ON TCAF AND GINA GAGLIANO AND VALUE
[photo taken from Brigid Alverson's Robot 6 post]
I have fallen out of the habit of writing con reports. They always seem to take a whole day, there's a million links to go and fiddle with, pictures, all that. I'm too busy lately. But I wanted to say something about TCAF 2013--the Toronto Comic Arts Festival--quickly in light of this extraordinarily lengthy report by Tom Spurgeon, probably the commenter-of-record for this sort of thing, and to my mind the most esteemed person doing this kind of work; and this polite-but-zesty reply by Christopher Butcher, who holds a similar position to Tom in his own field, running the most esteemed comics festival in North America.
To paraphrase Tom's report, or the relevant part at least, TCAF was great-as-usual but there was an outsized number of complaints about the programming, how it was organized, and a reported perception of a preponderance of First Second -related panels. Chris objected more or less to the unattributed reports and pointed out that the problems with the programming were mainly his fault, and stuck up for his Programming Coordinator Gina Gagliano, who works for free and was forced to bob and weave at the last minute. Also this is all a gross simplification on my part, but these are the things I'd like to address.
It bears mentioning that I had the same reaction as Tom to the quality of TCAF this year: it was good, really good, but not better than last year. It was fun, it was edifying, it was lucrative, but there wasn't the giant year-to-year jump in amazing-ness-itude that there has been in each preceding year. But it also bears mentioning that of course TCAF can't improve exponentially each year; that at some point there will start to be a ceiling to how many people you can cram in a library, how much work you can squeeze out of a mostly volunteer staff, how many guests you can ferry in from around the world. TCAF 2013 might not have been as mind-blowing as TCAF 2012, but that's a matter of perspective as well--part of what made last year so incredible was the jump from 2011 and the level of quality TCAF presented compared to most other comics events.
In the past year many of those other events have made leaps and bounds, I would suggest in part due to the influence and cultural position of TCAF, in quality and visibility. SPX has turned into a heavy-hitter East Coast event that is beginning to really take itself seriously. CAKE is doing a similar thing in Chicago, with its own distinct flavor and DNA. The Projects in Portland is a whole new model of comics event, in a city that could probably have a comics show once a month successfully.
My point is that in 2011 TCAF was the gold standard in an industry with mostly silver-level events. In 2013 TCAF is still the gold standard, but it's more a case of 24 carat gold versus 22 and 16 carat, if you'll permit me a very dumb metaphor. I would say that traffic was slightly down, but only compared with 2012, and last year it was sunny and warm all weekend, while this year there was hail and it was 20 degrees on Sunday night. I had one of my best ever shows in 2012, but at TCAF I did right around $1500 in sales over the weekend, which--humble brag--is extraordinary for one not-particularly-famous cartoonist with just a half-table at a 2-day show in another country.
I'm not the best person to comment on TCAF, mainly because I love it. I'm a little dazzled by it. I think what Chris Butcher and Miles Baker and Peter Birkemoe do with that show is about as good as it can be, and I am flattered to have been a part of it for so long. TCAF is where I met Annie Koyama, where I hobnobbed with Chester Brown and Seth, where I have built a surprisingly, flatteringly energetic Canadian readership that seems, against all odds, to delight in buying everything I do. So my glasses can be very rose-colored when it comes to TCAF. $1500 is a lot of money for me. $100 is also a lot of money for me.
But I have to say: if TCAF is the best there is at what it does, then I think it's more valuable than ever to discuss what it does. If TCAF is the gold standard, then that means, through the legality of metaphors, that in some case the rest of the economy it's a part of is based on that value. I found Tom's report, and its criticisms, fascinating and valuable. I think too often in comics we tend to go the "GO TEAM COMICS!" route and spare anyone any public criticism, instead relying on off-the-record email exchanges to get our various ires out. I find it depressing and discouraging. Every time I have a little dust-up with someone on Twitter or wherever, I always get a few emails and DM's to the effect of "that guy's terrible, what a dick" or "you were right, but I don't want to say so publicly" or--even worse!--"you were wrong, but I don't want to get into it online."
My particular opinions, while ever-so important and meaningful to me, are not particularly important in a larger sense. But I think it is valuable to discuss these things when they come up. I think examining the world around us, especially as artists and people who love art, is almost a basic responsibility. If you're active in the culture you're a part of, then there's value to be had in discussion, in criticism, in the examination of the best and worst of us. Especially for an event as well-organized and culturally important as TCAF is to comics. We've slid into this mindset where any criticism of anything is slander, and any criticizer is a "hater"--if there's a worse, more ego-stroking concept for an artist than "haters gonna hate", then I don't know what it is--and so we just keep our mouths shut and cluck knowingly to each other in private. I hate it.
