Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Mocca 2007

Introduction: Where Does MOCCA Go Next?

The sixth MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) Art Festival was held in New York's Puck Building once again on the 23rd and 24th of June. I last attended this event in 2005, the year where it became obvious that the medium was picking up a certain cultural momentum. While no one was going to get rich, more and more young artists found themselves in a position where they could quit their day jobs and make money off comics--without having to work for a mainstream superhero publisher.

I was curious to see what, if anything, had changed after being away from the show for a year. The show is growing, but this year it felt like the organizers had figured out how to keep rooms moving a bit better. While the show apparently smashed old attendance records, I rarely encountered the kind of gridlock that has paralyzed the big rooms in the past. The crowds were steady despite great weather, Pride Weekend, the Mermaid Parade and various other events in the city.

MOCCA started out in 2002 with two big rooms for exhibitors and a smaller room for panels, all on the same floor. That smaller room proved to be unsuitable for panels, with frequent a/v problems, poor acoustics and an air conditioner that struggled mightily but frequently in vain. Two years ago, the panels were moved up to a sun-splashed room on the 7th floor, opening up more tables on the first floor. This year, the demand for tables led to the decision of moving the panels away from the Puck altogether, and turning the 7th floor into another exhibitor room. The panels moved to MOCCA's offices a couple of blocks away.

The panel where the buildings were held were just a five minute walk away but that did seem to cut into the attendance of some of the panels. On the other hand, the venue for discussions was extremely intimate. Wisely, most of them focused on single artists giving presentations rather than large roundtable discussions. While the Kim Deitch, Joe Matt & Alison Bechdel talks were well-attended, there was nothing with quite the buzz that the Dan Clowes/Jonathan Lethem discussion of 2005 had.

Speaking of which, while this is promoted as an Art Festival, its mercantile aspect is still what drives the show. Beyond the standard (but important) programming, it would be valuable to see the "festival" aspect of the show emphasized a bit more. The 7th floor room had huge swaths of space that were underused; this would have been a great area to have displays of original art, workshops, and other more interactive events for the public. There was one panel on applying for grants and scholarships, but I would have liked to have seen more on the creative process and how to get started. I especially would have liked to have seen a comics workshop for children, given the fact that there were plenty of them attending the show. A chalk-talk, though stressful for the artists, is a wonderful way for the public to see how how an artist goes through the creative process.

Of course, organizing these events would have required a larger staff, more funding for space, and ways to navigate the additional logistic difficulties. That said, it's clear that MOCCA has become the most important of the alt-comics shows. SPX and APE both have important roles because of their tradition and the sense of camaraderie that's created thanks to the venues, but MOCCA's location in a huge publishing center gives it an enormous edge. What this means is that MOCCA's potential for further growth is enormous, given the demand for tables, the interest of major book publishers, and even the presence of DC/Vertigo. There's Serious Business to be done at this show, and this fact makes it even more important that the Art Festival portion of the show should receive a greater emphasis.

The central question at the heart of the show is: what does it want to become? It went from simply being SPX-but-in-New York to something that resembles a comics-only version of Book Expo America. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but without a counterbalanced focus on art rather than commerce, MOCCA is in danger of becoming a mere trade show for book publishers. I'm not saying that this is the case right now, but it's certainly one possible future.

At its core, shows like MOCCA and SPX are really about the DIY ethos, minicomics, and other hand-made works of art. This show is a crucible for those who produce such works, because people are either drawn to your work or they aren't--which forces one to either get better or stop creating. For an attendee, it's the pleasant surprises amidst a sea of mediocrity that give the show its charge. I've been amazed over the years to see the development of some artists who were not exactly naturals. Some of the early comics by some key artists in the industry now were just plain bad, but they kept at it and broke through. This is another reason why beefing up the festival aspect of the show seems to be such an intuitively important concept--these young artists need to find ways to interact with the public in a context that is not strictly commercial. Removing the pressure and desperation of trying to sell one's wares can only encourage growth, especially for artists whose work isn't selling. While the experience of not having comics that anyone wants is strong medicine in its own way, it would seem important that giving artists a chance to directly interact and learn from their peers is just as important.

While I think there are compelling reasons for MOCCA to broaden its focus and mission as it continues to grow, it obviously can't be all things to all people. There will be plenty of minicomics specialists who will resent the presence of any big publisher. There will be others who look upon the DIY mini-types as creating a flea market atmosphere. Some look on the Puck Building as too small to properly host the event, while others would bemoan the
loss of this unique venue.

