Friday, May 17, 2024

Bubbles Con: Reimagining The Comics Festival

Bubbles Con, billed as "a symposium of interviews and talks on comics and manga," was held at the Richmond Public Library on May 5th, 2024. Organized to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the fanzine of the same name published by Brian Baynes, the event was unusual in that it wasn't designed in the same way as most comics shows. The aim at most shows is to provide a place for artists to display their wares. At more mainstream shows, this doesn't even mean comics much of the time, as you'll find people hawking prints, keychains, t-shirts, mugs, and other images that aren't even original to the artist. Even at print-centric shows like SPX or CXC, the problem is that the artists have to stay at their tables as much as possible and can't participate very actively in programming and workshop tracks. 

Baynes used a symposium model that made the various artist interviews the main attraction of the event. There was still plenty of commerce to be had, as Bubbles had its own table with the works of the special guests, as well as tables from Chris Pitzer (featuring AdHouse stock and things from his own extensive zine collection), Toybox Coffin (run by Noel Friebert and also acting as a limited distro), and Cerebral Vortex, which may have the most astonishing array of underground and alternative comics I've ever seen. Their tables were active between talks, as well as before and after the event. All of this was held in one room in the library's basement, so everyone had a chance to see every panel. It's a variant of a model that Bill Fick, Eric Knisley, and I used when we held DICE in Durham a decade ago, where we had a full day of panels and workshops that the artists could attend while volunteers sold their books. 

The night before the show, there was a reading at the library featuring a number of mostly local artists. It was reasonably well-attended, which bade well for the next day. Indeed, even though Bubbles Con got going at 9:30 am, the room was full for most of the day, and a number of folks traveled to attend the show. A contingent from Philly containing new co-editor Sally Madden and artist Ina Parsons was there, for example, as was Drawn & Quarterly co-publisher Tom Devlin. I won't go into too much detail on each panel, because Baynes recorded them and will transcribe them for a future issue of Bubbles, but I thought I'd give a few impressions here and there. 

First up was scholar Mark Shubert on the cartoonist George H. Ben Johnson, a Black cartoonist who did political comics for the Richmond Planet (a local Black newspaper) a century ago. Shubert's presentation was fascinating, including the suggestion that Johnson may have well used the phrase "Black Power" decades before anyone else. Shubert did a number of strips that certainly upset the status quo and was also interested in the revolution in Ethiopia. I asked Shubert if it was known if he had any contact with Ethiopians, and he said that this wasn't known. This was a fascinating slice of local history packed with historical context and plenty of examples of Johnson's excellence. I've always thought that for small comics events, it's important to take advantage of resources and the greater culture that makes your city unique, and Baynes certainly added this flavor to kick off the symposium. 

Second was manga translator Ryan Holmberg. Holmberg has practically been a one-man industry in bringing gekiga and other manga aimed at adults to English-speaking audiences. Rather than talk about any particular manga he translated and wrote about, he instead spent the hour detailing exactly what he did. He discussed his different clients, how he made money, how much he charged, etc, and it was a fascinating look at the work of someone who is comics-adjacent (not a writer or artist) who nonetheless plays a huge role in bringing them to life. There was an amusing moment when Holmberg noted that Devlin (who he's worked with a lot at D&Q) was in the audience and that he hadn't met him before--and that he had to watch what he said! (Devlin replied that Holmberg could say anything he wanted.) Of greatest interest was Holmberg talking about how he was trying to translate and reprint certain kinds of manga that were in the public domain, and there's a lot of this kind of material. He also talked about how fruitful his relationship working with Bubbles was, as they had published two books together and announced a third was on the way. 