Of course this is not to say that Tom's report needs defending, certainly not from me. But I've been thinking about it all morning, as a fan of his, and Chris Butcher's, and Gina Gagliano's. And unlike the docile, hennish comics industry I just described, I don't mind at all opening my mouth, regardless of how well-advised that might be.
Speaking of Gina. I was weirdly happy to hear that a lot of people got the news of their panels late. I had sent in my panel request a couple of months earlier--to interview Nao of Brown creator Glyn Dillon--and never heard back, and just assumed that they had plenty of panels and no room, and no time to inform me of same. Then, barely a week before the show, and less than a week before I was getting on a plane, Gina emailed me to confirm it. I'm not proud to say that I assumed we were sort of a Plan C, and that the lateness was due to other more important panels being unworkable or cancelled at the last minute. I was grumpy because I had presumed it wasn't happening and so hadn't worked in the meantime to prepare. I bring not just my A-game, but my A+++ game to TCAF, so the week(s) beforehand are filled with folding and stapling and pricing and strategizing and figuring out how I can create just a little more edge than the last time. So there's not a lot of time for rereading a book and pulling out some really toothy, interesting questions for a creator you want to both engage and promote. This may have been complicated by me drinking quite a lot of alcohol on Saturday night, sleeping possibly very little, and then indubitably not eating anything until about ten minutes before the panel was to start.
And then I botched the panel. I would start a sentence and then two words in realize, horrified, that I had no idea what the end of the sentence would be. Glyn was very kind and very articulate, and a few people commented afterward that they enjoyed it very much, so that is all thanks to him and his really interesting story. I was both embarassed personally and inspired by his passion and work ethic--two things I lack almost entirely lately.
Panels are always a mixed bag for me. I'm very very mercenary at shows--at my best (read: "not hungover") I'm there early enough to sell books to other exhibitors milling around, so leaving my table for even an hour always has me feeling like I'm just taking money out of my wallet and throwing it into the garbage can. So it's an extra bummer when I don't feel like a panel I'm on had some larger value, whether for me or the other panelists or the audience, or just me in terms of people coming by my table afterwards to buy stuff.
As I never tire of mentioning, I used to be one of the primary organizers of HeroesCon in Charlotte, where I worked for 14 years, the last 7 or so mainly on the convention. Organizing panels is enormously time-consuming. You have to either a) come up with a programming slate yourself, hopefully covering a broad, diverse group of bases and providing a lot of value to the imaginary audience you hope will show up for your event, possibly even because of your well-constructed slate of programming; or b) fish through a number of requests by publishers and hustler exhibitors for their own panels, and decide how best to deploy the best of those without losing some thread of continuity or devolving into a schedule filled with publicists and hucksters. It was always depressing to hear from Marvel, who very rarely would actually buy booths at the show, just send some lonely editor and then wrangle whoever was there with Marvel on their resume to hawk whatever new crossover was imminent.
A couple of years before I left Heroes I put the very energetic Andy Mansell in charge of programming and immediately my job got 30% easier. By itself it's nearly a full-time job--albeit admittedly a seasonal one--and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
I've known Gina Gagliano for a few years now, and have a high degree of respect for her professionally. I don't think she needs me to explain anything she did, so I won't. I didn't hear anyone complaining about a First Second bias in the programming, but then again I never asked anyone about the programming--I was too busy getting drunk and dancing and not preparing questions for the next day's important interview. It's not hard to imagine there being a bias towards First Second in the programming, because frankly, Gina is the publicity person at First Second and one of the main functions of an event like TCAF, and especially its programming schedule, is promotion. And if you're weeding through a list of options and have a choice between "well I know this person and have seen their presentation or just know them generally to be professional" and "I don't know this person or have never heard of this book or this idea could be terrible and make us look bad" it's easy to choose the former, even if it's only based out of time. As a white male with over 38 years of experience in the business of being a white male, I can say with confidence that you often pick things based out of proximity. It's one of the reasons diversity is so important in a culture--people will always naturally select based on known qualities and proximity, so just building a large matrix of proximities is the best defense. Wait I'm getting off the subject.
