Christopher Butcher, Director of the Toronto Comic Art Festival (amongst other things) talks to Dan Berry about how TCAF works, how his various jobs overlap and what it is like to feel responsible for over 400 cartoonists at the same time.
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Christopher Butcher, as witnessed by Kate Beaton
Transcript by Renée Goulet;
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody, I’m Dan Berry. Christopher Butcher and I were aiming to record in Toronto after TCAF. We never quite made it. We were exhausted from the show, so we found some time to talk through how the festival works, how his different jobs cross over, and what it’s like feeling responsible for over 400 cartoonists at the same time. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Hey Chris Butcher, how are you doing?
Christopher Butcher: I’m great. Thanks for inviting me on, Dan.
DB: That’s quite alright, it’s a pleasure to have you. If people don’t necessarily know who you are, there’s a whole array of things that you do that people may know you from. You’re a blogger, you’re a retail manager at The Beguiling in Toronto. You’re the marketing director for UDON, which is a publisher.
DB: They’re in Toronto. You’re the director of the TCAF festival, and you’ve been writing about comics for a heck of a long time as well I think.
CB: Yeah, longer than I’d like to admit. It’s strange how I could have been writing about comics for 17 years when I’m only 25, but I’ve accomplished a lot.
CB: It’s weird whenever I hear all that mentioned at once. It’s really strange, because I like to think that it’s a little bit more compartmentalised than that. Most people only see one or maybe two parts of that at a given time. They’ll see The Beguiling and UDON, or The Beguiling and TCAF, or they’ll only know me from journalisting, and things like that, but even that’s kind of fallen by the wayside. TCAF has, sort of, become all encompassing. I don’t know, you were there. It was a little busy this year, yeah.
DB: I got glimpses of you in the distance looking busy. [laughs] Is that a nice way to say it? Busy?
CB: It really is. Actually this year was probably the least busy year in quite a long time. We’ve got a staff now, which is really nice. Miles Baker, who’s with the festival as the Managing Director, and we actually hired him on. He’s our first full time staff member. Before that it had been Peter and I. I mean, neither of us actually has spare time, so we just, sort of, invented a new day in the week in which to get all the TCAF things done, and then did it. But now, having a full time staff member, and then having a great trained support staff, and everyone’s coming up a notch within the organisation. We’re able to take on more things, but we’re also able to do the things that we’ve already committed to a lot more smoothly, which is nice. Peter who’s the other co-founder, Peter Birkemoe, who owns The Beguiling and I were talking about it the week before TCAF, and it’s like, he said to me, ‘I haven’t woken up out of a TCAF related nightmare into a panic once this year,’ and I said, ‘I haven’t done that either!’ And we both laughed about it, because every year we’re waking up out of TCAF related nightmares into panics about what has to be done that day. This year it was like, I slept eight hours most nights before the show, it was really nice. And Miles even got a couple hours in too. Everybody felt really good this year.
DB: Oh I see. So it was a transference thing. You took those nightmares and placed them on Miles.
CB: Yeah. Next year Miles will give it to Andrew Townsend, and then the cycle continues. We just run one person into the ground every year.
DB: You use them up! [laughs]
CB: Yeah, you just like… no, I hate to say that. Actually Miles is still with us, he hasn’t quit, which is great.
DB: He hasn’t died. He’s still with us, just.
CB: Yes, he’s still with it, he’s not done yet. [laughs] Honestly though, Miles has been pretty fantastic, and Andrew. I mean, Crystal and other Andrew, everybody who’s been a part of the festival really stepped up their game this year, and we really organised a lot earlier, and we brought in new people. Georgia Webber was one of them. I don’t know, you might have met her. She’s a cartoonist as well. She has a book called Dumb. It’s about losing her voice as an adult, and now she can only speak an hour a day, or two hours a day, and how that changes her life. Anyway, she came on to help with organisation of TCAF early on too. It’s a really big team, and of course if you mention one, you’ve got to mention everybody.
Honestly, what it comes down to is, it was a lot less stressful for all of us this year, and TCAF in particular, you know, I’m still running around. It’s still, on any given day, there are 400 cartoonists. I would love to spend a day with a cartoonist that’s in town, in from out of town, but I’ve got 400 in about three and a half days. So yeah, I really do feel like, even when I’ve got nothing to do, I should not be sitting in a quiet room somewhere. I should be out on the tables, trying to see everyone for at least 30 seconds. Maybe have a meal or two with somebody, and I got to do that this year, but there were a lot of people I didn’t get to see as well. So it’s always tough. It’s always a real balancing act, and that’s the one thing I miss the most about TCAF is that it’s the show… I built this show that I always wanted to go to, and now I don’t really get to attend. You know what I mean? I’m there, but I’m not. This year was all about trying to be as present as possible in the moment, and it was tough, but certainly better than any other year we’ve done it. Actually, we all got to talk to somebody that we liked, so it was really nice.