On The Floor: Scattershot Reportings And Observations

The first impression I had of the show is that more than ever, the old divide between alt-comics, the superhero mainstream, and the "legitimate" book industry is thinner than ever. The presence of Vertigo/Minx and Wizard (!) was a pleasant surprise. Wizard actually seems to be making an effort to provide publicity to indy comics while the formula for the new Minx line at DC is to team up alt-cartoonists. Pantheon, Houghton-Mifflin, First Second are some of the big publishers that were present. I wondered two years ago if the contracts being signed by cartoonists for these old-guard publishers would be just another flash in the pan or if there was a chance for sustained growth. At the moment, it's certainly looking like the latter. Part of the reason why is that the big publishers seem to have spent a proper amount of time and research into developing and promoting their lines, and it seems to be paying off. It remains to be seen if this bubble will burst, given the troubles that the bookstore industry faces at the moment.

My second impression was that there are many more comics being published (especially by the major mainstream publishers) aimed at children or teens. Minx is the obvious example, but First Second has pretty aggressively published a number of children's books. Even self-publishers like the Comics Bakery group market their books as all-ages. This is obviously a positive development, especially since these books are mostly marketed for bookstores as opposed to comics stores.

My third impression is that this was an amazing show for minicomics. In particular, the students from the School of Visual Arts and the Center for Cartoon Studies in particular really stepped up to produce some great-looking minis. I spoke to several of the CCS students and found them to be inspiring. Their SUNDAYS anthology was one of the most beautiful-looking books at the show, and they managed to sell them all. The sheer variety of good-looking minis was overwhelming. There seemed to be very few ultra-crude, cheaply-made minis with someone's scrawled art. Everyone present seemed to be aware of and energized by the competitive nature of being at this event. Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that beautiful form will yield intriguing content, but my reviews will come at another time.

Once again, there didn't seem to a lot of must-have books. AdHouse's PULPHOPE, the new Paul Pope book, was beautiful and sold out. Fantagraphics sold out of Paul Karasik's book about Fletcher Hanks. Top Shelf moved a number of copies of Matt Kindt's SUPER SPY. Fans came to this show looking for new work, and many artists specializing in minis reported selling out of their newest works. There was plenty for every taste here: Picturebox & Buenaventura with a huge assortment of unusual comics; a huge array of European comics from Bries and several Scandinavian artists; Sparkplug Comic Books catching amazing books that fell through the cracks. I've reviewed a number of Sparkplug's books, and I must say that publisher Dylan Williams' instincts seem to be right every time. The latest triumphs are Jason Shiga's BOOKHUNTER (a police procedural--the Library Police, that is) and Austin English's WINDY CORNER. The latter is English at his best--part comics, part essays, part exposing the world to underappreciated artists. Look for more on him in this column very soon.

The Programming
I managed to catch just two panels, but both were thoroughly enjoyable. Lauren Weinstein did a multimedia presentation of her comics, old and new. I especially enjoyed the music that went along with "Horse Camp" and "The Tub". She noted that her art school background didn't do much to teach her how to do comics, but it did have other effects on her work. She noted that a lot of her early comics were comics as such, but rather illustrations with captions and markings that gave them a new (and funny) conceptual meaning, ala Duchamp. She also showed a slide of one of her paintings from college, and it was interesting to see her already wanting to do comics with some of the elements she included. The other interesting thing she discussed was the way the look of her comics matched the emotional tone of both herself and the story. Her early work (found in INSIDE VINEYLAND) has a vibratory quality to it that reflected her nervous energy at the time. GIRL STORIES has a grotesque quality to it that reflects the ugliness of her feelings and actions. GODDESS OF WAR, her new project, will have a far more majestic and even painterly quality to it.

