The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) was originally established in 2003 in collaboration with The Beguiling comic shop. Seventeen years later: TCAF's humble beginnings in Trinity St. Paul’s United Church imbue an undeniable magic to its present stature. Today, TCAF is an internationally recognized forum for readers and creators to discover and share what’s new and exciting in the world of comics, its bustling marketplace a testament to the diversity of voices, genres, styles and storytelling techniques that exist within the medium.
Though TCAF will not be taking place in 2020—a consequence of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis—we spoke with TCAF’s Artistic Director, Christopher Butcher, and Managing Director, Miles Baker, to learn more about TCAF’s long journey and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Can you recall an “a-ha” moment—or maybe even an event—in TCAF’s early history where it felt like you’d tapped into something special?
Christopher Butcher (CB): The first few editions of TCAF really were an extension of the work The Beguiling had already been doing in the city, combined with the lofty international aspirations that both co-founder Peter Birkemoe and myself possessed. The first "a-ha" moment was at the bar after the very first show in 2003: having drinks with friends who had traveled from outside of Toronto to come to the first event because they believed in what we were trying to do. At the end of it we could sit and be happy together after a good event. We made the cover of one of the free weekly newspapers, we got radio play and we even had ads for the show published in comics released at the time. It was a pretty special feeling. And the second time we did it, in 2005, it was literally 10 times the size!
An important part of TCAF’s DNA is its commitment to highlighting independent, creator-owned comics. What does “indie” mean in 2020 and do you think that definition has changed much since the inception of TCAF?
Miles Baker (MB): I joined the festival in 2010, and the comics industry has changed quite a bit even since then. I think at that time a large percentage of people would call anything that wasn’t about superheroes an indie comic. I’d like to think that perception has changed since then, but I also still hear things like, “so, all your books are for children?” This happens at our festival shop Page & Panel pretty regularly just because we mostly sell graphic novels. So I think that to be indie in 2020 is to be a creator that is doing it all on their own.
CB: For me, I never know how to feel about the indie designation. It's definitely been co-opted by larger interests, but at the same time there is something uniquely indie about what we and many of our exhibitors do. But we also do our absolute best to ensure that creators can have a home at TCAF—from when they're just starting out as indies through to working with small publishers and finding international distribution. Some of the bestselling graphic novels of the decade started as photocopied zines that debuted at TCAF In 2005. Indie as a concept is pretty mutable!
In that same vein, how do you think TCAF’s curatorial role has changed in that time? How do you stay attuned to emerging independent voices from around the world?
CB: It's honestly pretty tough. Our curatorial ideology tries to eschew genre, format and artistic style, and judge the work submitted on its own merits and on the creator's artistic career as a whole. If we're the first show they've ever applied to, or if they don't have very much work (and therefore won't be able to sell very much work, they probably won't get to be a part of it in their first year. But on purely artistic grounds, it's always a revelation for me—seeing the applications each year and encountering work that just shines. The organizers of the Zineland Terrace and Wowee Zonk areas at TCAF do an amazing job keeping their ears to the ground for exciting, challenging work that might not be on our radar.
Speaking of bringing together creators from around the world: Is there something about our local comic community that you think stands out to international visitors as unique?
MB: Toronto is a comics city, and one of the biggest comics cities in the world. New York has books and theatre, Los Angeles has movies, and Toronto has, perhaps, the highest concentration of comics creators of any metropolitan city. Portland, OR has a lot of cartoonists and publishers, but you can’t really call that area metropolitan (even if they outnumber us in terms of breweries). I think it’s a combination of our harsh weather keeping folks occupied indoors, and a long history of supporting the careers of comics creators that set the stage for our current status as the number one comics town. That and public healthcare being a real boon to working artists!
What do you enjoy most about TCAF weekend?
MB: I’ll say three things. One: At least once a year I see someone who is attending TCAF and is having the best time of their entire lives. They are freaking out about meeting a creator or seeing something for the first time and falling in love. That’s the best. Two: There are a lot of people who I like in the comics world who I only get to see at TCAF, and it’s great to catch up if only for a short time. And three: grabbing a beverage with volunteers and staff after all the work is done.
How much time do you get to spend browsing the exhibitor booths for yourself? Is there an interaction you’ve observed on the floor that’s stuck with you over the years?
