MeCAF—the handy abbreviation of The Maine Comics Arts Festival—took place on Sunday, May 18 in Portland, Maine. It’s one of a growing number of small graphic novel focused shows—in the mold of TCAF in Toronto and Thought Bubble in Leeds, UK—that are thriving across North America. The shows are informally called CAFs (comic arts festival) to separate them from the larger, more pop culture focused comic cons.
I had heard great things about the show from friends and colleagues, but this was my first year both as an attendee and an exhibitor, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. After five years at the brand new Ocean Gateway venue, the festival had moved just up the road to the Portland Company Marine Complex, a cavernous industrial building that once housed a locomotive foundry. The MeCAF team didn’t know they would have to change venues until December, which may have further limited what was available among Portland’s already limited selection. Festival organizer Rick Lowell, who is also owner of Casablanca Comics in Portland, explained, “We’re never going to hold it in a hotel. We want something with atmosphere.” But would locals follow MeCAF to its new location? Would the shift from glass walls and carpeting to brick and concrete change the feel of the show, for better or worse?
A one-day show in a small city—Portland and its near suburbs have a population of about half a million—MeCAF draws smaller attendance numbers than most of the other CAF shows, mostly local families with young children. 1200-1300 people visited the show this year, which opened at 10AM to a line down the sidewalk and closed a little after 5PM with a decent crowd still wrapping up their purchases for the day. All the exhibitor tables were in a single room that was much quieter than one would expect given its size. As exhibitors set up on Sunday morning, the atmosphere ranged from enthusiastic optimism to cheerful exhaustion, depending in part on whether or not they had been at TCAF in Toronto the week before. Many of the artists and writers I spoke with were local and several were exhibiting for the very first time. My neighbor and I, both from New York City, traveled further than most.
As an exhibitor, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been warned to expect big fluctuations in the crowd, but it seemed like traffic was steady throughout the day. One of the only major lulls was around 1:30PM for Zack Giallongo’s popular “Iron Cartoonist” panel, an artistic battle between Maris Wicks, Shelli Paroline, and Melanie Tingdahl which I was sadly unable to attend, but sounded like a fantastic time. A vendor in the back sold cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches, which helped to keep the lunchtime break from disrupting the show as much as it otherwise might have. When a booth in my back corner attracted a crowd that blocked the aisle, Rick and a team of volunteers quickly swept in to rearrange tables and smooth the snarl in traffic.
Sales were extremely strong for such a small crowd—I made half of what I did at TCAF, a two-day show with ten times as many attendees–and the attendees were largely enthusiastic, engaged, and eager to support local artists. I had been told that books tend to be popular at MeCAF, with many parents looking to buy a substantive read for their kids, but I heard from several exhibitors that prints and other small art objects were sought after as well. In my conversations with attendees that day, it was clear that many of them regarded MeCAF as more of an art show that happened to feature books than a comic store. The MeCAF website emphasizes a focus on creators as artists producing work on a small scale, and that message was obviously received.
After the show, Lowell was pleased with how this year’s MeCAF turned out. “Six years in, people know what to expect,” he said. When I asked if he had any plans to expand to Saturday in the future, his reply was firmly in the negative. “It works as a one-day show.” His only regret was not having more time to attend programming and visit exhibitors beyond a quick “How are you?” check in on the floor. “I wish I could spend a half hour at every table,” he said. And though I did manage to sneak away from my setup and pick up a few books myself, I have to agree. I enjoyed every conversation I had that weekend, and met lots of wonderful folks. MeCAF proved to be a perfect, low-key end to my harried convention season.
[Alison Wilgus is a writer and artist who lives in Brooklyn and makes comics and graphic novels. She is currently writing The Mars Challenge, a non-fiction graphic novel about a possible voyage to Mars for First Second.]