Expanding the Festival Toolkit – 2017

Juan here: I just came back from CXC 2017 and I am still bathing in its warmth. It’s a good feeling. As I do around this time of the year, I’ve been thinking about the future of comics events in America. How we move into that future. I’m typing out loud, so forgive me for dreaming too big.

Comics, as we engage with them today in the United States’ existing festival ecosystem, are facing a cultural choking point. There’s a huge role that comics can and should be playing in broader cultural discussions.

But they’re not and our Festivals have something to do with this. It’s 2017 and it is essential to reframe the discussion of comics shows.

Comics making and comics reading practices need more breathing room. To grow. To continue expanding. We need to nurture interdisciplinary approaches to experiencing comics.

We need our festivals to make this their guiding principle.

Comics making no longer needs to be limited to being a collectible, genre-oriented narrative art form. It’s time that it be seen as a mode of communication with breadth and depth, that can survive in any kind of market-driven cultural ecosystem. We need to celebrate the cartoonists and comics for whom the craft is but one aspect of their life’s work. Not just the cartoonists’ cartoonists.

Our festivals can do that.

What do we want?

  • To bring together cartoonists from across the country and the world.
  • To bring together a hungry readership from the host city.
  • To create a physical space that inspires comics making practices across generations.
  • To nurture a space that honors the work, thought, and spirits of those participating.

What are kinds of things are we getting?

  • SPX
    • The US’s  premier small press show. This is where many publishers seek to release their comics. There’s an insularity to this show that is both a boon and a curse. Pro: Easy access to artists and publishers that you want to meet + ensures great attendance at workshops and panels during the festival. Con: It seems limited in developing to be more than a weekend style, old school comic-con celebration. Has been developing deeper, promising ties with the Library of Congress, but those ties haven’t appeared to have programmatic effects. This show has rock solid attendance of folks from the D.C. and Maryland area, along with people from around the United States.
  • CXC
    • Historically focused, it seeks to fold in the public into a conversation about the mediums past, present, and future. The sales aspect of this show isn’t fully developed as it is only in its third year. Its host city hasn’t trained its audience yet. Has a deep, fully integrated connection with a robust institution (Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum) that supports the cartooning arts year round.
    • You can find and buy “the good stuff” here. These shows happen in dense metropolis’ like NYC, LA, London, Madrid and the like. This is where you find pioneering work sprinkled from table to table. These shows don’t have a massive overhead of complex programming (though they may have some) that takes center stage for the fest. They’re zine fairs and art book fairs on steroids.
  • Regional Zine Fairs – Paperjazz/Pittsburgh Zine Fair
    • These are the backbone of a broad self-publishing ecosystem. They do best when the cost of entry is low and when they have a community focus. The stakes are low and the focus has historically been on self-authorization above authorial prestige. These have limited capacity of growth before they lose their petri-dish identity.

How do we get there?

First off, identify the kind of show that you are trying to make. Is it a zine fair? Is it an international festival? Is it a regional show? Focus on making it the best version of that kind of show as possible. Everyone tends to go bigger and bigger and bigger, associating that growth with success. When you pursue growth as a primary indicator of success festivals wind up either growing unsustainably and burning out or losing their ability to focus on their intended vision becoming amorphous blobs.

Here are the nuts and bolts of something that’s been taking form across the discussions that I’ve been having recently.

Hear me out.

  • Centralize Sales

Our current system is embarrassingly inefficient. It is an ineffective use of getting tens of dozens of skilled comics makers and storytellers in one city for a week or weekend. No more exhibitors expected to stand behind tables hawking wares. Nowadays with everyone behind tables, people are barely interacting. There’s a vital cross-pollination that just doesn’t happen.

What does it look like when a show does away with the flea market model?
One thought is that you establish a festival shop.

You get an experienced comics retailer to run the shop. You have them hire a trusted staff. You pay that staff. The shop gets a cut. 30/70. In a model like this, it costs you no money to have your work available.

Under this new kind of model, if you are a guest you sign up to be involved in citywide comics programming. Signings, gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops. This is the kind of thing that you get Arts and Cultural councils involved in. You sign up because you want to be part of the programming.

