Thursday, January 1, 2009

MOCCA 2002

(This article was originally published in Savant and is being archived here.)

Perhaps the best bit of email that's popped up in my inbox recently was one stating that the MOCCA Art Festival will return in 2003. This was especially welcome news because June 2002's MOCCA-Fest was not only overwhelmingly successful, it was met with near-unanimous praise from its attendees, with many noting that it was the best show they had ever been to. The question that came to my mind was, "Why?" What made it better? Was it just the timing of the event, the location? Was the quality of the work presented or the importance of the guests more impressive than other shows? What elements of the show can be duplicated elsewhere? What does the success of the show say about the comics community in general and the "alternative" comics community in particular?

In the world of independent and alternative comics, there are essentially two major shows: the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, MD and the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco. The former is held during the fall, the latter in spring. There are other events (like SPACE) and many of these artists also attend other more mainstream cons (which seem to be popping up right and left), but these are the signature events in the alt-comics world. So there were some concerns on the part of the organizers of MOCCA-Fest as to whether it could succeed. The success of the show in the face of questions as to whether it should exist at all makes it an even more interesting case to investigate.

SPX has not only become the premier showcase for alternative comics artists, it's also become a crucial source of income for many of them. With 9/11 cancelling the 2001 show, a large number of New Yorkers held what they called SPX-iles, a near-impromptu gathering of artists in a huge Brooklyn loft. The interest and energy generated from that event got one Kristen Siebecker thinking: if there's enough interest among native New Yorkers to generate a successful show with no money, time or promotion, what could be done with a little more effort? Considering New York's long history of being one of the cartooning meccas of the US, it's astonishing that no major industry shows have been held there since the days of Phil Seuling (the father of comics conventions). The shows held there now are minor ones that are mostly ignored by the bigger names in the industry and lean primarily on nostalgia.

Siebecker was a face familiar to many in the comics world as Alex (BOX OFFICE POISON) Robinson's girlfriend, who was almost always there with him at conventions, helping to run his table. She also organized a number of comics artists parties and similar events in NYC. Siebecker either knew virtually everyone in the NYC comics community or knew someone who knew someone; regardless, she was in a position to make things happen. Siebecker hooked up with a new group called the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA), a museum that as of right now has no permanent home. And with the financial troubles that doomed the Words and Pictures Museum as well as the Museum of Cartoon Art (in bustling Boca Raton, FL), they had every reason to find new ways to raise money and their own profile. The board of trustees consists of several non-comics folks as well as mainstream inker Klaus Janson and infamous political cartoonist Ted Rall. His role in the event would have interesting repercussions down the line.

With an organizational structure behind her, Siebecker then went about the task of finding an appropriate venue, getting artists to attend, and making sure that the event would be well-promoted. She blitzed the internet with impressive lists of artists that appealed to both mainstream and alternative comics fans and even stretching beyond those classifications. Getting cartooning legend Jules Feiffer to attend gave the event some much-needed gravitas as something to take seriously. And the venue she rented for the event was a stroke of genius: the Puck Building. Once the home of a long-running satirical magazine, it is now considered to be a historical landmark. Interestingly enough, it is also where Kevin Smith filmed his comic book convention scenes in the film CHASING AMY.

The question was, would anyone come? Before Rall became nationally vilified by doing cartoons criticizing 9/11 widows as opportunistic money-makers and assailing the government's handling of Afghanistan (fanning the flames further on Politically Incorrect), he had become rather unpopular in some quarters for his legal wranglings with fellow cartoonist Danny Hellman. Briefly, Rall wrote an article accusing Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman of having too much control of the NYC comics scene (as well as savaging Spiegelman's MAUS). Notorious jokester Hellman played a prank on Rall involving Hellman pretending he was Rall in a set of emails. Rall, unamused, responded with an enormous lawsuit against Hellman. Hellman fired back with a countersuit. The situation has been ongoing for the last couple of years and still has yet to be resolved. Hellman chose to boycott MOCCA because of Rall's involvement, despite Rall's claims that his presence had nothing to with how the Festival was being run and he in fact welcomed his presence. Several of Hellman's friends and important cartoonists in their own right also chose to boycott the show, a double blow because they were all local to New York. The list included Sam Henderson, Michael Kupperman and Tony Millionaire, among others (including Spiegelman, of course).