DB: Is it fair to say that the growth of the show, I mean, it’s obviously grown in scale from day one I guess, but have the efficiencies been found in the management, rather than the scale of it?
CB: Oh absolutely. TCAF actually started out, it was every other year, every two years, and that was stolen from Stripdagen in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. They have a big festival there, and Peter had gone for a couple of years and just said, ‘This is the way to do it.’ Do one really great thing, do it every couple of years. Invite all the greatest guests, and that’s the way we did it. So it was 2003, 5, 7 and 2009, and each one of those years was a different venue. Each one of those years marked a real increase in attendance. Each one of those years meant reinventing the wheel, really for us, because when you’re doing an event every other year you’re really only ever out of contact with your partners, with your sponsors, for maybe two or three months before the cycle starts up again. But every two years, it’s like, ‘Oh, I think we worked with you 15 months ago.’ Half the staff has quit or left for other jobs. Every year it was like we had never done the festival before, and I just got sick of it, and I pushed for every year starting 2009, 2010. And that was the biggest efficiency that we found. It was like, doing the festival every year is easier than doing it every other year. It’s actually less work, even though you’ve got two years to prepare for it, because it lets us maintain every contact and just build on what we’ve done, instead of having to rebuild it from the ground up.
DB: That makes sense.
CB: That was the biggest efficiency, yeah. Yeah it makes sense. It took us five years to figure it out, but it did make…
DB: Well, it’s counterintuitive. I think that if anyone said, ‘Right, to make your job easy you need to double the amount of work you’re doing.’
CB: Yeah, no, and I’m at the point now where it’s just like, we could do it every six months and then we would never… that could just be my full time job, and Miles’ full time job. We’d never not be doing TCAF and you’d always just be building and building and building, but we’re also not that crazy either, so that helps. Then the growth and people’s interest in it, I mean, I want to be humble about it, it’s really flattering that people want to come from England. I mean, the first year, we didn’t let anyone come from more than a couple hundred kilometres away, you know what I mean? Up until 2007 we refused people tables if they had to fly in for the show, because the whole thing was started to make people money and to promote the festival and promote things. And if you’ve got to buy a $700 plane ticket from California, there’s no way, or there wasn’t in the early days anyway, you had any hope of even breaking even, let alone making a profit. So if you’re spending money out of pocket to go do this show, I don’t think that’s something that really benefits you as a creator, you know what I mean?
DB: Well it depends I think, on what your KPIs are, your key performance indicators. If the breaking even is your main one, then I guess that equation’s right, but I think, you know, these shows are often about more than just covering themselves.
CB: Yeah, and I know it doesn’t happen for a lot of people, and it still pisses me off, to be completely honest. I wish the show provided that, but I also think now that we are established enough and we have enough of a track record that anyone who does sign up or who does want to be a part of it, knows what they’re getting into. That’s a really big thing. For the first few festivals, particularly because it was every other year, we were an unknown quantity. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like for you, to be honest, in England, but being in Canada, but being so close to the States, it was and until recently has been really easy to overlook us and what we do. Because we’re sort of close, but we’re also a little bit further away, you know what I mean? It’s a foreign show, even though we’re further south than a bunch of big cities in the States here in Toronto. But that was a big one. I guess the best way to put it is that we became more of a known quantity, and so we’re willing to let artists make the decisions about what the beneficial thing is to their career. We’re still pretty socialist as far as things go though. Like, we don’t let people do A or B or C, because we think it’s in their best interest to do D, E and F, but other than that, we do try and trust artists to know what their deal is, and I think it’s worked out alright.
DB: Do you think that people trust the show because it’s curated?
CB: That’s a big part of it. I think more than that though, it’s reputation. It’s that people have heard of the show now, and we’ve had really good word of mouth. We’ve had wonderful artists that have supported us since the early days, and that have continued to support us and continue to spread the word. I mean, Paul Gravett… the number of people I’ve bumped into while travelling that have said, ‘Oh, that’s the show Paul keeps talking about. I’ve gotta go to that, that sounds amazing.’ Like, thank you Paul. That was really nice of you, actually. José Villarrubia’s another person like that, who’s really been a cheerleader, really had our back. But the more people that experience the show, I like to think that we do a good job, so the more people that do experience it, the more people are speaking positively about it, the more people want to come. That’s sort of, where we’re at now, where it’s a curated show, and we’re turning down a lot of people who are applying but, I mean, we look at the applications and there are so many phenomenal cartoonists that I really wish we could get in to TCAF. I wish we had the tables to support them, and I think if we had the extra space to have the extra tables we could accommodate the larger crowds and do it, but it’s not something for this year or next year unfortunately. I love the library. I would love to not have to go if I could avoid it.
