INTERVIEW: NCS Fest Organizer Steve McGarry Brings Angouleme to CA

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NCS Fest will take place May 17-19 in Downtown Huntington Beach, California
A lot of us may not think of Huntington Beach, California as having anything to do with comics. After all, its history as a sports Mecca (Pro Am surfing and volleyball), site of out-of-control Fourth of July parties, air shows, and pro-Trump rallies would discourage such a designation. But come this weekend, the inaugural NCS Fest, courtesy of the National Cartoonists Society, will set its sights on breaking Surf City’s stronghold on sports with a European-style comics festival ala Angouleme.
Festival organizers Steve McGarry and Julie Tait aim to create an intimate and publicly accessible festival that offers a little something for everyone, comics fan or not. There will be artist-led workshops and author talks at the Main Street Library and Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach; a large exhibition of French comics at nearby Pacific City; face-painting, live comics panel drawings and performances live on the pier; and best of all, a window trail along Main Street displaying colorful art by prominent cartoonists. McGarry’s twin sons, Joe and Luke McGarry of Pop Noir, will headline hybrid art and animated performances at local bars, and other cartoonists will put on their musical hats to play raucously live sets.
The Beat sat down with McGarry to talk shop and the massive undertaking of creating this unique festival.
Steve McGarry’s official NCS portrait
Nancy Powell: How did NCS Fest begin?
Steve McGarry: The National Cartoonists Society were formed in 1946 by all the major comic strip artists. They’d gotten together during the Second World War to draw for the troops, and they quite enjoyed hanging out drinking and partying. So they formed the society and then every year they give each other awards because that’s what societies do.
It used to be a weekend each year in New York for many, many years. Then in the 80s, we started to take it on the road. The idea was it took you to a different city every year. So over the last 30 years we’ve taken it to every major city in America, sometimes a couple of times. And we always do a public outreach. We’ll always do a children’s hospital visit and we’ll do some sort of public event.
I was the NCS president from 2001 to 2005. At that time I did two things. I started this NCS Foundation. We always had a charitable arm, but I wanted to do more with it. And so there was a big bequest left to the NCS, and we actually started a new foundation with it, not only to help cartoonists in need, but part of our remit is to promote the art form, encourage aspiring cartoonists and generally elevate the appreciation of cartoons and comics.
And so we started our presences at San Diego. We got a big booth there, at WonderCon, New York. But what we didn’t have was a European-style festival because that’s what we wanted to do. So I spent a couple of years looking around for how to do it. I came across Julie Tait of The Lakes [International Comic Arts Festival] in the U.K., which is only about its fifth year now, and it’s gone from a standing start to be this huge festival.
The idea is that if you go to a comic con, it could be anything…it could be a plumbers convention or it could be selling aluminum siding or something. It’s just a big windowless room where people sell things to you. And that’s not really what we wanted to do. We wanted to do a festival that involved all the family that basically had events people could enjoy, expose them to stuff they knew, but also at the same time sort of surreptitiously spring a few other things upon them.
Our membership is probably about 500 of the world’s cartoonists, but it’s pretty much every comic strip cartoonist you can think of going all the way back to Caniff, Sparky, Jim Davis and Mort Walker. Every comic strip you can think of, 95 percent of them are NCS members. So for us it’s easy to set up an event where we’ve got some Zits, Baby Blues, Mutts and Beetle Bailey. But at the same time what we’ve done is we’ve brought in arts from all over the world. We’ve got artists from France, from Switzerland, from Belgium, Luxembourg, Argentina, the U.K., Australia. And all the disciplines are represented. We’ve got comic book people and animation people. We’ve got comic strip people, advertising, magazine artists. And it’s really the just to show the entire spectrum of comic art.
We wanted to present it in a way that followed the pattern of the European festivals like Angouleme and Lucca, where they take over an entire city. Partly that involves people who would not normally go to a comics convention, but it also involves the local community and the local businesses. And so everybody becomes part of the festival and hopefully gets something from it for putting what amounts to very little in, really.
So if you look at the festival we have this huge free events at the beach. We have a giant comic strip that we’re doing along one side of the pier. We have four international exhibitions. We have children’s book creators doing workshops and readings. And then we’ve got all our premium events at the Hyatt for the most serious comics experts and aficionados. I think that’s kind of an overview, but really it’s just to fulfill our remit—using our talents to promote cartooning. It’s kind of our mantra.