As it turns out, their absence mattered little. All of the major alternative publishers showed up in force, with the exception of Fantagraphics. Chris Staros & Brent Warnock set up their recently returned from the dead Top Shelf Productions booth. Jeff Mason and his rapidly growing line from Alternative had an impressive presence. The stalwarts from Highwater and Drawn & Quarterly anchored one end of the big room. Their presence was a given. What gave the show its unique character was the presence of folks like Feiffer, Phoebe Gloeckner (who almost never attends cons), Howard Cruse (ditto), a number of political cartoonists, area illustrators, and animators. The show itself was remarkable for a number of reasons: the exclusive focus on comics, the incredible diversity in age, race and gender of the attendees, the organization of the festival thanks to Siebecker and the layout of the beautiful Puck Building itself.

The key to any good show is the strength of the exhibitor list. It's important to have a few big names, especially some who rarely if ever attend these sorts of shows. The presence of the important small press publishers is another key, as they tend to organize their rosters well. A mix of genres and styles is important to attract the attention of both the more traditional fan who happens upon the show, the alt-fan who's looking for something new and the (theoretical) non-comics fan who simply attended because they were curious. Finally, the lifeblood of this sort of event are the young self-publishing artists who tend to work with mini-comics.

MOCCA definitely had all of these elements, with the biggest "true" mainstream name being the legendary Jules Feiffer. The festival also had more traditional mainstream types in Frank Miller, Jeff Smith and Paul Pope, all three of whom have had considerable experience with work outside mainstream publishers. All the major alt-publishers (again, with the exception of Fantagraphics, who simply couldn't afford to make it) were also there, and all of them found that their books were flying off the shelves.

As to some of the other creators, they included some folks primarily known for animation like Bill Plympton, Women in Animation and Animazing Gallery; political cartoonists like Stephanie McMillan, Scott Bateman, Bill Brown, Ruben Bolling, John Malloy and Joe Sharpnack; NY-centric folks like New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff; illustrators like Austin Ackles and well-known comic strip artists like Patrick (MUTTS) McDonnell. The hip comics/literary magazine The Ganzfeld had their own unique set-up (centered around non-edible donuts) while young artists from the School of Visual Arts peddled their wares while the school itself had its own information booth. Longtime fans had a chance to meet the great Gene Colan and Hilda Terry, while superhero fans got to talk to Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Joe Staton, Neil Vokes and Mike Avon Oeming. You'll notice I've barely mentioned the usual suspects of the indy comics world, but they were out there in force: Jessica Abel, Bob Fingerman, Megan Kelso, Brian Ralph, Dean Haspiel, James Kochalka, Kim Deitch, Evan Dorkin, Tom Hart, Alex Robinson, the Hi-Horse creators, the Meathaus gang, Jason Little, Kurt Wolfgang, Peter Kuper and many more besides. It was truly a room where comics were king, and there was a comic for everyone there.

Siebecker had two huge rooms to work with and did a masterful job. The first room was smaller and had a certain kind of impression to make for the uninitiated. So there were more tables devoted to animation, comic strips and popular culture as you entered the room, as well as more of the mainstream artists. At the same time, a lot of the younger artists and minicomics-focused artists were also in this space, giving a nice blend of veteran/newcomer. The larger room had most of the major players in the world of alternative comics mixed in with some of the more established stars of the minicomics scene. Beyond the venue itself, Siebecker had a friend of hers who specialized in theatre design the layout of the tables. The result was the most easily navigable show I've ever attended. Despite a great turnout, there was rarely if ever any congestion thanks to the wide spaces in-between aisles, carefully constructed gaps, and well-thought out placement of certain artists. One particular open corner in the larger room served as a place for fans to sit and rest or organize their purchases.
This website gives the floor plan for the show; there were 49 tables in the Lafayette Room and 70 more in the Grand Ballroom. A narrow corridor separated the two. Fans entered at 293 Lafayette, which did create some gridlock at times when a lot of fans were arriving early in the day. The Top Shelf display was, naturally, at the bar in the Grand Ballroom.

