Why Toronto Comic Arts Festival matters

On the opening night of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, organizer Christopher Butcher articulated a simple and very important vision for the event:

I looked at the people we were already approaching for 2014 last year, and we had an incredibly strong lineup already of people who wanted to participate who were women who were working in the industry with a history or who were fresh faces doing exciting, wonderful material, and we decided that was going to be an unspoken theme, we were going to really try to spotlight, highlight, the work of women in the industry ... This isn't a one-year thing for us. This isn't just a theme this year, we aren't going to be going back to anything, I think we have done a good job of showing the diverse faces of the comics industry but we can always be better... I want us to continue to be as inclusive as possible and to include all different kinds of work. I want comics to be the theme of TCAF and that means including everyone who makes comics, and particularly people who are doing a good job.

Then Butcher did something truly amazing: He introduced a panel of three women that was not titled "Women in Comics." At TCAF, women were simply treated as equals and judged on their merits. And trust me, I walked the halls at the Toronto Reference Library and came back with two bags of comics and graphic novels, so I know: There were no charity cases at TCAF. Every exhibitor, male and female, was top-notch. This is a show that a huge number of people want to be a part of, so organizers can pick and choose. What they did this year was simply choose more women, which makes sense in a field where women have been well represented for many years. (There were plenty of men as well, they just weren't in the majority as they are at every other show.)

So maybe the best thing is that this is a show full of great creators and I didn't notice that there were more women than usual until Butcher pointed it out. These are the people whose comics I have been reading all along anyway.

TCAF matters not only because it has become one of the most prominent showcases of indie comics and graphic novels but because it's an event that very deliberately waters the roots of comics. The mix of individual creators and small presses allows editors to do some scouting and creators to do some pitching. The general public is invited — the library is open for business as usual, and because the event is free, there's no badge lottery or ticket line — so people could wander in and find comics by sheer serendipity, although the crowd was a bit forbidding at times. Librarians and educators got their own special day, with a full track of programming and a keynote address by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, whose That One Summer is already one of the most talked-about graphic novels of the year. Saturday was Kids' Day, with appearances by Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier, Jimmy Gownley and other children's comics superstars. Inside the library, an entire room was dedicated to children's comics, with a friendly array of creators and a bit more breathing room than the rest of the venue. There was a whole Comics Vs. Games track, acknowledging a crossover that is increasingly important but seldom discussed. Not one but four prominent manga creators were present, and not only did they get spotlight panels, but there were other panels about the medium and the industry as well. By catering to diverse groups of readers, to new readers, and to the teachers and librarians who will bring comics to new readers, TCAF made some major steps toward expanding the audience for all comics.

TCAF has also become a show where publishers debut significant new graphic novels, although "debut" is kind of a funny word; my daughter bought a copy of one of the "debut" books last month. But if we go with kind of a soft meaning for the word, it's true that this is where a new graphic novel can get a bit of extra love, with the creators on hand to sign copies and talk about it on panels. That brings an added level of engagement for the interested reader.

In the end, then, TCAF is important because it's both the present and the future of comics, a place where established creators talk about their work in depth in spotlight panels and young artists show off their best work at carefully arranged tables, and everyone mills around together afterward. It celebrates the accomplishments of career artists and the beginnings of the next generation. And most important, as Christopher Butcher said at the kickoff panel, it embraces everyone who is making comics — particularly those who are doing it well.

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