MICE, the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, is small but mighty. On Saturday and Sunday, the show will take over the second floor of Lesley University's University Hall, better known to locals as the Porter Exchange. Admission is free, and the roster includes a mix of local creators, aspiring artists just out of school, and some big names, including special guests James Kochalka, Emily Carroll, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman and Box Brown.
We talked with one of the organizers, Dan Mazur (a comics creator and publisher in his own right), about the challenges of running a small indie-comics show in general and the unique qualities of MICE in particular.
Brigid Alverson: What is the focus of MICE, and how is it different from other comics festivals?
Dan Mazur: MICE is an independent/alternative comics show, in the vein of larger shows like SPX, MoCCA Fest and APE, and others like TECAF, CAKE, MECAF. ... So it differs from the mainstream comic cons for its lack of superheroes, cosplay, etc., and for the preponderance of minicomics. But for those familiar with the alternative scene, I guess we do have more of a focus (though not exclusive) on a local comics scene, and also on kid-friendly material and activities, to a degree.
One important focus is that we want to build the readership for these kinds of comics, and try to attract visitors to the show who are not necessarily big readers of indie comics already. That's one reason we work hard to keep admission free, so people can take a flyer on something new, and hopefully see something that surprises them on the tables, and get hooked. And that's also part of the thinking behind Kids' Day on Sunday, and a general effort to promote kids' material — if parents know that this could be a fun day for their kids, that always helps. But what's at MICE should appeal to both the parents and the kids.
What's the origin story of MICE, and how has it changed in the past five years?
MICE developed out of the old Boston Zine Fair. The Boston Comics Roundtable (a group of local cartoonists) helped put on the last incarnation of that show in 2008, along with Papercut Zine Library. After that, Papercut went through some organizational difficulties, and we kind of inherited the show, or transformed it into a comics show. Since then it has grown, added more special guests, the crowds have gotten bigger, we've tried to professionalize it to some degree—but to keep true to the DIY, zine-fair roots as much as possible too. I was teaching at the time of the Zine Fair at the Art Institute of Boston, which was part of Lesley University, and they offered to host us at their Kenmore Square campus. Now it's called Lesley U. College of Art and Design — and they've hosted every show since, for the past 4 years at the Porter Square campus.
What is your role?
Shelli and I are co-directors of the show, and from the start I think we've had the "vision" of the show. There is a great group of about seven people doing most of the work to organize MICE ... Rebecca Viola, Zach Clemente, Ryan Mita, Jason Viola, Dave Kender and the two of us. There's plenty of work to go around, a lot of the roles overlap, but Shelli is responsible for the website, the graphics, the look of the show; Ryan is the liaison with our out-of-town special guests, Zach runs marketing, Rebecca coordinates volunteers, Dave gets sponsors ... Me? a little of this, a little of that, I guess. I'm also the liaison with our host, Lesley.
How do you select the exhibitors?
That's a painful question. We really want to be as open and inclusive as possible, at least for comics creators who fall in the independent/alternative category. But the space is small ... Two years ago we sold out in four hours after opening registration. That wasn't good, too many people missed out. So we switched to part-curated, part-lottery. We get great exhibitors, but we wish we had room for more.
One of the interesting things about MICE has been that you have a mix of creators who are well known (at least in the indie-comics world) and those who are just emerging or have smaller followings. Are you looking for a particular balance?
Well, the best known are the "special guests." This year, Raina Telgemeier, Box Brown, Paul Hornschemeier, Dave Roman, Emily Carroll, James Kochalka. Great cartoonists and pretty famous, in indie comics and graphic novels terms. We want this show to serve the community in a number of ways. One is to let local readers and potential readers know about the many talented comics creators in the area ... and to help those creators find a bigger audience. But we also want to let Boston have a show that connects with the broader, national, even international independent comics world. And then of course there are some pretty well known artists in the area now, too (Paul H lives in the Boston area now, for instance). But it's one of our great pleasures to see a table with an artist at it for the first time at a comics show. The balance isn't formalized into percentages, but the range is important.
What sort of programs will you be offering, and what sort of balance do you look for there?
We have panel discussions and hands-on workshops. The panels range from exploring genres of indie comics like science fiction, or comics about history, to providing useful insights for creators — a panel on the editors' perspective, or on freelance business issues. The workshops are creative, and on Sunday especially aimed at kids. Then also on Sunday morning we have a "mini-symposium," called Comics and the Classroom, which has presentations and panels geared for educators.
What are the unique challenges of MICE?
Hard to say what's unique compared to other indie shows, or comics shows in general. I'm sure a lot of them face the same issues—how to get a good crowd in the door is the main thing. We have a great relationship with Lesley, but we use a space that wasn't designed as an exhibition hall. It's a very pleasant space, but not a regular space. So staging the show in the space is a challenge.
You go to a lot of shows, both big comics conventions and smaller indie-comics festivals — I know, because I see you there! Have your experiences as an exhibitor at other shows informed the way MICE is run?
Definitely. We love tabling at indie-comics shows, and the communal atmosphere, seeing the other cartoonists. We try to make a big effort to make the show easy and welcoming for the exhibitors, have volunteers working to solve any problems the exhibitors have — on some level, we're putting on a party for a few hundred cartoonist friends, and we want it to be fun. But of course we know the thing that'll REALLY make it fun is bringing in a good crowd. In a way, a comics show is like a big communal artwork: We provide a canvas, and the exhibitors fill it in with pictures, words, color s... with their work and with themselves. The people come to see it, and take pieces of it home. Then at the end of the weekend, the show comes down and the circus leaves town.
So MICE is an art project for us, a community service, a social occasion. Not a business venture.
And when you go to another show, do you view it differently?
Yes, I now know how hard it is to organize a show, how many factors to juggle, how many people to keep happy. So when I'm exhibiting in another show, I complain bitterly about every tiny detail to whoever's running it — that's what exhibitors are supposed to do, isn't it?
What are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Running around like a lunatic and interacting with a lot of people: the attendees, but especially the cartoonists. It's exciting to be part of this talented and adventurous community of comics creators.