This is probably the most accessible and universal life form because you can communicate it in panels wordlessly. And what might take somebody a thousand words and an article, I can communicate in 30 seconds to the scribble. A lot of people think that they don’t have any appreciation for cartoons or comic art. but they do. You learn to read with the funny pages or you had your favorite toy or you know your parents would read your favorite book, the Saturday morning cartoons. Then you get into your teens go to superhero movies and all the way through to pensioners at the Hallmark store buying cartoon cards. From cradle to grave cartoons are part of your life; cartoons, comic arts, animation, you know, that broad church.
And that’s what we tried to do, to put a spotlight on the art form and make people aware that it plays a bigger part in their lives than they might see. Sounds very, very high brow when I put it that way [laughing]. Basically we want to have fun.
Powell: So NCS Fest is taking place in Huntington Beach. It doesn’t seem like the ideal place to have such a festival.
McGarry: So why Huntington Beach? Well, I’ve lived here for many years. When I was president I took the Reubens to Cancun, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Scottsdale. I never thought about bringing it to Huntington Beach because it didn’t feel quite right. But in terms of an open air festival, when you look at the footprint, footprint’s perfect because I knew that they closed down Main Street. So I got that. And then I knew on Main Street there’s a library…I can use that. Oh, and there’s an Arts Center where I can do the exhibitions, and oh, there’s a pier which is quite iconic. And so when you think about it I can take it to somewhere wet and windy. Or I can take it by the side of the Pacific Ocean.
Now you spoke that you grew up there. But when you sell that to people back on the East Coast in winter and you go, “Hey, we were doing a festival you know by the side of the Pacific. The sun was going to shine.” It’s a vacation.
The footprint element is a small, self-contained footprint where I go “Oh look at this! It’s perfect.” Close down Main Street or close down 5th and PCH. I’ve got international hotels where I can do the Reuben Awards. I’ve got Pacific City. So I’ve got everything I need within walking distance, which is a big plus.
Venue map, part oneVenue map, part two
But then the second part of the equation is that we know that there’s a huge appetite for comics and cartooning in Southern California. You know San Diego sells out immediately. WonderCon sold out one or two of the three days this year. And we also know that there are so many artists here. The studios are here. There’s a lot of publishers here. So in terms of logistics for us, if you look at our guests, we’ve got artists from all over the world. We’ve actually got quite a core group from Southern California.
So one of the other factors for us is that any other festival in the world has to figure out how to underwrite it. With us, because we do the Reuben Awards, which are kind of like the Oscars of cartooning, because we’re staging a private event in the heart of this, it means that there’s already a couple of hundred world famous cartoonists coming in under their own steam. We don’t have to underwrite it or invite them; they’re coming anyways. And when you put it together, this makes sense..let’s try and let’s see what happens. So that’s the rationale…the footprint in the catchment area and the weather.
Powell: How did NCS Fest’s focus on French artists come about?
McGarry: Partly through Julie Tait in the UK. So Julie’s festival has now become the go-to festival in the UK. That’s the biggest and fastest growing festival in Great Britain. They are on that European circuit. Angouleme is huge and unwieldy, but Lyon is very cool and very accessible. And so we were quite friendly with the director of the Lyon festival.
Right at the very beginning when we first started discussing this there were three entities that said, “Would you be interested in featuring one with Fantagraphics?” Eric Reynolds, the M.D. or CEO of Fantagraphics, is originally from Huntington Beach. When we said we were thinking doing this he said, “Oh, this is great…a festival in my backyard, I go see the folks and this is perfect.” And we said, “Well yeah, we’re sort of sniffing around see what guests we can get.” And he said, “Well I think I might be able to the Hernandez Brothers, Daniel Clowes.” Yes, please!
But then the second one was King Features Syndicate. They had just started to syndicate Liniers, basically the biggest superstar in South America, like a million Facebook followers. He does a comic strip called Macanudo, which has a massive following. He’s illustrated for the New Yorker and lots of magazines, and he’s actually living out here for a short time for King. We brought them in as partners and major sponsors.  The two things that they offered were, “Oh, it’s Popeye’s Ninetieth. Would you want to do something some big way?” Of course! And then they said, “Liniers would love to appear. Would you be interested?” So again we said, yes please!
