Cooler heads prevail: A MoCCA 2010 report

Hard to believe that MoCCA Art Festival is nine years old. Its creation was a no-brainer, when you think about it: An alternative and independent comics convention was a natural fit for New York City, given the sheer volume of their creators scattered through the boroughs and 'burbs--Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular--and the city's general level of interest in the arts. In a way, I've come to see it as emblematic of the success of comics in the '00s, which was a similar story of taking advantage of the talent available and getting it into the hands of an audience ripe for the tapping.

But the show had a pretty heavy hiccup last year. Its move from the much-beloved Puck Building to the 69th Regiment Armory seemed to flummox the organizers, who ended up stuck in traffic with a whole lot of books, leaving exhibitors with nothing to sell well into the initial afternoon and forcing attendees to wait in the sun. Meanwhile, broiling heat turned the venue into something approximating a pottery kiln, making every minute on the floor an endurance test. The MoCCA organization's original response to complaints was on the lackluster side. Would they fare better the following year?

The answer is yes. For starters: It was cooler inside. Last year's inferno was still very much on people's minds--I heard publishers and visitors alike complaining about it, and one writer pointed out that the unpleasant conditions were a surefire way to keep casual fans from walking in the door. So the move to April was a smart one, and the gorgeous spring weather a lucky break, given that the city had hit 90 degrees earlier in the week. It still got a little sweaty in there by the end of each day, but that's more or less par for the convention course.

Meanwhile, the doors opened close to on time, instead of the massive, line-around-the-block-causing delays that plagued the show last year. Books were brought over the night before, all the necessary materials were on hand, people seemed to know their way around the venue a lot better, bunting was brought in to lessen the institutional feel of the space. I'd always figured that many of the organizational issues could be chalked up to the show never having been done at the Armory before; a lot of the wrinkles were indeed smoothed out by experience.

The show was packed on Saturday, with lines out the door well after the opening and several rushes of business for retailers throughout the afternoon. Sunday was much less crowded--anecdotally, I bumped into something like 15 former coworkers there on Saturday, and zero on Sunday--but those who came apparently came to buy, because the publishers and creators I talked to were generally happy with their Sunday business as well.

But whether it was the cost of a table, lingering bad blood from last year's troubled show, or the overall economy, this was the first time I can remember that the exhibition floor itself wasn't totally booked up. MoCCA's own signing table occupied an unnecessarily huge amount of space right at the entrance, while a large segment of the floor in the rear corner was simply given over to cocktail tables covered with freebies. This was a welcome development in a way, giving visitors a place to flip through their purchases or eat something without running the risk of getting ketchup on their wares, but the underlying problem was unmistakable. I'd gotten wind of the situation earlier in the week, when someone I spoke to who had barely heard of the show on Monday had successfully booked a table in a prominent location by Thursday. Meanwhile, AdHouse publisher Chris Pitzer was there personally, but AdHouse itself wasn't. Vertigo didn't return either, and the Act-I-Vate crew was scattered to the winds if they were there at all (correction: They had a table I missed -- I saw the individual members all over the place, hence my confusion). I heard a lot of grumbling about the cost of exhibiting, the disorganization last year, even resentment that the money paid to MoCCA could go toward something like its Archie art exhibit, which took the dubious company line on the creation of its characters and didn't credit the art on display, offered as reasons why people might have stayed away. And of course, there are more alternatives in the city now, which wasn't the case when MoCCA started: the New York Comic Con, of course, but more to the point, the indie-friendly King Con and the (fairly spectacular) art-comics focused Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest, both of which got off the ground after last year's problematic MoCCA.

But the major anchor presences were still there, and still doing well. Fantagraphics, which debuted a staggering 13 books at the show in addition to all its other recent releases and rarely had fewer than three creators signing at a time, sold through several new items by Saturday afternoon. Top Shelf sold out of its "Swedish Invasion" line of new releases, augmented by the importation of their creators as well. Pantheon and Abrams formed a little major-publisher altcomix enclave of their own, unveiling Dash Shaw's gorgeous Body World and Dan Nadel's eagerly anticipated Art in Time respectively; David Mazzuchelli was also on hand to sign Asterios Polyp and look cool in sunglasses. But my personal favorite find, at the busy Drawn & Quarterly booth, was PR honcho Peggy Burns, making her triumphant return to the con circuit after years in the Great White North.

Smaller publishers made impressive showings as well. The PictureBox table, featuring Frank Santoro's irresistible back-issue longboxes, was perpetually lined end-to-end with customers. Down the row, the prints available at the Buenaventura Press table kept browsing brisk despite the Kramers Ergot publisher's much smaller presence this year, and it seemed like the ever-growing onslaught of handmade minis at the Closed Caption Comics collective were awfully popular too. On the opposite side of the room, the Topatco mega-table, featuring a galaxy of webcomics stars, was never less than mobbed; the crowd around Kate Beaton alone looked four people deep at all times. It occurred to me that there's really no reason why webcomics had to become a presence on the small-press con circuit; it's wonderful that they did.

Other observations:

* Overall--and this could just be where I was looking--I saw less and less of the self-published genre-based material that used to be an almost coequal presence to traditional alternative and art comics during shows like MoCCA.

* Again, this could just be me, but I also saw a lot more Fort Thunder-indebted art-noise than the once-dominant lo-fi autobio material.

* The place was crawling with comics commentators. Tucker Stone, Nina Stone, Joe "Jog" McCulloch, Chris Mautner, Heidi MacDonald, Calvin Reid, Rob Clough, even the mysterious NeilAlien...I think the ratio of pundits to comics is higher here than at any other show.

* I was sort of dismayed by the cost of admission at the door--$20 for a weekend pass--but I'm not sure they ever actually charged that price. By Saturday afternoon at the very latest, the prices at the door were the same as the pre-paid tickets.

* My nine-year streak of not going to a single MoCCA panel remains unbroken.

* I worked the Partyka table for a while both days. It was interesting to see the way repeat customers can develop even for a small one-table handmade exhibitor like the Partyka crew: I would say maybe one out of every three customers said something about how they'd discovered the table at some past show and loved it.

* In the end, that's what a show like MoCCA is about: the thrill of discovery. Whether you're going because you love comics and want to check out something specific, or because you're "comics-curious" and want to see what's out there, half the fun is stumbling across something you've never seen before and bringing it home to explore. The fewer obstacles put in the path of that experience, the better; that's what made this a better MoCCA than the last one.

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