I can't emphasize enough how crucial the Puck was to the show's success. On a hot New York day, the high-ceilinged and well-lit Puck Building was an inviting host. Without the typical comics-con fare of dimly-lit rooms and dusty back-issue bins, there was none of the typical "boyz club" feel associated with these events. The Puck is typically used to host weddings and business receptions, and so it provided an environment quite unlike the usual hotel or convention center. The entrance itself was impressive enough, but the columns adorned with light fixtures, huge windows, hardwood floors and high ceilings lent an air of respectability rarely seen at such events. The Puck did have three major drawbacks: one, the concessions were ill-equipped to handle a crowd of this size; two, there weren't really any many places for the tired fan to sit and reorganize; three, the programming room was really ill-equipped for large crowds as well as having some a/v problems. The programming room also didn't have any way of shutting out noise from the adjacent room, which was a problem during the animation panel.

The festival was powered in many ways by the quite active NY comics scene, which holds regular events at local bars, galleries and bookstores. Beyond that influence came two more practical positives: many visiting artists simply crashed with their friends in NYC, and there was never a lack of anything to do. After all, this was New York City, only the cultural capital of the US. As Matt Feazell noted on the Sequential Tart boards, "You want to know what MOCCA can offer that SPX doesn''s NYC!" A party organized at artist Chris Radkte's place and a 5th anniversary celebration for Highwater Books at a Brooklyn bar the night before the show added some structure to the festivities. Another advantage came with advertising the show heavily in the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the Onion, all of which are available on seemingly every corner in Manhattan--with the Voice and the Onion both being free.
With SPX having been cancelled in 2001, the east coast comics community was itching for another major show. The fact that it was held at a convenient time of the year, was in-between major events like APE and San Diego by a few months, and came at a time when a number of folks wanted to debut new material was a huge plus. Again, Siebecker really did her homework here. Another plus came with her announcing the show early on and gambling that it would draw in more and more participants as the show drew nearer. Siebecker was sending out updates of added guests as late as just a week before the show.

The final tally for MOCCA-Fest was around 2000, remarkable for a first, one-day only show. The show was bustling early on and Siebecker had to kick people out at 7:00pm, when the show ended. More remarkable than the size of the crowd was its makeup. It was, by far, the most diverse group of fans I've ever seen. The male/female ratio was 50:50, the first time I've ever seen that at a show. In fact, there may have been even more women than men! The age groups at the show were similarly diverse, with a number of folks in their 60's and beyond checking out the show. (It's New York, and the words "Art Festival" will always bring out a certain, often elderly, portion of the population.) There were also a lot of teens and even younger kids, and they weren't just there for manga. The crowd was also more racially diverse than I've seen at most shows, which was quite welcome and I think another byproduct of holding the show in New York, one of the most racially diverse cities in the country. To the great delight of the exhibitors, the crowd also came with loose wallets: Top Shelf co-publisher Chris Staros noted that it was the best single-day sales day that he'd ever had. While the attendees were ready to spend money, factors like the layout and variety ofmaterial present made it possible for people to spend a lot of time in a comfortable environment.

Some other MOCCA items of note:
** Proof of MOCCA-Fest's coolness: hip comedian David (MR SHOW) Cross was in attendance.

** Jason Little was an interesting presence. Well-known for his suit, bow-tie and straw boater at SPX, he was dressed as a sailor here. Best known for his Xeric-powered JACK'S LUCK RUNS OUT, a comic where its main characters were the Jack, Queen and King from a card deck, the entire comic is limited to the colors found on those cards. His online comic BEE will be collected as a hardcover for a new line of books by Doubleday, a remarkable coup. My favorite image of the whole show was seeing a gaggle of teenaged girls going crazy over his work.

** While Alex Robinson was busy hawking BOX OFFICE POISON and selling copies of his new 24-hour comic, his pal Tony Consiglio was basking in the glow of getting his MORE OR LESS picked up by Top Shelf.

** Some comics that debuted at MOCCA-Fest: PINKY & STINKY (James Kochalka), ALEC: AFTER THE SNOOTER (Eddie Campbell), SUMMER OF LOVE (Debbie Drechsler), SUMMER BLONDE (Adrian Tomine), RUBBER NECKER #1 (Nick Bertozzi), ATTITUDE: THE NEW SUBVERSIVE POLITICAL CARTOONISTS (edited by Ted Rall).

