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?
- 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.
- 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.