The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is a week long comics festival held all over Toronto’s downtown. It culminates in a weekend mini-convention hosted by the (not so) secretly awesome Toronto Public Library. Christopher Butcher, TCAF’s founder and director, didn’t want it to be your typical comic con, so he modelled it on literary festivals and conferences. There are none of the giant screens, booth babes, or pricey giveaways that you’ll find at most major North American comic cons, and you won’t hear much about the latest Marvel and DC releases. Instead, you’ll hear from Scholastic, First Second, Oni Press and Archaia, and mainly, comics creators themselves. You’ll get the chance to meet lots of up and coming and independent creators, from all over the world. You’ll get to participate in workshops, play indie games, indulge in kidstuff and check out great panel discussions, and you’ll do all of this mostly for free—only a few of TCAF’s events are ticketed.
I mention all of this not to boost the festival (it’s not without its flaws), but because TCAF is designed to cultivate a certain kind of festival experience for creators and fans, and overall, it’s a pretty good one. The festival is hosted by the downtown Reference Library and surrounding businesses, all of which maintain regular operating hours during the two-day explosion of comics love. While you’re collapsing into a lump of fannish bliss at Kate Beaton’s feet, someone’s studying for an exam, or enjoying an afternoon meal. And so, the festival is less an awesome assault on the senses, and more kicking comics book fair. Also, it’s on a smaller scale than the other two major dates on the Toronto comics scene’s calendar, Fan Expo and Anime North, and the character of the festival is just more relaxed, less overheated, and far more oriented to discussion of comic arts, than to promotion by publishers. If you’re a fan of indie, small press, or kids books, it’s a good show, is what I’m saying.
My usual con and festival buddy is my girl Maddy (of When Fangirls Attack). We’ve been attending local conventions for a couple of years now, and have it down to a special kind of socially awkward, anti-science. This time, while we were impeded by a forgotten cell phone, crowd aversion (Saturday was packed!), a general lack of proper hydration and nutrition, we managed to meet up with friends, hit most of the panels we were interested in, and with the help of a third friend and a Starbucks full of regretful witnesses, get into an hours-long argument about J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. It’s why I missed the presentation of Allison Bechdel’s new book, and while I’m sore about it, I also can’t turn down a chance to complain about Kirk’s poor character development (Chris Pine, saved that script, ok?). Basically we had a great time, and we talked to all kinds of incredible people.
Maddy and I are both Toronto locals, so we started our festival experience early, with a University of Toronto symposium that took advantage of TCAF, to bring in Kate Beaton (Hark A Vagrant) and Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim). I can’t speak for the rest of the Bodies and Cities series, but this discussion was about art and place. Does art depend on where you are, or who you’re with? Is the internet making it harder for artists to make a living? These were questions the never entirely serious Beaton and O’Malley answered, with weird and funny anecdotes, and plenty of shade for North American Big Comics.
After the talk, we had mediteranian food and cake, and hit up BMV Books (quite possibly the best place to pick up cheap, used comics in Toronto) and The Beguiling (the festival’s mothership), where we got our festival guides, and started to plan our itineraries. We’re both panel people, so it was akin to shopping for a Christmas siege of the Reference Library, The Pilot Tavern and other TCAF venues. There may also have been an extended email chain involved. It was a whole thing.
O’Malley and Beaton both had interesting things to say about creation, ownership and the whys and wherefores of comic art, which set the tone for the weekend. The opening night talk with Jeff Smith (Bone), Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (Daytripper) picked up on these themes—perhaps a consequence of bringing together so many indie and small press creators. Smith, Moon and Ba have a bit of a mutual admiration society going on; their rapport makes it well worth checking out the talk, which has been posted in full by the library. It also reminds you of just how small a world comics is, that creators and fans from all over the world have such close personal and creative connections. This, it turns out, was another of the themes of the festival. Butcher and the rest of the TCAF staff worked hard to bring in an impressive slate of international guests. With everything from workshops, to exhibits (Gabriella Giandelli!) to panel discussions, TCAF celebrated the hell out of the international comics scene this year, and particularly, international comic art (double emphasis on art). Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, so it seemed a pretty natural fit, to be having this discussion here.
After the opening night talk, we headed over to the opening night party at The Pilot. We missed whatever festival activity resulted in all the cool kids having Hello My Name Is tags, but were in good time for its devolution into a nerdier version of any other bar in the world. There was a lot of comics talk over beers, is what I’m saying, and although that’s increasingly common, in these halcyon post-Dark Knight, post-Avengers days, the collective knowledge of the Summers-Grey family tree was still impressive. Unlike the big cons, TCAF doesn’t attract cosplay (did you catch the Homestuck/TCAF cosplay blowup?), so the bars around the festival aren’t filled with visible displays of nerdy enthusiasm. The bar scene is not mine though, even with an above average number of Green Lantern t-shirts in attendance, so we left after a few beers, without any awkward fan-creator stories to share.
