Best. Show. EVER.: Thoughts on the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

I tweeted it after I got back home the night of the show and I stand by it now: Book for book and creator for creator, the second annual Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival was the best comic convention I've ever attended. I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why -- certainly not in a comprehensive fashion, as I was in and out of the day-long show within three hours and didn't even attend any of the programming (though I could see it was pretty much standing room only from my vantage point by the hot dog stand that provided grub for the attendees). I'm sure people who stayed longer, participated more, and took advantage of all the show's ancillary events could paint you a bigger and better picture. But from my admittedly narrow perspective, it came down to a sense of...well, of giddiness -- that's the best way I can put it. Pretty much everyone I saw or spoke with at the show seemed head-over-heels happy, not because of proximity to cool parties or big-money media extravaganzas, but because of proximity to comics -- tons and tons of unusual, gutsy, great comics.

For that, credit must be given to the show's organizers: Brooklyn retailer Gabe Fowler of Desert Island, PictureBox publisher and Comics Comics editor Dan Nadel, and veteran comics scholar/editor/programming director Bill Kartalopoulos. Running a curated con, where exhibitors are vetted before being awarded a table rather than getting them on a strictly first-come-first-served scenario, wasn't exactly a no-brainer given the prevalence of the more traditional model even among other small-press shows. I don't know how much actual curating was involved, in terms of creating an environment for a certain kind of comics on the front end versus turning people away on the back end -- I recall hearing that the latter was minimal -- but whatever the case, the end result was the most uniformly high-quality line-up of exhibitors I've ever seen. Wandering around the room, I don't recall seeing a single table that didn't house something I'd be interested in buying if I had the scratch. Seriously. And that's basically unheard of -- again, even compared to other small-press shows, where crude photocopies, middle-of-the-road niche-fillers, and mildly depressing attempts to create the next big action-adventure franchise often crowd out your eyespace. Everyone at BCGF, from upstart publishers like Gaze Books to institutions like The Jack Kirby Museum, was there because they actually give a damn about comics as art. It's an infectious mentality.

Credit must also go to a disparate community of creators and publishers who seemed intent on deluging congoers with the strongest line-up of show debuts I can remember since the Blankets/Kramers Ergot 4/The Frank Book year at MoCCA. Drawn & Quarterly's debuts included a new book from Adrian Tomine and the final issue of Anders Nilsen's decade-plus-in-the-making Big Questions. West Coasters Jordan Crane and Sammy Harkham were on hand to unveil the latest issues of their throwback one-man anthology comic-book series Uptight and Crickets, from Fantagraphics and PictureBox respectively (correction: Crickets #3 is self-published, but it was being sold at the PictureBox table) -- two series that many fans weren't counting on ever seeing again. Portland's Studygroup12 and Baltimore's Closed Caption Comics released their most ambitious anthologies to date. Benjamin Marra debuted The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd, which has been setting the mainstream and political media on fire, while Joshua W. Cotter debuted his limited-edition Barbra in the Sky with Neil Diamonds collection from AdHouse after surviving a literal fire himself. And that doesn't even come close to the full list of recent and brand-new books that BCGF attendees had to choose from. Put it this way: This was the first time I've ever literally run out of cash at a comic convention. (Sorry, Ben Catmull!)

In what is probably a related point, I was struck by the number of long-distance attendees making it to the show this time: Crane, Harkham, and Johnny Ryan from Los Angeles; Gaze and Zack Soto from Portland; Koyama Press and Inkstuds' Robin McConnell (on behalf of Conundrum Press) from up North; AdHouse Books and Dustin Harbin from down South; even Landfill Editions from London; and that's to say nothing of official guests of the show like Lynda Barry and Renée French. Meanwhile, AdHouse joined a list of key small-press publishers that already included Sparkplug, D&Q, and PictureBox. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the likes of Fantagraphics and Top Shelf join in with official presences next year, especially given how good word of mouth seems to be, and how the increased Hollywood presence at the San Diego Comic Con -- not in an "eww, movies!" sense, but in a "hey, a lot of the tickets are being gobbled up by studio personnel who are perfectly nice people but who don't have much interest in picking up the latest issue of Uptight" sense -- is apparently causing even some close-by West Coasters to reevaluate how they spend their convention money, time, and energy.

Then there's the logistics of the show itself. The gymnasium at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church turned out to be a much airier, brighter, and more high-ceilinged venue than last year's church-basement setting, though to be fair, the weather cooperated this year as well, and sogginess was at a minimum. No matter how crowded the show floor got -- and it got pretty damn crowded, especially up on that stage where showrunners PictureBox and Desert Island were ensconced -- there was ample room in the lobby and basement to hang out, grab a vegetarian hot dog, check out Scott Eder's astonishing original art (my jaw dropped on three separate occasions (Kirby, Beto, and Jaime)), flip through their loot, take in the programming, and generally decompress. Most importantly, I think, exhibitor fees were cheap and admission was totally free, leaving no one feeling nickel-and-dimed and creating a zero-risk atmosphere for Williamsburg residents -- perhaps the most natural constituency for alternative comics on God's gray earth -- to come on in and check things out. And hey, more money for comics!

The thing that made me happiest about having attended BCGF as I drove home was that I'd just spent three hours in the company of a room full of people -- organizers, publishers, artists, readers, curious passers-by -- who value comics as comics, and who aren't afraid to articulate, through their work as creators and consumers of comics, exactly what it is they find so valuable about them. I left feeling better about the medium than I have in a very long time. And that's a bargain at any cost, let alone for free.

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