The MoCCA Arts Festival 2014 will always be known as the one with the Charlie Brown balloon. The indie comics festival was held April 5-6 at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, and took advantage of the venue’s cavernous space to install the Charlie Brown balloon from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade inside the show. Tethered by guy wires, good old Charlie Brown hovered over the show, launching a thousand instagrams and clearly elevating the mood of exhibitors and attendees alike.
It was a rousing return for a show that has done much to create the network of “comics art festivals” that now provide a more graphic novel-based alternative to the “comics, media and cosplays” flavor and mass-media properties of the bigger comic-cons. The 2013 show was under a cloud of questions as the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, the institution that had put together the event for nearly a decade, had just been acquired by the Society of Illustrators and 2013’s edition had a hastily assembled feeling after a few years of more lackluster shows.
However this year, no one had any worries. Under the guidance of executive director Anelle Miller (the balloon was her brainstorm), exhibition director Kate Feirtag, and the rest of the SoI staff, attendance boomed, with as many people on Saturday alone as had attended the entire 2013 show. While attendance for the entire show was not available, Miller gave the number for Saturday as 4,000 and told PW that, unofficially, total attendance hit about 6,000 midway through Sunday.
Update: The official attendance for the MoCCA Arts Festival 2014 is just over 7,000.
Driving the boom was a reduction in the entrance fee to $5, down from $15 in previous years. The lowered price allowed not only a bigger crowd of those eager to check out the latest indie comics, but left them with some money to buy those comics.
Photos of this year's MoCCA Arts Festival are collected here.
As usual, the event fielded an eclectic line-up of art stars, headlined by pop surrealist painter and original underground cartoonist Robert Williams, Saga artist Fiona Staples, pioneering queer cartoonist Howard Cruse and bestselling graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. Foreign guests included Marion Fayolle, Brecht Vandenbrouke and Dutch comics legend Joost Swarte, who participated in several events with his RAW magazine publisher Art Spiegelman, including a talk at Spiegelman’s alma mater The High School of Art and Design where tickets holders not only got to hear them reminisce about RAW, Speigelman and Francoise Mouly's groundbreaking indie comics magazine, but view Spiegelman’s stained glass windows for the dining area.
This year the MoCCA Arts Festival included Comic + Cartoon Art Week, an entire week of expanded events leading into the show that included talks, parties, signings and film screenings. The net effect was a fine showcase for the striking variety of comics art available. That variety and quality was also on display Saturday night at the SoI’s 63rd St. headquarters, where three similarly diverse exhibits were on—Drew Friedman, Swarte and painted Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Launched last year the MoCCA Awards of Excellence were presented to five exhibiting cartoonists. The winners—David Plunkert for Heroical, Greg Kletsel for Exercise the Demon, Luke Healy for Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales, Jess Ruliffson for Invisible Wounds and Alexandra Beguez for Narwhal—provided a snapshot of the complete artistic freedom of current comics scene.
Of course, along with that artistic expression there still comes the question of how to make a business of this. While the quality of the risographed, hand made and stapled and folded comics on display was higher than ever, making money making any kind of art is still a giant hurdle.
While several publishers PW spoke with characterized sales as “OK” or “slow,” most were pleased, if not thrilled, by sales over the two days of the show. At the end of the day on Sunday, Koyama Press publisher Anne Koyama showed off a table with only display copies left, “we sold out of virtually every book we brought. We’re very happy.” Drawn & Quarterly’s Tom Devlin said the show was “very good; really good sales,” and there were similar responses from publishers at First Second Books, Top Shelf and Abrams Comic Arts. “We’ve had very good sales on most of our books,” said First Seconds’ Gina Gagliano.
"Superbly organized and attendance was wonderful," said NBM/Papercutz publisher Terry Nantier about the show. "We had a good last hour of sales. Clearly people acted on what they saw during the day, but It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the retail side of this. Promotionally, this show is a great opportunity for people to discover us." Indeed after talking with individual artists around the hall the response was much the same; overall good sales at a well organized show that offered a steady stream of fans roaming the aisles both days.
There was much praise for the overall direction of the show under Miller and the Society of Illustrators as well as its management. There were some complaints about lines to get into the hall on Saturday but all the exhibitors praised the newly reconfigured aisles of the exhibition floor and the new café, moved to the rear of the main hall, turned a formerly slow area into a lively one crowded with fans all day. There was a new Kids Zone, small gift shop with SoI and MoCCA merchandise as well as a small army of volunteers available to help exhibitors at the drop of a hat. Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth: “We’re very happy with the overall organization of the show.”
Programming, curated this year by Bill Kartalopoulos, was another highlight. At the panel "Drinking Ink," Art Spiegelman and Joost Swarte reminisced about their early careers and the creation of Raw magazine, the comics anthology published by Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly, to which Swarte was an early and frequent contributor. The title of the panel was based on Swarte and Spiegelman's first meeting.
Both had drawn images of themselves drinking ink, so Spiegelman greeted Swarte in an Amsterdam café with two pots of ink. Spiegelman and Mouly's trip to Europe was a "spelunking expedition" that found a whole host of contributors to Raw. "What I'm proud of in Raw is finding the people, that includes Joost, that includes Mariscal, that includes Jacques Tardi, each of whom developed later a school, not intentionally but they found a new way to make a comic," said Spiegelman. "That to me is the most exciting aspect of comics, the reinvention of what it can be."
Spiegelman and Swarte described the culture that gave birth to those creators, a culture that included the French satire magazines Hara Kiri and Charlie and the Dutch magazine Provo, as well as the early Dutch underground comic Tante Leny Presenteert. Swarte spoke of imitating the style of American underground artists but then turning in a different direction: "I decided I wanted to make something beautiful that makes me remember, or that gives me the same fascinations, that I had as a child, and on the other hand, make a story with all the liberty and freedom that I can get," he said. The result was his character Jopo, which has clear allusions to Tintin, the much loved character of the great Belgian cartoonist Herge, but also owes something to the Marx Brothers: "The silent movies were to me very important," Swarte said, "because people behaved in a certain manner; they had gestures that you easily could understand. Without words, the gestures are telling something."
At her spotlight panel Staples, whose art on Saga has helped make it one of the top selling graphic novels of the past year, demonstrated her digital technique and talked about her early fantasy influences, including The Rainbow Goblin, and the art of classic illustrators and Drew Struzan. Noting that she’s still not great at drawing machinery, Stales said she strives to make Saga “based on reality and not on Star Wars.”
But whatever else happened, it was Charlie Brown that ruled the show, floating benignly over all the exhibitors and clearly adding a warmth to the show that the venue doesn’t automatically provide. The balloon was a marvelous reminder of the iconic nature of the great comics—and provided inspiration for somebody sitting under Charlie to add their work to that legacy some day.[Additional Reporting by Brigid Alverson]