DB: It’s a beautiful building!
CB: I mean, there’s nothing like it in comics, at least in North America. I don’t know what it’s like… actually no, going and seeing the Lakes was really fantastic, where it was beautiful, beautiful repurposed buildings, you know what I mean? It reminded me a lot of TCAF in 2007. We were in a Victorian… maybe a little bit later, Edwardian university building that was all like, big stone and wood. It’s Victoria College, and it was wonderful. I mean, we outgrew it right away, which was the problem, and it was lots of little rooms and, you know, you make your sacrifices for something like that, but it was a beautiful space. It was very sympathetic, I guess. A really pleasant space to be in, so we knew that if we ever left there, and we had to leave there, we wanted to keep that feeling. The Reference Library I think… I mean, how many shows where you’re exhibiting is there natural light for, I think, 85% of the exhibitors the whole time they’re there? You know what I mean? Like, funny, in this convention centre, it’s lovely!
CB: Everything else is a bit of a grey concrete box, you know?
DB: You’ve made a very good point there. I can’t think of many that have a lot of natural light in them.
CB: Yeah, and it just improves the mood and people feel better.
DB: Especially from my experience, having to travel across the Atlantic to get here, it was good to have a marker to tell my body what time of day it was.
DB: That was useful! Being able to, ‘Oh, the sun is in the sky, so therefore I shouldn’t really be this tired. Oh my god, I wish I was dead!’
CB: And frankly, how many cartoonists can’t use a little bit of extra vitamin D. You know what I’m saying?
DB: I mean, you know, we need it. Our fingernails fall out, and our skin’s like wax paper. It’s disgusting.
CB: Grey, grey cartoonists.
DB: It’s pretty grim. I’ll be honest, we’re a lacklustre bunch. I speak for myself, no one else! [laughs] Oh dear. So how many people actually apply then, for a table?
CB: I think in the end this year it was 700 and something through the traditional applications, and then publishers, late applications, things like that. So we probably would have a total of 800 cartoonists apply in total, and publishers. We treat exhibitors all under the same brush. You’re either a cartoonist or you’re a publisher or you’re an organisations, like the CBLDF, and everyone applies. We’re able to accommodate… I think the final tally was about 400. There was a bunch of press people and stuff that were on the total, but about 400 cartoonists in total, and we’re actually really proud of that. I would still say I could put another… out of the applications I could take another 150, but roughly half of the people who apply don’t get in, and that’s really rough.
DB: Is the reason they don’t get in because the work’s not good enough, or because there’s a pecking order, it’s a meritocracy and you’ve got the very top layer? What’s the decision?
CB: I don’t see those two things as exclusive. Here’s how the application process works. We have a pretty detailed application form as far as these things go. I mean, most of the time it’s ‘send us your name and your cheque’, and we ask questions about what you’re doing and what you want to do and ‘why do you want to be a part of TCAF’, and ‘what are you going to have that’s new’, that kind of stuff. People fill it out to the best of their ability, and then after they fill it out, we actually go through and we say, ‘Send us three links with representative examples of your work,’ and we check every link. There are three of us that go and do the applications, myself, Miles and Andrew Townsend, and we look at everything that people send us. We look at websites to see if there’s actual work on there, and a big part of the Tumblr generation is that people aren’t keeping private Tumblrs. Their Tumblr is part their work, part things that they curate from other cartoonists. So if we go through the first four or five pages of your Tumblr and there’s none of your work on it, that counts against you pretty strongly. If we go to your private site and you’ve got a store set up and the store has one print in it, and you haven’t done any books or comics or anything like that, you don’t have anything to sell at a show, that counts really heavily against you.
And if your work just isn’t ready, like, I hesitate to say good or bad, but I do think that some people are ready to go and sell their work in public and some people are not, and they’re still developing as cartoonists and the things that they need are not what we provide them, at least in terms of a retail sales space, then they’re not going to get in either. So those are the three biggest factors. People that send us links to their work that don’t have any of their work on them. People that, I think, just aren’t ready to exhibit at our show yet artistically, and when I say ‘artistically’ I don’t mean just the art, but stories as well. We’ve got some beautiful, beautiful art that’s been submitted, artists that want to work with us, but that don’t actually do comics, or don’t do anything narrative at all, and we’re firmly a comics show. And yeah, the third thing being that they don’t… they may do a bunch of comics, but they actually don’t have any merch. And I don’t even mean merch like t-shirts, I mean merch like, there are no books. You don’t have any collections of your work, and this is a sales show for comics, for book art, for things like that. We do let people come in under the publisher auspices. We have a Wowee Zonk area, and it’s separately curated so that people who do, sort of, nominally narrative work or non-narrative work, they can get it in through there and talk to those guys as well, and see if their work fits in with the space they’re curating. So there are ways around it, but, yeah.
