Last year I didn't go to MoCCA, Brooklyn Comics Art, TCAF or SPX for Sparkplug. Other people did those shows for Sparkplug. This was noted by a few people as Sparkplug not being at the shows. This year, I've gone to MoCCA and will be doing TCAF. But the truth is I'm only looking forward to TCAF and maybe Brooklyn. We just did the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland. And after MoCCA and Stumptown in a row, all I can think about is why in God's name Sparkplug is still going to the conventional comic conventions. I'm worried about comics becoming more and more insular, under the pretense of becoming more and more accessible. And I'm worried about the strange exclusion art-comix get from the conventional comics culture.
Shows like Stumptown, MoCCA and the venerable SPX all have this vibe of a shrinking audience for art comics and a growing crowd of young upwardly mobile comics people who are all buying each other's stuff. SPX is off our plate for the foreseeable future (for many reasons) but the chief one is that it isn't about growing comics into the "real world". It is a solid "industry" show. It is strange to think that there is an industry for Independent Comic Books. More and more, a regular person audience seems like the future audience for actually growing comics. By regular audience I mean one outside of the Wednesday comics crowd (which includes me). TCAF has been a show unlike so many others. It takes place in publicly accessible buildings that don't feel like caves. It is free. It is truly a show about art and comics as an art form. Or it has been and, fingers crossed, will continue to be. Tons of just regular people have come to the show. While at Stumptown I got approached by a person from Wordstock (a local bookfair put on by Powell's and Target) and I started thinking about why it is that those sort of shows bug me. It isn't the money, we usually do fine at the more slick shows. It is is a show that only has bookstore owners, librarians and industry people. But I think it is that slickness that really gets me. They all feel YUPPIE to me.
I grew up around Berkeley, CA in the 80s and YUPPIE was the thing you hated more than anything. I realize that is jaded. I want to make a living too. I want people to like what Sparkplug makes. I appreciate any person who picks up our books and looks at them. But I'm heart broken by these shows. I come back feeling beat up, in a bad way. There are tons of parties and lots of fun to be had and sense that everyone is getting 10% closer to their goals at each show. And along with all this a sense of legitimizing comics is happening. The organizer of Stumptown talks about it in this interview. It isn't a bad thing to want to be appreciated by the more accepted larger culture. But in the case of comics I'd argue that this accepted larger culture (of comics) actually chases away regular people, a much wider audience. The move of Stumptown from a easily publicly accessible building with outside light and easy parking to a large prison bunker like building with no outside light, parking that was a 15 minute walk and confusing public transportation access, all for the sake of professionalism, it didn't work in my mind and compared to Stumptowns glory days of 3 years ago, the show was a real let down. Perhaps, worst of all, it is now in the same place as Wordstock. But, I'm sure I'm in the minority.
Most of the people walking around a show like Wordstock, Stumptown or SPX are "industry people". Some outside audience but mostly inside. People who go to comic shops and people who want to get into comics. A great group of people, but a shrinking audience that places themselves at the center of a shrinking book trade. Great for your career if you are trying to get one in comics, where layoffs, consolidations and shut downs are a daily occurrence. I was really struck by the declining attendance at Stumptown this year. It was in a place that only trade people would go to. Admittedly, MoCCA still gets a good vibe of people outside the "norm". Teenagers read books like Jin&Jam in New York City. MoCCA is in a unique city and has a really arty history. The Brooklyn show seems like it is courting a wider or at least different audience. I know, to a lot of comics people courting the hipster or art audience is annoying, but for me it makes sense.
Comics as they were is a dying or extremely changing medium. Pretty soon no (or substantially less) floppy Marvel or DC books will be on shelves, once they figure out digital distribution. I'm interested in continuing to make and sell good comics after that. I want to support stores and shows that look for a wider audience outside of the comic shop regular. And I'm feeling more and more like I want to go to shows like TCAF, Brooklyn, SFZine Fest, Olympia Comics Fest, Minneapolis Indie Xpo, Anarchist Book Fairs, and small local shows that are courting this larger audience. My thesis is that by trying to be professional and upwardly mobile comics people are ignoring a natural growth that is happening all around them of regular everyday people being interested in comics. And that it feels like that is route I'd much rather pursue, people who don't just buy comics because they have a habit, but ones who are interested in it as an art form. I know, I'm not thinking rationally, but honestly sometimes the best choices I've made have been with my heart and not my head.