** Other new stuff included a new collection from FINDER (Talisman), a new mini from John Kerschbaum called HOMECOMING, re-releases of all of Gabrielle Bell's stuff from Alternative, and a new edition of the TYPEWRITER anthology that literally unfolded in weird ways: each cartoonist got a landscaped strip that folded out from the inner liner. But wait, there's more: the first chapter in Kurt Wolfgang's new book PINOKIO (which just got picked up by Top Shelf), a new issue of the STUDYGROUP 12 anthology, the debut of Paul Hornschemeier's FORLORN FUNNIES, new minis by Ellen Lindner, inventive micros-minis from Greg Benton, lots of new stuff from Sean Bieri, and homemade shrinky-dinks from Davey Oil (really!).

There were a lot of things that could have slowed down MOCCA-Fest. The fact that SPX had been cancelled in 2001 was perhaps the primary factor in its initial success. A lot of artists simply wanted to get together with their friends and show off new works. Having it in the wrong venue might have reduced it to being just another decent show instead of a show that people are still talking about. (Feazell: "It was just what indy comics has needed all these years.") The idea of holding the festival in an attractive, comfortable environment and having this idea considered to be a novelty by everyone around demonstrates what kind of rut the comics world has been in. Both the crowd and creators were friendly and enthusiastic on a hot but sunny day. I think that veteran comics fans were delighted and energized to see so many new faces in the crowd, and those new to the world of comics were excited by the dizzying array of choices in front of them.

This, I think gets to the heart of why the show was so successful: it drew in a lot of folks who were not regular comics readers, and showed them that there was a lot for them to see. In an industry that is built so much on nostalgia and childhood icons on the mainstream side and a cliquish, seemingly exclusionary community on the alternative side, it was refreshing to see everyone present focus on the future. The show was not like San Diego because it focused squarely on comics, and comics at their most diverse and challenging. The show was not like SPX because it wasn't just a chance for the alternative tribes to preach to the converted; it was an opportunity to find entirely new audiences and draw them in. To the enormous credit of that community, they succeeded in spectacular fashion.

A number of potential problems never materialized. Rall's presence was not only a non-factor, but arch-enemy Hellman even showed up at the festival to drop off his fundraising anthology LEGAL ACTION COMICS with artist Jenny Gonzalez. Another non-factor was the mixture of alternative comics fans and mainstream fans; most of the guests seemed to be interested in a little of everything. The weather was perfect for the show and holding it on a Sunday, when there were fewer events of interest going on, was another smart move. Holding the show to just one day also seemed to heighten interest among both fans and retailers.

The show's $5 entrance fee went to MOCCA itself. MOCCA's place in all of this seemed rather vague, to be honest. It's not like SPX where the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is an entity that everyone understands and wishes to support. MOCCA itself is a more controversial entity, considering that there's a similar organization in NYC. Adding Stan Lee to their board a few weeks before the show did nothing to still that controversy in certain quarters. Still, the MOCCA organizers didn't seem too concerned given the money that was raised and the fact that they were able to show off the festival to certain key NY government officials. It was also their way of establishing indy cred, given that few of their board members were that involved with indy comics. And most of the artists didn't seem to mind that much either; it was an excuse to hold a show in a potentially receptive area. As one artist told me, "Short of the Nazi party, I wouldn't really care who was sponsoring this show just as long as it was happening." I think as long as MOCCA keeps this kind of hands-off approach to running the con, it should thrive.

Speaking of which, after some consideration, the show will go on once again in the Puck Building. I mentioned some problems I had with the Puck Building and the way certain things were organized, but I'm not sure how well they can be addressed. One thought I had was finding ways of expanding the programming, perhaps even holding some of it on Saturday. Panel discussions could be held at local performance spaces or bars in the Village on Saturday night and could even segue into concerts by comics pros who are also musicians (of which there are many). During the day, another idea might be comics workshops, a great way of drawing in younger fans. I think the festival should take greater advantage of its surroundings and the fact that it's so easy to get around the city. I'm sure the success of the 2002 show will lead to a huge demand for tables in 2003, and facing this kind of growth will be a problem the organizers will have to deal with at some point. SPX has gone through the same sort of growing pains and I'm not sure the ways they've come up with to solve them are ideal. (To wit: they are merging with a mainstream comics con and moving the whole shebang to Baltimore.) MOCCA-Fest will also have to prove that they can thrive without some of the serendipitous elements that led to the show's success this year, but I think the good will the show generated will keep them going for awhile.

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