Here's my real point, my point to all of this:
Gina Gagliano does not get paid for running the programming at TCAF. I actually had a conversation with her in the bar on Friday night about that, discussing how that economy works. It's an economy I hate. I hate that Gina Gagliano doesn't get paid to run that programming. I'm sure she would disagree; I'm only guessing, but I'm a good guesser, and I'd guess she's happy to donate her time because she believes in TCAF and feels like it's a way she can add value to the show and benefit it. It's enormously expensive to put on a show the size or quality of TCAF, especially when there's no entry fee, thus no profit for the promoters beyond cultural profit and some advertising value. So someone like Gina gives her time, which is of course commendable.
But as I mentioned earlier, I'm very mercenary, and I believe in value. If I had my druthers, Gina would get paid, even if it were just a few hundred dollars, because payment means recognition of that value. Payment means "I have to do this because my services have been paid for, and I have a responsibility to provide value for that payment." This is not at all to say that Gina did anything less than 100%--but to my thinking a paid staff will make moves that a volunteer staff will not. They'll take greater responsibility, maybe even work harder, or at least not be as vulnerable to waiting for the festival director to get over a sickness. There's less need for tighter control by management, because your paid staff is not waiting to be told what to do, they're already doing it. It's their job to be doing it.
I'm not putting that well. It's a discussion I've been having a lot lately. I followed poor Clark Burscough, half of the team that organizes Thought Bubble in the UK, around all weekend hectoring him to stop working for free. If I ran SPX my first act would be to pay Warren Bernard, Kevin Panetta, Michael Thomas, and the rest of the regular staff some sort of salary, because they deserve it. I'd pay all the Gaglianos and Bernards and Woodrow-Butchers and Edie Fakes who run these shows in between their other paying gigs, for two good reasons:
1) Because they and we deserve better than to have to run these culturally valuable events in the wee hours, between paying gigs. I make enough money at TCAF to pay for almost two months of rent (one month after travel expenses, admittedly). That's how I, and a lot of exhibitors, look at shows: as part of my basic, life-sustaining revenue. Those shows are important, even central, to my ability to pursue a career in cartooning, and to my mind the people who make that possible should be compensated for their time, just as I am and would expect to be.
2) Burnout. Any convention will eventually burn out anyone who works for it. People like Chris Butcher, with his energy and passion and acumen, are rare and should be prized like gems. I burned out working on HeroesCon, not once but twice, and quit. I am no Chris Butcher. But the thing that kept me going, working pretty much year-round on a three-day comics party, was that paycheck, was that sense of the work I was doing having some clear value, both in terms to the person who was paying me, and to myself.
Your mileage may vary, of course, and this is all through the filter of how my brain works, etc. I'm not a particularly charitable person, perhaps. But I feel like a paid staff yields a better outcome, and on those occasions--which, in this kind of work, is nearly every occasion--when you work your staff to the bone, at all hours, under implacable and swift deadlines, a paycheck, even a small one, can be the difference between burning out spectacularly and burning out slowly. Or, in many cases, just the differences between "this work has all of my attention" and "I will get to this when I can because I'm working for free and my paying job must take precedence." And often, it's just symbolic. Thought Bubble Clark doesn't need another paycheck--he's a lawyer and I believe does just fine for himself--but assigning value to his very high-level work assigns value to not just him but the work itself. For me events like Thought Bubble and TCAF are cultural lodestones with immense status in their communities, and a paid staff elevates the whole enterprise into something professional, as opposed to "we are throwing a party in our spare time, would you like to help? Unfortunately we cannot pay you."
Etc. etc., please enter here all the truisms and arguments about working for free/exposure/as charity. Every person has every right to work how and for how much they like. But I think Gina Gagliano does a great job, and should be paid for it. Ditto Clark and Warren and Kevin and Edie Fake and Neil Brideau and so forth. I think everyone involved in these conventions should be well-compensated, because there's a large and increasingly lucrative economy growing around these events. All these people should be prized, because without them and people like them, these events so many of us depend on for income, exposure, and inspiration will fade away like so many MoCCA's. I'm personally very thankful for their work, and I delight that there's occasionally robust criticism of that work because I think the best among us should be held to the highest standards.
The comics industry seems to run mainly on low or no pay. It can--and obviously does--lead to great and valuable work; but overall I think of it as an enormously unhealthy business model longterm, both in the macro sense, from publishers to event organizers to criticism, and the micro sense, in terms of the artistic work being done and the space for artists to be paid enough to create. Comics is unique in that this volunteer spirit seems to be present both at the top and bottom of the spectrum, but I think it would be stronger if there were a visible model of payment and value at work. There will always be room for those of us with the passion and energy to donate spare time and skillsets to projects we believe in, whether paid or not. But for the health of the larger industry, I think volunteerism should be the exception, not the rule.