Comics fan and journalist Koom Kankesan reflects on the upcoming Toronto Comic Arts Festival, its history and the controversy surrounding it.
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) is just a week away. This will be the first in-person festival TCAF has run since the onset of COVID (there was a virtual one) and it looks like things will be different. A world class festival in the past, TCAF has been filled with events, boasting internationally recognized cartoonists, and attendance in the tens of thousands. It’s always been publicly funded and free which is, frankly, amazing. The epicentre of the festival at Yonge and Bloor was the Toronto Reference Library — you can’t get more central than that — a large jewel of a building, usually quiet and studious but during TCAF, a teeming throng and hive of activity that takes hours to wade through. I covered the festival some years ago when cartoonist David Collier jumped up and announced to everybody within earshot that he’d just gotten a text saying that TCAF had secured Robert Crumb for the following year.
Crumb! I cannot lie — I was impressed and would have loved to see Crumb talk in person about his art. Around that time, criticism of Crumb’s misogyny (and other offences) from cartoonist Jessica Campbell and other quarters led to a TCAF 180, effectively cancelling Crumb’s appearance. Canadian publishers Drawn & Quarterly, in the midst of re-releasing the collected work of Crumb’s partner Aline Kominsky-Crumb, were so incensed they withdrew from the festival. There are many, many small presses and artists table at TCAF (that’s part of what makes the festival so rich), but D&Q has always been one of two main publishing stalwarts at TCAF. The other is Fantagraphics. It could be argued that The Beguiling, the alternative comics store key to the founding and running of TCAF, and Drawn and Quarterly came of age and prominence together. Their successes intimately intertwined, abetting each other while the alternative comics cultural landscape grew. It’s impossible to tell from TCAF’s website whether D&Q will be present this year, but this announcement from the publisher lists their artists as appearing on panels and at different tables, but none of them at a D&Q table as might be expected, suggesting the publisher’s formidable booth itself will be absent.
Until very recently, it has been impossible to tell exactly who or what will be present at TCAF. The festival might be scrambling not only to get itself organized in the wake of COVID, but also the departure of veteran organizer Chris Butcher. Originally an employee of The Beguiling, Butcher — along with The Beguiling’s owner Peter Birkemoe — founded TCAF and ran it for many years. Butcher stepped down during criticism regarding cronyism, bullying, and general toxicity. The new team (which may include some of the old team) is headed by Miles Baker. The festival, traditionally held during the Mother’s Day weekend, has been shifted a month back to the Father’s Day weekend this year. Despite the extra month (due to a healthy fear of COVID or sheer maternal angst?), everything seems to be decided and announced at the last minute as specific details have only trickled out on the TCAF’s website during the last couple of weeks. Chock-a-block in richness, the show was always slow to announce plans, but things have been even slower this year. This can make it difficult for people to make plans and attend, especially if they are coming from outside Toronto.
The festival seems smaller this year. Many of the featured guests are younger, relatively local, or less known. Once again, this might be a nod towards COVID times. The two big guests seem to be fan favourite Seth (if Seth is invited, why not the equally famous and local Chester Brown? — could it have to do with Brown’s controversial and riveting comics dealing with sex workers?) and Neil Gaiman (who is doing some sort of virtual talk). Previously, the festival commanded multiple buildings in the heart of downtown but the rumour is that the Marriott Hotel (next door to the Toronto Reference Library), where the key panels were traditionally held, will not be taking part. Nor has there been any announcement for the big Friday night kickoff panel that traditionally begins the show proper, although general announcements have been made indicating the presence of an academic symposium and Word Balloon Academy (workshops for practitioners of comics) on the Friday during the day. The richness of the festival in past years is due to the participation of many stakeholders within Toronto’s comics communities besides The Beguiling, and the City of Toronto in general — including my favourite Toronto institution, The Toronto Public Library system. Is there now less of a commitment to TCAF by these parties, following COVID, and is that another reason for its reduction in size?
