Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2017

TCAF 2017 Poster - Sana Takeda

©Sana Takeda

I didn’t actually realize it until I started writing up my random musings for the 2017 Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), but this year was actually my five-year TCAF anniversary! For the first two years I coordinated the trip with a friend (a different one each year), but for the last three years my TCAF adventures have been combined with a Toronto family vacation. 2017’s TCAF trip leaned a little more heavily towards family activities than in years past, but I still found the opportunity to enjoy what the festival had to offer. And seriously, TCAF has a tremendous amount to offer. It’s the only comics-related event that I currently attend, and it’s absolutely worth challenging my social anxiety and general awkwardness.

Although there are TCAF-related events throughout May, the festival-proper usually takes place on Mother’s Day weekend which was May 13th and 14th this year. As mentioned, much of the emphasis of my trip this year was on family vacationing. We made a long weekend of it, leaving on Thursday and returning on Sunday. On Thursday, after treating ourselves to breakfast at a favorite local restaurant and taking the young one to a weekly language development play group (which I hadn’t actually had the opportunity to visit before since I’m usually working when the class is held), the four of us (three adults and a toddler) piled into the car on headed out.

If we were to drive straight through from where we live in Michigan to Toronto, it would take about four and a half hours but we arrived a little over six hours after we left. Things always seem to take a bit longer when kids are involved, not to mention the fact that we also happened to stop for a leisurely picnic lunch once we were in Canada and well on our way. I don’t remember exactly what time we finally pulled into Toronto, but it was late enough that I missed the book launch party for Jane Mai and An Nguyen’s newest collaboration So Pretty / Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Culture which I had hoped to attend. Instead, we all took our time settling into the room for our stay and then ordered tasty takeout from a place that was a surprising combination of pizzeria and Asian fusion.

On Friday, the whole family spent most of the day at the Ontario Science Centre, which was fantastic. We mainly focused on the interactive areas geared towards younger ages and so certainly didn’t see everything there was to see; I would like to go back sometime and explore even more of the centre because we all had a great time. After resting up in our room for a bit, we eventually made our way down to The Distillery Historic District for dinner, drinks, and other diversions. In the past, Friday night would have been the night that I would take off for the Sparkler Monthly mixer, but this year that party was held on Saturday evening instead. (Sadly, this also meant Sparkler’s party conflicted with the annual queer mixer.)

After spending most of Thursday and Friday with the family, I was mostly off on my own on Saturday enjoying the first day of TCAF. As in years past, I started my morning off wandering the exhibitor areas before they got super crowded. I mostly explored the Toronto Reference Library,  which had three floors of exhibitors this year, but eventually made my way to the exhibitors situated in the Masonic Temple as well. I wasn’t quite as social as I have been at previous festivals, but I did make a point to at least say hello to the creator’s that I recently supported through Kickstarter who were at the festival. I spent a fair amount of time going through all of the exhibitor’s online portfolios before arriving in Toronto, making notes to myself of the tables that I wanted to be sure to stop by, but in the end I really did try to see everything there was to see. One of the things I love about TCAF is the wide variety of comics at the event, but I especially appreciate the number of queer creators and the amount of queer content present.

Ontario Science Centre Rainforest

Exploring the rainforest at the Ontario Science Centre

In addition to all of the phenomenal exhibitors, TCAF also has a strong lineup of panels, workshops, and creator spotlights. As usual, it was a tremendous challenge deciding which events I wanted to go to, especially as so many of the conflict with one another. In the end I settled on six, all but one of which were held on Saturday. There were definitely others that I wanted to attend, too, but for one reason or another (such as waking up with a migraine on Sunday morning or a cranky toddler) I wasn’t ultimately able to fit them all into my schedule.

Since I’m a musician on top of being a huge fan of comics, one of the panels that immediately caught my interest was “Sounds and Vision: Music in Comics,” moderated by Phillipe Leblanc, which explored how artists portray and convey music and sound in a visual medium. Although I haven’t actually read any of their comics (yet), I did recognize the panelists by name–Dave Chisholm, Nick Craine, Anya Davidson, Sandrine Revel, and Eric Kostiuk Williams. All of the creators on the panel had at least some musical background, formal or otherwise (Chisholm even has a doctorate in jazz trumpet), and consider music to be one of their passions. In some ways the two artforms, music and comics, are incompatible since each one requires so much time to master as an artist, but they can still be brought together. If nothing else, creators’ experiences as musicians can inform and influence the stories they want to tell. Effectively incorporating music into a comic requires more than just putting music notes on a page. As Chisholm pointed out, musical notation isn’t really music either–it’s simply ink on paper, a visual shorthand (much like comics themselves). In order to convey the intended feeling of the music, comic creators must instead rely on page and panel design to capture a sense of tempo, movement, and flow. Creative use of typography can also be effective, especially when lyrics are involved, and imaginative onomatopoeiae can serve as a device to form a visual soundscape. Often a literal representation of music isn’t what is demanded by a narrative, it’s the emotional resonance and impact of that music that needs to be seen, whether it’s the focus of a comic or simply being used as a background element to help set a scene.

