Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Brief Bit About Comic Book Shows

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.

23 comments:

Sophie said...

This year I think I'll only be able to pick attending either the SF Zine Fest *or* APE, due to scheduling. APE last year was better than the previous one, but I think the SFZF has a lot of the positive things you described: ample parking, incredibly wonderful access by bicycle through Golden Gate Park, people of all ages walking by who are interested in "the arts" due to the closeness of the De Young, the Rose Garden, et cetera... and it's free!

Robin Enrico said...

I actually agree with you 100 percent here Dylan. Even with the comics that target hipsters bit. Ha ha! Recently having tabled at The Philly Alt Con, Expozine and The Chicago Zine Fest with relative success. I really don't feel the need for the giant cluster fuck high entrance fee comic convention anymore. I'd nice to see everyone again. But I feel like, I'm seeing mostly the same old faces. Except now in some weird cavern.

Maybe its just that I'm a bigger fish in a smaller pond at these smaller shows. But I generally feel a better connection to the people stopping and checking out my books than I do at the more Trade Show-ey shows. The kids there are still looking for some cheap little xeroxed mini comic to enjoy instead of some expensive but shallow screen printed object or a book you could probably buy on Amazon. Broke, college age kids who bother to wander in because it doesn't cost anything to get in. Those are the people I actually want to interact with.

I really what get what your saying about this being a decision of the heart and not the head. In theory I could keep humping a table at larger shows, hoping for that big break, which I don't really believe will ever come my way anymore. But I'd rather still have fun doing this whole thing. Thank you for putting words to many of the things I've been feeling lately.

Ben B. said...

I don't have much commentary to add to this except to thank you for posting it. Its encouraging to me that someone feels the way I do. I showed up to Stumptown because I felt obligated to be a good steward of my own creative activity in my adopted city. Its certainly good to connect with people here and there, known and unfamiliar, but the general undercurrent feels like a popularity contest, or climbing a corporate ladder, or something along those lines. Its not something I'm quite capable of putting my heart into. Thanks for continually providing inspiration and reaffirming the urge toward authenticity.

J.T. Dockery said...

I think this is the elaboration I might have asked for in a comments section previously when you mentioned missing some shows. I just started attending shows again four years ago, so give me some time to get burnt out on SPX. And give me this year to geek out on Jim Woodring there. Another year or two and I can predict myself getting burnt out on it.

The smaller shows I've been to such as Fluke last year and the first Up! Fair in Lexington were a lot of fun, even talking to people in my own stomping grounds who weren't necessarily aware of my work or just wanting to get their feet wet in comics in general and gravitating to me. Being that I'm relocating to the northeast, I'm hoping to hit more of those smaller regional shows. And the ones I could have gone to in the recent past such as Pix in Pittsburgh and Space in Columbus, I regret missing.

But I've never been to MoCCA. Stumptown sounded interesting to me early on, and I hoped to go this year, but didn't cut the curated mustard. I'm pretty sure I'm not on the radar of the Brooklyn thing.

All that said, some of your concerns gurgle in my head too. I don't necessarily enjoy seeing art/underground comics being backed into a corner in which people start to become like academic poets as opposed to streetwise counter culture artists. Counter culture devolving into an insular subculture doesn't beget good things, to my mind. I think just like it's hard to tell the difference between punks and hippies these days, it's hard to tell the difference between hipsters and yuppies. What is the difference? And where does one stand? And when one has to consider the death of print and the economy geared more towards us all slaving to buy gadgets and a living wage off creativity being something meant to be given away for peanuts on the internet (trust me, I've talked to professional writers about this...and the only peoeple I seem to know doing real well in art are people locked into that old/big money established art gallery scene--I don't talk to movie people)...well, hell...it's a lot to consider.

Either way, I'll be shilling for you at SPX with Neely. And I think what you bring up needs to be considered, back to the specifics of comix culture, and talked about as opposed to just blindly selling plasma to make these scenes that are just becoming more and more expensive which cuts a lot of those of us in the trenches out or maybe inspires some people who have more money and better day jobs and do less dirty work. We'll see.

Ribbu said...

We went outside the box this year and tried AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) - trying out the writing crowd vs. the art crowd (not that we really do comics, but illustrated semi-narratives, anyway). Among the rows and rows of poetry chapbooks, people were delighted to discover something "new." Or at least something different.
Perhaps it is time for us all to promote ourselves in the larger pool of "literature" - it seems like people are starving for it. Just a thought.

Ribbu said...

On second thought, maybe courting the "literature" folks might be considered too yuppie.

I'm not sure what the solution is if we're looking for broader appeal but want to maintain the counter-cultureness. It's kind of a catch-22. You stop being edgy once everyone has bought in, and you just get called a sellout. Somehow we've made it a bad thing for our art to be appreciated on a broader plane (it's most obvious in music). But doesn't everybody want to be king of the world? I know I do. What's so wrong with that?

dylan sparkplug said...

