MoCCA 2005:

Move On Up

The 2005 MoCCA (Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art) Festival in New York was held on June 11th and 12th, and once again the event was a success in the face of a brutal heat wave and broken air-conditioners. Part 1 of my report will focus on how MoCCA was a microcosm of some interesting trends within the comics industry. Part 2 will discuss the event itself, some of the buzz books and panels of interest. Part 3 will go into further detail about some of the more interesting finds at the show, zeroing in on the world of minicomics.Created four years ago by Kristin Siebecker (who now is working for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) in association with the fledgling MoCCA, the festival was hatched after she realized that New York was lacking in major comics-related events. Considering that NYC has such a huge and vibrant alternative comics community, this seemed to be an absurd state of affairs. After the impromptu “SPX-iles” event that sprung up after the Small Press Expo was cancelled due to 9/11, she and others realized that a small press event could easily flourish in Manhattan.

Spaced between the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in the spring and SPX in the fall, the timing for MoCCA was perfect. MoCCA the organization still didn’t have a permanent headquarters when the festival began in 2002, but the festival and the organization have both flourished as a result of the other’s support. Siebecker gave up running the event after a couple of years, but it has gone on to evolve into a unique comics and art showcase. Unlike most comics-cons these days that tend to de-emphasize comics in favor of movies, TV, toys, porn stars and the like, MoCCA instead focuses on comics in all their incarnations: minicomics, big alternative publishers, political cartoonists, animators, illustrators, and even a few superhero comics. MoCCA also became the new home of the Harvey Awards as of 2004, though it’s not clear how long that relationship will last.

Comics cons have always been a place where business has been done and deals made. The problem in the late 90′s was that there weren’t any deals to make because the comics industry in general was at its lowest ebb, at least in terms of sales. At SPX in 1998, Frank Miller noted that there were more good comics being made than ever before but fewer people reading them. This came after the comics speculation boom of the early 90′s, dominated by puerile material from Image and a glutted market from Marvel. When the bust came, it arrived because no one cared about content of those comics (least of all the creators), only its artificial “value”.

Comics as a form has always had different genres evolving in parallel but otherwise unrelated directions. The humor and horror comics of EC in the 50′s had little to do with their superheroic cousins at National. The underground comics of the 60′s and early 70′s had nothing to do with the rebirth and subsequent decline of interest in superheroes once again. The undergrounds faded for a variety of reasons, but eventually were succeeded by “alternative/independent comics” in the 80′s, with publishers like Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp and Fantagraphics becoming prominent with the introduction of specialty comics shops and anthologies like RAW and WEIRDO capturing imaginations. Those specialty shops also revived the superhero industry, until finally the magical year of 1986 arrived. This was the year of MAUS, WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and a barrage of media attention.

The problem was that comics didn’t have a very deep bench, and companies like Marvel & DC put out “graphic novels” that were mere repackagings of mediocre monthly super-hero mags. There simply weren’t enough good long-form comics to draw in adult readers and establish a lasting foothold in the bookstore market. The rise and then bust of the speculator market in the early 90′s, combined with a growing disinterest in superhero movies (which had temporarily also provided a spark), seemed to sound a deathknell for the industry in general. While the alternative and mainstream arms of the comics industry had little to do with each other in terms of content and artistic goals, they still shared a common space in comic book shops. When those shops began to close, both sides sustained tremendous losses. Many artists had to quit altogether and find other jobs.

An interesting development occurred in the early 90′s at time same time the mainstream comics industry came crashing down. Peter Laird, who co-created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yet another mainstream development that proved huge popular and spawned a wave of imitators), took his money and created the Xeric Foundation. Among other things, it twice a year gave up to $5,000 to comics creators so as to facilitate production, shipping and distribution. I’ve dubbed this group of creators the “Xeric Generation”, artists with a pure love for comics who were aided by the Xeric’s generosity and who in turn inspired younger artists. While not every Xeric recipient went on to do much in comics, some of the winners include major talents such as Derek Kirk Kim, Lauren Weinstein, Jordan Crane, Kurt Wolfgang, Brian Ralph, Anders Nilsen, John Pham, Nick Bertozzi, Linda Medley, James Sturm, Jessica Abel, Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, Adrian Tomine, Jon Lewis and Megan Kelso, among many others.

