This year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, held June 17-19 at the Toronto Reference Library, was a bit smaller than the last pre-pandemic TCAF in 2019, in terms of the number of exhibitors and the amount of space it took up, but the heart of the international comic arts festival remained unchanged.

Fans flocked to the Toronto Reference Library, where the show has been held since 2009, to mill around tables showing off the latest comics and graphic novels from small presses and individual creators. As in previous years, the show took up the first three floors of the library, but there was more breathing room this year. The number of panels was smaller than at past festivals, and all the panels and programs were held in the library, rather than being held at a variety of different venues, and most of the programs were well attended.

While some publishers, including Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly and IDW’s Top Shelf imprint, did not return this year, the publishers’ area on the library floor stayed busy, with such houses as NBM, Fantagraphics, SelfMadeHero, Nobrow, Graphic Mundi, and a host of Canadian publishers–among them, Conundrum Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Groundwood Books–displaying their newest titles.

One of the draws of TCAF has always been debut titles, some available for sale on the show floor before they arrive in bookstores. At the Black Josei Press table, founder Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith had early copies of their Wash Day Diaries (Chronicle, July). French-Canadian creator Mikaël was at the NBM table signing copies of Bootblack (NBM, June), a saga of hardscrabble immigrants in Depression-era New York and the follow up to 2020’s Giant. Other debut titles included Joshua Kemble’s Jacob’s Apartment (Graphic Mundi, June), Conor Stechschulte’s Ultrasound (Fantagraphics, June), and Jonathan Dyck’s Shelterbelts (Conundrum Press, May).

As always, the show had a robust slate of children’s programming, with panels and workshops by John Patrick Green (InvestiGators), Katherine Battersby (Cranky Chicken), and Pakistani Canadian illustrator Anoosha Syed. Brandon Mitchell and Veronika Baranova gave a workshop on creating children’s comics about difficult topics that spotlighted their book Giju’s Gift (HighWater Press), a fantasy tale for young readers that touches on the history of Canada’s controversial residential schools.

Other guests of the show included Lee Lai, whose debut graphic novel, Stone Fruit (Fantagraphics) has won numerous awards, including the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize; Johnnie Christmas, creator of the middle-grade graphic novel Swim Team (HarperAlley, May); and Rumi Hara, whose second graphic novel, The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories, was released in May by Drawn & Quarterly.

International guests included Akane Torikai, creator of Sensei’s Pious Lie (Vertical Comics), and Dutch cartoonist Aimee de Jongh, whose digital comic Days of Sand is a 2022 Eisner Award nominee (the print edition was published by SelfMadeHero in April). Prominent Canadian creators at the show included Seth, Joe Ollman, Jenn Woodall, Jo Rioux, and Ho Che Anderson.

Flight and Covid-related delays, further exacerbated by bad weather, kept some guests from the festival, among them authors Tillie Walden and Emma Hunsinger. On the other hand a robust slate of digital programming (with guests including Neil Gaiman and Hope Larson) and an online marketplace featuring the works of exhibitors, made the show more accessible to more people than in previous years.

Despite the lingering concerns about the pandemic, a change of directors during the hiatus, and the recent controversy over digital artist Pink Cat, TCAF returned to its roots this weekend, putting comics front and center and offering creators a chance to share their work with the public.