Outside Comic-cons

I have not been going to Comic-Cons for a long time, but I am passionate about comic books. When I first decided to go to my city’s Comiccon (Montréal), I did not really know what to expect. I hoped to meet creators of comic books, to discover new talents, projects and stories, to buy unique art and objects. I wasn’t really into paying for a picture with some famous actor or into the craze around cosplayers. Ultimately I met some creators and artists, and bought a few books during my first visit at the Comiccon. However I was disappointed with the ambience, which was closer to a Bal Masqué (masquerade) and its see and be seen outlook, than to a place to geek out with fellow fans.

Within the past three years in Montréal, I have seen notable changes which show the lesser part played by comics in the Comiccon. Above everything else the artists get a much smaller portion of the space each year than the celebrities and video games booths. This year was the worst one yet. The artists’ designated space was not well situated. People had to make a detour to see them which, of course, showed in their smaller amount of sales. They were big line-ups for pictures with stars and cosplayers, but most artists, comic book makers, saw only a small fraction of the attendees and had to persuade each passer-by to stop and look at their projects. The result is quite saddening: a growing number of artists don’t know if they will be coming back since they can’t make a profit out of it. I don’t believe this is the case in all Comic-Cons, but this is what I have been seeing in Montréal.

In the past two years, I experienced three festivals/conventions that make me optimistic for the future of gatherings for comics’ fans. Those gatherings were much closer to the definition of conventions in the sense that they were a meeting place for people to talk about their shared interest about comic books and art.

The first happened in March 2013. I was one of the lucky few who went to Rochester, Minnesota, to the Fabletown and Beyond Festival which Fables’ creator Bill Willingham organized. There were about 500 attendees for more than 30 exhibitors. That sort of ratio is enough to give an experience that is much more personal than commercial. I would describe the weekend with these few words: three days of confinement with great artists and people. The small town of Rochester was invigorated by our passion and number. The common aspect that made all of us come together was Mythic Fiction. The literary subgenre that includes comic books like Fables, Kill Shakespeare, Mice Templar, Mouse Guard, Once Upon a Time Machine, and The Unwritten.

This convention was not only a place to meet artists and discover their work, but also a place to learn from them. There was a ton of interesting panels (three panels every hour!): some on comics of mythic fiction, some on more specific subjects such as creating mice characters, the numeric revolution, and using folklore in stories. There were also smaller, more intimate, panels entitled “An hour with…” involving an artist speaking to small group about their experiences and passions. The convention’s philosophy was uplifting: restoring the direct link between fans and artists. Bill Willingham wrote in his welcoming note,

We also want you to know that our guests are very approachable. It’s sort of the theme for this convention. Feel free to engage them in conversation, ask questions, and have them sign your program book, or whatever else you may have of their published work.

And they really were.

Credit photo Sam Fox

But the key to the whole experience for me was the intimacy. Except the friend who came with me, I didn’t know anyone. It didn’t stop me from feeling like home and making new friends (artists and fans). There were always people in the artists’ alley and the mood wasn’t all sign and go. It was more casual: just people talking about their work, but also about what they like and read. I did not see any inappropriate behaviors coming from fans upon meeting their favorite artist. I liked that. During the evenings, everyone (attendees and artists) gathered at the hotel bar renamed the Kill Shakespeare Bar for us which could only be attended by people from the convention. There was no fan business there, just awesome individuals having a good time. How many conventions can offer that?

Credit photo Sam Fox

In Minnesota, I met Andrew Carl, Chris Stevens, and Josh O’Neill from the Locust Moon Press. They were promoting their anthology Once Upon a Time Machine and participating to some panels. We became friends and so they invited me to their annual festival, the Locust Moon Comics Festival, in Philadelphia. I was very excited to be there this year since the guys just published their long-awaited anthology Little Nemo: Dream another Dream. Hence I knew I could get my copy of the larger than life book.

