My wife: "Why do they hold this thing on Mother's Day?"
My wife: "…?"
Me: "Moms read comics."
My wife: "…?"
This exchange of ellipses occurs a few nights before I leave for the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival. Said "conversation" causes me enough remorse about ditching my family that I end up buying my wife what I consider to be a hilarious T-shirt from cartoonist Matt Bors. Now, humor being subjective and all, one cannot always count on a uterus wearing a cape, boots and domino mask to kill, comedy-wise.
So, it was an impulse buy. No blood, no foul. It's a sentient uterus who wants to rid the world of gender inequality for chrissakes (!) what's not to like? Bors is a Pulitzer finalist; the dude won a damn Herblock for editorial cartooning. If I hadn't bought a women's small, I'd wear it. Cue the voice in my head that says: then maybe you should have bought the men's large, hmmm (?). Yes, I suppose this could be another clear cut case of a bumpkin from the most rural state in "the states" being taken in by an easy-going, slick-talking good-looking cartoonist from Portland, Oregon; however, I stand by my decision.
As I waited like a schoolgirl on prom night for cartoonist/auteur Paul Pope to arrive at his scheduled signing (more in a moment), I was shooting the bull with the man standing next to me in line (Brett or Brent, something that starts with a "B'). He was a veteran TCAF attendee and a Pope devotee — he claimed to own the original cover art to Batman Year 100 #4 and I believe him. I was telling him how this was my first con and how I was impressed at the access to creators and how TCAF feels so comic-centric. He nodded and said, "TCAF is pure; pure comics." Now, to be fair, Brett/Brent/Bart was comparing TCAF to other cons where comics compete with the marketing for television, film and video games, synergistic revenue streams that have branched off from a comic book "property" proper.
At TCAF there are no adjectives, no qualifiers, only comics. Mainstream US comic book artists and writers like Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt are cheek by jowl with an indie darling like Dash Shaw who (literally) sits side-by-side with legendary cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez. Boutique publishers like SelfMadeHero stand on even ground with brash upstarts like Uncivilized Books and Grimalkin Press. And then there are cartoonists from the UK and Europe and Manga eminences, some I knew and others beyond my ken. All of them, everyone, there for one purpose: comics. Not superhero comics or slice-of-life comics or all ages comics or Manga or European or pornographic; just comics.
In the exchange of apples for oranges, I don't believe TCAF would work well with comparisons to other such events. For one, I've been told most cons don't take place in public libraries built in the late 1970s. Too bad, because The Toronto Reference Library is one of the charms of TCAF; it gives the event a unique character — a distinction like the comics and the creators here for the festival. Because the event is free and held in a public space, not everyone is there for a funny t-shirt or to meet a specific artiste. Some people are there because … it's a library. I felt a kinship with these card-carrying library patrons who were there to take out books, convene study groups and watch videos as if this were any other Saturday in May or September for that matter. It felt like these locals were conferring on me, as Fitzgerald once wrote about another outsider, "the freedom of the neighborhood."
The bonhomie that radiates from the locals transfers to the artists, publishers and writers as well. Each person I spoke with was gracious and generous with their time. No matter if the creator on the other side of the table writes or draws for the mainstream market or is there to debut a comic an inch thick and held together with staples, the passion is the same; at TCAF "comics" is a verb.
Even when the organizers of an event christen it a "festival," it is what it is: a grip and grin, a chance to meet face-to-face with names one has only met on the page. These kinds of experiences are personal and, I believe, it robs a bit of the magic to rattle off a laundry list of names a cascade of "and-then-I-met" and "so and so is the nicest," here's the thing, everyone at TCAF is the nice and kind and congenial, not because of the set or setting, but because they want to, they are among their tribe. I'll share two stories: one because it's funny and includes cursing and the other because it is the absolute opposite of that, each sublime in its own way.
Like any indie enthusiast nowadays, a copy of Glyn Dillon's Nao of Brown is a requirement, if for no other reason than to impress my fellow indie comics enthusiasts who will never (probably) visit my house. Like Ulysses or Infinite Jest, the mere addition of the Nao of Brown to one's library confers credibility. Such a pretentious play doesn't grant that fact the Nao of Brown should be read by everyone… on the planet and in other galaxies. As Jason Sacks asks in his review for Comics Bulletin: "Don't you want to read something that's extraordinary?"
It therefore comes as no surprise that like his book, Dillon is extraordinary too. I told him I was glad I had waited this long to get a copy of Nao of Brown if for no other reason than to get his signature and say hello in person. He could have signed his name, shook hands and been done with it. He didn't. He opened to the title page and began to draw tiny pencil lines, hash marks, really, as if he was involved in some personal accounting. As he went about his work I tried to fill the space with small talk and then I did something I'm learning to be better at: I shut up. I watched as Dillon made an image out of those gray lines, a picture of Nao. She looks pensive and sexy. He then soaked some color into his watercolor brush and painted the picture. There are few human experiences more soulful than watching a craftsman create. His final flourish was to affix a washing machine stamp at the bottom of the page as if it had been there all along. Dillon gave me more than a signature and a drawing; he ga
ve me a memory and a story to tell. Thank you, Mr. Dillon.