DB: So the Wowee Zonk is curated by a separate team then?
CB: Yeah, so we are getting old, and I’ve been getting old for a while now, and these great, talented, wonderful Toronto cartoonists, we started working with when they had just entered OCAD, which is Ontario College of Art and Design, and they formed a collective and they were doing comics work, and they were really connected in the industry, and they were talking to a lot of young people. They said, ‘Hey, could we get a table, or a couple tables for us and our friends?’ We looked at their friends’ work, and it’s like, they’re really doing a lot of great work at digging and finding people who are doing really experimental, really interesting stuff, who are coming up, who really need that break. We’ve given them various sizes of space to fill. This year it’s probably the biggest ever. I think we gave them… it was 15 tables, but they were eight foot tables, so it was the equivalent of maybe 20 tables. And that’s the space that’s in the, sort of, glass walled space off to the side behind the stage, and we just let them curate it, and it’s always one of the most interesting sections of the festival. They do a phenomenal job. I’m really, really proud of them. We come from a really traditional comics, book place, and although we’ve got very, very wide tastes, you still want someone whose taste you respect, but you don’t necessarily follow the same things that they do. And they’ve been really great about that. We’re so pleased to continue to keep working with them, and it’s Wowee Zonk is the name of their collective, but it’s Ginette Lapalme, Patrick Kyle, and Chris Kuzma. They do phenomenal work, both together and independently.
DB: Excellent. So, is part of TCAF… it’s not just this two day show. There’s also a whole series of programming going along around it. How does this work? Do people phone in with pitches, or do you have a set criteria that you’re looking for people to fill? Is it a job spec, or is it someone coming in saying, ‘I’ve got this great idea. Let’s do this’?
CB: Little bit of both, honestly. We’ve always wanted the show to be more European in flavour, but it’s a lot easier to programme a book fair. You know what I mean, with tables, and maybe a few panels, than it is to do things that are larger and more ambitious, like gallery showings, or movie showings, or really involved workshops and programmes and readings and things like that. Just the benefit of being able to work on the show longer for the last couple of years, starting in August and working with people 12 months, 16 months, 18 months in advance, knowing who’s coming to the show early, has meant that we could invest a little bit more into that. So three years ago we started Librarian and Educator Day, which is on Friday, and it’s sort of, an outcropping of TCAF. It’s sort of, an outcropping of a lot of the book industry trade shows that I would go to in the States, and The Beguiling, who’s the lead sponsor of TCAF has a library services department, where they will curate and build collections of comics and graphic novels for school and public libraries, and for institutions and things like that. Librarians have been, really, at the absolute forefront of the wider adoption of graphic novels in the public sphere in the US. There’s been sales stuff, but really it’s the libraries who are getting behind the books in a big way, and talking about the books in a big way. Not tapping into that community, A, and not giving that community something to really sink their teeth into at my show, B, seemed like a huge, huge missed opportunity. There’s no reason not to do it.
So, for Librarian and Educator Day, we’ve got all these cartoonists in town anyway, they all do phenomenal books and they all give talks, let’s do something where we get them to give a talk that’s a little bit more on the library, the institutional, the school side. I mean, the appeal’s there, you know? It worked really well, and it’s continued to work really well. It’s grown every year, which is really nice. The talks are really good, and they’re of interest… I mean, it is very librarian oriented, or teacher orientated, but we’re getting a wider and wider array of people coming to see these talks because there is a larger application to the industry. There’s a lot of library specific stuff, but, you know, just talking about how groups of children interact with books is something that other publishers are really interested in as well. So that’s been a success, and the third year was this year, and it went really well. It got written up in Publishers Weekly again, which was nice. Last year it got written up in the American Library Association newsletter, which was phenomenal. I think it’s just going to get better every year. So this year we wanted to build it a little bit more. We recognise that people come to TCAF from a good distance, not just England but even within the States. Like, a ten or 15 hour bus ride or car ride isn’t pleasant, but people come anyway, so we wanted to try to give something back to people. We wanted to try to adjust the thinking a little bit, on going to a festival, or an event, or a show, or a con. A lot of people come in Friday night, work two days and go home Sunday night, you know what I mean? It seems like if your only goal is to try and take as much money from people as possible, and more power to you if that is your goal, that’s great, but if you could tack on an extra day and it’s only going to cost you an extra $100, maybe we can give you back something as a festival. So we started what we’re calling Word Balloon Academy, which is kind of a cute name. Probably too cute for it, but we really like it, so we’re keeping it.The idea there is to do a day of workshops where again, we’ve got some of the best cartoonists in the world who are in town. Why aren’t we working to try and have them share some of their knowledge and their enthusiasm and their skills to build up their fellow cartoonists and that next generation of cartoonists as well. So, I think it was a modest success this year. The attendance wasn’t as high for all of the panels as I wanted, but it could definitely be higher, and I think everyone who participated really enjoyed it and really got a lot out of it.
