Toronto Library Hosts a Comics Festival
The view from the second floor of the Toronto Reference Library shows the full exhibit floor packed with attendees and artists, as library business goes on as usual. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Reference Library
The stacks and stacks of comics, art, and beautifully bound books on display attract readers of all kinds, young and old. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Reference Library
By Robin Brenner
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) may not have the name recognition of multimedia geek extravaganzas like San Diego Comic-Con International, but to devoted attendees, TCAF has become the must-attend comics event of the year.
Akin to small US conventions such as New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Festival and Bethesda, Maryland’s Small Press Expo, TCAF showcases outstanding internationally acclaimed guests and focuses its workshops, readings, and panels outside of mainstream superhero culture. TCAF taps into an engaged audience that embodies the diversity of today’s comics readers, and the excitement surrounding the event is palpable as you walk in the door of the festival’s main location, the Toronto Reference Library.
A comics festival taking place in a library, while the library is still open no less, may well seem like a potential disaster in the making. But TCAF succeeds beautifully because of the partnership between The Beguiling, Toronto’s unrivaled comics store and TCAF’s base of operations, and the Toronto library system. Seven festivals have been presented over the past nine years; the first was a one-day event for 600 attendees at a local church.
Ab. Velasco, communications officer for the Toronto Public Library (TPL), said the TCAF venue was changed to the library thanks to the library’s relationship with The Beguiling. The store had helped advise the library on its graphic novel collections and had provided reader’s advisory training to staff, Velasco said. He added that Chris Butcher and Peter Birkemoe, two cofounders of Beguiling, approached the library about TCAF back in 2007. “Although we were not ready to host TCAF then, we did scope it out at its previous location,” he said. “We were impressed with the energy and by how it brought together communities of artists, publishers, and fans.” Planning started shortly afterward for the first library-hosted TCAF, in 2009.
This year, more than 18,000 attendees passed through the library’s doors May 5–6 to mingle with more than 300 creators. Velasco said, “The feedback the library continually hears—from publishers, creators, and fans near and far—is how amazing it is that an event of TCAF’s size and caliber is being hosted at a library and that it is free to attend. Being free is a key differentiator between TCAF and other similar events that take place at, say, a convention center.”
“Working with TPL has really helped us frame what TCAF is,” explained The Beguiling’s Butcher, who also serves as TCAF director. “TCAF is a free, author-oriented event with no barriers to entry. It’s comics and graphic novels and the people who make them, and it is available to everyone. That may seem like a small part of our partnership, but working in and around the comics industry and medium for as long as I have, the opportunity to completely invalidate prejudices and present the work in a wholly positive way is a blessing, and it’d basically be impossible otherwise.”
The two partners share responsibilities, wisely sticking to their strengths. As TCAF’s presenting sponsor, Velasco said TPL provides significant areas of the Toronto Reference Library to host the event, including its premier programming venue, the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon. As library liaison, Velasco works with TCAF to negotiate the use of space and to coordinate staff support for set up and tear down during the festival. TCAF books all exhibitors, programming, and volunteers, and manages the relationship with publishers and artists—“a massive undertaking,” he added.
The programs and artists are a significant draw. This year, TCAF hosted banner events, including the launch for Alison Bechdel’s eagerly awaited new memoir, Are You My Mother?, and hosted manga creator Konami Kanata’s (Chi’s Sweet Home) first appearance in North America. The festival also featured Jeff Smith (of Bone fame) and Brazilian twins and artistic partners Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon (Daytripper).
TCAF also partnered with such international organizations as the Consulate General of France, the Italian Cultural Institute, and the Japan Foundation, to host artists from all across the globe. This year, fans could meet Germany’s Arne Bellstorf, creator of the new Beatles graphic novel Baby’s in Black, and hobnob with Norwegian cartoonist Jason (The Left Bank Gang) at his own table. While there may be long lines for Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant), Guy Delisle (Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City), and Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim), the con is built for discovering hidden talent from small presses and web comics creators.
This year also saw a significant expansion in children’s programming, thanks to Children’s Programming Coordinator Scott Robins, who brought in kids comics superstars like Jennifer and Matt Holm (Babymouse series) and Andy Runton (Owly series). For the first time, TCAF also hosted a day of workshops for librarians and educators.
Of course, balancing the convention with being open for regular library use can be tricky, but it is possible, as Velasco testifies. “One key challenge of hosting TCAF is ensuring that we strike a balance between the experience of attendees and library customers,” he said. “Working together, we’ve been able to strike this balance every year and continue to hear positive feedback from festival participants and attendees, as well as library customers and staff.”
“Libraries are such an important part of the fabric of a city, not just repositories of information and culture, but community hubs that allow every member of society to access that knowledge,” Butcher said. “What TCAF does, and does very well, is transform the space so that it feels as vital and exciting and important to all the people in attendance as it actually is the other 300-and-some-odd days of the year.”
ROBIN BRENNER is young adult librarian at Brookline (Mass.) Public Library.
American Libraries, Tue, 07/03/2012 - 16:14