Now under the direction of the Society of Illustrators, The MoCCA Arts Festival, The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s annual celebration of small press and self-published comics, opened over the weekend at the historic Lexington Avenue Armory to exhibitors and crowds of several thousand fans anxious to see the revamped show.

To see more photographs from the MoCCA Arts Fest click here.

After a year in which The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art transferred its assets and ownership to the Society of Illustrators, MoCCA (and the annual festival) is now a incorporated and branded as a distinct division within SoI’s uptown museum building. SoI was quick to put its stamp on the show and exhibitors quickly noted some of the changes. This year featured wider aisles, distinctive aisle signage and red curtains backing each row of tables, a new feature applauded by exhibitors PW spoke with who generally said the curtains made the show look neater and “more professional.”

Another addition was a café on the lower level that offered snacks, sandwiches and beverages and attendees appeared to put it to use, hanging out in between programming or taking a break from the show floor. There was also a small “table talk” area with monitors that offered short talks by artists. Finally, SoI added an exhibition area at the rear of the hall that included works from permanent collections of Soi and MoCCA, among them original art by Walt Kelly, Marie Severin, Eleanor Davis, Milton Caniff, Jose Gonzalez and many others. The art show was something of a surprise but a welcome one winning universal plaudits.

The new MoCCA Fest also debuted the MoCCA Awards (The MoCCA Arts Festival Awards of Excellence), which are presented to the best exhibiting artists in the show. This year’s inaugural prizes went to Kim Ku, Andrea Tusrumi, Jane Mai, Gregory Benton and Kenan Rubenstein; Nick Offerman and Simon Arizpe was cited for an honorable mention.

Despite the drama of the new management, MoCCA is really about new comics, graphic novels and artists and this year’s show offered impressive new books by Lucy Knisley (Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, First Second), Bob Fingerman (Maximum Minimum Wage, Image), Miriam Katin (Letting it Go, D&Q), Darryl Cunningham (How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial, SelfMadeHero), Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson (Parecomic: The Story of Michael Albert and Participatory Economics, 7 Stories), Etienne Davodeau (The Initiates: A Comic Artist and A Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs, NBM), Ulli Lust (Today Is The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Fantagraphics), and from French cartoonist Boulet (Noirness, AdHouse). Gregory Benton’s prize winning oversized full color comic B+F: Book One, a colorful dream-like fantasy quest involving a naked girl and a big dog, was the talk of the show. In addition cartoonist Jillian Tamaki (Skim and the webcomic Super Mutant Magic Academy) and Bill Griffith (Zippy the PInhead) were honored as special guests.

Programming included a talk on innovation in comics moderator by Paul Levitz with Gabrielle Bell, Peter Kuper and Dennis O'Neill subbing for Jules Feiffer, who was suffering from the ill effects of a bad root canal. The three creators talked a bit about their origins; O'Neill came from St. Louis on the offer of writing comics for a living, and although it was a "we don't want it good, we want it Thursday" attitude, he eventually got to tell stories he was proud of. Kuper moved from Cleveland and helped found the politically subversive anthology World War 3. Bell came to New York from San Francisco, and noted that in Brooklyn comics were taken much more seriously; Kuper joked that this was becuase the rents were so much higher.

On Sunday Tamaki and publisher/blogger Ryan Sands interviewed each other. The subject of the problem of making money making comics was often a subtext of much of the week's conversation. Tamaki, who works an an illustrator much of the time, said that "comics will always be a subsidized activity for me." Despite the risks, Sands is launching as a new microublisher with a press called Youth in Decline—the company will debut at next month's Toronto Comic Arts Festival with experimental cartoonist Uno Morales's Frontier.

Like many on the burgeoning micropublisher scene, Sands uses a risograph to print his comics—essentially an automated screen printing copy mahine, it is often bought used from churches and provides very high quality printing worthy of today's art comix scene.

PW's Heidi MacDonald presented the "Art as a Profession Panel" on Sunday with French cartoon star Boulet, Judith Hansen (Hansen Literary), Micah Spivak (Scott Eder Gallery), and George Rohac (Oni Press/Benign Kingdom). All of them noted that business was up or good—the boom in the art world has made some cartoonists work impossible for a gallery of their size to acquite, Spivak noted—while Rohac and Hansen stressed the need for those who want to break in to be professinal and stay aware of contract issues. Boulet gave an entertaining account of his own career, noting that even in France, where comics are far better established in publishing than in the US, advances are down, publishers are asking for more rights, and digital remains problematic.

But the biggest buzz at the show was simply the revamped presentations of show itself. Most publishers PW spoke with offered praise for the changes at MoCCA, the organization of the show and a sense that MoCCA’s financial foundation has been stabilized and that SoI offered a vision for the show going forward. While PW encountered some small complaints (some publishers pointed to some confusion at the set-up on Saturday and another said they hadn’t had input into the new exhibition), most called these “quibbles” and were quick to praise a big increase in the number of volunteers available to help set-up tables.

While official figures have not been released, attendance generally seemed to be on par with last year, though some publishers said traffic seemed slow on Sunday. The big books of the show seemed to sell well—once again the use of Square, the iphone/ipad credit card app, was much in evidence at the tables—and while PW encountered a few complaints about sales, most publishers seemed happy with their sales and were eager to offer enthusiastic responses about this year’s show and optimism about the future of the MoCCA Arts Fest going forward. In a comics community notorious for grousing and pointed complaints, that’s pretty close to a vote of confidence.