So we’re just going to refine it for next year. We’ll work with Georgia Webber on that again, and Kim Hoang who just joined the team this year too, which was really nice. So now we’ve got two huge programmes on Friday. One that’s just for creators and upcoming creators, and one that’s for the teacher/library sector. Then we actually also, for the last couple of years… actually the last maybe, five or six years, there’s been an academic conference in Toronto, at the University of Toronto, and we just started working with that organisation. We brought them under our wing, so they were at the Marriot as well for Friday and Saturday, doing two full days of programmes. So we’ve got the teacher/librarian section covered. We’ve got creators covered, where they can actually see panels now, because Saturday and Sunday they want to be at the booths. So we created some programming for them on Friday, if they can come in early enough, and we’ve got an academic conference as well that addresses that portion of the industry. So it really is about reaching every kind of comics fan, every kind of audience, for us. That’s been a big part of it, and that’s why we do all the different programmes and things like that. To say nothing of the… I think we did some insane number of programmes. There was like, 100 programmes this year. Basically all day Saturday and Sunday there was five to seven concurrent programmes running the whole time. You really had to pick and choose what you wanted to do, and that was great. We were happy to do it, and people seemed to enjoy it, but that’s the way the festival’s going to grow as well. We have to do more programming, because we’re not putting more people on the floor, so we’ve got to find different ways for creators to engage their fans and the public that aren’t just sitting at a table and selling books. It’s weird how that’s become the dominant… sorry, can I go off on a tangent? Do you mind?
DB: Go for it!
CB: I find it’s very strange how going to a con, sitting at a table and selling for two days and not seeing any of the city that you’re in, and not getting to do anything except get hammered every night, has become the dominant method of celebrating our art. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but it has happened and it is codified, and people really resist trying to change that. I’ve always wanted a little bit more, and it’s been hard, but going to Kendal last year and just getting there a couple days early, and seeing all the ways that… for a first time show, you know what I mean? That was the thing that got me. For a first time show, how ambitious it was, and how they wanted you as an exhibitor to see more than the inside of the Clock Tower. They wanted you as a participant to see more than someone sitting at a table selling books, and you need that. I absolutely 100% agree that a creator who’s travelling needs that opportunity to make that money… at least partially make their money back. Some of our exhibitors do really, really well, and they’re all going for fancy dinners on Sunday and I’m really excited about that, but there’s got to be more to it than that for me, and I think TCAF needs more than that. We need more ways to engage the medium that aren’t book fair tables and getting drunk in a bar. We’ve got those covered too, so you can do that as well at the festival.
DB: [laughs] We’re not talking either or. It’s not a binary choice.
CB: Yeah, it’s that, and.
DB: Do you think that there’s an argument that can be made that if what you’re doing is different from a lot of other shows, a lot of other festivals, bringing in organisers of other festivals and sharing the knowledge as a stream of programming. You know, if this is sharing best practices with librarians, would it work as well for other organisers?
CB: We actually had, I think, four organisers on hand this year. Julie came from Kendal, and then the Thought Bubble crew, Lisa, Martha and Clarke… oh Clarke… came this year as well, which was great. A fellow named Daniel came up from a Brazilian show, which was really exciting, and then I think there were at least two or three other organisers. I apologise if I’m blanking on their names right now. If you’re listening, I’m sorry. But I think people are coming to TCAF. I know Warren from SPX, when he took the reins of SPX, came for a few years, just to see what we were doing and trying to figure out, ‘Why are people saying that the show is so good?’ Maybe this will sound immodest and I apologise, but SPX really invested in their show over the last couple of years, where people are really having a good time at it, and they’re really… like, you can see their effort, and you can see their effort paying off. If part of that was coming to my show and having conversations with Warren, and that pays off for them, then that’s great, because we’re not doing any of the TCAF stuff for us, you know what I mean? We’re doing it for the people who are exhibiting at the show, and for cartoonists in general. I really think in this instance, there’s a rising tide that floats all the boats in this. And if we can make our show better, and share the information and the things that we’ve learned, then we can make all the shows better and make creators have a better time. That said, there are a lot of shows that do not give a rat’s ass about creators, or about the art, and I’m not particularly interested in sharing my time or energy with those folks.
CB: I’m not interested in sitting down and having them pick my brain, because I don’t give a fuck if they succeed or not, frankly. You know, I’m a pretty good judge of character. And I work with people who do commercial cons, and they do great shows. Like, really great shows that I like, that the creators like. I love being able to share information with people, and I love when they share information with me. We’ve learned a lot from doing shows too. Sorry to go off on a rant like that. We are always happy to talk to people that want to do good work and take care of people. I’m glad that people want to do the same for us.