With the grant assisting in wider distribution and a greater interest in self-publishing (spurred in part by Dave Sim of Cerebus) in the 90′s, shows like APE and SPX sprung up as a critical mass of small press creators created the demand. Without a lot of other distribution methods, these shows were often important methods of making back costs and even generating a bit of profit. The irony of the speculator boom is that it left the smallest publishers relatively untouched. They usually had other day jobs and didn’t rely on comics sales as their main source of income; they simply produced comics for the love of it. The minicomic movement owed as much to the zine/punk/DIY culture that had been around for nearly two decades as it did other comics. Minicomics themselves weren’t new, but events like SPX that celebrated and encouraged their endeavors were.

This long-winded mini-history of comics sets the stage for the scene at this year’s MoCCA, which in many ways was the culmination of several converging trends that have resulted in comics becoming quite popular and a career in same potentially lucrative. Some are more directly relevant to alternative comics than others, but let’s take a look at each of them in turn:

** The rebirth of the comics adaptation movie. With CGI breakthroughs, it suddenly became possible to make a superhero movie that didn’t look hokey. The success of the Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade franchises, along with the popularity of the comics-inspired Matrix and Incredibles films brought comics tropes firmly back into the pop culture vernacular, and this time not in a campy or kitschy manner. This in part led to Hollywood trying all sorts of comics adaptations, with things like THE ROAD TO PERDITION, GHOST WORLD and AMERICAN SPLENDOR all proving to be big successes. The latter film in particular would prove important to alt-comics in all sorts of ways, especially since it was about the actual creation of comics.

** The rise of manga’s popularity in the US. Long ignored by both the mainstream superhero and alternative comics communities, manga has proved to be a goldmine for any store wise enough to stock it. A generation of kids weaned on Pikachu and Sailor Moon has taken to snapping up volume after volume of manga, and they are more likely to pick it up at the local bookstore than the comics store.

** Fantagraphics acquiring the rights to PEANUTS. Fanta is still the flagship alt-comics publisher, though many other worthy imprints have come and gone during their long history. However, Fanta’s financial struggles have been well-documented, to the point where a porn imprint was created in the early 90′s to support the rest of the line to their more recent public call for financial aid from their readers. Once at the cutting edge of the industry, Fanta in recent years has not taken on very many new artists, until they got the rights to reprint PEANUTS in its entirety, in chronological order. Many of the strips had never been reprinted. The project has earned a great deal of publicity, and as one observer noted, being the publisher of PEANUTS is like being given a license to print money. As a result, Fanta has been much more aggressive recently in acquiring new talent, taking more risks on obscure or difficult comics, and carrying out an ambitious publication schedule. At last year’s SPX when publisher Gary Groth was on a panel, I asked him how many of the new projects were made possible by the PEANUTS income. He replied, “Oh, roughly all of them.”

** The new convergence between comics and literature. This is a result of a critical mass of quality books being released in the last few years to a large market combined with an increasingly sympathetic critical audience in the media. The relationship is circular: a book like Chris Ware’s JIMMY CORRIGAN gets printed by a major “legitimate” publisher (WW Norton), garners critical attention and wins major awards (Britain’s Guardian Prize among them). The result is more publishers who try to duplicate the success and prestige of such a project by signing another artist, who also receives a lot of attention. Soon, graphic novels are a regular and welcome part of the book market, regularly reviewed (often by critics who chose to specialize in this area) and there are enough of them to put together a nice section at a mainstream bookstore. The critical attention adds legitimacy and exposure to the discerning public, the novelty of comics spurs interest in the critical world and a slow but rising demand for more material. It doesn’t hurt that academic criticism of comics is a growing side-industry, one that doesn’t necessarily make them any more popular but certainly adds to the legitimacy of a ghettoized art form. And certainly, everyone is aware that art comics have been made into successful and critically acclaimed films.

