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The only con that matters*: Thoughts on BCGF 2011

by  in Comic News Comment

I bought many, many books at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival this past Saturday; I won’t be showing them to you in this report. This is because I’m actually, actively embarrassed by just how big my haul really was. I spent so much money at this show that I’m ashamed to even obliquely reveal it. Eighteen years from now, when I’m complaining about the cost of sending my daughter to college, the last thing I need is for her to dig through the Robot 6 archives, find my BCGF 2011 haul, and say “Oh really?”

But whatever it means for my finances, the surfeit of compelling new comics at BCGF can only mean great things for the show. As I told nearly everyone I encountered there — and I encountered more friendly critics and creators here than at any other show I can think of, often in marathon back-to-back-to-back meet-and-greet encounters that would slowly choke off an aisle as more and more people stopped to say hello — BCGF is my favorite comics show, hands down. I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best comics show, in fact, in that its relentless, carefully curated focus on the cutting edge gives it a sense of cohesion, purpose, and excitement that’s all but unmatched.

This differentiates it from the other, mostly alternative-comics conventions with which I’m familiar. Bethesda’s Small Press Expo is always a blast, but that’s due in large part to its indie-comics sleepaway-camp vibe. Its hotel setting, extensive and wide-ranging programming slate, and Ignatz Awards ceremony produce a communal feeling that can compensate for shortcomings on the creative end. This year, for example, I keenly felt the absence of a vibrant minicomics scene at the show, while the big debuts were all from relatively large publishers from whom review copies could be secured or with whom pre-orders could be placed. Its strengths as a community-builder, or just a fun place to hang out, really shouldn’t be dismissed — though I had to leave early, I’d imagine that the show was better situated to help its attendees get each other through the news of Sparkplug publisher Dylan Williams’s death than any other. But on a book-to-book, table-to-table basis, it has good years and less good years.

Meanwhile, Manhattan’s MoCCA benefited for years from basically being SPX NYC. Believe it or not, the comics capital of North America had never had an alternative-comics convention to call its own — at the time it barely had any comics convention — and the thrill for so many comics creators and readers of having a vibrant show right where they lived and worked was palpable. And I don’t think you can overestimate the impact of the year where both Craig Thompson’s Blankets and the Sammy Harkham-edited Kramers Ergot 4, two of the most important and influential (and at the time, physically biggest) comics of the 2000s, debuted at the show. But rising exhibitor and admissions prices, organizational and logistical problems, a venue change that let some attendees down aesthetically and in one memorably rotten year left everyone sweating for lack of adequate ventilation, and a sense that MoCCA the mostly alternative comics festival is incidental to the concerns of its more mainstream museum namesake have slowed the show’s momentum in recent years. This is a gap that BCGF — a free show, in the borough where I’d guess the bulk of NYC’s alternative cartoonists actually live, run not as a fundraiser for some other entity but for its own sake, curated to keep the focus away from the sort of genre-comic tryout efforts that can weigh down MoCCA’s aisles — is uniquely situated to fill.

For East Coasters, that leaves Toronto’s TCAF. Like BCGF, it’s organized in part by a respected retailer: The Brooklyn show has co-organizer Gabe Fowler of Desert Island, Toronto has the Beguiling’s Chris Butcher. Also like BCGF, it’s a curated show, its attendees selected by the organizers rather than simply buying their way in. And like BCGF, it’s free to the public, a true festival. Though I haven’t attended (yet!), I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. The sense that I get, though, is that its aims and BCGF’s are really quite different despite their similarities. TCAF seems to be a much more ecumenical affair, an outreach program to comics-interested civilians, one that puts comics’ best foot forward in terms of high-quality, accessible material. For all of comics’ pop-culture currency, even a massive phenomenon like San Diego relies on a vision of comics dominated by superheroes, which these days are just as likely to be associated in the public eye with movies and video games, and are often in their least accessible, most impenetrable form in their medium of origin. TCAF strikes me as designed to present a vision of North American comics more akin to the way the art form works in Japan or France: There’s something good for everyone. Certainly its sizable children’s-comics component fits that bill, as does its co-sponsorship by that most mainstream of literary/arts entities, the local public library.