Well, I think using the word Yuppie was dangerous. I didn't mean to say that anyone who wants to profit or find a way to profit from their work is bad. I'm really pro small business. And I don't really believe that selling out is something anyone besides yourself can know. The Yuppie idea is more about aspirations of successful lifestyle, self-interest and the sort of me generation stuff that was going on in the early 80s. Looking for new ways to share comics with people who may not be aware of what you do is almost the oposite of that kind of isolationist snake eating its own tail professionalism that I'm talking about. And even that isn't all bad. A lot of my friends (and me at many points) have professional careers in comics that are based on knowing people in the business and networking. I just worry that if that becomes the focus of shows then we stop having making good comics that the rest of the world wants to read. I think that being edgy in the days of Lady Gaga and the like is actually pretty close to being mainstream. People like to see different things, things that are outside of what they'd associate with "comic books". It was weird to see no long line for Sarah Glidden at Stumptown when "How to Understand Israel..." seems like the kind of book that wouldn't miss in Portland.

Thanks so much for all the nice stuff everyone has said. I'm really conflicted about this writing because I don't want to piss off people who try really hard to do what they do. I want them to realize that not everyone agrees with the conventional approach to shows like SPX, MoCCA, Stumptown, Wordstock and the like. I did just hear that Secret Acres wrote a piece about the changes in MoCCA too. I'm going to look that up.

dylan sparkplug said...

Here is the Secret Acres post MoCCA Fest report: http://secretacres.com/blog/?p=451

Ian Harker said...

I've been going to these shows for like 10 years now so I've seen them grow into what they are for better or worse with my own eyes. I think what's missing from MoCCA or SPX is the sense of excitement that we had about those shows in the early days and how at that time it felt like everyone involved was part of writing that story. Since SPX moved into the new building it's basically been the same exact show over and over again. It's maxed out and on auto-pilot. I still have a good time, but there is something less than alive about it. Same goes for MoCCA. I think these shows need to exist though because alt-comics have basically been squeezed out of the mainstream comics market completely, so SPX becomes the new mainstream for us.

This would be pretty disheartening if it wasn't for all the small DIY shows that have been popping up. I think there is one in every major North American city now. That's crazy, I love it. Most of them are really fresh feeling and exciting.

I think you have the right idea Dylan. Table up some locals with your products and sell at the major shows, but don't necessarily make the personal investment of travel. It's probably a great experience for whatever local artists you can get to run your booth anyway.

Rob Clough said...

Dylan,

I feel what you're saying and can understand why you don't want to go to those shows. That said, I feel like Sparkplug has a really important mission in stumping for a certain kind of comics sensibility. I canvas shows like MOCCA and SPX very carefully and there's more of that art-comix feel than one might think. Even if you're not there to promote them, it's important that Sparkplug should have a presence there. Otherwise there's a danger of art comics falling out of that sphere altogether.

Jason T. Miles said...

great post dylan

many of the negative aspects you bring up seem like great reasons for sparkplug to table at the shows you mention as examples of this worrisome trend

i can only think that future spxs, moccas, stumptowns, emerald citys etc will be all the better and more diverse by sparkplugs attendance

or at least this is how i feel about profanity hills involvement with such shows

last year one of my best shows was a new show here in seattle called jet city... at first the show made me nervous about loosing my table money (and mind) because it was all old comics dudes with suspenders and long boxes (me in 30 years)... not only did the stuff i carry sell well but i met a bunch of new people who'd never really seen or experience mini comix or zines before which i found to be super encouraging and exciting... compare that to last years oly show where i felt completely apart from the attendees (who were all overly familiar with mini comix and zines) and lost money (and i used to live in oly!)...??? all this made me realize that my primary interest in tabling and going to shows is to share and discover art... simple but not easy considering the easy distraction of market considerations

this year i'm amped to table at the oly show, seatown punk rock flea market, pdx zine show and maybe a craft fair and community flea market

fists in the air

Blue said...

Dylan, thank you for so thoughtfully writing about this and sharing it, there's a lot here that I agree with and much I hadn't thought about because you're just far more experienced than I.

A huge problem I see with the shift in the organization within SCF toward its attempt to be a more mainstream show is that it is leaving its roots and a lot of its supporters, of years, behind. As one of the many who didn't get a table, despite being slated to teach a workshop and having volunteered at SCF for years, I felt really sad walking around SCF and seeing so many empty tables.I know that we keep everything tightly organized at PZS, so if people don't show up (inevitable), we can still fill the tables with our waitlist. We do this so people feel valued as possible exhibitors (even though our tables are one-eighth of the cost) and so that people attending get to be exposed to as much art, writing and comics as we can throw at them (and we don't even charge admission). The empty tables and really low attendance were strong evidence that moving this direction is hurting the fest, but I am sure it will grow again in its new direction of being a mainstream (trades) show, but it will be such a bummer to loose the independent comics fest I first went to back in 2005.

