Toronto Comic Arts Festival in the rearview mirror

Toronto Comic Arts Festival organizer Christopher Butcher opened the 2014 show by announcing the "unspoken theme" of that year's show was spotlighting work by women creators. "Then," I noted at the time, "Butcher did something truly amazing: He introduced a panel of three women that was not titled 'Women in Comics.'" This year's festival continued that theme, showcasing a diverse group of artists and spreading that diversity across the breadth and depth of the show.

In fact, the first thing I noticed when I looked over the schedule was there was no "Women in Comics" or "LGBTQ Comics" panel. There were a couple of more specialized panels — one on gay comics art in Japan, another on older women and comics — but for the most part, the diversity was just sort of there, no further comment needed. The "Art of the Travelogue" panel moderated by my con roommate Johanna Draper Carlson, for instance, featured four women and two men, and it didn't seem like a particularly big deal until I started to write this article. This may be a watershed in the history of comics events.

It wasn't just about identity, though. TCAF really embraces all the different streams that are running into the ocean of comics right now: Minicomics, graphic novels, anthologies, manga, non-Japanese manga, BDs, Kickstarter comics, a whole U.K. Pavilion, another room set aside for kids' comics, a third room for small press comics. There were even some superhero comics, thanks to local creators Babs Tarr, Brenden Fletcher, and Cameron Stewart, the creative team on Batgirl.

The big news of the weekend came at the kickoff event on the evening of May 8, a celebration of Drawn and Quarterly's 25th anniversary, with the announcement that publisher Chris Oliveros is stepping down. D+Q has always been a big presence at TCAF, and this year company not only had more of its creators there than ever before, it was also debuting its massive 25th anniversary book.

There was plenty going on besides that, however. Here's my almost-random walk through this year's TCAF.

Debuts: As always, the list of debut books was impressive: Noelle Stevenson's Nimona, Penelopie Bagieu's Exquisite Corpse, Seth's Palookaville 22 and Jillian Tamaki's SuperMutant Magic Academy, to name just a few. When I first walked into the show, I saw a line of people that wound from Noelle Stevenson's table back through the library stacks. "I only have five copies of Nimona left," she announced, "and I'm going to do a panel in 10 minutes."

There was a lot of that. Several creators told me they sold out the first day, and I personally missed out on a copy of Joe Decie's TCAF special, There's No Bath in this Bathroom, although I did get a peek at Johanna's copy.

You know what I did get, though? Kate Leth's Ink for Beginners: A Comic Guide to Getting Tattooed, which she kindly autographed.

Minicomics: Leth's book was part of a type of minicomic that I find fascinating, and that TCAF was rich in: nonfiction comics that focus tightly on a single topic. For me, the winner in this category was Emi Gennis's Trepanation, a short history of people drilling holes in their heads. I was also taken by Isabella Rotman's Not On My Watch: A Bystander's Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence, a good-humored and sensible guide that should probably be available at every con everywhere.

Minicomics are also a good medium for tightly focused memoirs, such as Georgia Webber's Dumb, a multi-part account of her experiences when she lost her voice; Monica Gallagher's Boobage, which discusses her feelings about being small-breasted (or, as she puts it, "on the A Team"); and Kevin Budnik's newest series of minicomics, Epilogue, which explores his anxiety after losing his job.

Then there were a few discoveries, notably Nick Mandaag's The Oaf (recommended by Tucker Stone!) and the really amazing comics of M. Dean, whose art just blew me away; I picked up Take the A Train, which has to be seen in real life because it's a flipbook, and K.P. & R.P. & MCMLXXI (1971).

Not sold in stores: At least not the ones I go to. I'll be able to pick up Nimona at Barnes & Noble, but the collected edition of Jonathan Baylis's So Buttons, or the British 24 hour comics anthology 24 by 7 (featuring Joe Decie, Dan Berry, Fumio Obata, and Sarah McIntyre, among others) wouldn't be so easy to find. There were a lot of books that were funded on Kickstarter — I got the first volume of Blue Delliquanti's O Human Star. And there's something delightful about buying small-press books direct from the publisher, and having the creator sign it, as I did with Dakota McFadzean's Don't Get Eaten by Anything. One non-comics find that was a particular thrill: Augie & the Green Knight, written by Zack Weinersmith and illustrated by Boulet; Boulet did a beautiful sketch on the flyleaf.

Kids' comics: Here's another thing I was happy to see: Raina Telgemeier, creator of Smile and Sisters and holder of the top four slots on the New York Times graphic novels bestseller list, was on a panel about graphic memoirs. She did some children's events as well, and interacted enthusiastically with many of her fans, but it was nice to see her talking about the art of memoir alongside Dustin Harbin, Étienne Davodeau and John Porcellino.

There were a lot of children's creators: Kean Soo (who had copies of his Free Comic Book Day comic March: Grand Prix); Mike Maihack, who was debuting the second volume of Cleopatra in Space at the show; Svetlana Chmakova, who recently announced her first middle-grade graphic novel, Awkward; Eric Orchard (Maddy Kettle and the Adventure of the Thimblewitch); and newcomer to the field Ruben Bolling, best known as the creator of the political cartoon Tom the Dancing Bug, who was debuting his hybrid comics/prose book Alien Invasion in My Backyard.

Manga: TCAF always has a great slate of Japanese guests, and this year's visitors included Aya Kanno, the author of Otomen; Gurihiru, the two-woman team who draws super-cute Marvel covers and illustrates the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels; Ken Niimura, creator of Henshin and I Kill Giants; Gengoroh Tagame, whose erotic gay manga has caused a sensation among English-language readers; and gag cartoonist Yuuko Koyama. They were feted at a party at the Japan Foundation Friday night and signed autographs and did panels all weekend long. Manga and anime guests at other cons are usually whisked out of sight as soon as their appearances are over, but at TCAF everyone stays in the same hotel so there isn't that same distance.

Panels: TCAF has a fantastic lineup of panels, but the show itself is so short that it's hard to take time away to go to them. I moderated two panels on Saturday, May 9; the first was on subscription comics and featured Box Brown (Retrofit Comics), Ryan Sands (Youth in Decline), Lianne Sentar (Chromatic Press/Sparkler Monthly) and Jordan Shively (Uncivilized Books). It was a lively hour of deeply insiderish comics talk, and I came away with a new appreciation for the subscription model as a way for small publishers to cover their production costs, pay the artists as quickly as possible, and curate a collection of work by a mix of established and emerging artists.

Immediately after that, I was the onstage interviewer for a spotlight panel with Aya Kanno, a manga creator whose works are often about challenging society's mores; her latest series, Requiem of the Rose King, is a historical tale based loosely on Shakespeare's Richard III. Kanno is a really smart creator, and our conversation ranged from her love of Shakespeare to subverting gender roles to her experiences as assistant to a creator of shonen manga.

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