Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival Was Less Fun Than I Would Have Liked

Robert Boyd

This weekend I flew into New York to visit the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival (aka the BCGF) for the second time. I loved it the first time, so I had high hopes. Things went wrong right from the start, though. My hotel, down in the Meatpacking District, had been flooded. Although they had light and heat, the elevator and the wifi were still out. The former was a drag (especially after long days spent on my feet), but the latter was crippling. I was expecting to be able to post from the road, and now I couldn’t. I had lugged my heavy lap-top all the way to New York for no reason. My mood was soured.

I got in Thursday night and spent all day Friday gallery-hopping with a friend, first in Chelsea (the Trenton Doyle Hancock show was a standout—I’ll have more to say about it later), then over to Brooklyn to check out some of the shows associated with the festival. But we didn’t look at the schedule closely and realized we were early for two of the exhibits. They were still hanging work when we showed up.


B.ü.L.b. at Beginnings Gallery

The B.ü.L.b. show at Beginnings Gallery, however, was up, but disappointingly contained no original art. The visuals were mostly uncut sheets from their various publications.



B.ü.L.b. is a design studio/comics publisher from Switzerland. Their website is in French, but you can read their manifesto in an approximation of English here. One thing they create are little boxes with several tiny accordion fold comics in each. These comics, the 2[w] collection, are done by the very best art comics artists all over the world and printed by silkscreen. They are lovely objects. The boxes started with “A” in 1997 and they have been heading steadily toward “Z”—they are on “Y.” I propose that they continue the 2[w] series employing other alphabets—Greek, Russian, Arabic, etc.


Some 2[w] comics boxes with a Jim Drain comic in the foreground

I think the satellite art exhibits were new this year. Working with galleries in Brooklyn, the BCGF arranged to have several solo and group shows for a variety of the guest artists. The tricky thing with something like this is timing. If you have all the openings on the same day as the show, it is impossible for visitors to attend them all. But if you spread them out too far, it may be impossible for artists to attend both their opening and the festival. Also problematic was that the gallery spaces were spread out pretty far. It wasn’t convenient to get from one gallery to the next. I suspect that if you are from the neighborhood, it’s not too bad, though. My lack of familiarity was a handicap here.

I got back to my hotel Friday night dead tired, but happy having had a very entertaining day looking at art. The one bad thing was that my dogs were barking. Twelve hours of walking had done a number on me.

The festival opened its doors at noon on Saturday, but the panel discussions started at 11 am. Instead of having the panels at  Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, they conducted them several blocks away at The Knitting Factory, a well-known music venue. But it turns out that the Knitting Factory is quite small. It was completely packed for a discussion between Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Richard McGuire ( whose story “Here” Chris Ware claimed changed his life). The Knitting Factory seemed far less spacious than the big open floor of the church where these discussions had previously been held. But that space was no longer available. There were now two floors full of exhibitors.

You could see how popular the BCGF was by noting how many people were hanging around outside the church.


Just some of the people at BCGF

I felt like an old fuddy-duddy compared to these hipsters. But I'm resigned to that. I entered the church and the cool air of outside instantly turned palpably warm and humid. The crowd was so dense that the air was stagnant and redolent of sweat. This is the kind of atmosphere one associates with mainstream comics festivals, with their immense numbers of nerdy fanboys. I was surprised to encounter it here.


Don't yell "Fire!"

I have been to several alternative comics festivals in the past, including the BCGF two years ago, and I had never seen one this crowded (and hot and sweaty). Even with twice as much space devoted to exhibitors, trying to move around was next to impossible. Browsing was a completely unpleasurable experience. I was interested in buying original artwork, and I saw some for sale--for instance, at Lisa Hanawalt's table--but the environment was unconducive for that kind of purchase. I want to spend a little quality time with a piece before I buy it--spread out the artist's portfolio and carefully flip through. This was impossible.

Now I'm being totally subjective here. If I put myself in the shoes of an exhibitor, I imagine the festival was an exhausting but utterly rewarding experience. I suspect tons of books, comics, mini-comics, and pieces of original art were sold over the course of the day. Exhibitors who traveled to be here (and some traveled all the way from Europe) might have made back their travel costs and even made a profit. Likewise, the people putting on the festival must have been thrilled by the crowds. But they ruined the experience for me. I bought some books, some of which I may review later after absorbing them a bit, but I did this as quickly as possible and got out of there as fast as I could. I returned later in the afternoon to see if the crowds had thinned out, but if anything, there were even more people.