The implications of these factors changed the vibe of the show. MoCCA was not just about a pure love of the medium and the ability to display it or the community that has been born out of this mutual love for the form (dubbed by some as “Team Comics”). One could also smell ambition in the air, as artists hustled for gigs that suddenly were very real and potentially capable of generating significant income and exposure. What made this vibe interesting was that, unlike many of their mainstream brethren, the artists here didn’t seem to care much about immediately turning their comics into movies. (I recall a certain artist duo at SPX a couple of years ago that garishly advertised one of their comics as being optioned for a film—anyone who’s read FORTUNE AND GLORY knows how much much that’s worth.) Instead, a number of young artists are hoping to hop on the new gravy train of book publishers who are putting out entire lines of graphic novels.

It should be noted book companies have started graphic novel lines in recent years, only to abort them after poor early returns. Doubleday’s imprint a couple of years ago began and ended with Jason Little’s SHUTTERBUG FOLLIES and Lance Tooks’ NARCISSA. Whether or not the current lines will succeed or fail is unclear, but at least one artist I spoke to was worried about a glut. What is clear is that there have been several recent big successes, including the aforementioned JIMMY CORRIGAN (180,000 copies sold!), and Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS. The newcomers are hoping that this isn’t lightning in a bottle, but the start of a new and long-lasting trend.

The sudden demand has created a system not unlike Major League Baseball, where young talents are discovered out in the bushes (ie, doing mini-comics) and brought up to single-A clubs (small companies like Buenaventura Press or AdHouse Books) or perhaps double-A clubs (more established but essentially one-or-two-man operations like Top Shelf, Alternative, etc.). The triple-A clubs, when they’re ready to expand the roster a bit, will sometimes absorb these talents (Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly), but the prospects really dream of the big-time: a multi-book contract with Norton, Pantheon, Ballantine, Henry Holt, Random House, Scholastic, etc. What’s interesting is how many artists are going straight from the bushes to the big leagues almost directly these days, and how little time it’s taken some of them. Here are a smattering of deals made in the last year or two:

** Vanessa Davis: went from having printed a couple of minicomics to being the first major release of Buenaventura Press.

** Lauren Weinstein: went from one Xeric-produced comic to GIRL STORIES, which will be published by Henry Holt.

** Kevin Huizenga: went from minicomics to a regular series with Drawn & Quarterly.

** Neil Kleid: went from minis to a Xeric to an upcoming graphic novel next year from NBM and an ongoing superhero series from an imprint of a major mainstream comics company.

** Craig Thompson: proved to be Top Shelf’s biggest seller with GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE and BLANKETS, and will have his next book, HABIBI, distributed by Pantheon. He reportedly received a handsome advance when he signed on.

** Jessica Abel: will have her Fantagraphics series LA PERDIDA collected and published by Pantheon as well. She has a non-graphic novel from Harper Collins and will be putting out a book on how to make comics with Matt Madden for First Second, an imprint of Henry Holt.

** Matt Madden: two of his former publishers went belly-up, but in addition to his A FINE MESS series from Alternative, his online “exercises in style” has been picked up by Chamberlain Brothers, an imprint of Penguin Books.

** The crew from FLIGHT, a group of mostly unknowns who got their anthology published in color right off the bat from Image, will have their next volume published by Ballantine.

** Raina Telgemeier: with just a tiny handful of minis and a single well-received story in a Friends of Lulu anthology, she secured a gig for adapting the Babysitter’s Club books for Scholastic (also known as the home of Harry Potter and the current publisher of BONE in color installments).

** Ed Piskor: Thanks to the huge success of Harvey Pekar’s AMERICAN SPLENDOR film, Ballantine has sold something like 30,000 copies of a reprint collection of his early material. As a result, they gave him a four-book contract that will include a reprint of his Dark Horse material, plus three original graphic novels. One of those was OUR MOVIE YEAR, which detailed the events surrounding his life before, during and after the making of his film. Piskor was an artist who simply sent Harvey a couple of minicomics. Harvey liked them and immediately hired him to do a story in OUR MOVIE YEAR, then brought him on for MACEDONIA. This will be a story about a woman named Heather and her experiences in Macedonia, similar in style to Joe Sacco’s reportage comics. The fourth graphic novel will be drawn by Gary Dumm and is about a person introduced in OUR MOVIE YEAR.