And then the third part of the equation was Mathieu [Diez] from Lyon who told us that Penelope Bagieu was living in New York. And Penelope is one of the biggest stars in France. And she also resonates. She’s got a book called Brazen. Some of the reviews on that were sensational: New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the highbrow newspapers absolutely loved it. So he said, “I’m sure I can get Penelope to come.”
And we began to talk about it a bit more, and he said, “I’m sure I can get the comics. There’s an exhibition. Would you be interested?” And I was already a part of an exhibition called “Heroines” which reimagines iconic comic book characters as females. So it’s kind of like the underrepresentation of women in comics.
And so again it’s just kind of serendipitous because we wanted an international aspect to this. That’s part of why we’re doing it. And so the Francophone guests were pretty much using Mathieu as the conduit. We wanted Boulet, and we wanted Penelope. We wanted Lewis Trondheim. So those were three huge names that we went yes, yes, yes, please! And so it grew until I think like 15 francophone guests. Next year if we do this again we know that we’ve got interest from China and Japan, from Finland. Lots of people are very interested in being a part of this.
The way we’ve been able to do is that I’m the head of the foundation, so I would have been able to get my foundation to underwrite it to some extent because it fulfills our remit. That’s kind of what we exist to do. We’ve got some corporate partners like King Features and Wacom. Going forward we would look for more corporate partners. We have to underwrite this. We don’t have the luxury that they have in Europe, is that typically it’s municipal funding.
So Angouleme wants tourists. They’ll give them like half a million euros to stage a festival. We don’t have that luxury here. So basically our task is to find alternate ways of funding.
And you know it’s kind of like we think if we build, we’re fairly confident people will want to come just because there is nothing like this. It’s the complete antithesis of Comic Con. I mean we have presences of both.
Festival line up
Powell: So what are you most excited about?
McGarry: Pulling it off [laughing]!
I’m used to staging the Reuben Awards, which are a weekend event so it’s casual. Every year we stage effectively a destination wedding for three or four hundred people.  Think of it that way and then you kind of understand what’s going on. But festivals different animals. We have to underwrite a lot of it because people don’t know what it is. You know if you come to Huntington Beach and you go, I’m doing a volleyball tournament or surfing tournament or even if I’m doing an air show…they understand it. They go I know what this is. If you go and bring in a comic arts festival…what is that? What does it do?
Part of what we’ve done, for instance, is have a windows trail where we just marry some 30 odd businesses now and give them a famous cartoonist. We decorate their windows with a cartoonist. And so you’ll see when you follow the trail on Main Street, at 5th and PCH, there are just really massive comic art displays on these windows. Charlie Adlard from The Walking Dead was doing a zombie on a treadmill for this trail. Tom Richmond from Mad Magazine basically decorated all the windows. Starbucks on Main Street got giant windows this size, and it’s four panels of the Zits comic about coffee.
For us it’s great promo. For them it’s a great way of involving local businesses. But the challenge of getting 30 businesses and then the challenge of getting the window space around them when they don’t know what it is we’re giving them is interesting.
We did have an agreement with that building on 5th and PCH to take over an empty store, which they leased at the very last minute, and that’s caused all sorts of problems. And so we’re scrambling around to find a replacement for that, which I think we’ve done, and we’ll use that as some festival HQ.
We’ve involved the Orange County School of the Arts. They’re quite heavily involved. We wanted to do a chain comic strip at the beach, and we wanted to involve local schools and their students and basically make it a mission statement. We’ll be expanding that in coming years, but OSHA seemed like a good place to start.
We went to them and said, “Look, we want your kids to create a comic in collaboration with these famous artists, but we wanted you to write it as well.” So that’s the creative arts department, the creative writing department writing a comic book, and then all public panels up at the beach, and then our famous artists were coming…collaborate with them on it.
We got Ballet Folklorio to appear and various singers and musicians are appearing, even down to doing this giant zombie walk down at the pier. The special effects makeup classes are doing some big makeup for free for kids.
Powell: When I first saw the guest list of NCS Fest, a lot of old school cartoonists were appearing. Now it seems there are more contemporary cartoonists on the list, like the Fantagraphics group.