Consequently, I spent most of the day at the Knitting Factory. The festival had a series of interviews and panel discussions there. A discussion on sexuality in comics was marred by inarticulate panelists (to the obvious irritation of the moderator, Karley Sciortino). However, that was followed by a completely delightful Q&A of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast conducted by Richard Gehr. People who are funny on paper are not always funny in real life, but Chast was an exception to this rule. She commented on the differences between hip Brooklyn today versus the resolutely unhip Brooklyn she grew up in.

Tom Spurgeon, publisher of The Comics Reporter and former editor of The Comics Journal, was moderating a panel with Tim Hensley, Charles Burns and Anouk Ricard called "The Narrative Collage." He confessed to me that he had no idea how to approach this subject with these artists, and asked for advice. We discussed it a little bit, then went in. The place was again packed--all the seats were filled, and many people were sitting on the floor or standing.



Even Gary Panter was forced to sit on the floor. As the panel began, I realized that Spurgeon had been having me on. He was very well-prepared, and had a series of questions for each of the artists that related their work to the central theme. The artists, on the other hand, were not quite sure how to approach the subject. Cartoonists are often reticent about their own work, as if there is something slightly vain about talking about your work. I often decry artists statements in this blog, but one thing they do is force an artist to develop a way of speaking or writing about what they do. Cartoonists, who exist largely outside the world of grants and residencies and who therefore rarely have to write any kind of statement about their work, end up being relatively inarticulate.


Tim Hensley, Charles Burns, Tom Spurgeon, Anouk Ricard

I was particularly disappointed in Tim Hensley, an artist whose work I perceive as being fiercely intellectual, marrying modernist literary concerns with post-modernist strategies of appropriation. See his book Wally Gropius: The Umpteen Millionaire, for example. He was unable or unwilling to address the complexities of his work, coming across instead as a naive artist who wasn't totally aware of the effects he was achieving. But I don't believe that's really true. I suspect he wasn't comfortable discussing the work this way.

I had an invite to an after party, but I was too pooped to go. Over all, it was not a great festival for me. I attribute 75% of this to my own personal circumstances--I tried to cram too much stuff into the weekend and ended up exhausting myself (and reminding myself that I'm not 25 anymore); I was staying at a terrible hotel that was too far from the festival; by the day of the festival, I had walked so much that my feet were aching; etc.

However, the crowding is a real issue. The festival has outgrown Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. It needs to be in a location with larger floorspace (and wider aisles) and better climate control. The panels need to be held in spaces larger than the Knitting Factory so that Gary Panter can watch one without being forced to sit on the floor. The problem is that larger spaces cost more money. But I think that problem can be solved by charging a modest admission to the fair. Given the enormous crowds I saw, the demand is there.

Why is this festival so crowded? Spurgeon told me that all the alternative festivals are crowded these days. This kind of comics--"art comics," broadly speaking--have a large devoted following, but bad distribution. Some of them make it into stores--cool comics stores like The Beguiling in Toronto or Austin Books and Comics, and alternative bookstores like Quimby's in Chicago or Domy in Houston and Austin. But none of these venues carry the selection that I saw at the BCGF. These smaller alternative festivals provide an alternative distribution route for many self-publishers. And for fans, a show like this is the only time they will be able to see a lot of this work. That BCGF is so popular is a great achievement. But the next step for the BCGF should be to improve the experience for the average visitor.

(For a far less sour and more complete report of the festival, read Tom Spurgeon's post.)

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11 comments:

  1. You're absolutely right about the crowds. It's the same problem MoCCA Fest had a few years ago that forced them to move from the Puck Building to the Armory. If BCGF moves to a larger venue, they'll likely have to start charging higher table prices and/or admission fees. That prices out a lot of self-publishers and fans, which would be a shame. Maybe there's some perfect larger space that I'm not aware of, but I doubt it. It's just the trade-off these festivals face as they grow in popularity. Maybe if they expanded the show to 2 days, that would alleviate the crowding issue?

    But despite the crowds, I thought the show was a success overall. There was a huge selection of great books which, as you mentioned, you can't easily get anywhere else, even in NYC. There are so many talented creators doing interesting work in comics these days, moreso than any time in the medium's past. It's exciting to see such energy and enthusiasm.

