As major comics conventions return to in-person events in 2022, smaller independent shows—aka Comic Arts Festivals—are also getting back on the schedule. CAFs such as the Small Press Expo, better known as SPX, in Bethesda, Md., and the MoCCA Arts Fest in New York City have been on hold for the last two years, and most are returning to in-person events in 2022, some with changed formats. But a few much-loved shows may not return at all.

The cancellation and postponement of live events has been a huge change for the world of small comics publishers—sales at these shows can be significant, but more importantly, festivals are buzz-driven launching pads for new creators and their books. And for the tight-knit community of alternative/indie creators and publishers, the gatherings are an important social event.

Thus far in 2022, MoCCA in New York, TCAF in Toronto, SPX in Bethesda, Md., CXC, aka Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, in Ohio, have either taken place or announced plans to return. And Seattle's Short Run, dormant since 2019, just announced a return on November 5, with a long-delayed 10th anniversary show. But some other small, often volunteer-run events, continue to be missing in action despite a significant pre-pandemic presence on the CAF circuit.

Chicago’s CAKE festival has still not returned to an in-person event and it has suspended most activity aside from a series of video profiles of participating cartoonists. The show organizers hope to return in 2023.

Last held in 2019, Comic Arts Brooklyn, a major showcase for New York’s thriving alternative/independent comics scene, is on indefinite hiatus—even its website is no longer online. Show organizer Gabe Fowler said he’d like to bring the show back, but the stars need to align. “During the Covid-19 pandemic I lost my team (a few key people who moved away), and temporarily lost my venue, the Pratt Institute, which is not currently allowing events hosted by outside organizations. So that leaves me with a big bowl of nothing. All I can say is stay tuned and we’ll see what transpires. It may be a chance for a new exciting collaboration.”

Comic Arts LA (CALA) showcased the vibrant crossover scene of comics and animation and was last held in Los Angeles in 2019, and It’s social media accounts have been dormant since then. A spokesperson told PW that “We want to and intend to return, we're just waiting a little longer to see how this year's returning comic festivals do. There were times in 2021 when we discussed coming back only to see events cancelled because of Delta or Omicron variants. And we didn't want to be in a situation where we had to enforce masking or vaccination status on attendees. We don't have contracts with hotels or venues so there's a lot of flexibility for when and how we return. But also all of our organizers' lives have changed in the past two years as well and we wanted to give ourselves space to recalibrate before we dive back in.”

With online retailer and direct-to-consumer book sales surging during the pandemic, some publishers realized that they could make more money sitting home than paying for expensive travel and shipping to shows. Still, the festivals that have returned have been greeted with the open arms and pocketbooks of fans. The MoCCA Arts Fest was the first major indie show to return, held April 2-3 in New York, and sales were better than in the before times.

Jake Shapiro, US/Canada sales and marketing manager at the U.K.-based independent comics publisher NoBrow, said “I had no idea what to expect at MoCCA this year, but the show ended up being bigger for us than MoCCA 2019. Part of it was a change of venue to a more logical, centrally-located part of the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, but another part was that people were eager to be back at comics shows.”

Jacq Cohen, director of publicity and promotions at Fantagraphics, agreed that MoCCA was a hit for the Seattle-based publisher. “Sales were on par with that of 2019, the last time we attended MoCCA in-person, and attendees were super excited to buy books from our table.”

Comic Arts Festivals are traditionally the place to launch new cartoonists and books, and publishers told PW this was the biggest loss of not having in-person shows. “Some great authors and great graphic novels didn't get the chance to get in front of readers the way they should have,” said Leigh Walton, marketing director at Top Shelf, an indie-style imprint of IDW Publishing. “But at the same time, pandemic book sales in general have really surged—if book launches have been more challenging, established names and the backlist seem to have benefited as people took the opportunity to dive into their ‘I've been meaning to get that’ lists.”

One of the most eagerly awaited returns is that of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), to be held June 17-19 in Toronto, which attracts creators and publishers from around the world, and traditionally has seen robust sales and exposure for indie, manga and web cartoonists. The 2022 show will have quite a few changes, including a move to June from its traditional May date. During the pandemic, longtime show director Christopher Butcher stepped down, and current executive director Miles Baker has overseen many organizational changes. “We have moved to paying a lot more staff and moved away from [using as many] volunteers, so there will be many new people and new roles,” he told PW.

With more money going to staff, the budget to bring visiting guests has been reduced. “There are trade-offs that we have to make as an organization, but also, with the pandemic, the number of artists willing to travel is lower this year.” The 2022 festival will be a hybrid event with several virtual programming tracks. The event will continue to showcase international talent: this year’s major Japanese guest will appear digitally, but Baker still expects cartoonists from Norway, the U.K., Germany, and several other countries to attend.

TCAF’s return has already run into a few bumps: the show’s announcement that Pink Cat, a controversial digital artist who works in NFTs, would be a guest was met with widespread outrage, and forced the festival to rescind its invitation.

TCAF will be held at the Toronto Reference Library, as usual, but unlike past years, there will be no satellite venues near the library. The Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel just around the corner that hosted panels is being renovated into a luxury hotel and will no longer be used, and the nearby Masonic Hall also will not be used as a venue going forward because of accessibility issues. However a new academic comics symposium has been added to the schedule, and will be held at the Courtyard Marriott Toronto Downtown, TCAF’s new headquarters hotel.

“Instead of spreading out to other venues, we’ll have more digital content,” Baker said. “Ultimately, it's the most accessible TCAF has ever been to the world, but it will definitely look and feel a little different.”

While publishers are looking forward to the sales and marketing benefits of attending comics festivals again, it’s the intangibles surrounding comics gatherings that they look forward to the most. While he’s optimistic about festival sales being strong, Top Shelf’s Walton pointed out, “there are major benefits to festivals beyond book sales—industry awareness, talent relations, and psychological health to name a few.”

The spokesperson for CALA agreed, “I think the value of being in community feels stronger than ever. I don't think the function of the indie festivals will have changed that much, but the in-person connection just feels more important to people now than the commerce aspect.”

“Shows are still important for Nobrow, but not for revenue,” Shapiro said. “As a U.K. publisher trying to grow in the U.S., comics shows are an integral grassroots part of building a community and fanbase over here. Making connections with the comics scene is important for us in the long term.”

Mostly though, everyone is happy to be seeing friends again. “To me, the years of isolation have really hammered home how precious our personal connections are, and I hope the community can reestablish those, as safely as possible,” Walton said.