Why The Grand Comics Fest In Brooklyn Ensures The Survival Of Comics

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The Grand Comics Fest in Brooklyn is a thing to behold for many reasons: it’s not an event that draws thousands of fans or has hundreds of comics creators (and God forbid any media movie or video game types), and yet it says a lot about comics and how to ensure the medium’s longevity in an increasingly thronged multi-media world. Some might dub it a “mini MoCCA Fest”, or “taste of SPX”, but while those comparisons are equal to the praise the GCF should receive, this event has aspects that make it even more of a statement than those laudable bigger shows supporting indie and handmade comics.

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GCF has been held for the last two years at Bird River Studios, a bright, well-arranged single studio space with wood flooring and glass-fronting doors right onto Grand Street in Brooklyn, and on a day with good weather like last Saturday, it makes for an event where people can quite easily wander in off the street. Another reason for this is that admittance is entirely free. The talent in the room was worthy of MoCCA Fest and SPX, as if many of the most substantial indie comics creators in the region had all gotten together in one room to greet the public for a day in an open studio setting.

And what makes GCF most spectacular in practical terms is that it “works”. Saturday was packed out all day, with a party atmosphere spilling out into the street, bringing business to nearby eateries, and even harmonizing well with a small street arts festival nearby. On several occasions I heard patrons saying they had never really read comics before, but were interested in art, and so were picking up and examining the wares on display. How do you get people excited about comics in Brooklyn? By staging a free event with top talent and making it as friendly and accessible as possible. It felt almost ambassadorial in its outreach to the arts scene and local life in Brooklyn.

IMG_0031[Pat Dorian]

Event founder and organizer Pat Dorian is the cartoonist behind Savage Brute and The Face Skull, which attracted a fair amount of critical attention this year at MoCCA Fest. Grand Comics Fest is “his shindig” according to the respectful cartoonists who admire his vision at the show. When Dorian set out to created GCF, he realized he needed a venue, and settled on simply taking advantage of the many accessible studio spaces in Brooklyn to rent one out.

He says, regarding his motivation:

We wanted to do something for the Brooklyn comics community where usually you have to pay so much for tables, to make an affordable event in the community.

Raising some some money was still necessecaryy need them to have the show, with help from friends to spread the word via social media, but Dorian himself hit the pavement and the road, putting out postcards at MoCCA Fest and TCAF, and going lamp post to lamp post taping up flyers in Brooklyn.  He describes the show as “scrappy”, avoiding big publishers, but also “relaxed” in an environment where it’s “nice to talk to artists without competitive viewing”. Because the tables at GCF are affordable, creators “don’t have to stress about selling stuff”, he said, to break even on their investment.

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This “grass roots” show springs from Dorian’s own experiences at NYCC Artists Alley where he found himself, like many, realizing that big shows are “not about comics anymore”, where he often found himself sandwiched between tables selling Star Wars prints. He makes his own prints and t-shirts by hand, which makes them “more special” for the buyer. About half the tablers at CGF this year were returning artists from last year, and about half were new to the fest, a good ratio for growth. There was enough demand this year that he’s thinking of running the show next year over two days, with a different set of exhibiting artists each day to give them more opportunity to be involved in a small space.

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So, who were some of the creators who participated in this “grass roots” movement? Most were Brooklyn-local or came in from Manhattan for the show, and many of them also exhibit at MoCCA Fest and SPX but found the charms of GCF alluring due to its different qualities. Next to Dorian on the left hand side of the entrance were Gregory Benton, whose B+F from Adhouse Books recently went on a Canada-US signing tour, taking Benton with it on long car journeys, and Dean Haspiel, whose Fear My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience was recently released in hardback by Z2 Comics. Both are members of Hang Dai Studios in neighboring Gowanus, Brooklyn.

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To their left was another major player in the New York-based comics scene and School of Visual Arts faculty member Nick Bertozzi, whose new graphic novel Shackleton, is poised for release from First: Second.

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[Bertozzi examines a mysteriously massive and reputedly very expensive fold-out comic by David Sandlin, also pictured]

While Bertozzi was away from his table, I sneakily had a look at a single advanced copy of Shackleton that was hidden behind other books…

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Unsurprisingly, it looked gorgeous. That’ll be hitting shelves very soon. Moving further along the room in the same direction, I noticed the successfully Kickstarted and ongoing collaborative fantasy series Cartozia Tales is now in its third volume, featuring some of the top names in indie comics.

IMG_0023Then I greeted and chatted with Joan Reilly, editor and contributor to Big Feminist Butt, and anthology that has just been released in its second edition, having been picked up by Alternative Comics in Burbank, CA for distribution. She’s also currently working on a big project–the comics adaptation of her father’s journals recounting his life growing up in an “Irish slum” in Oakland, CA, and talking about the changes in the region over time called Frankly East 14th Street.

IMG_0021[Joan Reilly]

Next up were Sam Henderson of The Magic Whistle and Danny Hellman of Typhon and many other humor/satire comics. They had a special message for fellow Brooklyn-based photographer and comics writer Seth Kushner, who has been undergoing treatment for Leukemia and has a bone marrow transplant coming up:

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Hellman has recently produced a “soviet propaganda” style poster for the French magazine Couverture from Sortez la Chienne which definitely caught my attention, titled “Victory in Space”. He had actually gone to a large museum exhibit on Soviet Propaganda work shortly beforehand and drew inspiration from the experience. Hellman is also working on a substantial new project coming to Kickstarter soon in digital “chapters” before heading to print. I can’t wait to hear more about that endeavor.

