Comics and reading forged an Avengers-like alliance at the 2012 Toronto Comics and Arts Festival. Held at the Toronto Reference Library in downtown Toronto, the event drew over 15,000 people to buy stacks of comics from cartoonists and publishers from around the world.

The festival was headlined by top figures in literary comics (Alison Bechdel debuted her new Are You My Mother?), world comics (guests from Brazil, Japan and Europe) and the exploding world of kids comics (creators Jeff Smith, Kazu Kibuishi and Jennifer Holm).

“I think this year we hit critical mass,” said show organizer Chris Butcher, who also works at Toronto’s Beguiling, one of North America’s top comics stores. While noting that keeping the show free to attend was one of the keys to the large, enthusiastic crowd, Butcher pointed out that the comics on display are growing in sales and audience. “This represents an industry that the comics [superhero] mainstream doesn’t know exists,” he said.

TCAF events began on Friday with a one-day conference for educators and librarians that included a keynote speech by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm, creators of the Baby Mouse series, which has millions of copies in print but is little known in the traditional comics world. About 100 librarians and educators, mostly from the Toronto area, attended the events which featured several talks and slideshows aimed at introducing them to the comics medium.

"For me, it was important that as we grow, we continue to capitalize on the vast wealth of knowledge that our attending authors and exhibitors possess," explained Butcher of the first-time program. "We're quite happy at how well our first steps towards a 'third' day of TCAF programming went, and it's wonderful to be able to engage the incredibly important librarian and educator community, the folks shaping the next generation of graphic novel fans. We hope to be able to expand this programming in the years to come."

First Second publisher Mark Siegel presented a slideshow on comics that pointed out that in 2010, 5 of the top 15 most checked out books at the New York Public Library were graphic novels. He proceeded to offer a guided tour through styles of comics storytelling, from the stylization of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy to the realism of Nate Powell in The Silence of our Friends. Siegel says he’ll be doing his talk for the Library of Congress this fall, at which time it will be taped and made available as a DVD.

Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts and long time comics advocate, also presented a talk on basic comics literacy, while noting the rise of comics in libraries over the past decade. Librarians who have added comics have seen their popularity soar. She gave results of an informal survey she ran last year showing how libraries collect graphic novels showing that 86.9% have a Children’s graphic novel collection, and 83.3% have a Teen graphic novel collection and 64.2% have an Adult collection.

She also noted obstacles to GN collections as revealed by the survey:

  • 66.6% Budget
  • 58.8% Space
  • 35.7% Lack of demand
  • 14.3% Lack of support for collection

According to Brenner, although most comics publishers recognize that graphic novels in libraries are a great way to bring in new readers—many library patrons go on to purchase books—there are still several unique obstacles. Comics publishers often use content ratings instead of age ratings, and they can vary from publisher to publisher. Also, some comics publishers tend to let their popular books go out of print far too quickly. But as for overcoming these obstacles on both sides, “I continue my mission,” Brenner concluded.

The day ended with a talk by Jeff Smith and Brazilian cartoonists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá, who kibitzed with moderator Mark Askwith about fantasy and collaboration. Bá noted that collaborating with other writers stretches you creatively. Smith recounted working with artist Charles Vess on Rose, a prequel to the main story in Bone. “The original had a brutal ending, and I chickened out at the end. Charles said ‘What are you doing, man?’ and made me go back to the original.”

At TCAF itself, the most impressive numbers were the number of books sold. Most hot books sold out the first day, and by the end of Sunday, it looked like a swarm of comics-eating army ants had devoured most of the publishers stock. And the sell-outs weren’t always the books that make headlines. Faith Erin Hicks sold 100 copies of her Friends with Boys, about a homeschooled girl who joins public school. Author Josh Tierney noted that on Saturday he has sold all 75 copies of Spera, an Archaia-published collection of his fantasy webcomic.

Saturday night saw several competing comics related events. Manga guest Konami Kanata—whose cat-themed Chi’s Sweet Home sold hundreds of copies—was interviewed on stage by Vertical’s Ed Chavez. Elsewhere, Alison Bechdel launched her eagerly awaited Are You My Mother? with a talk at a queer-themed event.

But the centerpiece of the evening was The Doug Wright Awards, a quirky and charming ceremony that presented a mere three awards, plus Hall of Fame, while managing to spotlight all the nominees and the art of comics itself. The winners included Michael Comeau winning the Pigskin Peters Award for experimental or avant-garde comic for Hellberta, which plays off the Canadian origins of Wolverine, one of Marvels' most popular characters, and reimagines his activities in a Fort Thunder-inspired wash of lines. Ethan Rilly won the Doug Wright Spotlight Award aka "The Nipper" for Pope Hats #2, which resurrects the long-lost idea of the indie periodical comic with the story of two Canadian shop girls looking for contentment. Finally, in what was a bit of a surprise win, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant won Best Book.

As for the Hall of Fame, Terry “Aislin” Mosher - a well known Montreal-based political cartoonist whose sex-infused broadsides have been bedeviling the establishment for nearly 40 years - was inducted into the Giants of the North, as the Wright Awards term it.

Whether in awards, panels or parties, the mood at TCAF was almost deliriously pro-comics. There was not a whisper of mutant battles or numerically-themed attempts to get new readers into comics. Instead, clearly comics aimed at readers from the earliest ages on up were doing the job.

As noted by Gina Gagliano, the first second marketing coordinator who also puts together TCAF’s programming, there are many unique aspects to the show, including the Canadian government’s monetary support for the arts via grants. However, the show has also forged bonds with cultural embassies around the world to bring creators such as France’s Jose-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller, authors of the much lauded Kiki de Montparnasse, which was available from British indie Self Made Hero. The result is as much an international book festival as a comics show.

Overall, it was an event that provided publishers, creators and readers with an experience that celebrated comics art in all its phases, and left everyone pumped up for more. Ryan Dunleavy, artistic collaborator on The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred van Lente, perhaps summed it up for all: “It was just one of the best times I’ve ever had and I can’t wait to come back next year.”