BCGF is different. Its setting in one of America’s counterculture capitals means that it too draws in attendees who aren’t a part of comics culture in terms of regular visits to the shop or daily participation on the Internet. But the wares aren’t gateway books or jumping-on points. If you’re gonna buy something at BCGF, chances are you’re buying something that goes whole hog as an “artcomic,” one in which plot is secondary to or expressed primarily through the power and tone of the images. A willingness on the part of the audience to engage with challenging material is presupposed. And the rewards, if you’re up for that sort of thing, are subsequently greater.

It’s a noisy aesthetic, to be sure. It favors bold marks, bright colors, and — seemingly more so with each passing month — strong, even explicit, content. As such it can alienate not just readers with more mainstream tastes but also those with a differing set of preferences or priorities when it comes to alternative comics themselves.

But for me? Comics heaven on earth. For example, I’ve spent all year on my own blog linking to almost every new page from the young cartoonists Jonny Negron and Michael DeForge; Negron had new work in fully four anthologies debuting at the show (the latest issues of Chameleon, Mould Map, Smoke Signals and Study Group), while I actively lost track of the number DeForge popped up in in addition to the two minicomics he debuted (Open Country and Kid Mafia). And they were just two of the creators you could find who had tremendous 2011s you could follow via their websites, from Gabby Schulz to Gabrielle Bell to Lisa Hanawalt to L. Nichols.

Anthologies in particular made a tremendous showing. Led by the unofficial flagship publication of the entire show, and hell, the entire scene, the PictureBox-published Kramers Ergot 8, they included not just the quartet listed above (Mould Map #2’s vibrant neon colors were an especial standout), but also everything from Image Comics tributes (Rub the Blood) to porn (Thickness). The Closed Caption Comics collective, featuring the increasingly popular Ryan Cecil Smith and young artcomics stalwarts like Noel Freibert, Lane Milburn, Molly O’Connell, and Conor Stechschulte, had so much new stuff to sell that their self-titled anthology’s latest “issue” was just a cardboard box they stuffed with comics. You could grab exciting new comics from probably over a hundred creators simply by snapping up collections of this sort.

And for the first time, major literary comics publishers Top Shelf and Fantagraphics joined returning champs Drawn and Quarterly with official presences at the show. Thanks to them, you could meet high-alt luminary Adrian Tomine or MAD vet Jack Davis, or network with indefatigable publicists Leigh Walton and Peggy Burns, to say nothing of the full panoply of titles they made available from their extensive libraries. The mid-range arthouse publishers — AdHouse, Secret Acres, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, co-organizer PictureBox, and most inspiringly Sparkplug — were also on hand, as were up-and-comers like Koyama, NoBrow, Uncivilized, Press Gang, and Retrofit. The small-press component could enable you to have an SPX-style show within the show.

Plus, for every attendee or cartoonist who complained about the prevailing rough-and-tumble aesthetic, there was likely another who was thrilled. I received an email from one prominent cartoonist who couldn’t have been happier with all the smut and gore — given that person’s work over the years, it had to feel like vindication. What I like about it is that the genre work and genre pastiche on hand felt neither safe nor slick, hiding behind the safety net of retro or “coolness.” It felt raw, a little ugly, a little exhibitionistic, even a little unpleasant. The closest comparison I can think of is the early short stories of Clive Barker: impressionistic, sexualized stuff that re-awoke the horror in horror. To dismiss it all as shock tactics is to make a pretty big mistake, I think.

My only regret is that I didn’t get the chance to experiment with unknown quantities. I really don’t think that’s the fault of the show, mind you. For one thing, I’ve been reading and writing about this kind of stuff long enough for there to be fewer and fewer unknown quantities for me to begin with. But mostly, I spent so much on books and creators I knew about and was looking forward to seeing in advance that I simply had nothing left over to splurge on impulse buys or treasure-hunting. And as the fella says, that’s one o’ them good problems, for both the show and for me. There are many cons I enjoy going to, from SPX to SDCC. As of this past weekend, I’d say there’s only one I can’t not go to.

* Hyperbole! But once the phrase got stuck in my head, I knew it wasn’t going anywhere until it headlined this report. And…well, to me, it’s as close to being true as any show could get.