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I also spoke to small press publisher David Nuss of Revival House Press, who has migrated from the West Coast in the past couple of years, and been in publishing for five years with his imprint. They have an upcoming release of Vile Decay at Bergen Street Comics and personally, hearing about a relatively “new” imprint gives me hope for small presses in a climate where we too often hear about publishers closing their doors. It’s good to know that Revival House Press is one of those up and comers ready to fill those depleted ranks.

IMG_0037[David Nuss of Revival House Press]

I also spotted Coin-Op present at the show and learned that Adam McGovern had a new issue of the series out. McGovern is the writer behind the coming soon Image Comics book Nightworld, and was rushing to edit his play being performed as part of the Comics Theater Festival in Brooklyn. McGovern is a busy man these days whose name you’ll no doubt hear more and more often on the comics scene.

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Starting to move along the other side of the rectangular room after frequent breaks in the pleasant weather that Saturday, I came across Dre Grigoropol, formerly a Brooklyn resident, now returned to her home city of Philly to take up her place in the comics community there. She had brought with her the newly formatted vertical version of her indie comic Dee’s Dream featuring the adventures and mishaps of an indie rock band. She was also, meanwhile, doing cover commissions, a task which quite a few of the GCF artists were engaged in.

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Josh Bayer, a major pillar of the comics community in Brooklyn and indie comics shows, was nearby. Bayer is teacher of comics art and drawing to all ages of students and a remarkable number of people I speak to have studied with him and sing his praises. His teaching approach is a great asset to keeping comics alive and vital.

IMG_0055Keren Katz was also tabling, an artist whose ethereal style of stylized, elongated and graceful figures touched with watercolor have gained quite a following, as well as her ambassadorial approach to spreading the word about Israeli comics.

IMG_0059I also received from Katz the new anthology of poetry comics Ink Brick: A Journal of Comics Poetix, which is haunting and thought-provoking, pushing the boundaries of the medium, edited by Alexander Rothman and Paul K. Tunis.

IMG_0056This led me to Marguerite Dabaie, also a strong proponent of multiculturalism in comics, whose book on the Silk Road, Voyage to Panjikant, was on display as well as her ornate handiwork in the form of jewelry, cushions, and small paintings in lavish colors and materials.

IMG_0060Dabaie had on offer a mini comic that accompanied her Silk Road book called “A Crash Course on the Sogdians”, a historical and cultural guide to the peoples featured in her book including link suggestions and further reading about this fascinating culture.

I also caught up with Dave Kelly, publisher of creator-owned imprint So What? Press, and he had recently returned from a 50 comic shop grand tour to spread the word about their books, including Tales of the Nightwatchman, drawn by Lara Antal, Molly Ostertag, and now there’s word of a new addition to the team on an upcoming volume.

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I congratulated him on still being alive after crossing America so rapidly, but he assured me of his victory: every single shop agreed to carry their comics. Now that is exactly the power of determination and meeting people face to face and, of course, the kind of extreme focus that indie comics need to thrive right now.

IMG_0017It’s always a pleasure to see Kriota Willberg and R. Sikoryak at events, and benefit from their inspirational presence on the indie comics community. Willberg’s anatomically-themed comics are both educative and hilarious and Sikoryak’s masterful riffs on classic literature as well as commitment to performance comics make him a voice to be reckoned with in comics. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics Theater is also part of the Comics Theater Festival in Brooklyn (playing this Saturday no less). Willberg had this taxidermy rabbit reading her minicomic, a beast which kind of stole the show. Meanwhile she was stitching away on needlework depicting the images taken from a colonoscopy.

IMG_0015My last stop on the Grand Comics Fest tour was speaking to small press publisher Hic & Hoc who had several newly released books out since I caught up with them at Comic Arts Broolyn last November.

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Including Mimi and the Wolves. When I asked where their creators usually hailed from, the answer read like a geographical tour of the USA and Canada, so like many small presses for comics, their reach is fairly massive.

IMG_0046Well, the tour is never really over at a show like this, because stepping outside leads to even more conversations and discussions, as well as meeting new people. I was introduced to longtime cartoonist and writer James Romberger, someone whose work has had a massive impact on other comics creators, like Gregory Benton. Both Benton and Romberger have been contributors to World War 3 Illustrated, the new collection that is set for a release party and presentation at Bluestockings Books on June 19th.

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[Benton, Haspiel, and Romberger]

That wasn’t the end of my day, though I had taken in enough comics chat to go pass out in the sun, but I’ll leave my account of attending a performance of 3D comics at the Comics Theater Festival that evening for another post. From this account, I hope you get a fair rendering of how creating a “scrappy” event like Grand Comics Fest builds the indie comics community while bringing new readers on the local level, and how engaging face to face in a relaxed environment can benefit both creators and readers.  If comics creators ever become merely faces in the crowd, and we cease to know the names behind the work, then, simply put, comics will no longer be an art form. Here’s to many years to come for Grand Comics Fest, and many thanks to Pat Dorian for pursuing his vision.

Here are a few more pictures from the event:

Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter

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