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May 10, 2010

TCAF - The Main Floor

The Toronto Comics Arts Festival, sponsored by the owners of The Beguiling, one of Canada’s best comic shops, was held this weekend. As always, the show was nearly flawless, if a bit crowded. Guests included Charles Vess, Paul Pope, Daniel Clowes, Paul Rivoche (legendary Mister X artist), Larry Marder (Beanworld!), Jim Rugg (Street Angel!), most of the crew that produce the Flight anthologies, and Jim Munroe.

I didn’t spend a lot of time there this year. I’m seriously burned out right now, due to office and personal pressures. It was hard to get into the groove.

But what a show.

TCAF deserves an immense amount of praise, mainly for taking the concept of a convention and turning it on its ear. No retailers. No superheroes. No video games. No cosplay (ok, we had a few steampunkers this year, but honestly, you can see stuff like that on Queen West any Saturday).

What you do get at TCAF is comics taken seriously as a medium, not another ‘channel’ in an ‘entertainment franchise’. Many of the artists and writers invited to TCAF are at the top of their game, producing work in a multitude of genres: fiction, biography, science fiction, juvenile and children’s lit, westerns, and crime fiction…the list goes on and on.

Timed just after Free Comic Book Day, an international event designed to promote the medium and bring in new readers, TCAF is targeted at the non-genre reader. It’s not as insular as the regular anime and comics conventions put on by Hobbystar, and not the disaster that was the first Toronto Wizards convention just a few short months ago. TCAF is for the person on the street, hungry for something new.

It’s very gratifying to see the festival taken seriously by Toronto’s municipal government, with the festival programme opening with a message from Mayor David Miller: “Toronto is home to an extensive and eclectic comic and graphic novel community and has the second highest ratio of comic book retail establishments to population in North America. The Toronto Comics Arts Festival promotes the breadth and diversity of comics as a legitimate medium”. Thank you, Mayor Miller, for your kind words and support of something that has been with me my entire life.

TCAF - Reading Comics at the Library
A few festival-goers take a break to read.

Part of what distinguishes TCAF from some of the other conventions is the little touches of class that go into it. Admission is free, as the sponsors want no barriers between you and the artists. No registration (most other cons force you to give up personal info to buy tickets so they can spam you relentlessly). Readings and events happen at local (some historic, some legendary) restaurants and pubs. This year, the renowned Pilot tavern and Clinton’s hosted events.

No dealers…you don’t know how much this effects the dynamics of a con…I have nothing against dealers, but without them, the average person is not pummelled into insensibility by rows upon rows of toy models, t-shirts, trading cards, and laser swords. Yes, I love this stuff, but TCAF feels more personal and less stressed by shedding this part of the industry.

No ‘artist’s alley’, because the whole festival is an artist’s alley. The whole term is mildly offensive, isn’t it? It’s like putting on a J.K. Rowling signing in the corridor that leads to the facilities in a Chapters, while forcing the readers to go through a mile of Harry Potter toothbrushes and personal hair care products before they can see her. Isn’t she the reason you could even buy Griffendorf chewing gum? Can we drop the ‘alley’? And put them in front, before the merch? Where they belong? Oh wait, that’s what TCAF does already…never mind…

No actors, or wrestlers, or sports personalities, or starlets. While it’s fun to meet these folk, and their contributions to comics, sci-fi, fantasy and other genres can’t be underestimated, TCAF delivers on the ‘C’ in it’s name, and makes that it’s focus.

At normal comics conventions, there are featured artists that are asked to come, and then the rest of the artists ‘buy’ their way in by purchasing space in the artists area. At TCAF, all artists are invited. This rule was relaxed a little for 2010, to make the guest list a little larger than in previous years, but this exclusivity makes a difference. TCAF is, admittedly, ‘black-tie’ because of this, but the level of talent makes this the sort of event you want non-comics fans to attend first.

This year, as last year, the event was held at Toronto’s Metro Reference Library, a beautiful five-story building that’s currently undergoing an extensive restoration and refit. The festival filled two floors, and seemed a little crowded, but made good use of the many auditoriums and meeting spaces that regular visitors rarely get to see. The Library itself operated as normal during the festival, and showed it’s support by putting it’s comic holdings on display. The Toronto library system has 2.5 million items in it’s holding, with a significant amount of comics. It would be nice to see The Merrill Collection featured in future events.

This year, I went for one reason only: Charles Vess. I was lucky to get into line early, and now have both my copies of Rose and Stardust signed by Vess. I saw him last in Chicago, during the second Trilogy Tour that he organized with Jeff Smith, Linda Medley, Stan Sakai, Mark Crilley, and Jill Thompson. Charles is a nice guy, and a fantastically talented artist. When I mentioned that I saw him in Chicago and that it was great to see him this far up North, he responded by saying, “This is great. It’s not a convention. I don’t know what it is, but I like it.”

To be fair, I attend most of the other comic conventions in Toronto. I don’t have it in for Hobbystar (I’ll be attending both the June and August Hobbystar cons), and I think there’s a place for the traditional convention format, with the merch, the costumes, the superheroes…all of it. I’m not kidding anyone…I love the spandex as much as any other nerd.

But there is also something to be said for putting your best foot forward when courting the general public. A free festival, with no sales pressure, where the public can interact directly with some of the best and diversified creators in the business, is a good thing.

As nerds, we love comics, and we love our community. But some of us (not all, but some) want the rest of the world to join in. To see us at some our best moments. When we are bursting with fresh ideas and concepts. When we have something wonderful, that speaks to all age groups, and all cultures.

The next time TCAF rolls around, check it out. You’ll be surprised. You’ll be amazed. You’ll recapture the rapturous moments of childhood where anything seemed possible.

Mr. Vess said it best in the inscription he added to my copy of Drawing Down the Moon:

Touch Magic. Pass it on.

TCAF - Browsing 2

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