around, going wherever we decide to work our way through the multiple-venue festival.

Inside the Marriott, the Elevator:
But while I’m crammed in the elevator on its way up to the first floor to see the first panel of the day, Art Spiegelman and Seth, in Conversation, I will take this opportunity to flip forward in time to the very crowded but bustling Toronto Reference Library, the main venue of TCAF, hosting a dizzying amount of over 400 exhibitors from 18 countries around the world.

Outside Toronto Reference Library (TRL):
TCAF has been around since 2003, founded by Christopher Butcher and Peter Birkemoe, and was held every two years until 2009 when the festival began to be an annual event, growing monstrously bigger every year so that now over 15,000 attendees, 400 exhibitors and 18 countries can fit into its mouth. What’s refreshing about TCAF, at least for me, is that it’s a festival focused on the literary and artistic worth of comics, “with an emphasis on genre appreciation and open interaction between creators and their community,” as opposed to a convention, which usually has more of an emphasis on pop-culture and celebrity fandom, and, from personal experience, can be a detached environment between creators and their community, though not always.

A Peak Inside TRL:
Despite kc and I being overwhelmed at times as to where to be, who to see, what to do and how to get wherever we wanted to get to (we did get lost underground for some time), we survived and met some amazing people in the small press comics industry from around the world and witnessed the wonderful community of comics; it’s an experience that can’t quite be put in words. One of the first exhibitors I approached (and talked to the most) once we arrived at the Toronto Reference Library was Martin Steenton of Blank Slate, a UK-based independent publisher of original graphic novels.

The Pilot:
I met Martin at the BRITCOMICS panel held on the second floor of The Pilot on Cumberland Avenue, where Emma Haley of SelfMadeHero and Clark Burscough, the assistant director of the UK comics convention in Leeds, Thought Bubble, joined him as the panelists to talk about the current state of the UK comics scene. The BRITCOMICS panel was revealing because it provided a specific focus on the comics industry in a different part of the world that I wasn’t wholly familiar with. I was surprised to discover that, in the UK, it’s tough for small indie comic publishers and festivals to get any government funding, and comics as an art form isn’t as appreciated as it is in North America and France.

But in the past five years there has been an explosion in the UK comics scene: small publishers’ audiences are expanding, comics and small indie presses are gaining more recognition and support, new and exciting talent are emerging. A big part of what’s held small presses like Selfmadehero, Blank Slate and Nobrow together are social media and festivals and conventions like Thought Bubble and TCAF that are focused on maintaining and creating connections around the world and creating a very close community. As a result, these indie presses are gradually expanding to the four corners of the globe, establishing and introducing to readers within and outside the UK a new generation of UK comic artists.

Inside TRL, First Floor:
Since this was my first year at TCAF, I wanted to know why I should keep coming back, and why were people coming here from such great distances, so I asked Martin, who has crossed the Atlantic ocean twice now (my hour drive being measly in comparison). He said to me that TCAF was one of his favourite things to do all year, that it was the “best comics convention in North America,” and that Toronto, just the city itself, was the hub of great emerging and established comic writers, artists and publishers. For this reason, TCAF is important to not only him and Blank Slate but to other comics publishers because the festival creates such a well-knit community of small comic presses from around the world, a daunting feat that has only been increasingly successful.

Martin’s response was more or less the responses of other exhibitors I talked to when I asked their thoughts on TCAF. To include everyone’s responses would be repetitive, and I don’t mean to generalize and summarize all who I met, but the exhibitors I did talk to all vouched as to how important TCAF is to small-press comics (absent are DC and Marvel booths, although some artists/writers there do or did work for DC and/or Marvel) and their communities, and that the festival, as the years progress, has really shown and continues to show that those communities are growing each year, becoming more connected and gaining a wider audience and readership.