After spending a little more time browsing the exhibitor areas, the next panel that I attended was simply titled “Sports!” which included Michael Nybrandt, Ngozi Ukazu, Sonam Wangyal, and Jarrett Williams as panelists and RJ Casey as a moderator. While in Japan sports comics have been immensely successful, the subgenre hasn’t thrived in the same way in the North American comics industry. Although there have been some independent sports comics with impressive followings, such as Ukazu’s Check, Please!, in general sports comics continue to be a hard sell for many major publishers. In the 1990s there were some unsuccessful mainstream attempts that basically tried to turn sports comics into superhero narratives rather than focusing on the underlying human story, something that didn’t work well at the time. There’s also the question of audience since there is a lingering and inaccurate stereotype that “nerds don’t like sports.” (Ukazu commented that it might actually be more difficult to sell sports comics to sports fans than to comics fans.) Sports stories provide ready-made and easily understood narratives which allow the incorporation and exploration of other subjects such as politics, religion, and performance of gender, making those issues more acceptable or palatable for readers. Emotional highs and lows are inherent to the stories, often directly tied to the athletes’ successes and failures in competition. Sports comics can risk becoming repetitive since the most basic story arc is the often same–someone will win and someone will lose–but while the ending may be already be determined, how the comic arrives at that ending is not. Changing the implications of winning and losing can introduce new dynamics and not all the conflict and drama has to happen within the context of the sport itself.

TCAF 2017 Haul

TCAF Haul 2017!
(minus a t-shirt and poster)

While the first two panels I went to were both held at the Stealth Lounge at The Pilot, my next three panels were located at another of TCAF’s primary event locations, the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel which allows for larger gatherings. It’s a good thing, too. Glen Downey, who was moderating “Creating While Depressed,” noted that it was one of the most well-attended TCAF panels with which he has been involved. The subject matter being discussed appeared to strike a very personal chord with many of the people in the audience, myself included. The panelists–Meredith Gran, Tara Ogaick, Meredith Park, and Shivana Sookdeo–were all very candid and open, sharing their own experiences as creators who have to carefully balance their mental health with their creative work. They talked about how damaging the idealized stereotype of the “tortured artist” is and how the romanticized portrayal of depression found in popular culture is often vastly different from actual experience. In reality, people with depression are creating despite depression rather than because of it. For them, comics can be an outlet for expression and a way to alleviate some of the symptoms of depression, but at their lowest points it may be impossible for them to produce any work at all. It is at those times when communication and honesty are particularly crucial in order to clearly delineate limitations and establish realistic expectations not only for themselves but for the people with whom they might be working. The panelists also emphasized the importance of finding a supportive, close-knit community. Although they were specifically speaking as artistic creators with depression, I found that their experiences strongly resonated with my own and could be more broadly relatable.

My fourth panel of the day was “21st Century Webcomics,” featuring Michael DeForge, Blue Delliquanti, Priya Huq, Matt Lubchansky, and moderated by Tom Spurgeon. I don’t actually follow as many comics online as I used to–I find reading digital content difficult and/or frustrating for a wide variety of reasons–but I am still a huge supporter of webcomics, frequently buying print editions if they exist. As with any medium, webcomics have evolved over time especially as advances in the creation of digital artwork have also been made. Likewise, the relationship between webcomics and print comics have changed and there is less of a sense that they are at war these days. Instead, webcomics are often used to support their print equivalents. Because they are online, webcomics are inherently more discoverable and more widely accessible which helps to build an audience and further promote a creator’s work. Webcomics can also give a creator the opportunity to experiment with new methods and formats of expression that simply aren’t realistically feasible or even possible in print, such as the use of infinite canvass, animation techniques, or interactive elements. Creators have a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to webcomics, allowing personal or experimental works to be produced and distributed that more traditional or mainstream comic publishers might initially be reluctant to take a risk on. However, while it was hoped that the Internet would allow creators to more directly deliver their content to readers and flatten out publishing hierarchies (which to some extent has occurred), the reality is that there has been a rise in intermediaries. More and more, creators find they frequently have to rely on multiple external systems and platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and social media to sustain their work.