DB: I think one of the things… this is something that has been bothering me, since I came back from TCAF. I flew back, when was this now? Last week? Something occurred to me while I was flying back, and it’s been bothering me ever since. Imagine now, I hand you my car keys and I say, ‘My car is in this enormous car park, and my car is in space number 376. Can you go and get it for me?’ If you don’t have those numbers on the parking spaces you don’t know where you are, but this is what every single show does, is it says, ‘Oh Dan Berry’s on table 217,’ and then there’s no signage anywhere to say where you are.
CB: Yes, that’s correct. We could do that better. [laughs]
DB: I think everyone could do that better.
CB: Yeah, sorry!
DB: That’s okay! I’m not pointing a finger, jabbing a finger and just, ‘Chris! Fix this now!’ But, it kind of asks a bigger question about wayfinding at these shows anyway.
CB: Oh yeah.
DB: A while ago, I took a visit to a pen show. You know, a fountain pen show, so exactly the same set up as a small comic show. You have these exhibitors, and they have their stock laid out, and it was really, really enlightening to go to a place where I didn’t really know what was going on. Going in with these fresh eyes and not knowing the rules. You know, am I allowed to pick them up? Am I allowed to speak to the guy? Is he going to think I’m stupid if I don’t know what that means? It was very, very enlightening being in the same position that a lot of people coming into a show would be in, if this was their very first comics show. I think that a lot of times, a lot of that hesitancy that you see in first time people, you know, ‘Am I allowed to talk to you?’ ‘Oh, if I talk to you I’m going to have to buy something.’ I always think that it would be great to put together a small leaflet saying, ‘So this is your first time? Okay, don’t worry, you don’t have to buy everything. You don’t have to buy something from someone who speaks to you. If they put it in your hand, you can put it back on the table. That’s fine.’ These really, really simple… I guess it’s etiquette, isn’t it?
CB: Sure. You know, we actually lean on the exhibitors pretty heavy for that. When we’re picking people who set up at the show, we look for people who have work that does have an appeal to the general public. We’ll do inside baseball as well as the next guy. Sorry, euphemism. We’ll do inside comics stuff, where it’s like, comics about comics about comics, and sort of, the snake eating its own tail. And that’s great, but we do pick people, and we pick people for the first floor and by the entrances, who are doing books that are friendly and interesting and approachable to people who aren’t familiar with the industry. People who are going to be able to answer questions. People whose work is sold outside of traditional channels, I guess. I’m always thinking about… like, we do a lot of vinyl signage that hangs, and banners that hang, and we could always do more and we could always do better, and we refine it every year, but I’m always really concerned about, like, what if someone who’s walking into the library, who didn’t know that TCAF was happening, who just wanted to study, or wanted to go and hide in the stacks somewhere, what do they think of this? Usually I’ll actually stand out in the front, just in a volunteer shirt for a couple of hours. I didn’t get to do it this year, because I was running around too much… and just let people approach me, because I’m wearing a brightly coloured shirt and people assume that because the four other people with me are all in those shirts, they can just approach me and ask questions. Usually the question is, ‘Where’s the washroom,’ and I can point them out to them. But a lot of people will have, like, ‘What is going on here?’ ‘What is this thing?’ ‘Why are you here?’ We’ll answer that, and it’s interesting, to me anyway, how quickly people get it.
Once you explain that it’s okay to go in and check it out, it’s not a private event, and a big part of that is that we choose a big public building that, once you walk through the security gates, there’s no where to go but through this mass of people, that helps a lot. People will pick and choose and look at things. We’ve crammed into every spare corner of the first floor, so you really can’t avoid it if you don’t want to, unless you just hop right in the elevator and hide. I think we do a good job on that front. Like I said, we could always do better, but I do think that people who are… and we got some of that actually, from people posting on Twitter going, ‘There was this thing at the Reference Library today, and I bought two books and I didn’t even know what was going on, and it was great.’ That’s good. Or my mom came, and she bought some socks from Rich Stevens a couple years ago. She’s like, ‘I found these socks with robots on them, and these are great, and I have these socks now.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t even see you buy that. That’s great.’ Then I went back and introduced her to Rich, and Rich was like, ‘I didn’t know it was your mom, I wouldn’t have charged her!’ I was like, ‘No, that’s fine.’
DB: ‘You’re supposed to be selling books!’
