The 2013 MoCCA Arts Festival Retrospective

The MoCCA Festival has always been a show people enjoyed and attended for the energy and opportunity to support the less-mainstream comics and creators, but the event was always found lacking in one way or another. Perhaps the most infamous example being the 2009 show, when the heat at the show's venue -- The 69th Regiment Armory -- ruined the mood. This year, under the new management of the Society of Illustrators, it looked and felt like a new show, from the time you first stepped in the door.

The badges were illustrated by Brandon Graham, with different designs depending on which type of badge one had, while the artwork on the poster, program and banners was by Michael DeForge. While the Armory used to be an open space, now it was separated into aisles by red curtains, marked with banners and tables covered with black table clothes. There were fewer aisles, but they were wider and shorter, and the effort put into making the space look visually pleasing and dynamic was noticable.

It wasn't simply about dressing up the area, though. There was a cafe, which was nothing special, but it was a nice addition, offering space for sitting down so people could relax without leaving the building. The highlight of the changes had to be the art exhibition. Dozens of pieces of artwork were on display, from past masters and the show's guests of honor, Bill Griffith and Jillian Tamaki.

The Society's efforts managed to change more than a few minds about the festival. Executive director Anelle Miller has mended fences and built new relationships, making it clear why she's developed such a good reputation since she took the helm at the Society in 2007. The Society's two major exhibitions right now are Bill Griffith and Harvey Kurtzman, and it's gone all out on not just assembling a great exhibit of Kurtzman's work, but promoting it as both an important educational and artistic opportunity.

One of this year's changes was the establishment of the MoCCA Arts Festival Awards of Excellence, which was aimed at honoring young cartoonists handmaking or self-publishing new work. The panel composed of Karen Beger, Gary Groth, Nora Krug, Paul Pope and David Mazzuchelli selected Simon Arizpe, Greg Benton, Kim Ku, Jane Mai, Nick Offerman, Kenan Rubenstein, and Andrea Tsurumi. If the award and recognition alone weren't enough, every winning artist's work will be on display at the Society from May 21 to June 6.

Benton's book "B+F: Book One" was declared by many people to be the book of the show, but a number of publishers and cartoonists debuted notable works at the festival. Ben Katchor, Darryl Cunningham, Bob Fingerman, Miriam Katin, Lucy Knisley, Peter Kuper, James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook and many others were there with new and recent books.

That's not to say that there were no controversies. Before the festival, a number of people were complaining about the table prices. Some objected to the fact that there would be an award attached to the show and the eligibility requirements. As with any show, there are always some annoyances like crowded aisles and people -- including this reporter -- who held conversations where people were trying to walk.

One of the joys of MoCCA has always been that it's in New York and attracts such a wide range of people, both from inside and outside the city. Panels this year included people like Paul Levitz and Peter Kuper, Arnold Roth and Bill Plympton, Denny O'Neil and Bob Fingerman. It attracts people who aren't exhibiting but will wander the aisles in search of new comics and old friends. It's an opportunity to see a famous cartoonist pass and debate whether to say something to them.

It was hard not to enjoy the show and feel optimistic about its future. More than one person joked that this might be the first MoCCA show where no one has anything to complain about. Independent comics can be a tough business, and for a show like this, one of the most important aspects can be social. It offers a chance to meet people, to find new work, but also to establish that there is an interest in and passion for doing work that's different. The Society of Illustrators did a lot to foster that sense of community over the weekend. It should be interesting to see what they do next.

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