I volunteered for the festival in its early years and did not do so again. It was a frustrating, unrewarding experience, despite being surrounded by people who loved comics. Toronto is an incredibly culturally diverse place, but it can be temperamentally cold when it comes to breaking through social boundaries, and that led to an odd edginess and awkwardness among the volunteers. That, on top of the disorganization, made communication strained and difficult when dealing with people in charge. An acquaintance at the recent Toronto Comic Jam, a cartoonist, told me that he volunteered more recently and was kept waiting for two hours with nothing to do when he showed up for his shifts. My own experiences were similar. The year I volunteered, the volunteer coordinator who had been hired that year (an outsider) told me that the inside circle (allegedly) stood around talking about how much better they were than other festivals, generally mocking them.
It is very difficult to organize a festival of TCAF’s size and kudos should be given to anyone who has helped bring the festival to fruition; it should be understood that mistakes will be made. This is, after all, one of the best festivals of its kind. However, there currently seems to be some kind of push/pull between fans of alternative comics and the zeitgeist of the festival itself. Key to this is a perceived sense of superiority emanating from the organizers that can sometimes leave a bad taste; the worm in the apple, so to speak, the blood in the comic ink. It’s at odds with that incredible feeling at the end of the festival when everybody (patrons, organizers, merchants, artists, just everybody) stands up, stops whatever they’re doing, and claps in the great foyer of the Toronto Reference Library because it has been such a great, thrilling, exhausting experience.
Despite the many stakeholders that deserve their due, The Beguiling and its circle is key to the success of TCAF. In The Beguiling’s current location on College St., you walk in off the street onto the main floor and you are greeted with a plethora of interesting and varied indie publications — a gamut, a glut, of sizes and stripes. The shelves are filled to bursting. You can see why this place is a favourite for comics fans across the country.
The Beguiling has mainstream comics (at least, pre-COVID, they did) but you have to descend into a dark basement to find them. A dark, dank cell that few visit holds the traditionally bagged and filed comics in their mainstream bins. It’s almost as if these mainstreams are a dirty secret of the comics world, something that’s too big a part of the craft’s subconscious to be ignored and must be hidden, borne, and sold, like Mr. Rochester’s wife, cloistered in the attic, in Jane Eyre. During COVID, The Beguiling dealt with the pandemic restrictions by opening a window to serve customers who could not enter stores during the lockdowns. It was decorated to mimic Lucy’s ‘Psychiatric Help’ booth from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips with the a banner reading ‘Bibliographic Help 5 Cents – The Doctor is In.’
This was cute, but did no one realize that Lucy is the most unpleasant, obnoxious character in the strip? In Schulz’s own parlance: the most ‘bossy’ character in the strip. When I taught a Con Ed course studying comics, The Beguiling offered to stock the course’s books, but my students routinely said they felt uncomfortable entering the store because the staff talked down to them in a judgmental way, making them feel shunned and unwelcome. Finally, they often ended up going to other stores to pick up their books because the texts were not stocked in time.
The Beguiling isn’t the only organization to be criticized for elitism (I’ve been told that Gosh! Comics in London faces similar criticisms, for example), but it might explain some of the TCAF committee’s attitude and decisions. The same cartoonist who told me of his TCAF volunteering experience mentioned Pink Cat to me a couple of weeks ago and that TCAF had just named her as a key guest. Some people were unhappy with Pink Cat’s NFT agenda. I didn’t know anything about Pink Cat (the influencer’s real name is Saba Moeel), but over the next forty-eight hours, I saw an onslaught of online criticism (Moeel has plagiarized to create her own illustrations, has touted anti-trans opinions, and the aforementioned NFTs betrays a concern for commerce that isn’t really in line with a ‘pure arts’ festival) to which the TCAF committee (in what felt like deja vu after the Crumb fiasco) reacted by disinviting Moeel. TCAF published a statement saying that this was not some scheme of theirs to get rich off NFTs, that the decision to invite Pink Cat was made by committee, but also claimed (in somewhat contradictory fashion) that they invited Moeel because her work is particularly important to one person in their group.
