The MoCCA Art Fest 2023, an annual indie comics and graphic novel festival held April 1-2, clocked record attendance numbers in its return to the Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th Street in Manhattan. By Saturday afternoon, close to 5,000 fans were reported coming through the doors, matching the entire attendance across both days in 2022. By the close of the weekend, total attendance grew to about 8,600.
It was, by a significant factor, the most attendees in over two decades of MoCCA fest. The turn-out “was extraordinary,” said Anelle Miller, executive director of the Society of Illustrators, which organizes the annual gathering (since acquiring the event in 2013), and who was personally directing traffic at the busy ticket counters.
Early in the day, the line of fans stretched to Sixth avenue. Later, a line also formed along 18th street, solely for access inside to the exhibit booth of the popular YouTube show Drawfee. Those fans awaited the chance to get individualized merch from a cast of wisecracking artists, who sketch to fan suggestions. Drawfee’s twitter account later noted that the queue “caused a fire hazard.” Exhibitors in nearby booths grumbled about potential lost sales from blocked aisles, but the crowd of Drawfee fans were emblematic of the eclectic make-up of the festival and the diversity of artists, works, and tastes on display on the packed (and uncomfortably hot) exhibition floor.
Bill Kartalopoulos, longtime director of programming for MoCCA Art Festival, said there “was a huge appetite for this show this year,” adding that “quite a few programs were standing room only.” Panels and talks were held a few blocks away on 21st Street at the Flatiron Gallery of the School for Visual Arts. Kartalopoulos said programming covered everything from indie manga to AI Art. Featured guest Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) spoke about the wave of book bans sweeping the country and about writing and drawing queer narratives. Kobabe, who has been fighting on the frontlines of censorship nationally, had a spotlight panel and joined a larger discussion led by Jonathan Friedman of PEN America.
The panel “Publishing Books Today,” on the operations and outlook of graphic novels in trade book publishing, was packed and featured representatives from Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Abrams ComicArts, and First Second. Frank comments from the independent comics publishers on the varying quality of agented submissions, and their preference to work directly with creators, sparked contentious debate on social media on the rights of artists, terms of payment, and the role of legal representation in the comics industry. (In contrast, trade house representatives stated they were “closed,” meaning they only considered solicited or agented submissions).
Other featured guests included artist Colleen Doran (in conversation with Neil Gaiman) and Barbara Brandon-Croft, creator of the comic strip Where I’m Coming From, who was the first Black woman with a nationally syndicated comics strip, in a lively conversation with PW’s Calvin Reid.
Publishers and artists PW spoke with were upbeat over the youthful crowd and robust sales. “We’re selling out of titles fast; almost every signing had lines,” said Jacq Cohen, executive director of communications & publicity at Fantagraphics. Chip Kidd, Penguin Random House designer and editor-at-large for graphic novels, agreed, and called MoCCA “amazing.” Kidd cited the new talent on display at the show, such as Pat Dorian’s Lon Chaney Speaks, a Pantheon release developed from a mini-comic Kidd discovered at a past MoCCA fest.
A highlight of the festival, the MoCCA Awards of Excellence, are presented to artists displaying work over the weekend. The awards (which include a cash prize, a digital tablet, and balloons) are judged by a small team of comics insiders and were presented to 15 winners including Chad Bilyeu, Leela Corman, Ganzeer, Peter Rostovsky, Andi Santagata, and Shinyeon Moon.
MoCCA judge Karen Green, curator for comics and cartoons at the Columbia University library, said, “seeing first the pleasure at the announcement of the winners and the balloons, and then the shock at the news of the cash award… may be the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had at a comics event.”