Flashback: MoCCA 2002 — “BIG APPLE GOES INDIE!”

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>[Originally published on the Comicon.com SPLASH! June, 2002]

By “Ace” MacDonald

From young girls with blue hair, to old ladies with blue hair, New York’s MOCCA Art Festival drew quite a crowd. With good press, a savvy guest mix, and the enduring interest of New Yorkers in getting out of the house on a Sunday, it turned out to be as revolutionary, in its own way, as the legendary “School of Athens” SPX of ’97.

Prior to the show, the New York cartooning community was nervous. Although everyone knew it would be a good party, would anyone buy comics? Was there anyone left in New York who wasn’t a cartoonist? Would it just be one big swap meet?

To their amazement, exhibitors found a line out the door when they arrived at 11 am. By the end of the day, everyone was hailing the show’s organizer, Kristen Siebecker, as a hero to compare to SPX mastermind Chris Oarr. The name “Phil Seuling” was also thrown around. Not since SPX, which proved that an indie show could be both a financial and an artistic success, has a festival opened so many eyes.

MOCCA, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is the brainchild of lawyer Lawrence Klein. Still more dream than reality, the Museum has been putting on cocktail parties and other events throughout New York to raise funds and awareness, but Siebecker’s idea of an indie comics festival as a fundraiser surprised Klein. “Kristin really opened my eyes,” he says.

Siebecker, who has successfully organized parties for boyfriend Alex Robinson’s box Office Poison, was inspired by the SPX-iles show that was put on in Brooklyn following the cancellation of SPX 2001. “It showed that you could do something in New York, and that it was needed, so I thought, why not?” (For the history of previous travails in New York show history see .)

The event exceeded her wildest dreams. She estimates total attendance as between 1200 and 1600 people, with at least 1000 paid guests. And they came to spend. Everywhere, it was the same story. “It was our biggest single day ever,” said Chris Staros of Top Shelf. “A terrific show!” raved D&Q’ Chris Oliveros, standing behind a bare table. “I ran out of books at 1 pm,” said animator Bill Plympton, just one of the eclectic guests that only Gotham could provide. “I’ve got to go home and get more!”

With its diverse and world-class population of illustrators, animators, artists, writers, publishers and media types, New York has long been crying for some kind of “alternative art” show to bring together the many threads of high and low culture. While gallery openings for artists such as Robert Williams and Frank Kozik have served as occasional get togethers for the indy crowd, there has never been a focused event that all of New York’s tribes could mingle at. Siebecker and Klein managed to do just that.

They definitely benefited from a canny synergy of guests and venue. The Puck Building is a swanky joint normally used for wedding receptions and media parties. With giant windows swathed in white curtains, pale lights twinkling on pillars and a beautiful hard wood floor, the bright, airy atmosphere is the polar opposite of the usual dank, sweaty comic book convention. For the many civilians who came by, there was nothing to feel ashamed or icky about. “We didn’t want people with plastic bags in cardboard boxes,” Klein explains, and what a difference it made. (There is also a swell pub right cross the street for that all-important after show drink.)

Siebecker’s background is in theater, and she had laid out all the booths with an eye for both flow and theme. She even took the lighting of the room into account when figuring out which booth should go where. The result was a show that had no dead spots and looked just plain swell. One of the coolest things was that Top Shelf had an actual dark-wood bar to stand behind, just as they did back in the olden days. (Sheesh, nostalgia for five years ago…maybe Frank Miller is right about this whole retro thing.)

Another key to MOCCA’s success was to get listings in all the local New York activity magazines, including Time Out, the NY Press, and the Onion. Finally, the guest list had something for everyone. Guest of Honor Jules Feiffer drew hipsters and seniors alike. The presence of syndicated cartoonists like Patrick O’Donnell and Ted Rall and artists from the New Yorker sent the message that you wouldn’t get kicked out by your co-op board if you chose to attend. In fact, having Feiffer appear was a stroke of genius which immediately elevated the proceedings.

Equally smart was the choice of more reclusive “mainstream” guests, including Frank Miller, Paul Pope and Jeff Smith, all of whom drew crowds. Miller, who annointed SPX a few years ago, was similarly charmed by MOCCA.