With a model like this, you free up the artists and suddenly new horizons open up. Among those horizons are sources for financing. Imagine collaborating with a city’s municipal parks: guided bike tours where throughout the tour you make stops, learn about the city while doing landscape drawings and comics strips of the experience… A series of readings at a bookstore. Gallery exhibitions. Movie screenings at an arthouse theater. There are so many venues that would be amenable to programming: libraries, universities, community centers, theaters, bookstores, parks… Most of these venues have programming budgets that could fund materials and labor for artists.

  • Programming Throughout the Year

When all of your programming happens over a weekend, you’re banking a lot of things to the lineup to ensure good attendance over the course of 2-3 days. That’s a lot of stress. This winds up putting a lot of pressure on media marketing for your event. There will always be this stress, but you can alleviate that pressure by ensuring that your festival’s work is on people’s radar throughout the year.

Spread the festival’s programming across the year. Small happenings can go a long way.

Readings, comics salons, artist lectures, residencies. Have your festival lead small local pop up book fairs during gallery crawls. Collaborate with the local zine fair. Do monthly lectures in collaboration with the local art school. Organize a monthly reading group with your local library.

A festival will naturally have deep connections with publishers and artists and can provide a huge service to libraries, schools, cities, theaters and the like. You can help them develop their programming and they can help foot the bill of an artist’s materials, lodging, and travel.

Have the festival be the city’s comics aggregator. If anyone thinks about comics in your city, you’d do well to have them associate the festival with the art form.

  • Limited guests

Imagine this: You bring 4 special guests.

A comics journalist, an art comics maker, a storyboard artist, a memoirist. They all have unique expertise. Not only in their craft but in the subject matter that they work with on the regular. Pair the journalist up with a panel of other journalists from the host city and have a discussion on geopolitical instability in the middle east. Bring the art comics maker and have them do a performance with a dance troupe. Record a conversation between the memoirist and an archival libraries memoir specialist, get the storyboard artist to discuss their work with paleontologists.

You organize community programming around those specific guests. You look at their strengths and their areas of expertise.

You show your city that comics are a pathway to expertise.

Why limit the number?
For maximum impact. You want to foster a cultural conversation across your city that is not diluted by droves of artists. Anyone who is interested in comics in your city will experience the perspectives of those invited. Together. Rather than seeing a list of 80 exhibitors and only engaging with 7 of those artists an attendee will in some way or another experience all the invited guests. You suddenly have a city’s local community on the same page. They’ve heard the same talks. They’ve seen the same demonstrations. Those artists impacts ripple out through that local area with much greater intensity. This is effective.

It is more cost-effective. You can focus on certain artists and pair them up with institutions that wish to fund your activities. You get way more bang for your buck from your programming. Your programming funds your festival and it pays the artists an equitable wage.
Can this be more challenging than charging admission and charging exhibitors + selling ad space? Yes, a little more challenging, but far more promising.

Of course, all this can and should be co-programmed with local artists. Your local artists will be the beating heart of this cultural project as time progresses. You are building a cultural institution that is fostering the arts, with a focus on comics and cartooning. This allows for an international and regional dialogue to develop organically among makers and readers tied to where you’re at.

Who will be able to do this work? Few working cartoonists will be able to do this. This kind of work becomes a full-time job and if you’re coming at it with comics money, nothings going to happen. Which is why it is essential to reframe this discussion of comics shows.

No more glorified flea markets.

Honestly, I don’t care what books are new by this year’s hot new young cartoonists. That kind of thought just keeps you in a headspace of exploitation and commodity creation.

I want more people to be reading and making more comics thanks to these festivals. Helping people engage on all sides of the comics equation as reader, advocate and creator is the way to go. It’s good for society. (More elaborate arguments on that in the future, this is Comics Workbook so you can just take it as an assumption of that as an organizational belief.)

Autoptic in Minneapolis has had these kinds of aspirations, but because it has primarily steered by working cartoonists but that show is still trying to find its rhythm and flow.

Just as many comics makers and cartoonists find ways to diversify their personal income, organizers should do the same. What kind of cultural value can you generate to find support in your city or state?