At SCF, seeing the empty tables and then Dark Horse with 4 tables (and then TFAW, owned by Dark Horse, with 2 more), I feel disheartened. With every individual or organization that tables at a convention, you have another fan base that may show up to support that individual or organization and then wander around the convention to discover new artists and increase everyone's sales (another reason to not let empty tables slide)... I didn't mind the move to the Convention Center (though Double Tree did have a nicer feel), but when it came with not many more tables (I was told by Indigo before that was the reason for moving, back when he was first taking over directorship for this year) and an announcement of him curating the show, I was definitely sad.

I love what Jason is saying about maintaining a presence at those shows just because you can be in that minority that cares about the art form that actually appeals to more people... However, when you're a small operation weighing costs, it could be unrealistic to try to represent comics as an art form at every convention...

I am definitely planning on being at OCF and SFZF. <3

Frank Santoro said...

Way to go, Dylan!

rooster said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Dylan. I'm mostly in agreement with you. I do want to stand up for Wordstock a bit, though. The people that run it are very smart, good people. I think they've made some forward thinking decisions about incorporating more collaborative conversations into their fest, rather than just single author readings. Some of their panels were great last year. Also, they've been trying to find a way to bail out of the Convention Center for some time now. The problem is that Portland has a serious dearth of large event spaces. So it's more global municipal issue for all orgs who hold events in this town. I would like to see Wordstock try an approach like Litquake in S.F., but again, the problem is with large tablers like Powells, who need a place for lots of books. Which circles back to your point about industry vs. people, which is totally valid.

Geoff Grogan said...

hello dylan-I appreciate your post and your thoughts about the big alternative conventions. At MoCCA this year I definitely felt something was missing-buzz, enthusiasm, optimism, call it what you will. This year I will have missed SPX 2 yrs. in a row-just don't have the table fee when they want it. But I agree, it's not the same show it was 10 years ago. nor is Mocca what it was in the Puck building. Certainly the atmosphere of the building(s) plays a role in the overall mood--and the attractiveness of the event to the (potential) audience.Nobody really wants to go the the Lex. Ave. Armory--certainly not on a sunny spring day.
But I'm a little confused about what kind of audience you want to cultivate. (and I admit to being conflicted too) I understand-we all want an "art" audience--who will be interested in and sympathetic to our various idiosyncratic variations on the medium--but as we all know--an "art" audience is a relatively limited audience--often "yuppie",certainly college-educated-periodically bohemian(on their way to something else)--but usually a fairly small demographic. The "regular" audience that you mentioned--a broader cross-section of people and diverse backgrounds--well,-that indeed would be something to bring energy and excitement back to the various shows-and I think we need that energy.
A few days ago I had reason to reflect on the old Big Apple Cons in St.Paul's church basement in NYC--where mainstream and indy creators would often share table space-amidst a plethora of dealers and fans-most of whom were interested in the usual mainstream fare. But the Con organizers charged $25-50. bucks for a table--often forgot to collect it--and you'd could make a few bucks and introduce your books to a very diverse audience--all interested in comics, yes--but from a wide array of backgrounds. The mix could be a lot of fun--and yes, sometimes frustrating. But the show was small, inexpensive--the audience was diverse and the variety of creators on hand -sometimes surprising. All in all--it was a good time(albeit sweaty- in that hot basement). It wasn't sophisticated, it was a bit seedy-but maybe the mix of audience was a good thing. Maybe in casting out our mainstream selves we've cast out something important. Maybe a broader mix of sensibilities would appeal to a broader audience. I don't know. Just a thought.

Ian Harker said...

Also let's not overlook the elephant in the living room. At the the bigger shows at least 50% or more of the comics are semi-commercial "entertainment value" comics as opposed to the "art for art's sake" comics that we like. 10 years ago these things made sense when lumped together because of the common business model, but there has been a real stylistic bifurcation within independent comics over the last decade. We seem to understand that, they don't. Sparkplug Comics or Picturebox really have no business being at the same show as comics about Zombie Rockabilly Ninjas or whatever. The BC&GF has been the best show over the last two years because they just cut that out from the jump. Just send a guy around before the show and eject anyone who showed up with a retractable banner from kinkos or an iPad with their comic/animation on it.