McGarry: And a lot these guys came through Mathieu. And if you also look, my son Luke—one of the hip artists in L.A. who does that 27 Club for Mad and Sad Chewie, he’s got huge following—but we deliberately draw in people like Penelope Gazin, Tuesday Bassen and Ryan Pagelow to hit younger artists that we wanted to showcase, what we’re doing is we want to change the dynamic of the NCS.
We tell people that NCS was probably the best 20th century comic arts organization in history. But you know, we recognize that business has changed. And part of our remit is to encourage aspiring artists and younger talent and emerging talent. There’s a lot that we can teach them in our contract. All of the debates, the pitfalls and the pinnacles of the business. We know because we’ve got this vast reservoir of experience.
But by the same token there’s a lot we can learn. I mean I’ve learned so much from Luke’s business; his career is similar to mine in some respects in that we’re both musicians and both started out working in rock and roll and doing sleeve designs and stuff like that. And then I veered off into newspapers and magazines and syndication. I would do mailings. I would take out ads. I would basically chase after editors. And that’s complete anathema to cartoon business.
Luke’s entire business is channeled through social media. So if he’s got 40,000 some odd followers on Instagram, a big chunk of those are art directors and art buyers. When they see a cartoon that resonates with two or three thousand people or gets shared on Reddit or goes viral like Melania’s Great Escape for the portal Super Deluxe. They were just on Facebook alone, I think, with six and a half million views.
So when they do something like that, it resonates incredibly. And his audience is not just fans; it’s buyers and art directors and people that will then come to him for commissioned stuff. So we look at that and go, “I never thought of doing that.” We’d been taking out a two thousand dollar ad in a telephone book, effectively. So it’s interesting to compare notes and then cherry pick. I mean it both ways… they can cherry pick what works for. We can look at what they do.
Powell: So your sons, Joe and Luke will be performing at NCS Fest?
McGarry: Yes-ish. They’re going to do a Friday night thing at a gastro pub where it has huge AV screens all around. We discovered that we can plug in there, so they’re going to plug in a cintiq, and they’re going to do a live interactive deejay and live arts. They’ll be doing some of their animated videos and some other Hip Noir videos. They’ll be curated like the typical deejay set that they do, but Luke will actually be doing a live drawing as well. And that’s kind of like a kick off for the festival.
We’re also doing a Picture This on Wednesday. It’s an interesting one. It sells out in LA constantly. They do it in LA, in New York and various other places. They marry animators and illustrators with stand-up comedians, and they live draw the standard set. And it’s usually filthy and funny, but it’s pretty good. And then a live set on Friday.
We were toying with doing a Pop Noir set on Sunday night. But I think now with just so much going on we were going to do an all-star band because a lot of cartoonists are musicians. Charlie Adlard is a drummer. Penelope Bagieu is a drummer. Patrick O’Donnell for months was a drummer. In fact, they’re all drummers. I hadn’t thought of that! But we were gonna do a live set. And David Silverman, the director of the Simpsons, is famous for playing a tuba. And he’s been on all the late night shows. They set fire to it. He plays a flaming tuba.
We did a band at The Lakes. And it was Silverman on tuba, Joe on guitar, a drummer and a bass player. And the highlight of the night was Silverman doing Spider Pig from the Simpsons—played on the tuba and singing it. The place just went crazy, all these kids bouncing around being Spider Pig. Logistically I know there’s so much going on. It’s maybe a bridge too far thing.
Common sense tells us that if it was only comic aficionados, we might have a slightly different line. But with everything that’s going down at the beach, we want to entice people. If it was if it’s too obscure they might not show any interest. But if they can you know go to the Popeye event and meet the people who do the Simpsons and face paint the kids and the zombie walk then hopefully that brings in a lot of people. Same with the library. You can learn to draw with Patrick McDonnell, Charlie Adlard, Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker. And we’ve got lots of creators reading from their children’s books. So some of it’s deliberate. And then at Pacific City French comics are on display.
Powell: Well, I’m totally excited for NCS Fest!
McGarry: Well you know, it’s certainly unique. So we’ll see what happens. I’m either going to look like a genius or a complete moron.
NCS Fest program cover

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