Festivals like Entreviñetas in Colombia and TCAF in Toronto are the future. Period. If you’re not up to date on the incredible work that is being done in Colombia, check out Frank’s tour diary from 3 years ago. And then hop on over to their site.  TCAF too.

Some of you are in the trenches already. Thank you.
The rest of us? Let’s get to work.

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16 thoughts on “Expanding the Festival Toolkit – 2017

  1. Some quick thoughts on the above more on the consumer experience vs. the creator one.

    LOCATION is important. The CXC of the last 2 years has been very nice, easy parking, great work shops and good panels. But the first year at the Cultural Arts Center was something else. The building itself really lent a very warm community vibe that i don’t get from the last couple of years. There’s just a lot of dead space in the current setting, yes i realize it’s a huge library, but the first year of CXC took over that center in a wonderful informal way that made it flow. It felt like a creative pressure cooker because so many events were (literally) happening over the other. Also, maybe change the venue from time to time, a butt-pain i know, but still, variety is nice.

    PANELS on the whole, let the artists on the panel come up with what they want to talk about.
    They can figure it out 5 minutes beforehand and work from that. Seen a couple like that and there wasn’t 10/15 of the 30/45 minutes going over everybody’s dossier. Real talk, awkward talk, thank you!

    UNIQUE books from the event itself. Too crazy to ask the creators to create a unique mini for the show, but like the old SPX compilations. Just a little thing unique to the event, sold only at x amount for those days, can be bought later on (with signatures) at a markup to provide finances for next years events.

    Not quite sure about the Festival Shop model as i’ve never been to one. But, to have this rolling flea market thing is NUTS. I’ve just gotten down a system of keeping my eyes down purely at table level and always one table ahead of me while i’m walking the floor. Just so i don’t have to “reject” people’s work, or pleading eyes at times.

    CURATE your table sellers, TCAF, as crazy as it was when i went a few years ago, was SUPER rich in talent on display across the board. SPX… lottery, what the hell is up with that-that’s the economics of keeping your table rates, not the quality of what’s on them.

    Hold shows in a nice bar with some music, have a big comic car rally and everyone pull up and sell them out of the trunk of your car, have it at a train station, We keep talking about people reading comics more, well, it we’re only selling them in the same old places, what do we expect. Make it more a part of society, not just social media.

    Sorry for the rant, appreciate the time, all apologies

    1. Just to clarify, SPX is not a pure lottery system. There are a number of publishers who get in, then a number of other contributors (determined by the committee) who get in. The rest is lottery.

      I have not been to TCAF, and I know a lot of people love that show, but I’ve seen the guest lists and it’s more mainstream than I would generally be interested in. Much moreso than SPX.

      1. yeah, not all of SPX is lottery (otherwise Fanta’s riding a hot streak like no other 😉 and i’m talking deeper than featured guest lists, but the overall exhibitor quality is/was better at TCAF (IMO). It took me asking regular sellers at those shows later on why the fluctuation of quality and the answers i got were uniform-not curated.

        last time i did TCAF was in 2011 so, take that into account too. But the last SPX i was at i really felt chewed up and spit out and left early. Bethesda/D.C. just hasn’t really embraced it like Toronto has…you step out of that Marriott and that’s the end of it.

  2. The Caption Show in the U.K. had the kind of format you’re talking about, you’re free to interact, go to workshops, listen to talks and hangout in the bar and at the end of the show you get a wad of cash from sales at the big mutual table. I went twice and it was beautiful. Location was a big part of it, on the banks of the river in Oxford, England.

    1. I went to go dig up more information from Caption and it seems its most recent iteration was in 2015. It’s all an evolution. – Link for anyone else interested https://captionfestival.wordpress.com/ and wikipedia entry as its name in english made it harder than usual to find! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caption_(comics_convention).

      “CAPTION differs from other conventions by breaking down the distinction between named guests and other attendees, avoiding segregation or special treatment of guests. In addition it prioritizes the social interaction of attendees by encouraging comics creators to place their publications on the CAPTION stall, managed by a rota of volunteers.” Way cool <3

      Given that you've been touring with Sky in Stereo while also working on your current graphic novel projects at home, I curious to know what you maybe wish to see at these events after experiencing the latest iterations of CXC and SPX. Is there anything you could do without?

