by Nancy Powell
[CALA kicks off its fifth edition today at the Homenetmen Ararat (Elevate Fitness Complex) at 3000 Dolores St. Los Angeles 90065. It is free to attend, with featured guest Ronald Wimberley. Art by Hellen Jo.]
When cartoonist and illustrator Angie Wang first approached pal Jen Wang (The Prince and the Dressmaker) about organizing a community-based comics event in Los Angeles, it was with a sense of dread. Jen worried about the stress and long hours involved, about friendships breaking, volunteers not showing. And then the first Comic Arts LA (CALA) came and went in 2014: friendships were preserved, new friendships and networks forged. It grew in scope and enthusiasm, and as the fifth anniversary approaches next weekend, Jen, Angie and Jake Mumm have done the impossible; they have put CALA on the map while maintaining an intimacy and community-focus that has evaded lesser comics festivals, attracting both established talent (Lisa Hanawalt, Aminder Dhaliwal, Molly Ostertag and Ron Wimberly are set to make appearances) as well as fresh new faces in the comics world.
“All the most meaningful moments of my career as a cartoonist steeped from going to a show,” wrote Jen in a 2014 Tumblr blog post. “Shows are where I’ve met some of my dearest friends. They’re where I’ve gotten the biggest boost in confidence and encouragement as a budding artist.”
Comics Beat sat down with Jen, Angie and Jake to talk politics, milestones, and future directions for CALA.
The Beat: Congrats on a milestone anniversary! How does Year Five feel compared to the previous years?
Jen, Angie & Jake (JAJ): In year five, we’ve been turning an eye to sustainability and making sure we can keep CALA flourishing over the long term. CALA used to feel like a sprint every year, and now it’s starting to feel like an institution. The wildest thing is that we’ve been around for someone’s entire high school experience! Young artists can take for granted that CALA has always been around, and we love that.
CB: How has the landscape of the industry changed since the first CALA?
JAJ: We think the comics scene has been slowly getting better at amplifying its female, queer, POC, and minority creators, and we’ve been working to reflect that in our exhibitor list as well.
CB: What inspired you to organize the event?
JAJ: Six years ago, Iris Jong—who since moved to San Francisco but co-organized the show with Angie, Jen, and Jake from 2013 to 2017—asked why independent cartoonists in California have to fly all the way to SPX or TCAF to hang out with each other. Angie said, “Well, it’s not like we can just start an indie comics convention in LA,” and Iris said, “Why not?” So Angie asked Jen if she thought we could ever start a convention from scratch—thinking it was impossible. But Jen and Jake talked it over, and came back with a determined yes, so here we are on our five year anniversary!
CB: What challenges have you faced in keeping CALA intimate, inclusive, and focused on indie artists, especially when it seems that some of the smaller cons—Stan Lee’s Comic Con and WonderCon, for example—have experienced such tremendous growth?
We’ve wanted to keep it intimate from the beginning. But we also want to accommodate more artists who want to show at CALA, so that CALA can be more inclusive. Expanding to allow more artists to show with us while taking good care of all of the people who come to CALA (exhibitors, attendees, volunteers) is a delicate balance, and we’re happy with the place we’re at right now. The growth we’re doing is more in the direction of community-building projects like the Comics Drive and public forums, and also towards initiatives to support our existing artists.
CB: The divisive politics of the last two years, in my opinion, has really changed how the comics community expresses itself. How has this affected the trajectory of CALA?
JAJ: We’ve been united from the beginning in wanting to amplify the voices of people we admire and want to uplift–many of whom are female, queer, POC, etc–as well as providing a space for everyone in LA to learn and grow, so we don’t think anything’s changed much for CALA besides making our commitment to that clearer through our actions.
CB: Has the results of the 2018 midterm elections changed any of the focus going forward?
JAJ: Hmm, we don’t think so? We’ve always had a vision for CALA as a festival born out of love and service for both the community of LA and the community of independent comics. The 2016 election made that mission feel more urgent, but 2018 doesn’t really change the stakes or the direction.
CB: Let’s talk about your 2018 poster artist, Hellen Jo. It seems that this year’s poster poses an emphatic statement on what CALA stands for in identity politics and the #METOO movement. How did Hellen come to be involved with this project?
JAJ: We’ve always wanted Hellen to be a CALA poster artist! We’ve been fans of Hellen for a long time, so it’s an honor to have her draw our poster this year.
CB: Which artists’ works are you looking forward to see?
JAJ: Ronald Wimberly is our special guest this year and we’re super excited to showcase his work at CALA. Ron is the creator of the graphic novel Prince of Cats, which just got optioned for a feature starring Lakeith Stanfield. He’s also the editor of LAAB Magazine which is a beautiful art tabloid. His work explores themes of black identity and representation in pop culture and we think it’ll really speak to the broader LA audience, and be especially inspirational for young artists of color.
CB: How did CALA become involved with helping to provide comics for incarcerated youths?
JAJ: Donating books to prisons was something we’d considered for last year’s drive. Since last year worked out really well, we decided to go for it this year! There’s an existing tradition of sending books to prisons so we reached out to some LA-based organizations that had ties to programs or facilities. Arts For Incarcerated Youth Network really stood out because they are a program providing arts education which is something we really relate to, so it made sense to work with them on this project. So far the public response has been really enthusiastic and we’re thrilled to be getting all your donations!
CB: Can you speak to the importance of comic books in education? While graphic novels and comic books have been making inroads at libraries in recent years, there still seems to be a pervasive attitude in classrooms that comic books aren’t serious reading.
JAJ: They don’t have to constitute serious reading! Narrative intent–in social media, politics, or anywhere–is as much visual as it is verbal. It would be beneficial for educators to stop thinking about comics merely as books with fewer words and start to consider the many ways that one might learn about and appreciate the world.
CB: Do you feel the Comic Book drive is helping to change these attitudes?
JAJ: It’s not clear that any attitudes are being changed, but we hope people are able to feel good about clearing out the shelves and giving their old books a fresh new audience!
CB: What are you hoping to achieve at CALA 2018?
JAJ: We hope everyone will leave inspired in their own ability to make comics. We hope their phones will have the contact information of their new friends, and that they’ll start zines or anthologies or collaborations–or even conventions–with each other. We hope they get a chance to draw on the drawing wall, or make jam comics and laugh about the silly stories they wind up with, or make a button, or read a comic by a kid, or sell out of a zine, or offload their huge unread graphic novel collection. We hope kids can see themselves in our creators and we hope our creators feel validated that people are connecting with their work.
CB: Finally, how can others become more involved in CALA?
JAJ: We would love for others to be more involved with CALA! Apply next year for a table, sign up to be a volunteer during our volunteer drives, or attend the show. Also, we’re open to suggestions on how to make the show better always.
CALA 2018 takes place December 8-9 at Homenetmen Ararat (Elevate Fitness Complex), 3000 Dolores Street, Los Angeles, CA 90065.