Geoff Grogan said...

see-this is where I'd offer an alternative view. the BC&GF is a curated show-narrowing its focus and thus also narrowing the audience even further. I think that seems to work well on a small scale--and its a model that might work well in several different cities-but I'm also suspicious of an increased paring away--y'know-"the ideal exhibitors for the ideal audience" model. That approach has a real downside to it--in that it cultivates a like-mindedness, sameness-an exclusivity, if you will. And that insular quality can ultimately rob something from a show-and if extrapolated further- the medium. One of the great things about comics culture--to me--has always been in fact-its lack of exclusivity.

Justin said...

Dylan,

Brave post, kudos for speaking from your heart.

I just wanted to chime in and agree with Rob and Jason, that it would be a shame to see less Sparkplug at these (any!) shows; I feel you have carefully, slowly, and deliberately built your brand and that you rep a certain segment of the market that would be poorer without your attendance.

I think we've all experienced con ennui, con fatigue, at some point in our lives, but Sparkplug having a presence doesn't necessarily mean you yourself are required, hopefully you're able to deputize one of the cadre and farm some of these shows out to trusted folks, remain profitable, and continue to represent that "sensibility" Rob mentions that I believe, in part, is uniquely Sparkplug.

In short, I'd miss less of you on the con circuit! There's something vital there that needs to be maintained.

Best,

Justin

Allie said...

As you can see, you are totally not alone in your feelings. We do so few shows a year because so few of them feel like something we would like to attend ourselves. Some of the best times we have had tabling have been at something like the Twilight Rummage Sale at the Eagles Lodge or at our local neighborhood art walks. Helping people learn how to say "zine" and encouraging them to make their own books. I hope you keep thinking as long as you can with your heart instead of your brain/wallet. Thanks Dylan.

Jason T. Miles said...

blue wrote: "when you're a small operation weighing costs, it could be unrealistic to try to represent comics as an art form at every convention..."

truth

and that empty table jazz was bunk
i've never had so many people seeking table space contact me before a show
and then to see all those empty table!?
bunk

Blue said...

Jason wrote:
"and that empty table jazz was bunk
i've never had so many people seeking table space contact me before a show
and then to see all those empty table!?
bunk"

Yes, very bunk. Made further bunk by the way SCF had staff patrolling the aisles, verifying that any person behind a table had an exhibitor's badge. Friends of Mine watching others' tables were asked to leave. :/

darrylayo said...

Hi Dylan,

This piece has been in my mind for a while and it's been really difficult to take it all in at once. You talk about some things that I have found upsetting for a long time about the way small press comic shows are handled and the overall direction that they have been heading.

I find the regional small show phenomena interesting because it is that sort of counter-intuitive reaction against the gradual deadening of independent and alternative comic culture. I'm sorry, all of my sentences are spiral shape. I mean to say I agree. The alternative comics shows seem to be growing more entrenched and institutionalized, from what I can understand. But the independent spirit is not snuffed out. This is deeply encouraging.

The comments here have highlighted some other aspects that I have also found deeply distressing about our corner of comic culture these days.

Jason T. Miles: you said a thing that I've been secretly grinding my teeth over for a long time: "overly familiar" with minicomics and zines. That's something that I want more people to talk about. It's hard as hell to get people who claim to care about this culture to actually read anything. People have this sort of...self-appointed-expert mentality where they believe that they are fully well versed in alternative comics and minicomics, and they actually attend shows and refuse to look at any new work. I see this in the attendees, the journalists, even other cartoonists.

Blue: your observations about the Stumptown festival's organization were also alarming. I have never been to Stumptown and until very recently, have never heard a poor word about it. Hearing about empty tables and strict security is...I already used the word "alarming," but it gives me pause, to say the least.

Geoff: Your comment..."Narrowing the audience further," and "like-mindedness," and "exclusivity" and "sameness," yes, yes, a thousand times YES. Curated shows are breaking my heart.

Independent comics aren't independent anymore. Because even though the work itself is self-directed, you're not even considered a "real" cartoonist anymore at these shows unless someone who doesn't care about art deems you cool enough.

At the risk of getting myself into trouble; SOME curated shows are problematic, not all of the curated shows. I get myself into enough trouble as it is, on this internet

John Porcellino said...

Hi everyone. I realize I'm coming to this conversation very late. There's a lot to chew on here.

I will say, in the late 80's when I went to my first show(s) (at the Congress Hotel in Chicago-- I think the precursor to what eventually became Wizard World?!)it was held in a ballroom full of back issues dealers. All superhero stuff, which I wasn't interested in (at the time). But there was always one guy there who came from downstate who had a table full of amazing underground stuff-- RAW magazine, old Lynda Barry books, Gary Panter minicomics etc etc. I can't underestimate the impact that that one guy's table had on me and my comics.

I try to go to as many shows as I can, and I of course consider the focus of the shows when deciding which ones to attend. But I also think it wouldn't be such a bad thing to be "that guy" who stands out among all the sameness, at least in principle. There's always the possibility of somebody who sees your table and has their lives changed.