CB: [laughs] But that’s the thing! Rich had books at his table, and he was there because he’s a great comic artist and great cartoonist who… I mean, he works entirely in pixels. He works in a totally different style than the other cartoonists, but he earned a spot at the show, but he also had just a tiny bit of merch, and that was the thing that got my mom, who isn’t a comic book person, to spend money at the show, unprompted by me. You know what I mean? That’s the kind of stuff that we do. It’s not a list of thing that’s in the front of the programme guide that you hand out to people, but it’s more invisible than that. It’s more… ‘creating winning conditions’, is the way we like to think about it. Like, we created these conditions where it’s going to work for the public and it’s going to work for the exhibitors, most of the exhibitors, and it’s going to work for these people. We’ll just let thing go, and if something comes up where it’s not working, and someone lets us know, we’ll make the changes on the spot. And we do. We actually, sometimes will adjust table spaces a little bit over night, which usually freaks people out, because they’re like, ‘Wasn’t the table six inches to the left yesterday?’ I was adjusting table space up to the last second on Friday night, with me and a team of great volunteers. Just like, ‘Alright, we’re going to move it six inches this way. Okay, two inches back. Okay, straighten it.’ It’s ridiculous, but we also had the best traffic flow we’ve ever had at the library, where people felt like they could get in and move through and no one was crowded and no one felt cramped and it was nice. So, we do make those little changes, and we do just, try to create the conditions where things work. I think I’ve worked it out, and I think it works out every year, but if anyone’s got feedback as well, we’re pretty open to hearing it too. But table number on the tables, we have heard that, and we will do that next year, I promise. If we don’t, you can give me shit, okay? I apologise.
DB: Definitely. Just prepare! One of the other things I was interested in talking to you about, is how much of the work you do with TCAF crosses over with the work you do at The Beguiling, and crosses over with the work you do with the publisher and your own journalist work as well? You mentioned right at the beginning that it was compartmentalised, but is there a bleed between what you do, or is it very, very distinctly different jobs?
CB: Actually the biggest bleed through, there’s two big areas. One’s positive and one, I think, is maybe negative or neutral. I’ll let you guys decide. The positive one is media building. Developing a media list for UDON also, and developing one for TCAF and developing one for The Beguiling, that goes into a nice big bucket. Obviously we talk to individual people in the media, but our press list is probably, at least three times the size of any other indie comic show, if not much bigger, because I also do marketing and press for a publisher, and because I also inherited a marketing list and a press list for The Beguiling when I started out. So, managing the mailing lists and managing the press and our contact there is probably the biggest bleed and it’s really beneficial to everybody. All the bosses like it. I like it. The other big crossover for me, and it involves the journalism stuff, is that TCAF is just this outcropping of things that I thought about comics industry that should be changed. I was not an impartial journalist, or writer, or blogger. I was very impassioned, and I had very strong opinions on how things could be right, or how things could be wrong. And I got an opportunity to ‘put up or shut up’, working with The Beguiling. It’s like, ‘Alright, you think that a comic store should be run this way and done this thing? Well now you’ve got this job at the most idealistic comic book store, and you’ve got pretty much free rein to do whatever you want to do, so do it.’ So we do, and I feel really good about that. I think creators should be treated in this way, and I think we should put creators’ rights at the forefront, and I think we should publicise the kind of work that is ultimately most rewarding to a creator, or what I feel is most rewarding. That’s creator owned work, but that’s also work that’s creator participation. That’s also work that reaches beyond the existing audience of superhero fans. This is more in North America than in the UK, and that’s what TCAF is.
TCAF’s like, ‘Here are the things that I think are good about comics, and here I’m going to make a show about that. I’m going to find a bunch of like-minded people to do it with me, and it’s going to be great.’ And then it is! That’s very much a ‘put up or shut up’ thing. And that’s exactly the kind of stuff I used to argue for. Unfortunately, [laughs] it means doing the show, and working with The Beguiling… and Peter, I mean, god bless him, he doesn’t care who I piss off almost. I would say, yeah… as long as I’m pretty sure I’m right, but I feel like, I would hate for something that I… if I was critical of an organisation or an institution in a very public way, for that to come back on exhibitors at TCAF, or people that chosen to exhibit at TCAF. I really do take the responsibility of having 400 cartoonists in town under my auspices very seriously, and I would hate to think that something that I did affected them negatively in some way, or affected the show negatively and took away that revenue stream or took away that educational stream for them, or took away that social stream even. I would hate to think that that happened. So, I tend to keep my mouth a lot more shut now than I used to, and for a couple years I could still write about manga. I didn’t have to worry about North American comics, that was all off the table, but then I started working at UDON. UDON does a little bit of manga, they do a little bit of comics. Mostly they just translate Japanese art books into English, and it’s my job to sell those art books based on video games and anime, and it’s great. It’s super great fun. I really like it. It’s building a whole other skill set for me of marketing and publicity, and I’m really glad I get to do it, but now I can’t criticise publishers making stupid decisions, because it looks like… I work for a competitor! It looks like I’m just being an ass, and using my position to talk down to people, or try and knock out a competitor, when nothing’s further from the truth. You should see me at the meetings at my own company, but that’s just the way it goes, right? Now that I’m employed by UDON I can’t talk shit about someone else’s manga programme, or talk shit about someone else’s creator services thing. You know, like what people get paid.