The conversations I managed to have were quite short since I didn’t so much enter the reference library and leisurely walk around, but instead I was launched like a pinball in a very large and intricate pinball machine, kc nearly losing me as I zipped/bumped by/along people from vendor to vendor, my conversations limited because other talking pinballs were crashing the vendors. Our trajectory was as follows:

Phil and kc’s trajectory:
1) Lost in the initial launch onto the main floor, we landed straight at Kill Shakespeare’s booth, where I met Conor McCreery the creator/writer of the series from IDW, a comic I recommend to Shakespeare lovers, grad students and comic lovers alike; 2) we fell back into the center, arriving at the Blank Slate, SelfmadeHero and Nobrow tables, where I was generously given The Silver Darlings by Will Morris, a gorgeous short debut graphic novel (you can read my review here!); 3) sweeping all along the left side of the first floor, we passed by the Drawn and Quarterly, the Secret Arces table, Annie Mok and ended up at Scott Hume’s table, a friend of ours; 4) we then curved along the Beeton Auditorium, making a quick browse at Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes’s table (at this point, I was picking up books and saying “I’d like to buy this, but I can’t...”); 5) looped down the right side and rolled upstairs (now completely overwhelmed) to check out the Beguiling author table of debut books; 6) circled upstairs, unable to get really close to the tables since each table was thickly peopled; 7) fell back down into the pit, stumbling upon a very cool book, Lode by V. A. Graham, published by San Francisco publisher, Most Ancient; 8) and finally coming to a full dead and tired stop at Koyama Press where I decided to indulge and purchase the strange and wonderful Lose #3 by Michael DeForge. And...

I’m back home, procrastinating by leafing through my TCAF haul, staring at my laptop, head in hands, wondering how to write all this down, to fit as much as I possibly can. I’ve got blocks of notes, records and memory fragments scattered in front of me, which I’ve written down, and now I’ve laid out these blocks for you. So let me finish by returning to the beginning of my day....

Inside the Marriot, the Elevator:
The elevator opened and we piled into the room for the Canadian cartoonist Seth’s conversation with Art Spiegelman. The conversation was a retrospect on Art’s career in celebration of his retrospective collection, Co-Mix. I can’t possibly sum up an hour’s conversation in a tiny paragraph, but if I could pick out one thing it would have to be when Spiegelman likened comics to Modernist literature, something he said off-handedly but I found significant. Later, when I had the privilege to talk to Spiegelman during his signing time, he elaborated on this topic, telling me that Gertrude Stein’s writing was important for him when he approached comics and the structure of comics, along with the work of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

Inside the Marriott, Signing Room:
For the brief amount of time I had to talk to Spiegelman, there was one thing he said I found very fitting to describe my day, TCAF and comics. While he was doodling in my copy of Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, kc asked him what the %@&*! stands for, and he replied, “that word is pure comics, because it’s whatever you make it to be. It’s the greatest %@&*ing word to explain comics possible.” And I think TCAF, at this point and time in its history, can be described in the way %@&* was to kc and I: the many people who came to TCAF, the exhibitors I met and didn’t meet, the volunteers and organizers of the festival and the whole comics community from around the world have made TCAF what it is today, what they wanted it to be: pure comics.

The Recommendations List

I had such a hard time attempting to encapsulate my entire experience at TCAF in such a short amount of words, but if it were any longer I would be rambling and probably bore the heck out of you. Yet, looking through my draft, I feel like I did a disservice to the people I talked to. I wanted to talk about each book I flipped through and held in my hands, describe in detail the art of some books, tell you why you should pick up this and that book and why you should check out these certain publishers. So, the best I can come up with is a short recommendations list of 13 books. During my foray into the hustle and bustle of TCAF, I asked most of the vendors I visited to give me some recommendations from the selection of their catalogue, whether it be new or old. If I didn’t ask this of them, some of the books listed I have read or purchased that were featured at the festival. Support these small comic publishers and check out these great titles!

Blank Slate Press
Nelson by Various Artists
The Silver Darlings by Will Morris

Drawn & Quarterly
Co-mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics, and Scraps by Art Spiegelman

First Second
Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Comics by Matt Kindt

Koyama Press
Journal by Julie Delporte
Very Casual by Michael DeForge

IDW Publishing
Kill Shakespeare by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col

Oni Press
One Soul by Ray Fawkes

Most Ancient
Lode by V. A. Graham
Mothers by J. A. Eisenhower and V. A. Graham

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel & Bocquet
The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon

Top Shelf Productions
The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire

Phil Miletic is a teaching assistant at Brock University. Fresh out of the English MA program at Brock, Phil hopes to continue down the road of academia scattering poems, stories and whatever else he can along the way.

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