But that’s not to say that the indie crowd hasn’t developed its own superstars. James Koschalka was constantly swamped, with his new Koschalka-does-Tintin PINKY AND STINKY selling by the fistful. Jessica Abel, Nick Bertozzi and Rachel Hartmann were among the generation SPX cartoonists who too busy to talk. Cartoonists came from as far as Australia, Hawaii and Toronto, and Matt Feazell, the Norman Rockwell of mini-comics, visited New York for the first time in 18 years. The excitement among locals to have their heroes in their hometown was off the scale.
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Creators as diverse as Brian “Channel Zero” Wood and Dean “Come look at my ‘Thing'” Haspiel noted a disproportionate number of “civilian” attendees; whether they bought anything or not is open to question. At least they were willing to take a polite spin around the room and not run away in horror. There were also more women than anyone could ever remember seeing at a show.

Nor could observers remember seeing such an eclectic turnout from the New York ‘toon crowd. From people who worked with Jim Shooter such as Peter Sanderson and Margaret O’Connell, to DC editors such as Bob Schreck and Joey Cavalieri, to underground illustrator types such as Leslie Sternbergh and Danny Hellman to mainstream creators Joe Staton and Michael Avon Oeming, it seemed like EVERYONE was at MOCCA.

Including the politicos. One of Klein’s missions is to turn the dream of a museum into an actual building, and he’s trying to get support from New York City and State. Since real estate is always the big problem in Manhattan, Klein has been hoping for a downtown location, which would fit in with city plans to rebuild that devastated area. Richard Schwartz. Chairman of the NY State Council of the Arts showed up at the MOCCA Fest, representing the governor, and was thrilled by what he saw, according to Klein. City Council aides, including reps of crucial Lower Manhattan districts, came and were impressed as well.

The day after MOCCA, Klein appeared before a city hearing on rebuilding lower Manhattan to state his case. He reports that council members congratulated him on the show the previous day. MOCCA may just have put cartoons on the political map of Manhattan.

On the social scene, MOCCA took advantage of the Saturday night drinking window. The MOCCA kick off party was held at a loft courtesy of Gabbagool! writer Chris Radtke. While free Stella Artois would make any party a success, this was a hot, sweaty downtown loft party that certainly didn’t seem like a bunch of cartoonists sitting around talking about John byrne. After the beer ran out, everyone hopped on the L train or grabbed a ride across the Williamsburg Bridge to go to the next event, Highwater’s Fifth anniversary party. Held in a fashionably desolate bar, decorated with ultra-cool Brian Ralph cut-outs, this was another young and hip crowd. Kochalka performed some of his best known hits, to an enthusiastic crowd. (Koschalka hasn’t always been so kindly greeted, but this was the right venue and the right time for his “well-crafted” brand of musical mayhem.)

Still, yet another happy day for Team Comics didn’t obscure the usual big questions. Publishers are still cleaning up from the LPC mess, and the fact that the “flea market” shows make so much money still means that indie products aren’t getting into stores.

One of the big questions after the event was how it would affect sales at SPX later in the year. Publishers who introduced new books, like Top Shelf and Alternative did gangbusters; those without, like Highwater, did well. Since many publishers are saving new releases for the San Diego/Bethesda leg of the roadshow, this year shouldn’t see much impact, but if MOCCA becomes part of the tour, it may become more an issue next year.

Which brings up the entire “next year” thing. Everyone is already counting on it, but just who is going to do it is up in the air. The relationship between MOCCA and an indie comics show is still developing, and at times, MOCCA’s mission got lost in the Team Comics pep rally.

While Siebecker was basking in all her well-deserved glory at a post-show dinner, accepting plaudits from Miller, Pope and Smith, she’s realistic. “Of course, I want to do it again next year, but I can’t do it alone,” she says. That the show is needed is obvious. But with New York’s unsurpassed arts scene, the potential to become something to equal the great comics festivals of Europe – in creativity, if not size – is there, even if its far down the road.

That one lone woman was able to pull off a near-flawless show in what is notoriously the toughest market in America is a minor miracle. But in order for it to repeat, others must step in. Let’s hope Team Comics can keep it going.