Credit photo Kyle Cassidy

The festival was at the Rotunda, a centennial house of worship now owned by the University of Pennsylvania for both its students and the community. The building was beautiful and unique. Its unkempt appearance created an atmosphere closer to an underground art gallery than a convention center. The two rooms were mindfully laid-out to accommodate a great number of artists and attendees in a small space without feeling overcrowded. Joyful artists and fans were happy to be there and chat. Furthermore, contrarily to what we usually see in Comic-cons, half of the artists were women.

The festival showcased panels in the gallery section of the Locust Moon Shop (which gave you a good reason to go to the shop and buy more books). These panels were intimate discussions on subjects which the panelists were passionate about, from a Kid’s Comic Workshop, to making a living out of comics, passing through Hip-Hop and comics. It is the only place I know where it is possible for a misunderstood black cat (named Inky, one of the shop’s cats) to steal the spotlight from amazing creators Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul Pope, and J.G. Jones during their panel.

What I love most about this festival, the shop, and the men behind everything is the bigger picture they create. They truly believe in the power of Art to move people and initiate change in a community. It is not just about selling books. What I saw during this festival is people actively participating in making a better community for West Philly. The shop definitively offers a safe haven for geeks and artists. They do a little good, and they make a difference. The festival’s philosophy is to promote artists, be they illustrators, cartoonists or storytellers, while offering a place for the public to get to know these artists, and they nailed it.

My last hopeful experience happened this November in my home town, Montréal. The Expozine is the largest small press and zines fair in Canada. The festival’s goal is to promote local publications outside the mainstream. In the overcrowded basement of a church were at least 200 vendors and creators selling different items: books, zines, prints, posters, shirts, post cards, buttons, and more. The exhibitors were friendly and many of them offered free stuff. However, the venue was so overcrowded that it was difficult to have a long conversation without getting bumped by someone. My hope is that the event will move its location due to its popularity.

The merchandise available to buy was diversified: ranging from homemade to published, from books on social and literary subjects to funny posters. The exhibitors seemed to all know each other and have a great time, which really gave a friendly vibe to the room. Again, this was a good experience as far as the diversity of merchandise and the number of vendors go, but poorly for the venue. Archive Montréal (Arcmtl) has an event of great potential and an amazing response to it with over 15,000 attendees in 2012 and a growing number each year. I just hope the organization will let it become what it needs to be for the small press community, and the local writers and artists.

I need to speak up about the costs of all this fun. The admission charge for the three days of Fabletwon and beyond was 30$ (which is, by the way, the price it costs to get into the Montreal’s Comiccon for one day), and the Locust Moon Comics Festival had a voluntary 10$ entrance fee. Therefore these events are not there to make profit. On the contrary, it can become quite expensive for those who organize these makers of memories if they are not as lucky as the Expozine, who receives financial help (from the Canada Council for the Art, the SODEC, and the Conseil des Arts de Montréal). Many would look at these conditions and wonder, why bother? For all these reasons I feel the deepest respect for the men and women behind these projects. Their devotion to the ninth art is such that they pay heavily, both in time and money, for a couple hours, or days, of literary discovery for us.

These experiences were, without any doubt, inspiring and bode for me a hopeful future for festivals and conventions for comic books outside Comic-Cons. Thinking about my experiences for this article made me realize this simple fact: comics’ festivals and conventions have a bright future as long as they distance themselves from the so called geek culture and the heavy commercial aspect it nowadays entails (which I personally associate with Comic-Cons). This also means we have a responsibility as lovers of comic books and graphic novels; we need to keep ourselves informed of these events and buy from the artists there, engage with them, and not be afraid to encourage and discover their new projects. All the events I recalled in this article promote the same attitude toward comic books: community and love of the art. These places are where you can meet people just like you, who think likewise, and love the same things. And, let’s face it, it doesn’t happen very often.

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Carole-Ann’s obsession with Sandman got her started in the world of comic books and graphic novels. She studied the Strange, the Subversive, and Gender Identity during her Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature. Québécoise at heart, she currently lives in Montréal. She is new at this and, yes, she normally speaks French. Voilà!

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