When I saw Paul Pope's name on the list of exhibitors, I about fell over. Pope is one of those artists/writers for me. I evangelize Pope. When I talk with a fan of comic book art who has never heard the name Paul Pope, I become radicalized, such is my cultish devotion. Pope is mysterious, and does few interviews, but he's not fanatical with his privacy like a Salinger or a Pynchon. And yet he seems like the kind of person (legend?) one half expects not to be real, more an amalgam of the collective imaginings of a host of cultists of how an ultra-hip, terminally cool New York comic book artist would/should appear to mere mortals. He's all of those things and none of them. Paul Pope is what you would expect an ultra-hip, terminally cool New York comic book artist would look and act like down to the crushed velvet jacket and matching chenille scarf. Above all he is a man with an envious talent and like every artist at TCAF, impassioned and big-hearted.
Pope's signing was supposed to start at a quarter to three o'clock and go until four. The other artists scheduled to sign at the same session (including the genial Glyn Dillon) arrived on time, took their seats and went to work. No Pope. Now, as a Pope apologist, the organizers had him on a tight schedule, lectures, demonstrations, etc. So, the fact he showed up ten minutes to four was both understandable and unacceptable. Worse was when the young TCAF volunteer in lace-up shiny black vinyl thigh high boots with coordinating neon yellow and pink laces said (her blond pigtails bouncing side-to-side as she spoke) delivered the news Pope would/could only sign one item. As the line behind me audibly harrumphed I felt terror coil around my brainstem and seep out of my eyes. I had brought two books for Pope to sign, one for me and one for another Pope-head, the comic's pusher at my LCS, Aaron. Other friends, like Sacks, had asked for something Pope-ish as well as long as it wasn't an inconvenience and it was becoming very inconvenient. I felt trapped. Sorry Sacks, I owe you one. I didn't come all the way from Vermont to Toronto to return empty handed. "Put it in front of him" said Brent/Brett/Bart, "he'll sign." Or he won't, I thought.
When it was my turn to meet "the great man," I tried to play it cool and not fanboy all over Mr. Pope. I told him how much 100% meant to me and how I adored the scenes with the Kettle-man. "He's real, you know," said Pope. I related the story of how Becky Cloonan told me an artist needs to always draw sexy people and to be in love with their characters. A smile broke across his face like he was seeing an old friend after a long absence. I added how I thought Pope was a "lip man." He laughed. "Oh, I do love lips," he said, punctuating his response with a devilish smile. When the jack-booted ponytailed doyen turned her head, I quickly slipped the book my friend had entrusted me with and asked Pope if he would sign it even though such an act bordered on treason. Like a wizard, Pope waves his hand and says, "whatever you need, man." Paul Pope, stone cold rule breaker and troublemaker.
Pope: "Who's this for?"
Pope: (long pause) "With two A's?"
If this were a scene in the movie, vinyl thigh-highs would catch wind of what was going down and stomp me into submission with her stiletto heels. No doubt I would be dragged off to some windowless room in the Toronto Reference Library. None of that happened. Pope sits back, his Sharpie hangs like a guillotine ready to pass sentence over the book he was only a moment ago about to sign. I answer his question about the spelling of my friends name, "Two A's, yeah, is that okay?"
Pope: "Aaron is the name of my girlfriend's ex."
My immediate thought was: does this guy not sign books for guys named Aaron? What about Arons with one "A" do they get a pass? I didn't know what else to do except stand and wait. Pope smiles again and breaks the tension, "Yeah, it's fine, man, of course. Put it this way, she's not fucking him anymore." He signs the book and hands it back to me. I say thank you and walk away with a couple of books signed by Paul Pope and a "Paul Pope-story" to tell. Not until I wrote this story down did I realize Paul Pope was "taking the piss" with me. Brilliant.
Comic book conventions (or festivals) are personal experiences, no two are alike. Cons are personal in every way: face-to-face meetings, one-on-one conversations and opportunities to meet old friends and make new friends — it's personal, it's pure.
As TCAF was winding down for the day, I met up with the gang from the Panel Culture podcast, Charles, Owen and George. I've been a fan of their show and was even a guest host a few months back. This is the new normal, people you know only through social media or podcasts or even people you share a byline with are often people you will never (maybe) meet in person. These are your friends as close to you as the kids you grew up with, went to college with, or visit with while your kids play together. So when we four bellied up to the bar at Bishop and the Belcher on Bloor and Owen tells the waitress, "we were probably going to be here awhile," I knew I was in a place where I could wear an Avenging Uterus T-shirt and people would get it, even if it is a women's small. I was with my friends. I was home.
Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @keithpmsilva or read his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun? If pressed, he might tell you how he missed his train thanks to Google maps or how he almost spent his first (and second) night in Toronto sleeping on the streets or how he lived most of the weekend on Tim Horton's coffee and donuts.