This list doesn’t include Dan Clowes’, Charles Burns’ or Kim Deitch’s deals with Pantheon, Dean Haspiel’s star turn for DC/Vertigo or several other deals. The two deals that intrigue me the most are the last two on my list. While both Piskor and Telgemeier are talented artists, they were obscure even by the standards of the alt-comics community. To see both of them go from the bush leagues to the major leagues is frankly astounding, and reflects both the demands of the expanding graphic novel market and how much more resourceful those heading the lines have become in scouting out new talent. It doesn’t take a genius to offer Chris Ware, David B or Dan Clowes a book deal; that’s simply a matter of a top-notch triple-A star having waited their turn for a shot at the big time. However, publishing work by more obscure talent takes a keen eye and a certain willingness to gamble. It certainly shows that events like MoCCA have become more important than ever, because publishers are on the lookout for new artists; and that a willingness to hustle and promote oneself is almost as important as one’s talent & ability.

Evan Dorkin mocked this trend on his blog, noting how every artist seemed to be worrying about their book deals or lack of same:

“You pitching a book? Got a book? What’s your next book? Sent your book around? I can’t get anyone to take my book. I’m doing a book. The only books they want are memoirs and diseases. Did you hear about so-and-so’s book deal? Want to see my book? Want to hear about my book?

Yeesh. A heck of a lot of cartoonists are scrambling to gain a foothold in the Random House Sweepstakes. I haven’t seen this much barely concealed desperation and ambition on a comics show floor since the 90′s when creators were angling everything for Hollywood deals. A lot of good, established cartoonists are giving off the vibe of mini-comics creators desperate to break into staples. And mini-comics creators are aiming for dustcovers rather than staples nowadays. It’s really weird, I mean, getting these books into the hands of actual readers has always been the dream and the goal — not to mention attaining some amount of social acceptance — and it seems to be happening to a degree few people ever expected. Hoped for, wished for, but I think most of us never really saw this sort of thing coming — comic book trades getting picked up by legit publishers, a manga explosion, this many comic book movies. It’ll end, of course, as all things do, but who knows when this time around, and how it will shake out and effect the medium and industry. This is a three-pronged assault on the stigma of comics, and if it doesn’t bust down the walls of disinterest I don’t know what will. Then again, are sales really soearing (sic) for that many people? There’s still too many comcis (sic) out there choking the pipeline, but I don’t think that will ever lessen.”

Dorkin’s rant touches on a lot of truths, and I think the fact that so many inexperienced artists have gotten such great deals has spurred older artists into action. It may seem a bit desperate, but who knows when this chance is going to come again? Furthermore, the distribution system is such that many publishers may simply be unaware of many worthwhile artists. While supporting one’s career in comics with a day job may provide security, surely every artist dreams of supporting themselves strictly through their works. Beyond simply just trying to make a buck, there is a real sense that the industry as a whole has a chance to make a permanent and lasting beachhead in the mainstream public’s consciousness.

While this is all fine and good, this trend has several unfortunate side-effects. First off, it privileges long-form graphic novels over short-form stories, especially actual old-fashioned comic books. Second, it tends to favor certain kinds of storytelling and genres. The big losers here are those who specialize in humor. Highbrow publishing companies aren’t beating down Sam Henderson’s door with a book contract, simply because humor has always been ghettoized, no matter what the art form. But even Robert Crumb has always preferred to work in short stories, though he’s accepted the assignment of adapting the Book of Genesis as a comic. When even Crumb is doing a graphic novel, you know it’s a trend. One can only hope that this rising tide of increased interest in comics will lift all boats (including that of humor comics) instead of washing them all away.

Next Column: A long look at the floor of MoCCA and an account of the main event: a conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Dan Clowes.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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