MoCCA 2010: Pro and Con

Posted by on April 15th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Clough discusses the highs and lows of this year’s MoCCA Art Festival in New York City.

The MoCCA (Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art) Art Festival is an event that’s gone through a lot of changes in the past couple of years, and it’s been obvious that both the museum and the festival are feeling some growing pains.  The steering committee went through a rather severe changing of the guard, and it was a different cast that put together last year’s show.  That had to be a stiff challenge, considering the festival’s goal of trying to maximize profits for the museum in a city that doesn’t have a lot of venues that are large enough to meet the greater demand for tables at anything resembling an affordable price.

The difficulties surrounding last year’s show have been well-publicized.  The brutal heat wave in June made the un- air-conditioned Armory a sweatbox.  Many complained about an overall lack of publicity for the event.  There were a number of logistical problems, from the books being delivered late to difficulties in opening the show’s doors on time.  Compounding the organizational difficulties and lack of amenities for exhibitors and fans alike was the enormous price hike on tables, combined with a limit of six exhibitors per table.

The museum received another black eye this year when there was a great deal of confusion regarding its Archie art show, wherein the perception was that the museum was meekly going along with the publisher’s party line of not giving proper credit to its artists.  The perception that the museum’s official responses to complaints about the festival and the exhibition were deflective and defensive at best, and obfuscatory and condescending at worst, certainly didn’t help matters any.

How did the festival respond to these criticisms in 2010?  The best fix the show’s organizers made was to move the show from June to early April.  The show dodged a mid-week heat wave, enjoying weather that was pleasant, if a tad on the humid side as the day progressed.  There were a few snafus regarding admission; Colleen Frakes reported that no volunteers came outside until 11 a.m. to organize the line.  As a result, there was a lot of chaos with only one line being created, despite two classes of ticketholders (pre-purchasers and those buying at the door).  Many folks who pre-purchased tickets were let in after those who bought at the door, which brought some complaints.

That said, the doors opened about a half-hour late on Saturday and just 10 minutes late on Sunday.  The volunteers running the ticket tables seemed enthusiastic and did their best to move the line along.  I had no difficulty obtaining my press pass, thanks to excellent communication on the part of publicity director Karl Erickson.  Thanks to the weather and the simple demand for comics in New York, there were throngs of fans.  It was hard to tell just how many, given the expansive size of the room and the pleasantly wide distance between tables.  On Saturday, there seemed to be a couple of thousand folks going from table to table, and there were plenty of fans who were in a mood to buy.  The impressive guest list drew a lot of fans, including a rare East Coast appearance from Jaime Hernandez and a panel (and later signing) from legends Arnold Roth, Gahan Wilson and Al Jaffee.

The programming track (organized by The Daily Cross Hatch’s Brian Heater and SMITH magazine’s Jeff Newelt) was impressive.  The placement of the prominent alt-publishers was sensible, as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Pantheon and NBM were all to be found in the front of the room.  The presence of active soldiers in the Armory added a certain surreal element to the proceedings; it was quite clear that the MoCCA organizers salvaged the Armory as a viable venue for their show, and I’d guess that the show will remain in this space for the foreseeable future.

If that’s the case, the organizers still have a bit of work to do.  First, they seriously overestimated demand from exhibitors for tables.  There was a huge swath in one corner of the room where they sold no tables, and it was converted into a “reading area” with cocktail tables covered with freebies.  That area in and of itself wasn’t a bad idea and helped stem traffic problems.  The problems stemmed from the tables behind that area, along the wall, which were effectively cut off from the rest of the show.  Many artists stuck there reported record-low sales and almost zero foot traffic.  Even worse, because of the lack of demand, there were some artists who requested a table late in the process who got prime space, when other artists who had reserved their tables much earlier got shafted with poor placement.

I’m not sure why MoCCA wasn’t able to sell out all of its tables after years of doing so in the Puck Building, but the increased cost combined with last year’s difficulties certainly had to play a role.  The organizers may have thought that demand from exhibitors would be such that they could weather the complaints, but it’s clear that this wasn’t the case.  They  might consider lowering table costs for those who pay for their tables by a certain date as a show of good faith.  It does seem enormously unfair for a last-second exhibitor getting a better table at the same price as an artist who made the commitment to get a table last year without even knowing the date of the show.

There are any number of ways the show could be improved that would be quite simple.  One problem with the Armory is the lack of amenities.  While there are certainly a number of fantastic restaurants within a stone’s throw of the Armory, the show still desperately needed someone to sell drinks.  They managed to do this in the smaller Puck location, along with selling prepared sandwiches, so I don’t see why they couldn’t do this in the Armory.  Indeed, the “reading area” would have been a perfect location for a booth that sold drinks.  Even if they just sold bottled water and coffee, it would have been a huge boon for show-goers — especially if they also provided chairs in that area.  Creating a true lounge atmosphere would have made the entire show more comfortable in a venue entirely devoid of amenities.