Baynes then interviewed Jenny Zervakis, the first cartoonist to be interviewed of the day. Zervakis' work is highly influential and was reintroduced to a wider audience a decade ago when John Porcellino published a collection of her Strange Growths comic. (There's a wide-ranging interview in the back that I conducted with her.) Baynes was trying to connect with Zervakis' background as much as possible, and she's not really one to give expansive answers. Zervakis has always been amusingly straightforward regarding her techniqes and influences, but she gave a lot of insight into the early days of modern zine culture in the late 80s and early 90s. In particular, she connects zine culture with the wider DIY punk culture that mostly took place by way of the US mail--a hidden revolution. 

Dash Shaw opened up the afternoon with Baynes interviewing him about his practice as a cartoonist and animator. Shaw lives in Richmond, adding more local flavor to the show, though he's obviously one of the most accomplished and innovative cartoonists in the world. He discussed his upcoming book Blurry, to be published by New York Review Comics, and noted he liked the idea of how making seemingly inconsequential decisions on a daily basis, or struggling to make those decisons, can have a ripple effect down the line. More than most cartoonists I've known, Shaw has a tendency to not only downplay past work, but to forget many of their details altogether. That was true when someone asked about Bodyworld, and he couldn't quite remember much about its sleazy protagonist, Paulie Panther. He noted that he struggled with his Civil War letter adaptation, Discipline, because he wanted to make sure he didn't put modern thoughts in the heads of his characters. Shaw is among the most thoughtful and deliberate cartoonists with regard to his practice, and he's always thinking ahead. He also talked about the Richmond Animation Festival that he organized at the historic Byrd Theater, another exciting way that locals artists are drawing more attention to comics & animation. The last note to mention is that someone referenced Shaw imagining a manga & animation in Richmond featuring Ryan Holmberg nearly a decade ago in his comic Cosplayers!

The penultimate talk was Dr. Francesca Lyn interviewing the great Gabrielle Bell. Lyn took a funny approach with Bell, and both were self-aware about the format and the sort of things discussed during these sorts of interviews. Bell is actually a great talker, even if she's always slightly squirmy on stage. It's pretty obvious that she's someone who likes to observe more than being the center of attention. Bell talked about being in a somewhat fallow period now in terms of comics, though she continues her surreptitious illustration practice. 

The final talk was a real showstopper. C.F. was introduced by cartoonist (and now retailer/distro guy) Noel Friebert, and he had some real tales to tell. He talked about being a kid in the 90s and starting his own miniseries while still in high school. He was bold in seeking out his heroes and finding the kind of comics he wanted to ignite his imagination, noting that he would travel to Million Year Picnic, drop off some of his minis, and then buy whatever the newest, most exciting comics were--and then immediately head home. He once went to New York as a teen, cold-called Gary Panter, and finagled an invitation to visit him in his studio. Panter took a look at C.F.'s comics ("He was very kind") and then watched what was essentially a private performance of Panter's latest multimedia light show. In later years, he decided he wanted to collaborate with the artists of Fort Thunder. This was in the late 90s, and the legendary art space/living of Brian Ralph, Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg and others did not have the internet. There was a single landline for the whole house, and C.F. didn't even know the real names of many of the artists he wanted to work with!

The best story, and one that tied the whole day together, came when Friebert asked C.F. about his first series, Low Tide. C.F. published it for years before moving into PWR MSTRS. When asked about the title of the series, C.F. noted that he had taken from a letter in an issue of Chester Brown's Yummy Fur when he was asking readers to suggest a title for his next series (which would eventually be Underwater). One letter writer had a number of suggestions that included "Low Tide," which C.F. adopted. The person who wrote the letter? It was Jenny Zervakis. Comics is the smallest of worlds sometimes, especially during that time. C.F. will have a new collection of comics, titled Distant Ruptures, this fall. 

The afterparty for the event was held at a performance space called the Warehouse. It was a noise show that C.F. headlined as Universal Cell Unlock. The mood was giddy at the overall success of the show, and the performance was fascinating and intense. Baynes was noncommital regarding the possibility of another iteration of Bubbles Con, but it was thrilling to see an event that celebrated the aesthetics and connections of comics over decades of time while still allowing for sales. It was a refreshing and invigorating event. 

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