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TCAF 2011: A Librarian’s Report

Over the weekend I, along with fellow Good Comics for Kids contributor Eva Volin, attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (aka TCAF) in Toronto.  As Eva mentioned in her anticipatory post, TCAF had been a biennial occurrence until last year when the organizers took a leap and made it an annual event.  I attended last year for the first time and this year I could not wait to go back.

One of the most smoothly run and welcoming conventions I’ve ever attended (yes, including New York Comic-Con and San Diego Comic-Con International), TCAF is organized by the indefatigable Chris Butcher (manager of The Beguiling and a kind, fearless leader) and a veritable army of volunteers and staff in partnership with the Toronto Reference Library and the city of Toronto.  Well over 10,000 people stream into the library during the weekend, keen to meet their favorite artists face to face and discover new titles, creators, and publishers.

The highlight of TCAF is getting the chance to meet the people behind the comics I adore.  Creators are front and center, literally.  The main library floor and in the second floor salon are packed with over 300 authors and artists settled behind rows of tables filled with books, original art, and a wide range of offerings from mini comics to bookmarks to buttons to prints.  Everything is arranged to invite interaction.  It’s easy as pie to walk up to any creator for a chat, a signing, request a sketch, or simply squee at them like any respectable fangirl (whatever is your preferred reaction.)

TCAF programming is eclectic and features topics that are seldom addressed at more traditional comics conventions.  Where else can you hear a treatise on comic design from Seth (It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Wimbledon Green), investigate the importance of diversity and how readers identify (or don’t identify) with characters, and then get a glimpse behind the scenes with creators giving you virtual tours of their studios?

My personal highlights include:

  • Popping in to check out the variety of programs offered over in the Kids@TCAF room.  I delighted in seeing both Colleen AF Venable (Guinea PIG: Pet Shop Private Eye) and Raina Telgemeier (Smile) wowing young attendees with workshops on creating comics.  All of the kids programs (organized by our own Scott Robins) attracted at least thirty young comics fans each, with the highest single workshop attendance bringing in eighty attendees.  A roaring success both in numbers and in smiling, inspired faces.
  • Meeting Hereville creator Barry Deutsch and attending the Embedded Culture panel (hosted by our own Eva Volin) where he, Sarah Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less), Matt Kindt (Superspy, 3 Story) and Wei Li (Lotus Children) discussed the always complex issues surrounding writing about specific cultures from both the outside and the inside.  The conversation was wide-ranging, peppered with jokes as often as thought-provoking insight, and was a fine example of the stellar and unique panels TCAF hosts every year.
  • Finally getting to meet Scott Chantler, creator of one of my favorite books of the past year, Tower of Treasure, and other great works besides (Two Generals, Northwest Passage).  I mightily appreciated the burst of sugary energy gained from the free cake pops his wife had sent along to the festivities.  The cake pop was not a bribe, I swear!
  • Catching up with creators and colleagues Jim Zubkavich (Skullkickers), Eric Wight (Frankie Pickle), Matt Loux (Salt Water Taffy), Abby Denson (Dolltopia, Tough Love: High School Confidential), Svetlana Chmakova (Nightschool), Becky Cloonan (Wolves, DEMO), Jim Ottaviani (Feynmann), Audra-Ann Furuichi (nemu*nemu) and Calista Brill (editor extraordinaire at First Second).  On top of all that, I got to meet and fangirl at new-to-me creators including Jen Wang (Koko Be Good), Vera Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost), Antoine Dodé (Armelle and the Bird), and Ben Towle (Amelia Earheart: This Broad Ocean).  It’s also heartening to note, in just reading down the list of creators, that unlike most comics conventions here is where the ladies represent .  It’s a struggle to find even over ten touted female creators at major cons, it’s heartening to see more than 70 present at TCAF.
  • Hearing one of my own favorite manga creators, Natsume Ono (House of Five Leaves, not simple) discuss her work and art with’s manga blogger Deb Aoki.  Ono-san was reserved but undaunted by the interview and admitted this was not only at her first North American appearance but her first appearance at any comics convention.  I can only imagine how overwhelming the experience was for her, but we attendees lucked out being a part of such a low key and welcoming event.
  • Picking up the print version of Faith Erin Hicks’s The Adventures of Superhero Girl: Just the Usual Superpowers, and chatting with Hicks about libraries, comics, and getting my copy personalized with an original sketch.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.
  • Encountering new stories!  I was lucky enough to moderate a panel on being married in comics tackling both what it’s like for comics creators to be married to each other and how marriage is and can be portrayed in the medium.  My panel of stars included the husband and wife teams of Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy) and Raina Telgemeier (Smile) as well as Stuart (Nextwave, Moving Pictures) and Kathryn Immonen (Runaways, Moving Pictures).  New to me was Doug Wright Award winning creator Joe Ollmann, and his fictionalized memoir Mid-Life had me laughing and grimacing with sympathy into the wee hours of the night.
  • Discovering that Dave has a not-so-secret wish to write a high fantasy tale for Raina as a way of pushing her to draw outside her comfort zones.  I’m with him!  I’d love to see Raina tackle dragons!
  • While chatting with the always charming Anthony Del Col (Kill Shakespeare) and expressing my extremely geeky knowledge (for a US native) of Canadian film and television, who should walk by but Don McKellar, lauded Canadian film actor, writer and director (Last Night, Slings & Arrows)!  Be still my heart.
  • Checking out the glorious mix of people!  It’s the kind of Con where the acclaimed Canadian creator Seth is an undoubted comics celebrity with his always impeccable period suit and his wife dressed to the nines beside him.  There were very few superhero costumes or cosplay cat ears (if any), but there is the general geekery on display that reminds all attendees that these are your people  When I wore my Atomic Robo Tesla t-shirt on Sunday, I got many a compliment from folks who could immediately identify the famous scientist — that’s the kind of crowd it was.

Finally, in a wonderful case of librarians uniting to conquer the world, while attending the swank and intimate reception for the outstanding manga guest artists Natsume Ono and Usumaru Furuya at Toronto’s Japan Foundation, a strong supporter of the festival, we let it be known we were librarians (see our party garb to the right.)  Immediately, our host introduced us to the Japan Foundation’s own librarian, Mariko Liliefeldt, and we were privileged to have the library opened up for us to have a private tour.  Boasting a strong introductory collection of Japanese manga in both English and Japanese amid shelves of works on Japanese culture, this special library stands as a great resource for manga fans. Canada’s Japan Foundation is tied to our own Japan Foundation (based in New York City and Los Angeles) and building ties between the libraries and sharing resources was an unexpected bonus to attending this convention.

Eva had a chance to speak with Ab. Velasco, a communications officer for the Toronto Public Library, about how TCAF came to be hosted in the library.  My favorite part is when Ab. says that it’s important for the library to support creativity and culture in the city, so TCAF and the Toronto Public Library is “a natural fit.”  Many thanks to Christopher Butcher and his staff and volunteers, to the Toronto Public Library, and to all the artists and fans who make TCAF the convention I want to attend.

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

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