DB: You’re the man now.
CB: It’s really rough. Yeah, well I have been co-opted by the establish. I apologise to everybody.
CB: I really hope TCAF makes up for it, I actually do. God, I am so… I’m a lot…
CB: Yeah. Institutionalised is about right. Honestly, I used to be so angry about the injustices in comics, and, you know, the hippies get old and the punkers get old and everyone gets old. I guess that anger fades a little bit with time, but I still get really pissed about inequalities, and I really get pissed about poor treatment of creators, but now instead of just writing on my blog about it, and talking shit about people and shaming them into doing the right thing, I can actually work on the other side and encourage people to do the right thing by saying, ‘If you do the right thing, we’ll get to do this cool thing together. Isn’t that nice?’ Like, isn’t that a nice thing?
DB: Oh, the carrot rather than the stick.
CB: Yeah, carrot rather than the stick is actually exactly what I was going to say. And I’d like to think I’m doing a good job there, but yeah, if it ever closes down or if I ever stop doing it, I will be on the internet the next day.
CB: I have a list. People that need to know things have gone wrong.
DB: I think I’m on that list now!
CB: No, you’re fantastic. I actually took my first meeting at Diamond this year, and I used to really, really give the gears to Diamond, because they could be doing a better job. Let’s just put it that way. There are problems that I have there that have not gone away, and I am happy to talk to them at any time. Yeah, I finally actually took a meeting at Diamond, and I’m like, ‘I wonder if any of these people know who I am from writing and stuff?’ Because I used to get letters from Diamond back, and the answer is yes. Yes they do remember me, but we still had a really positive meeting anyway, so that’s good. I like to think we’re all trying to do good things. I really do. I want to believe the best of people, and it’s just when it’s demonstrated otherwise… that’s when I want to tear them a new asshole on the internet, but I’ve mostly… mostly give that up.
DB: [laughs] Well I think that’s a fine note to end on, the idea that there’s positive stuff out there, and if you dwell on the positive, or you look for the positive, that’s what you find… I think.
CB: I hope so. I actually feel like I may be luckier than I deserve to be, given my more infamous start in the industry, you know? I’ve gotten to meet pretty much all of my comics heroes that are still alive, and I’ve gotten to do cool projects with them, and I got to help my friends, and I’ve got to help people who are doing good work who aren’t my friends, but are still doing good work. I’m really fortunate in that regard. I’m really happy about that, and I’m happy that a bunch of people want to work with me, so we can keep doing it. Because if it was just me and Peter, I don’t think I would have lasted much past last year, and it’s really be the enthusiasm of the new people that have joined the festival and taken up the reins for a lot of the work. I mean, Miles and Andrew, Gina and Crystal… sorry, everybody. It’s been awesome, and that’s why we keep doing the festival, because there are people that have new ideas. There are cartoonists that haven’t come to TCAF yet, and that’s always a thing. It’s like, ‘Well, why hasn’t Lynda Barry come? That’s really embarrassing. We should probably fix that.’ That kind of thing, and we’re constantly driven forward by inspiration, but also embarrassment. People we haven’t had at the show yet. So we’ve got plenty of time to fix all of the things. We’ll just keep going and just keep going.
DB: Cool. So people should have a look at the Toronto Comics Art Festival site. What’s the web address for that?
CB: Please go to torontocomics.com, and that’s for TCAF. I don’t really update my own site very much anymore, but if you want to know more about the other stuff that we do with UDON, just Google ‘UDON’. We’re their first entry, or ‘UDON Entertainment’. It’s udonentertainment.com, but that’s hard to type in sometimes. We do cool art books, we do some neat graphic novels. We had a really successful Free Comic Book Day book or two this year. I could do a whole other interview where I’m not just talking about myself, but instead other people’s things. Have me back sometime, please.
DB: Sure, absolutely! And The Beguiling as well, if people are in Toronto and they don’t know what this is, this is a bookshop.
CB: Yeah, The Beguiling.
DB: They should go.
CB: The Beguiling Books & Art. The Beguiling is the sponsor of TCAF. We stock graphic novels. We stock so many graphic novels and comics and things. Please check us out. And then we’ve got a new kids store as well, which we opened a couple years ago, called Little Island Comics. There’s a cute Little Island logo, and that’s great. That’s the other thing, it’s just like, again, let’s just do something cool. Let’s engage a new audience, let’s do something cool. So Little Island Comics. You can see a little bit of the shop online, but it really is worth visiting if you’re ever in the Toronto area. It’s pretty special.
DB: Awesome. Chris, thanks very much for speaking to me.
CB: Oh Dan, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.