Where we’re at

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TCAF: The Aftermath

A little over a week ago, I was lucky enough to visit Toronto, and fortunate enough to encounter a room full—a big room full—of happy comic artists and readers.. The event was TCAF, the Toronto Comics Arts Festival, which might just be the best comics festival in the world. I talked to Jim Rugg, to Dash Shaw, and to Michael Comeau—if those names aren’t familiar, it’s a bit of a shame but it wouldn’t have really mattered; we were all there feeling the same kind of buzz in the air, at what was really an exceptionally welcoming show. It’s not just that this, being an alternative comics show, wasn’t filled with the cadre of consumerist nerds that tend to attend a lot of these things—it was a lot of people ready to just hang out, who weren’t counting the hours ‘til close and who were genuinely happy to be there. In fact—and this used to be much rarer—there was a real majority of people that seemed confident and secure, proud of and circumspect about their work and its place in their lives, which seemed (and this is something you know by looking at a person) to be happy and well-balanced.

So, in short, the vibes were good. That’s worth commenting on for any occasion, but it seemed like kind of a new level for a comics show (and, granted, I’ve missed a lot of them)—but in what has been for a long time a kind of self-loathing, sideshow medium, it was  heartening to see as many people gathered as there were to celebrate comics as their best, displaying an abundance of truly good and well-earned work, discussing and sharing it with ease. 

So much of this came from a sense of something flourishing, of the room seeming well-put together, of the people there looking well, and, at a glance, so diverse an array of work, stuff with a real chance in the mainstream that you might just actually be able to chart the beginnings of alternative comics being more genuinely an industry. The feel of this show wasn’t at all pointedly alternative—and it helps that it took place in a very open, accepting city—but we’re hitting a point where these books don’t have to be “literary” or even one in a million to get more than a cult following.

The money matters are interesting, though—we had artists flown in from all over the world (namely Europe and Japan) and from Raina Telgemeier to Taiyo Matsumoto, there were countless groupings of artists at the show that can actually move their work, in a good number of copies. That sense of profit, or of potential profit—that comics could be an arena where work is done more consistently with an expected return—is really what defines an industry, and we’re not there at all yet in any significant numbers, but it seems you could catch a glimmer of it on the horizon.

In a way, the scale of this thing was beginning to make it look like an industry show—it may be that it won’t happen, but there could be a point where comics start acting more that way. Right now, competition is often friendly or viewed as nonexistent, and the community is so small that artists are—at least in terms of demeanor—frequently treated well. A change to this looks to be some distance off, but this really was a show where anyone, with no knowledge of or interest in comics, could wander in and be certain to find something, and it’s interesting to think of that becoming the norm. By the looks of it, we’re rapidly approaching a point where comics aren’t just occasional darlings for New Yorker pieces, but are growing to become an actual part of the broader world. There was nothing but crowds to put anyone off who walked into this show, and with that, there might actually be a loss of some elements of comics’ subversive bits, the things that have for a long time helped to keep the medium interesting.

But with the sheer quantity of amazing work at the show, work that’s available and accessible to a great number of people—it couldn’t be more apparent what a rewarding landscape comics are now. With the money matters and their situation in a broader landscape aside, comics seem to be in kind of a secure place now, where they can be genuinely about their art, and tend to that so that it grows and flourishes. Whatever’s on the horizon—and from TCAF, it was looking pretty good—that wards off any fears one could have as much as anything possibly can.

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A Dash Shaw original sketch, on the opening page of Fantagraphics New School. We live in exciting times.

I’ve gone on here without mentioning specific work so much, and that’s because I haven’t read most of it yet. But encountering so florid an experiment as Dash Shaw’s New School alone is a testament to the mountain of good work available—an over-300-page book that exists only thanks to the incredible effort, and pushing of oneself, that its individual artist put in. (If that were the only book at the show, it’d still be a terrific one, and I’ll have more on it soon). Nothing about comics would be possible without that kind of energy, and I was happy for the show to have not a lot of back-patting. Comics artists have to be driven by the work itself now far more often than any potential reward, and that’s generating a lot of beautiful work now, in what looks to be a pretty spectacular year. That work—along with the generous spirit that produced it—is, for the time being, where I’m happy to let my attentions reside.

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