Saturday and Sunday were a haze of panels, shopping, and arguing about Star Trek. A lot of panels and talks, you guys. I attended: Comics and Mental Health, Guy Delisle Spotlight, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba Spotlight, Kate Beaton Spotlight, Graphic Narrative, Writer’s Craft, and, hell, some other stuff that I can’t clearly remember. Maddy and I split up, so between the two of us, we covered about 70% of the festival’s programming. I’m a sucker for smart, passionate people, saying smart, passionate things, but I’m picky—TCAF’s programming though, was really quite good. Overwhelmingly, the conversation at TCAF is analytical (what are the boundaries of comic art? what does the future look like for small publishers and independent creators?) and informative (how to manage life as a self-employed creator, how to construct a page for maximum impact).
Aside from programming, there was still the festival floor to hit. Vendor and creator tables are set up on the library’s first and second floor. As with any con, space is at a premium, but because TCAF takes place in an open-for-business library, and not a convention centre, floorspace is even more precious. Attendance has been going up the last few years, but this year it was ludicrous—so well attended that Saturday was basically a wash, in terms of meaningful interaction. At one point, getting to a particular table involved five minutes of bobbing, weaving and inching forward, half a foot at a time. One of the biggest draws this year was Andrew Hussie, creator of Homestuck. His fans lined up, and lined up, and lined the hell up some more for his Q&A. There were a lot of Homestuck fans; adorable in their enthusiasm. Another big ticket was the Adventure Time creative team. A video of their panel is available here. By Sunday things tend to clear up (most locals have been and gone), and this year was no different. Finally we were able to enjoy meeting and chatting with creators, and do some shopping.
For the last few years I’ve been doing this whole responsible adult thing, and trying to pay down my student debt at as blistering a pace as I can manage. As a result I’m perpetually cash strapped, and go into every book fair, festival and convention with the intention of not buying. Or at least, buying as little and as smartly as possible. Never has this plan survived the first engagement. When you go to a convention, you spend money. My resolve is strong… until I see Michael Cho (Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes), or Scott Chantler (Two Generals), or, or, oh god, is that Kate Beaton? OMG, I love her shoes! And then my plan to spend responsibly is revised into Operation: All The Things, Into My (not a plastic) Bag. You can probably relate.
This year I managed to avoid the admittedly adorable ephemera that sends me into fits of puzzled buyer’s remorse when I get home (five handmade felt bookmarks? really?) and double down on the things I really covet: books and prints.
Because Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba made my TCAF weekend, I stopped by their table with the intention of buying all the things. But by the time I made it there, late in the day on Sunday, most of those things were gone. I picked up De:Tales though, a book I missed when it came out a couple of years back, and I have high hopes for. They weren’t the highlight of my festival experience just because they’re lovely guys, but also because they’re engaging speakers who used their showcase spot to put on a great talk about comic art and creative influence, and seemingly spent the weekend being laid back and intelligent all over the place.
Similarly, I went into TCAF weekend with the intention of picking up Guy Delisle‘s Jerusalem, and Alison Bechdel‘s Are You My Mother?, but their generally awesome showings at the festival made the experience of handing over my hard-earned Canadian dollars that much sweeter. Like the brothers, Delisle proved that PowerPoint can be wonderful, in the hands of an experienced comics professional. He showed in-progress art from his next project, sketches and pictures from previous projects, and bits and pieces of comics art that inspired him during his travels. Thus far, Delisle’s work has been something in the vein of thoughtful, personal (and hilarious) anti-travelogues, so seeing and hearing about that stuff made me even more excited for Jerusalem. As for Allison Bechdel, well, here’s a Wall Street Journal interview with her that demonstrates her inherent interestingness. (If you don’t think the grammar of comics is a cool subject, then I don’t know what to tell you. Also, at some point in the distant future, Scott McCloud will be rolling in his grave, because of you).
I also picked up two prints and the TCAF poster by Moon and Ba, and did a whole lot of shopping for other people. Their presents are in the mail, so hopefully I’m not spoiling things by mentioning Adrian Alphona, Chad Sell, Christina Strain and Bryan Lee O’Malley. Unicorns and drag queens—that’s all I’m prepared to say at this point. The Toronto streetscape above is part of a series by the always-friendly Michael Cho, and this lovely print is by Christina Strain and Jayd Aït-Kaci, who do the web comic Fox Sister. (Have you read Fox Sister? Get on that, for real). The print is of the eponymous fox sister, and will be framed and hung below my beloved Klimt print.
Overall I think I demonstrated admirable restraint. Which, hey, is why shopping for other people is the actual best.
The Conclusion (no hilarious anecdote?)
Even with all the people (18,000!), I managed to meet up with a few friends and acquaintances, get into two arguments about Star Trek, one argument about cyperpunk, and three debates about the future of online distribution and ownership. (I talk a lot. You might have noticed). I managed, somehow, to bump into two former classmates from the Toronto Cartoonist’s Workshop (holla!), and another two Twitter friends and their friends. And most importantly, I met the world’s most adorable Brony. Fluttershy, you guys, he was stealth cosplaying Fluttershy. My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to check out the festival’s exceptional kids programming, or collapse into a lump of fannish bliss at Kate Beaton’s feet.
Oh well, there’s always next year.