“LGBTQ Comics Abroad,” moderated by Justin Hall, was the one panel that I wanted to be sure to make it to above all others not just because the subject matter had to do with queer comics but because Gengoroh Tagame was participating. (Even if someone isn’t a fan of Tagame’s works, his immense historical knowledge and experience as a gay comics creator makes his panels well-worth seeking out.) The other panelists included A.C. Esguerra, Molly Ostertag, Tommi Parrish, and Martina Schradi. Anne Ishii was also there, technically to assist with interpretation for Tagame, but she also had her own thoughts and experiences to bring to the discussion. The panelists talked about their work and the state of queer comics within their own countries (Japan, United States, Australia, and Germany) but also the challenges presented when considering international audiences. Queer identities are formed differently from culture to culture, and some of the nuances of those differences can be difficult to convey or translate, however there are still some shared and common experiences that are not limited by borders; social mores and contexts will often vary, but universal themes can still be found. The online environment has presented an opportunity for queer comics to be successful in ways that are currently difficult through traditional publishing, although the mainstream comics industry has been slowly making progress. The Internet allows for an unprecedented ease of global access to and distribution of queer content; it has been possible for numerous communities and support networks to be established which aren’t limited by geographic boundaries. But along with the good, there is also the bad–the piracy, scanlations, and extreme levels of fan entitlement present online can be hugely damaging.

TCAF 2017 Poster - Eleanor Davis

©Eleanor Davis

As mentioned, Saturday night I went to the Sparkler TCAF Mixer. I brought the little one along with me to allow the family’s other two adults to have a child-free dinner date. A good time was had by all and I had the chance to catch up with not only the Chromatic Press/Sparkler Monthly folks but some of Seven Seas’ people as well. There’s a bit of an overlap between the two groups even though the demographics of each company’s audience are currently the inverse of each other. (Interesting tidbit: According to a recent Sparkler Monthly survey, while women form the core readership, at present Chromatic Press has more nonbinary readers than male readers.) Expect some really great things and exciting announcements to come from both publishers in the near future.

Sunday ended up being a much shorter day than was originally planned (I was really hoping to attend the So Pretty / Very Rotten discussion on Lolita culture at the Japan Foundation, for one). However, I and one of my partners were able to at least make it to The Pilot for the panel “Looks Good Enough to Eat: Comics and Food” before we all headed back to Michigan. We sadly missed out 2016’s food comics panel, so we were particularly happy to be there this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering my well-known love of food comics, I was already familiar with the work of most of the panelists: Sarah Becan, Emily Forster, Robin Ha, Jade Feng Lee, and Kat Verhoeven. Along with moderator Lauren Jorden, the group discussed what appealed to them about creating and reading comics that prominently feature or incorporate food. The subgenre of food comics is actually quite diverse, including comics explicitly about food (recipe comics, autobiographical works, or journalistic reviews) as well as comics that use food as a theme or aesthetic. Everyone has to eat, which can make food comics particularly accessible; it’s a shared experience that can serve as a gateway into comics. Food is a multisensory experience, so it can be challenging when working in a medium that primarily relies on one. However, an important part of eating is the visual experience, so to that extent comics are a natural fit. Comics can evoke a feeling or mood that can’t be captured in the same way with photography or other visual artforms. Often there is a strong emotional component to food comics. Even when the subject matter is specifically about food, food itself isn’t just food–it’s history, community, culture, relationships, and personal expression. And comics can be all of those things, too.

And with that,  and after one last tour through the exhibitor areas, the whole family prepared to depart for home. Though I didn’t end up doing everything that I had originally planned or hoped to do,  but I still had a fantastic trip. Toronto is a terrific city and TCAF is a phenomenal festival. However inadequately, I’ve tried to convey some of that greatness here by highlighting a little of what I learned and experienced. However, there’s so much more that I could have (and perhaps should have) written about because there’s so much more to the festival. I definitely plan on attending TCAF for the foreseeable future.

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2016

TCAF 2016 Poster - Kazu Kibuishi

©Kazu Kibuishi

As of 2016, I have now attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) for four years running. TCAF is still the only large comics event that I make a point to attended, although I guess technically I went to an anime/manga/cosplay convention earlier this year since I and the rest of the taiko group I’m a part of were featured guest performers. Anyway, I digress. TCAF is an amazing event and I’m able to enjoy a fair amount of it even though my anxiety (social and otherwise) sometimes prevents me from doing everything that I’d really like to. Each year I attend seems to be a little easier for me, though it’s still certainly not easy. But, I do think TCAF is totally worth trying to push through my issues when I can, which probably says a fair amount about the event itself.

Like last year, TCAF 2016 turned into a family trip, which made me happy. The four of us arrived in Toronto late Thursday afternoon, settled into where we were staying, stretched our legs in a nearby park (which was much needed after spending hours cooped up in the car), and eventually found something to eat for dinner before turning in for the night. Originally, I was hoping and planning to go to the opening of Shintaro Kago’s solo exhibition at Narwhal, but for a variety of reasons I ended up deciding to chill with the family all night instead. Which was also good, since for all intents and purposes TCAF ends up being a vacation of sorts for us all.

