MoCCa Arts Festival 2015 Recap

This year, I had the privilege, by the confluence of getting time off work and my editor snagging me passes, of attending MoCCA Fest 2015, hosted by the Society of Illustrators. I’ll try to relate to you the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and feels (sorry, I’ve been binging Daredevil, so the senses are on my mind) that I experienced in these two days. So basically, MoCCA is half exhibitions (think Artist’s Alley at a larger con) and half panels, with the split quite obviously delineated by the fact that they both take place three blocks apart. The exhibits were at Center548 on 10th Ave. & W. 22nd St. in Chelsea, which appears to be a repurposed warehouse space. The most noticeable difference between this space and the run-of-the-mill convention space was that Center548 is largely vertical--you enter on the ground floor, take the stairs up to the second floor, exhibits take up the second through fourth floors, and then on the roof, there was a garden space with plenty of seating.

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Exhibitors ranged from companies like CollegeHumor and Dorkly; to educational institutes like the School for Visual Art’s Visual Narrative MFA program, Syracuse University’s Illustration program, and FIT’s Illustration program; to major writers and artists like Frank Barbiere (Five Ghosts, White Suits, Avengers World), Noelle Stevenson (Gingerhaze, Nimona, Lumberjanes, Runaways) and Dean Haspiel (The Fox, The Quitter, The Alcoholic, Cuba: My Revolution, Elder Statesman of the Medium); to the most indie of indies, whether they were people who did mostly prints and illustrations or people who had made their own zines with printer paper and a laserjet or people who had put together a more luxurious package that still contained something with that indie flavor.

As an aside, it seems like when people talk about indie comics, they’re talking about smaller press work that is designed more as a mood piece than a tradition, well-made story with a beginning, middle and end. Works like Tyler Boss’ Swimmers, which won the MoCCA Arts Fest Award of Excellence this year, still tell a story, but they offer more in terms of abstraction and loose linework. There are others, like Revenger and Tales to Behold that are basically superhero books, and which are still hella rad.

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I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the convention floor, admittedly. This reporter is perenially strapped for cash, so I made two purchases I’d had my eye on, wandered the floor, and then retreated to the rooftop garden. I managed to chat with Matthew Rosenberg (We Can Never Go Home, 12 Reasons to Die) and Frank Barbiere, but for the most part, I was a wanderer, incognito, lusting after the $4 hot dogs they were selling (which, a) why was the cafe set-up cash-only, and b) is that hot dog filled with Kobe beef or something?). The amount of spread the convention could achieve with a vertical space like that helped relieve the press of the crowd, most of the time, but in the mid-afternoon, space got to enough of a premium that people had to line up outside and get let in as people left.

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I was only able to attend two of the panels offered at MoCCA. Their full slate of panels included two separate rooms at the High Line Hotel, with three panels per day, for a total of 12. Ones I missed included a reservations-only Q+A with Scott McCloud, fresh off his new book The Sculptor; Q+A’s with Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Wimmin’s Comix, Twisted Sisters) and Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, Smile, Drama); “We Hire Cartoonists,” a panel of businesspeople who do just that; a panel about alt-weeklies; a panel about using established works to build your own skills, called “Plagiarism as Practice”; the list goes on.

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The two I was able to attend were the “Work in Progress” panel on Saturday and the “Comics and Disability” panel on Sunday. “Work in Progress” was basically a panel of working cartoonists talking about what their upcoming projects are, talking about how they arrived at these concepts, giving some glimpses into their process, and talking about when we might see them on the shelves. The panel consisted of Kim Dietch, Sarah Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less), Dash Shaw (New School, The Cosplayers), Julia Wertz (Museum of Mistakes, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories), and moderator Richard Gehr. Many of their upcoming projects should be on the shelves in early 2017. Dietch is working on a “pseudo-autobiographical” novel called Tales of the Plot Robot, which may be split into two book; Glidden is working on a book called Rolling Blackouts, documenting her trip to the Middle East to interview people displaced by the War on Terror for the Seattle Globalist; Shaw is drawing on his own upbringing as a Quaker to write about the Quakers who fought in the Civil War, since they were both anti-slavery and pacifist, called Discipline; Wertz is making a follow-up to most of her Fart Party work and The Infinite Wait called Impossible People, about her struggles to get sober, amongst other things. The panel had a lot of good insight into the varied creative processes these artists go through, from taking a break from comics for a couple years, to mostly using audio transcripts to maintain journalistic integrity. There’s too much to sum up here, but it was truly fascinating; it was a shame it was scheduled directly opposite Scott McCloud’s Q+A, as it seems the attendance suffered for it.

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“Comics and Disability” was a less impressive panel. Moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos, the panel featured DoubleBob, Ilan Manouach, and Anne-Françoise Rouche, who are all (from what I could tell) either French or Belgian. All of these artists are doing interesting work; Rouche runs a collective called La “S” Grand Atelier, which pairs up artists with mental disabilities with other professional artists to collaborate. Their works are collected in a magazine called Match de Catch (the French term for professional wrestling), and they have a publishing deal with a Belgian company called FRMK. DoubleBob has a history of collaborating with artists with mental disabilities, sometimes through La “S”. Manouach stood out, as he is the creator of a system called SHAPEREADER, which is his method of trying to make a comic specifically for blind people. In the SHAPEREADER system, each panel features smaller squares with textured patterns on them (zig zags, bubbles, chevrons, etc.). Some of these panels stand for characters, and those panels are surrounded by panels that denote emotions (for example, there are several panels with bubble patterns, that stand for an emotion. Depending on how many bubbles they are, it can be a vague feeling of that emotion, or a very strong feeling.) These panels radiate out from the characters to fill the metapanel, explaining where they are, what they’re doing, what they’re feeling, and the dialogue balloons are in Braille. He passed around samples of the panels, and they are an incredible new way to make a comic. I hope to track down his graphic novel, Arctic Circle, created using SHAPEREADER.

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My issue with this panel seems obvious: it’s about comics and disability, but there’s nobody disabled on the panel. I’m not saying this from the point of view of someone who wants to have people with disabilities paraded in front of them; I’m saying this as someone who sees this as a micro-example of situations like the fact that AutismSpeaks, the largest advocacy group for people on the Autism spectrum, has no people on the spectrum on their advisory board. If you’re going to do a panel about comics and disability, shouldn’t at least a portion of it be set for artists with disabilities to make their voices heard? As it stood, the panel was interesting, but felt like a lot of people who did not have disabilities congratulating themselves for working with people with disabilities, or trying to help them. It was a little off-putting, and I had hoped for better from MoCCA.

In Summary

MoCCA is a strange beast. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a literary festival, with a heavy emphasis on theory and new forms, or if it wants to be a traditional convention, with artist’s alley, and portfolio reviews, and nerds hanging out with their fellow nerds. Next year, my suggestion would be this: invest in the panels. The exhibition floor will always be the exhibition floor, and this year, it was excellent. It moved well, it was well set-up, and plus, a rooftop garden on one of the first sunny, spring-ish weekends of the year was a delight. But the panels were either too universal or too specific for this size convention. There were maybe 15 people at the “Comics and Disability” panel, and that’s an important topic that should draw more than 15 people. I enjoyed MoCCA (and for the $5/day price, it’s tough to beat), and I will definitely go again next year. I just might pick only one panel to check out, and then try to hang out with more people on the floor.