CB: A lot of my work is done in the lead-up to TCAF, and then helping to keep things running on the first day of the show. So in recent years I've had more and more time to browse, on the last day, spend way too much money with creators. I get to enjoy it a little more. Like Miles said, I really love getting to see people at the fest whom I don't really get to see elsewhere. My favourite interactions on the floor, though, occurred when I put on a volunteer shirt for a few hours one year and just stood at the entrance, helping people out alongside our other awesome volunteers. It's a treat to just help people out, especially when they have no idea I helped organize the whole thing.
Comics X Games seems like a popular showcase every year. Tell us about how that collaboration came together and why it’s such a great fit for TCAF.
CB: Comics X Games is a program within TCAF run by the folks at Hand Eye Society here in Toronto. It actually started as a one-off collaboration that paid game makers and comic creators to work together to create new game properties, and it turned out some real gems! I've always loved video games, and I see a lot of similarities in how creators in both fields control narrative through the tools of their respective media. There's more crossover than you think between the two. The indie ethos behind comics production is quite similar to game production. I'm glad we can provide a space each year to explore these collaborations.
TCAF isn’t just for readers: you’ve also introduced creator-focused programming and educator and librarian-focused programming. What have you learned in the process of putting those initiatives together?
MB: That it's important to delegate work and then claim the success! In all seriousness, those programs have been some of earliest successes in terms of gathering programming talent and letting them pursue what they find most interesting in those spheres. For both Library & Education Day and World Balloon Academy, I've learned that those topics are so vast that we'll never run out of content for them.
CB: I know Miles was joking but there's a lot of truth there. We were lucky to bring amazing folks into the fold to help organize and create the Library and Educator programming, as well as the Word Balloon Academy skills-building programs for comic creators. We have so many people in town for TCAF: authors, publishers, academics and comics experts. It absolutely makes sense to involve them in programming for as many audiences as possible. So we've learned to find experts and help them turn out the best work they can. I'm sure they've learned all sorts of other things though!
In the wake of this year’s cancellation, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, how can readers learn more about the exhibitors who were going to appear at TCAF 2020?
CB: We've got a three-pronged plan!
- First up is the #TCAF2020 digital initiative. We'll be creating original online programming and events hashtagged with #TCAF2020, and encouraging our exhibitors to contribute to the hashtag with links to their work and online sales as well! We also asked some of our friends in the media to create new podcasts, streaming events, and online chats—also using #TCAF2020—all running until the end of May.
- Next up is the TCAF 2020 Exhibitor Digital Showcase: a free digital comics anthology we're putting together with folks who would've been exhibiting this year, which we'll be distributing at the end of this month. Submissions are open now
- Finally, we've teamed with other festivals across Canada that have also been affected by the COVID-19 shutdowns to create #CanCAF, a hashtag where we can tag all of our programs and events across social media to drive interest in the great creators and publishers scheduled to exhibit at all of our shows, coast-to-coast.
So, yeah! Pop into any social media and type In #TCAF2020 and #CanCAF to see tons of great, original content from creators, including links to where you can (most importantly!) buy their work and support them! The full list of programs and events is online at Cancaf.com.
What can you tease about the future of TCAF? Is there something you haven’t done yet that you’ve been itching to try out?
MB: I’d love to have an enormous film crew come in to do a top notch production of our panels and programming. I want the Stop Making Sense of festival coverage. A lot goes into our weekend slate of programming and then it’s all gone once its done.
CB: There's tons and tons of stuff I'd like to see happen at TCAF. We haven't had a major comics gallery installation overlap with the festival yet, and I think that could be a huge boon to TCAF and to comics in the city. Mostly I'd like to see small changes that can have a big impact, like making the festival more accessible for attendees, more affordable for exhibitors and more sustainable for those of us running It! We're doing a lot of work on all fronts, and I hope to continue growing those efforts.
Christopher Butcher is the co-founder and Artistic Director of TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has worked in and around graphic novel publishing for 20 years, as a writer and journalist, editor, marketing director, and in dozens of other roles. In 2019 Christopher was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of France, for his work promoting French comics culture in Canada, through TCAF.
Miles Baker is the Managing Director of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has been with the festival since 2010, beginning as a volunteer. In 2014, he opened Page & Panel: The TCAF Shop at the Toronto Reference Library, a store that supports the Toronto Comic Arts Festival year round. You can hear his very loud laugh on The Diecast Podcast, which won the Outstanding Leisure Series award at the 2020 Canadian Podcasting Awards.