Moeel reacted by tweeting that she didn’t care, had better things to do, and that comics trade shows were beneath her. It might be predictable that Moeel, given her proclivities and interests, would have no idea what being a cartoonist actually is, let alone that a comics festival is not a trade show, but why did the TCAF committee not do any research or ponder the nature of whom they were inviting? Their statement about the decision to disinvite conveys more a sense of being irked at being criticized than an acknowledgement their decisions stemmed from poor practices and bad thinking.
To be fair, it would be impossible to entirely separate commerce from an event as big as TCAF — there are hordes of artists and merchants at all levels hocking their creative products and publications. However, this is not an event where people are cosplaying or buying hordes of toys or paying to get their photographs taken with people. In that sense, the festival is genuinely centered on comics and that should be enjoyed and celebrated. Furthermore, during Butcher’s watch, there were significant representations of both manga and children’s programming, so these factors leavened the seriousness of the festival.
Over the course of my life, I’ve been passionate about film and literature as well as comics and have had chances, at different times, to enter film and lit scenes as well as those focusing on comics, but comics gatherings of all kinds (whether mainstream or alternative) have always been my favourite. Comics people are my kind of people. Privilege, rank, and scene have always been endemic to film and literature, but the thing I like about comics is that we all feel like outsiders. For much of history, comics have been a gutter medium, a populist medium. It feels ironic and unnecessary, then, to foist airs and pretensions on it. Is this a case of the big fish in a small pond syndrome? Is it a Canadian or specifically Torontonian anxiety where people simply don’t have the personal generosity to vaunt and welcome everybody? Or have comics finally, actually, hit the cusp of the big time, inducing a jockeying for status and one-upmanship that somehow belies its populist roots and joyful whimsy?
I should mention that the co-owner of The Beguiling, Birkemoe’s silent (almost to the point of being non-existent) partner, is my friend from high school, Shane Chung. Birkemoe and Chung bought the store from its original owners in the late nineties and I often think about that moment when Shane and I sat down over a cheap meal and he told me about their plans to acquire the store. I also remember another time, over another fast food meal (hey, we were young and saved all our money for comics), when I expressed my sadness that I was giving up my dream to help push comics forward with better writing. Shane replied simply with great profundity: “you don’t elevate comics, comics elevates you.”
I often think of those effortlessly wise and humbling words, simply declared. In the early years of their ownership, Shane was present at the store and then he just sort of disappeared, at least physically. I haven’t seen him for a couple of decades. By the time TCAF gathered momentum, he was completely gone.
His words ring truer now than ever before. As we anticipate the oncoming TCAF — not knowing quite what to expect, knowing only that it’ll be different — some important questions haunt us and the proceedings. Is it possible to have excellence without the cronyism and scene-making endemic to people’s need to feel a sense of superiority? Is it possible to truly have a people’s festival rather than an institutional one? Should comics aspire to the kind of prestige other media have acquired (the acronym TCAF sounds a lot like our city’s TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, a jewel in our city’s crown that pretends to be populist and is anything but) or should it roundly reject such pretensions?
This is a personal, reflective piece and from the ring of my rhetorical questions, you can probably tell some of what I feel on the subject. In the end, even beyond my love of film, my appreciation of literature (both of which are considerable, having shaped my life), I take refuge in comics. Even though I haven’t ‘collected’ comics in many decades, I can’t imagine my life without them. I am middle aged and there are many younger voices and talents and directions within comics I don’t know about, let alone understand, so I am just another person, just another fan. Whatever else changes, I hope comics will remain unassumingly ‘real’ enough that comics people will always be my people. I hope the scene will remain one in which I can relax, be myself, and have fun with others like myself. We seek refuge in and celebrate comics because they are the most truly open and wonderful mode of art. I go to TCAF because it is everyone’s festival, and I can’t wait to see what this year brings.