Another weekend, another crowded comics event, even if this one had no tickets. An estimated 20,000 people attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and its satellite events last weekend, according to event director Chris Butcher. The festival, held at the Toronto Reference Library and other venues around Toronto, was free to attend, and it drew a large crowd, especially on Saturday afternoon when there were 20 minute waits to get in to the second floor exhibitions.
None of this was new for the festival—there were similar crowds and lines last year—although attendance was generally up, according to Butcher, who also manages the Toronto comics store The Beguiling, which is the major sponsor of the event. What was new this year was an even wider range of exhibitors—cartoonists from 21 countries were represented, a new high—and even more off-site events. Separate tracks of programming for children, scholars, Canadians comics authors and creators issues were held over three days. Bit Bazaar, a satellite event which explores indie video games, saw about 3000 attendees, up from 1800 last year, and may expand to two days next year.
TCAF has become a premiere showcase for graphic novel releases, and the 2014 edition was no exception. Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree continues to be a big hit for Fantagraphics. Drawn and Quarterly’s line-up of books by Mimi Pond (Over Easy), Pascal Girard (Petty Theft), Julie Delporte (Everywhere Antennas) and Diane Obamsawin (On Loving Women) proved popular. First Second was a first time exhibitor and must have been glad they showed up: This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki sold out on Saturday. The new Andre the Giant biography by Box Brown (titled simply Andre) sold 85 copies, a prodigious number for this kind of event.
Canadian publishers were also out in force. Conundrum Press sold out of Meags Fitzgerald’s Photobooth: A History, an unusual look at the vanishing world of the photobooth told in comics form. Koyama Press’s offering ranged from the cutting edge—Michael DeForge’s A Body Beneath collecting his experimental comics—to the endearing—Seo Kim’s Cat Person which is about, yes, her relationship to her pet cat, Jimmy.
But it wasn’t just the well known publishers. Sweden’s Peow Studio came to North America for the first time and sold out of almost everything they bought, mostly small but stylishly drawn comics printed on a risograph press. It was hard to get near their table all weekend.
A record number of manga-ka from Japan attended—although at four, the record is still low. The delegation was led by josei superstar Moyoco Anno, whose Insufficient Direction is a comedic take on her relationship with her husband. est em, who specializes in “boys love” manga (also known as yaoi, a women-dominated manga category about men infatuated with other men), showed off Golondrina, a series about a female bullfighter not yet available in the US. And finally Akira Himekawa, artist of the famed Legend of Zelda manga, turned out to be two women, S. Nagano and A. Honda who have worked together seamlessly for over 20 years.
While the announced guest list was spectacular enough there were also some surprise appearances. Bryan Lee O’Malley, creator of the bestselling Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, made an appearance on one of the library panels talking about his upcoming graphic novel, Seconds, coming from Ballantine Books. And Anno’s husband, Hideaki, who is renowned for directing the classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, accompanied her on the trip, graciously posing for a few photographs at a reception at the Japan Foundation where the quartet was honored. In keeping with the intense (some might say grueling) schedules that manga-ka must adhere to, all of the artists mentioned splitting time between taking in the show and staying in their hotel rooms to work on upcoming projects.
Like many comics shows around the world, TCAF has maxed out its exhibit space, but according to Butcher there are no plans to move from the Toronto Reference Library, which provides the space free of charge and has become a supportive partner. The tight space led to some grumbling among exhibitors who had to set up in smaller rooms—there was a general feeling that crowds weren’t as large and some felt they had been exiled from the main room.
According to Butcher next year they may have a bit more room, and the smaller rooms may be given back to programming; the library is also building an auditorium which can be used for events. Moving forward, Butcher wants to focus on TCAF as a festival of the arts and not just a book fair “We are growing, and phenomenally, but we’re going to grow it in different ways,” he told PW. “A lot of shows get caught in a “book fair” mind set where it’s just about people with books on their table selling things and there’s less of an artistic component. All of these aspects will grow.”
2014 had a record number of featured guests but Butcher felt they all got exposure, so there are no plans to have fewer. However, a rule about individual cartoonists not setting up two years in a row is going to be enforced, a move which several exhibitors mentioned with sorrow. However, Butcher sees other methods of attending, such as panels and workshops, evolving into different ways to “engage with your public and make money. It just isn’t necessarily going to be on the library floor.” To aid in the expansion, this year TCAF hired Miles Baker as managing director as the festival’s first full-time employee.
Prior to the day of exhibitions, a day of programing for librarians and educators was held for the third year, drawing about 100 attendees from various fields. The Tamakis—who are cousins—delivered the keynote presentation talking about their experiences at Teen Book Con in Houston, Texas, including one event where teens who had read their new graphic novel, This One Summer, accompanied them on a car ride while discussing the book.
Toronto area librarians Douglas Davey and Cecelia Vespa delivered a presentation on digital graphic novels (available online here) and discussed various options available for digital lending. Evaluation and selection of digital titles is still problematic, said Vespa, especially with the rise of self-publishing and webcomics. “Our customer want popular material and that’s a challenge to deliver,” she said. “There is no Netflix for comics and discoverability is a huge issue.”
The services available are still flawed. “Overdrive is a big pain in the butt, let’s face it,” said Davey, referring to the “check out” method which leaves patrons confused as to why they must wait for a digital file. Digital comics check-outs at his library are still low, he said, as the comics available “aren’t the kind that kids are craving.” Other services—iVerse’s Comics Plus, Tumblebooks and Freading—have their own ups and downs, including limited selection. But there are some advantages too. Comics Plus can be integrated into a catalog, for instance. Comixology, the digital comics leader which was just acquired by Amazon, still has no library program.
Overall, the world of lending digital comics, as with e-books in general, has a ways to go and requires creative approaches. Davey has had success lending out a Kobo device loaded with comics, noting, “parents know if they break it, they have to pay for it.”
On a panel on building collections, librarians Robin Brenner, Max Dionisio and Scott Robins discussed various methods of building collections, including weeding out books that don’t circulate. Manga is a big draw in Brenner’s library, but when she pulls a book she pulls the entire series; conversely she always makes sure the whole run of a book is available. “It doesn’t make any sense without the whole series,” she said “and the more volumes you have, the more they circulate.” Dionisio curates a collection at a boy’s school, which presents particular challenges, including handling gay-themed books. “The material is very important to them, [but readers] don’t feel they can take it out safely. That’s something I’m trying to address.”
Guests Raina Telgemeier of Smile fame and For Better or For Worse’s Lynn Johnston, both road warriors of library appearances, spoke about the do’s and don’ts of author appearances, Among the don’ts: a lack of advertising and not leaving time for a bathroom or a coffee break.
While big publishers and big books get a lot of attention at TCAF, it’s also a pageant for small presses and individual cartoonists to appear, and especially on Saturday afternoon, it was hard to find a quiet spot, as fans of various schools of cartooning—whether webcomics, cat comics or challenging experimental pieces—faced hard choices on where to spend their money. At an afterparty on Sunday night, everyone was all smiles—TCAF is the kind of show that depletes your wallet even as it leaves you more excited for the future of graphic novels than ever before.