I also saw a panel by AWP, or Artists With Problems. This had less to do with comics as such and more to do with comics culture and creation. AWP is an association of comics artists in the New York area who get together weekly to draw comics and sometimes critique each other's work. It's always a pleasure to hear the very funny Karen Sneider hold court, and she gave a history of the group that she co-created. Above all else, the group is about the camaraderie of creators in an art that by its very nature is solitary and pain-staking. While everyone is there to have fun, Sneider is always careful to make sure that people are actually doing something comics-related. When asked if critiques sometimes affected friendships, they noted that this rarely happened. That's because critiques are only offered when asked for, and that there is value in honest evaluations of one's work--even if you don't agree with what is said. It's also clear that different artists used these meetings for different purposes for their own work. Even if each individual meeting wasn't the place where one could be most productive, the meetings force one to think about and do comics every week. For some, that's the impetus they need to continue to work on their books. Another reason why the group is successful is that they tend to do very different things, so there's less competition for a particular brand of recognition. AWP's table had some of the most impressive minicomics offerings at the entire show.

Bits And Pieces

Some scattered thoughts and conversational fragments:

** I had the enormous pleasure of speaking with Miriam Katin at some length. The author of WE ARE ON OUR OWN hadn't done a lot of comics events, so it was all a bit new to her. She writes about her World War II experiences, hiding from the Nazis with her mother. Katin has spent most of her career as a background illustrator for animation, and only started writing about her past in the MONKEYSUIT anthology. Her delicate and moody pencil style produces a harrowing experience for the reader. She noted that creating these stories didn't purge her of the experiences, but rather gave her a voice to talk about something she previously was unable to express. Katin was happy to report that she was bringing her mother with her to the San Diego Comicon as a sort of culmination of the critical regard she's received in the past year.

** After I asked Miss Lasko-Gross what she was working on next after her excellent debut ESCAPE FROM "SPECIAL", she handed me a book filled with drawings on what looked like regular notebook paper. It dawned on me after a moment that these weren't prints or photocopies but originals. When I asked her if this was so, she said "Yes, and that's why I'd come after you if you walked away from the table with that." It was interesting to see the way she shaded each page and worked on drawing her book as she sat there during a signing. The new book looks remarkable; Lasko-Gross kept all of her quirky stylizations while clearly gaining more confidence in all aspects of her art. The strips involving her younger sister are particularly memorable.

** Paul Hornschemeier looked relieved to have THE THREE PARADOXES in print; this book had been in the works for quite some time. He's finishing up his "Life With Mr Dangerous" strip for MOME and then plans to go back to doing comics in serialized formats. This means a new volume of FORLORN FUNNIES will be his new comics vehicle.

** Dash Shaw had a photocopy of his new graphic novel. He toned down a bit of his more aggressive experimentation in favor of a more straightforward storytelling approach. He couldn't reveal the publisher but seemed hopeful that this would be a big breakthrough for him.

** Lauren Weinstein was extremely enthusiastic about GODDESS OF WAR, a project she's been working on for quite some time. Fans of her more recent work will be surprised to see sci-fi and mythological elements to the story, which involves the titular character deciding to quit the war goddess business. Weinstein noted that she's going back a bit to her art school background with the way the book will look, with Durer noted as one influence. She's also been keenly interested in researching the history of war, in terms of its technology, its inevitability and the stories of those who fought them.

** Going back to the CCS students, I asked them if their experience was akin to attending comics boot camp. One replied that given the isolation of the small Vermont town where the center is located, it's more like attending a comics monastery. The result, however, is one of extraordinary camaraderie and enthusiasm. They all spoke glowingly of the school's curriculum and especially the visiting cartoonists. In addition to doing a lecture, students also got individual time with them for portfolio reviews. It really seems as though James Sturm (founder of the school) struck at exactly the right time and right place with this school, despite the odds being against him. It will be interesting to link the students at this school with the current industry surge and see what they'll go on to accomplish. CCS is not yet fully accredited, a step that will be crucial for their ultimate success. The overall mood at MOCCA was buoyant and enthusiastic, but no single group radiated more excitement about comics than the CCS'ers.

** A number of artists felt slightly ghettoized by being on the 7th floor and truthfully it seemed to have a lot less foot traffic than the other rooms. The room was anchored by the MOCCA signings, Vertigo, Meathaus, Giant Robot and other attractions, but the logistics of the room (a single elevator leading up) prevented it from getting real traffic. I suspect that for those that didn't intend to make MOCCA the focus of their weekend, this was the room that got ignored.

** At this point, it almost goes without saying that this comics event has the most diverse set of attendees and fans, by a long shot. The gender breakdown is close to 50-50, and there was a wide array of races and even ages represented. Part of this is a result of having the show in New York, but it's also clear that the organizers did a fine job of promoting the show in many different quarters. Once folks were there, it was obvious that there was something for everyone.

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