  3. I was a guest at a festival in Lisbon years ago and was struck how it was NOT a “flea market,” but was art shows, lectures, lots of things, with a festival bookshop that worked well.

      1. Hi Juan, Yes, Amadora (so just outside Lisbon). in 2007. I don’t know how it was organized – I was part of a curated show there and they flew me over. It seemed to be a lot of art gallery type shows with lectures and talks. There was a big bookstore place too. It was NOT a flea market, ha ha. Email me and I’ll send you some contact info for some folks if that helps.

  4. The show that Rob Clough was involved with a few years back had that festival model in place, I think. A quick internet search shows that Clough just published something about the most recent CXC: http://www.tcj.com/how-to-build-a-comics-festival-cxc-year-three/

    Will check that out. I’m still wondering about tabling costs, and how not having to table would factor in to that. Maybe you pay a fee to have your books available? Thanks for this write-up, Juan.

    1. You’re welcome, really excited to see a conversation happening.

      It might sound weird right now, but it’d be interesting to have there be a deposit that people make in order to sell their books. If they don’t make the sales, they get that money back. So that the show has the needed capital to move things around beforehand. It could stay low. And then from whatever arrangement is made for the show payout-wise you could count the deposit in for that.

      The idea here is to spread the accountability for the show’s financial success – and having money on the line can help. In this way, the show runner is motivated to push for sales at the store in order to keep the deposits. Neverhteless, this removes the burden of losing money to someone whose work simply doesn’t do well at the show, despite being presented well. This is particularly useful for folks who make zines and work that might not retail at <$12+ a unit. Just a thought. For reference and for other people's use, here's the DICE recap Rob did for TCJ: http://www.tcj.com/creating-a-new-comics-show-dice/

  5. Cool piece and commentary. I have nothing to add except encouragement that we continue to discuss making these experiences better and sharing the various approaches that we find. Thanks for writing this, Juan (and commentators).

  6. One important aspect for me as a cartoonist who tables at a lot of these shows: FREE ADMISSION.

    Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) is my local show (and full disclosure, it’s organized by friends of mine). It does not charge an admission fee. This lets me invite anyone and everyone to visit the show – friends, family, coworkers, random people on the subway. I don’t have to worry about them paying for something they may not enjoy, and they can bail quickly if it’s not their thing.

    Free admission improves outreach. At MICE, we see curious people just wander in off the street. We see whole families show up (parents especially appreciate free activities they can bring the kids to). I talk to so many people who say that MICE is the first comic show they’ve ever attended.

    I’ve seen a few other shows with no admission fee, including Maine Comics Arts Fest (now that it’s held in a public library) and LadiesCon in Somerville, MA. I really like this approach as a way to grow comics audiences and to be a presence that the local community embraces.

    1. Oh absolutely. I agree with you wholeheartedly that if it’s not free, an organizer of a new show or festival shouldn’t expect ANYONE to come out to a showroom floor.

      MICE is a great little regional comics engine.

  7. I think it’s unlikely that you’re going to change the model of the large shows anytime soon. If you’re looking to really do something radical, you’re probably going to have to DIY to prove that the model works – and, even then, you’re bound to have a few stumbles along the way.

    Honestly, even TCAF and Angouleme have their flea market aspects to them. The town of Angouleme itself is actually known for all of the festivals (not just comics) that it has over the course of the year. Tourism from festivals is how the townspeople get their livelihood, so it’s easy for them to buy into the comics festival when it rolls around. Whitney does the same thing during their goth weekends. North Besthesda (for example) doesn’t need the money from the attendees of SPX, so there’s no local buy in.

    If I was 20 years younger, I would have sunk a chunk of money into a bookmobile full of comics that I would drive from festival to festival. I like the idea of having a table run by a retailer, but what do you do for creators whose work doesn’t sell? I think there are a lot of practical, logistical challenges that have to be worked out in translation from good idea to reality.

    There’s a reason why the flea market is the default model – it’s easy to set up and easy to run. I’d recommend that you focus on setting up something simple as a replacement so you can easily deploy it as a repeatable process.

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