The international scope of the show was one of its big stories, with the Scandinavian corner featuring artists from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.  While the Top Shelf-sponsored artists from Sweden made the biggest splash, the more underground-styled minis and books from the other Scandinavians were even more interesting.  Combined with the usual European offerings from the Bries table, this made MoCCA a must-see show for comics that wouldn’t normally be found in America.  Fantagraphics debuted a ton of new comics, including a number that won’t be widely distributed until this summer.  The release that excited me the most was the long-awaited Artichoke Tales from Megan Kelso; the first chapters of it won Ignatz awards years ago and first appeared in the legendary anthology NON #5.  The artist whose presence I found most intriguing was Dunja Jankovic, the Croatian cartoonist who had a sequel to her excellent Department of Art comic (this one self-published), as well as five issues of her Ego minicomic.

Students and alumni from the Center for Cartoon Studies took up nearly the entire back wall of the show, and they had an impressive array of minis and anthologies.  They had a free tabloid anthology that was one of the bigger hits of the show.  The newspaper tabloid was used by a number of other artists as well, allowing full color without breaking the bank.  A common theme at the show was how the down economy has had a brutal effect on the artists who are drawing for a living.  Some artists who have had books published over the last couple of years don’t have much in the way of future prospects.  One artist who published a well-received anthology last year noted that despite his desire to publish more of them, he simply took too much of a financial bath on the book to publish again on his own.  It’s simply much more difficult to make a splash with an anthology in a marketplace that’s saturated with them.

It wasn’t grim for everyone, as Hope Larson, Dash Shaw and Raina Telgemeier, among others, celebrated recent or brand-new book releases.  The boutique alt-publishers also seem to be flourishing, and cutting-edge publishers like Sparkplug and Secret Acres (who debuted new comics from Elijah Brubaker and John Brodowksi, respectively) have also been quite successful.  A number of artists are turning to the Web as a way to get their material out there; one artist told me that a strip she had been shopping to a syndicate got turned down, and no publisher has been interested in printing it in bulk.  As a result, the plan is to send it to the Web.  A number of artists have talked about using Kickstarter to get their projects off the ground, while others hold out the hope of applying for a Xeric grant.

Despite the difficulties, everyone I spoke to remained committed to comics. The sheer enthusiasm from the CCS crew was palpable; their commitment was obvious in the results of their work ethic.   Some folks who had been away from the scene for a while made welcome returns. Jack Turnbull had his complete Invasive Exotics series, and noted that he was just getting warmed up in his return to comics. It was great to see Lauren Weinstein, who’s slowly getting back into the swing of things after giving birth to Ramona. Her husband Tim Hodler was basking in the glow of Comics Comics’ Eisner nomination, and Frank Santoro’s  curated back-issue boxes had steady business throughout the show.

Speaking of babies, the cross-section of folks to be found in this show continued to be unlike any other show I’ve attended.  The gender split was 50-50, and there were a remarkable number of families and teens to go along with the usual 20somethings to be found at such events.  One could sense the hunger and love of comics amongst the showgoers, people who were willing to stand in line for a long time just to get a crack at buying hand-made comics, art and talking to their favorite artists.  Indeed, though there’s always a social aspect to these shows (more frequently played out in aftershow parties), it’s the books themselves that are the true lifeblood of this event.

The museum organizers would do well in embracing the event for what it is while getting publicity for the museum itself.  While the museum’s programming and exhibitions are its lifeblood, it’s a simple fact that the festival will always be more popular and well-known than the museum itself.  Rather than fight it, the museum should find ways to channel the hunger for comics that the show elicits into the rest of the year.  The best way for them to do this is to create the best possible environment for exhibitors and fans alike.  While they’re certainly moving in the right direction, there’s a lot that they can still do to improve things — things that don’t even require a lot of time or money, just attention to detail and a true desire to make the festival their flagship event.

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2 Responses to “MoCCA 2010: Pro and Con”

  1. cfrakes says:

    Colleen Frakes reported that no volunteers came outside until 11 a.m. to organize the line.

    I felt SO BAD for the poor volunteer who came out to direct the line on Saturday. The confusion could have been easily been avoided with a sign. With all the cartoonists around, I refuse to believe someone didn’t have paper and a sharpie :)

  2. […] | Rob Clough and Frank Santoro file reports from the MoCCA Festival, while Graphic NYC and Indie Spinner Rack […]