The MoCCA Festival at the Lexington Armory a few days ago was a fun weekend — the numerous photo galleries filled with smiling faces of dedicated artists and publishers show that. Look at Peggy Burns’ engaging set or Dan Nadel’s. Fun is fine, of course, but that’s not entirely why people go to indie shows like MoCCA, SPX, and TCAF. I’d argue that the social aspect of hanging out with fellow cartoonists is a major motivation for attending, but that’s not why D&Q or PictureBox or Fantagraphics sets up. The “indie” circuit — these shows and APE, Stumptown, Fluke and so on — has developed into a vital engine for for promoting authors and selling books.
But that’s not the goal of MoCCA Fest. As pointed out several times, its primary purpose is as a fundraiser for the MoCCA museum as an institution. And while these two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, they aren’t a dovetail joint, either.
One of the areas where this is most true is the cost of setting up and attending. It cost $12 for one day $20 for the weekend to get into MoCCA — a not insignificant sum. Table prices went for anywhere between $300 — the early bird, student discount — and $500 for a latecomer — making this a very expensive show — a full table in Artist Alley at NYCC at the Javits Center is $500, a half $300. I’ve posted the economics of tabling many times before — M.K. Reed breaks it down here–but just run the numbers. While crowd numbers for MoCCA 2011 haven’t been announced — attendance was 4000 in 2009— just doing the math for that means that making money selling 500 copies of a $1 mini comic is pretty unlikely. So people had to band together to afford a table. And get a student discount. The result was many SVA, SCAD or CCS students tabling together. And that’s a hard environment to stand out in.
This year’s MoCCA was dominated by what I refer to as “little pieces of paper.” You had two or three emerging cartoonists sitting together at one table, all with various stacks of mini comics and flyers on it. A lot of clutter — some of it good clutter but not really eye-catching or impressive.
I quizzed my intern Maggie Siegel-Berele on her MoCCA experience, and she said she had actually made back her table costs selling her $5 mini NOVICE — that was after going with the student discount/three people sharing model. She noted that her tablemates hadn’t done as well, but she attributed this to the fact that she had stayed at her table almost the whole show, and really worked on selling. “If you’re at a panel on the New Yorker cartoons, you aren’t selling you book,” she told me.
Which is a little rough, because at a show like MoCCCA, seeing a great panel is part of the appeal. But bidness is bidness.
I’ve been doing a bit of fretting and wondering of late over just what is going to happen to all the cartoonists graduating from all the cartooning schools. So many new faces from SCAD and MCAD and RISDe and CCS and SVA and other places without letters for names. It’s a boom time at cartoon schools when the greater reality is that even established cartoonists are trying to figure out how to stay busy and make a living. Tim Kreider and Julia Wertz — neither an underachiever in the talent category — have both written about the daunting horizon from an ESTABLISHED creator’s viewpoint. Kreider’s was called simply “What is to be done?” Wertz wrote:
I should preface this comic by noting that last January I was dropped by my publisher. Here’s how/why: A lot of cartoonists, myself included, were picked up by big publishing houses a few years ago when they were told comics were the hot new thing. Then when the books started coming out, they didn’t sell to their standards, the sales numbers of which are much higher than traditional comics publishers. Bottom line, people just don’t buy comics in the same amount they buy regular books, which makes complete sense since many olds still think all comics are Archie and Garfield and all the youngs do everything on the internet. I’m currently in negotiation with comics publishers, but my days of fancy New York publishing are most likely gone. I’m grateful I had the opportunity but am also really excited to return to my more appropriate, low-brow roots.
For young cartoonists just out of school, establishing a career in a giant sea of webcomics, Facebook and tweets is hard, especially when the general level of talent is as high as it is now. I surveyed a few of the newer cartoonists on what their goals for heir careers were and it was simply “To make money making comics” — you can’t get much more vague or unfocused than that.
I would say, from walking around and looking at things, that the general method now is putting out your mini-comic and putting it on a table. Which is kind of a brutal level of competition.
And there was a lot of it. I spoke to a few people who said that they thought the general level of craft has gone down a little — not as many hand silk-screened slipcased volumes and so on. It’s not only, as Wertz wrote, that the brief period where major book publishers were walking around signing up kids to book deals are GONE GONE GONE — it’s that the kids also flamed out. I’ve heard several horror stories about new cartoonists who got a deal and then just…weren’t ready for the level of focus and discipline it takes to sit in a room for a year and draw a goddam book. Ouch.
One way that new cartoonists traditionally get to the next level is to appear in anthologies — a curated place gives context and implied approval. And indeed, it seems that every generation of comics has had its signature anthology to forge a new movement– from RAW to WEIRDO to NON to KRAMERS ERGOT to MOME. The news that MOME is ending with issue 22 came at exactly the same time to mark a little end note for a certain period of comics.
Not that any of these were generally open to kids right out of school, but they were certainly where reputations were made. However modest Eric Reynolds was in talking about the end of MOME, it was a place where creators like Tim Hensley, Gabrielle Bell and Dash Shaw flexed their pen nibs with confidence and security.
Where will the next MOME be? I have a feeling that it isn’t going to be print at all…there are several iPad comics magazines that are starting up now, and while I can’t vouch for any of them, the format itself seems ripe for creating something different and possibly amazing.
Before we leave MoCCA 2011 in the rearview mirror, I wanted to note that it was nice getting to meet Matthias Wivel at the Comics Journal party. Matthias is one of the most exacting comics critics out there, and I’m happy to see he’s joined the NY comics scene for a bit. In his MoCCA post he shared the sense of no real breakouts:
All good times, but it really overshadowed what seemed to me a somewhat unremarkable festival. The programming was largely unremarkable, lacking in both marquee names or particularly worthwhile themes, so it came down to the offerings in the main hall. I like the democratic aspect of MoCCA, with tables being sufficiently cheap that a lot of DIY and underground stuff is on display, but at the same time I saw very little remarkable work outside the rosters of the show’s few “big” publishers. The impression it left of the American grass roots scene was one of slight stagnation after many years of redoubtable creative growth.
Darryl Ayo refutes this a bit in the comments, and maybe we are a bit jaded — jeez, I came to MoCCA and all I got was these new books by Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Brecht Evens, Jason, and Joe Lambert? As I and others fret about the Next Thing, I don’t want to lose sight of the Thing Right Here being pretty darned cool.
I’ll leave the last word to Secret Acres because they are always good at it:
Organizationally, there was nothing wrong with the show, either, that we heard, anyway. MoCCA is very good at being MoCCA, but it’s not the MoCCA it was. Maybe it’s the location, or the rising costs of admission and table fees, but this is a show for fans. Sean Ford, who sat next to us selling Only Skin 7, had the thought that MoCCA has competition these days. It is no longer the one and only New York show and that may be changing things as well. In any case, it’s the best MoCCA it can be and it’s time for folks to evaluate the show in its current shape. MoCCA is dead. Long live MoCCA.
Okay, now on to the Stumptown analysis!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.