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  2. Considering that they charge no admission fee presently, I think they could charge a small fee without significantly denting attendance. If it costs $5 for adults to attend, for example, that might keep some people away, but it wouldn't keep any potential customers away (because if you can't afford the $5, you probably can't afford to buy any comics or books either). Of course, I say this as a guy who now can easily afford the $5. In 1988, the thought of traveling to a con in another city just for the fun of it was a serious financial decision.

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  3. If alternative festivals are so crowded now, can they be called alternative? What your article suggests to me is that the craft and culture of alternative comics is being funneled into fewer points of contact. On the fair end, these include SPX and BGCF each of which had record attendance this year. On the information end... well I'd call it the Tumblr Effect, for the way that sites like that have become the aggregators of both conceptual consumption (an image, blogged and reblogged x-times over) and as a way to receive information about actual consumption (being clued into comic creators, distributors, fair organizers, etc.) For the young people (the "hipsters" in your article), the act of attending a fair is the ultimate way for someone tuned into all of this information to remain invested in the scene. It presents an interesting problem for the organizers of future fairs.

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  4. Hey, even for me (a non-young, not very hip person), alternative festivals are a way to keep contact with the art comics world. But believe me, as well attended as BCGF was, it is still quite alternative to a mainstream comics/pop culture festival like the San Diego Comic-Con. The average exhibitor at BCGF was an artist, not a media company. The work they were selling was personal and made with the intent of being art, as opposed to the intent of being successful merchandise. And much of the work sold is quite challenging. But still, BCGF is doing something right--the attendance was quite astonishing.

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  5. I wanted to murder all of you. Too crowded and the "hipsters" were annoying. I couldn't stand to stay very long. Snobs.

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    1. Seriously? That's what you got out of this post?

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    2. Everyone is so busy trying to look and act the same. Everyone wanted to block the aisle flagging down other hip "kids" just to relay some contrived conversation about the scene or where they were going to drink PBR later on. Even the artwork could have used some variety. Doesn't really matter, as it was so packed you couldn't see anything anyway. A larger venue means more sales.

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    3. I don't quite understand your gripe. You seem to be offended by my use of the term hipster and are ascribing to me various attitudes towards hipsters that I don't actually have and have never stated. Nonetheless, if this is what bothers you, I apologize. By hipster, I was referring to people who are younger and hipper than I am--a not unreasonable description of most of the attendees at BCGF. I don't think the aisles were blocked because people were chatting (much less because they were hipsters)--I think they were blocked because there were too many people for the space.

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  6. I was annoyed by the crowds during the festival - it was definitely not easy to browse. And I am finding myself more and more annoyed as I see great stuff on blogs that I missed entirely from the show.

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  7. "I was particularly disappointed in Tim Hensley..." Jesus fucking Christ. How about just a tiny bit of empathy? Not all of us are public speakers, myself included -- there's a reason I sit indoors by myself for 15 hours a day drawing funny pictures rather than interacting with other human beings. I don't know why I agreed to get up and talk on a panel other than the fact that I wanted to be "a nice guy" or something. Stupid me. Tim Hensley is truly an amazing artist but that doesn't automatically give him the ability to address "marrying modernist literary concerns with post-modernist strategies of appropriation" in front of a huge audience. I know I'm going to come off as a total asshole for responding this way but I felt for both Tim and Anouk as I sat up there -- I could see genuine fear and anxiety on their faces -- not always the best state of mind to launch into an articulate conversation about... what? How all of our work deals with... what was the topic again? Anouk was put into truly uncomfortable situation by not having a translator on hand (kind of tough to answer questions if you don't understand them in the first place) and... and... Look, I'm not placing blame but as I already said, perhaps a little empathy might help. Whew. Now it's your turn to lay into me and put me in my place. I'm sure I deserve it. - Charles Burns

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  8. No, you're right. It's hard to speak in public if you're not used to it, and as I said, I think it feels weird for a lot of artists to speak about their own work. I don't know Tim Hensley (although I respect his work very highly), and I assume he is a thoughtful, intelligent person--that comes across in the work in spades. I guess I could have not mentioned this panel, but I had committed myself to writing about the BCGF and this was a part of it. Anyway, I took his panel performance as stage fright or discomfort about talkingabout himself. If I came off as too harsh--something that happens sometimes when I write critically--I don't mean to suggest that I think any less of Hensley or his comics, which are exceptional. As for Ricard, I thought she did pretty well considering the language barrier.

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