Friday, too, was more of a family day, although I did meet up with Jocelyne Allen (who translates Japanese novels and manga, and who is one of the interpreters for TCAF) for coffee in the morning. We chatted about taiko, translation, TCAF, Toronto, Tokyo and all sorts of other things, which was highly enjoyable. It was nice being able to find some time to talk with her in person since we primarily only know each other online and she’s understandably very busy during TCAF. Most of the rest of the day was spent exploring Toronto with the family, including the Royal Ontario Museum which had a really interesting exhibitA Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Printsabout gender and sexuality in Edo-era Japan. Finally, that evening I made my way to the tail end of Sparkler Monthly‘s annual TCAF mixer. It was a fairly small group when I got there, but a good time was had by all, myself included.

Saturday marks the beginning of TCAF proper, although there are plenty of related events that occur both before and after TCAF weekend. As was the case for the previous couple of years, I started off the 2016 festival in the in the exhibitors’ area before most of the main programming began. I ended up spending my entire comics budget for the weekend before the first day was over, but I was pretty happy with my haul which included some pre-orders, a couple of Kickstarter pickups, a few things I knew beforehand that I wanted to buy, as well as several unplanned, spur-of-the-moment purchases.

TCAF 2016 Poster - Kate Beaton

©Kate Beaton

This year I actually spent even more time on the exhibit floors buying comics, collecting sketches and signatures, and talking to creators than I have in the past. (A few highlights: I was particularly excited to meet Saicoink, whose comic Open Spaces and Closed Places I love, made a point to tell Kori Michele Handwerker how much Portals meant to me, and discovered some wonderful new-to-me creator’s like GQutie‘s Ronnie Ritchie.) That, combined with prioritizing the family more and considering the need for flexible schedules when dealing with a not-quite-two-year old, meant that I didn’t make it to as many panels this year. In some ways, TCAF 2016 for me felt more like TCAF-lite, but I still greatly enjoyed the festival and was thoroughly satisfied by all of the events, panels, and interviews that I was able to attend.

On Saturday, I ended up making it to four panels. The first was the Spotlight on Shintaro Kago, one of TCAF’s featured guests for 2016, who was interviewed by Youth in Decline’s Ryan Sands. Kago is particularly well-known for his horrific, erotic, and grotesque manga and illustrations. Many of Kago’s works are released ero-manga magazines. As he pointed out, his manga isn’t the type of work that would be published in Jump; there is a limited number of magazines (generally erotic or alternative) that would even consider releasing his work. But by submitting to ero-magazines, Kago is allowed a tremendous amount of editorial freedom. As long as the minimum erotic requirements are met, he is able to do almost anything that he wants to with his manga, including highly experimental techniques. An example of this is a work known in English as “Abstraction” which gained a fair amount of international attention when it was translated by a fan and posted online. When asked about his feelings regarding fan translations, Kago responded that in his case he was satisfied with his work becoming more readily available to a worldwide audience since the benefits he received from the original release (page rates, etc.) didn’t amount to much anyway. Another of Kago’s short manga, “Punctures,” was officially translated in English in the anthology Secret Comics Japan. Anecdotally, it was one of the few works by Kago that the editors felt would be safe enough to include and sell. At the beginning of his creative career, Kago actually wanted to be involved in making films. However, he realized that movies are very difficult to make alone, and since he didn’t have any friends to make movies with, he turned to manga as a way to express himself so that he wouldn’t need to rely on others.

After spending a bit more time wandering the exhibitor areas, I then made my way to the panel “Depictions of Sex in Comics” which was moderated by Rebecca Sullivan, a scholar specializing in sex and media as well as gender and cultural studies. The panel featured a variety of comics publishers and creators: Zan Christensen, Chip Zdarsky, Erika Moen, Cory Silverberg, C. Spike Trotman, and Shintaro Kago. Each of the panelists has their own approach to sex in regards to how it is related to and portrayed in their work, whether their focus is on sex education, erotica, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. One cultural difference that emerged during the conversation was that while erotic comics are currently seeing a resurgence in North America (Oni Press recently announced a new imprint devoted to sex positive comics, and there have been numerous, highly-successful crowd-funded projects for feminist and queer erotic comics in the last few years), the market for erotic manga in Japan has always been very strong. A very specific set of constraints exist in Japan in regards to the depiction of sex in media, what can and cannot be shown and so on, but the country probably has the most well-established and easily navigable erotic comics scene in the world. Many Japanese creators (including Kago himself) got their start working in erotic media before moving on to other and more mainstream projects. Interestingly, Kago also mentioned that BL isn’t necessarily always recognized as being “erotic” (possibly because its target demographic is women) and so in some ways the genre can actually get away with more than hentai aimed at heterosexual men which, in his experience, seems to come under public scrutiny and fire more quickly and more often.

Rokudenashiko's Manko-chan

Manko-chan… in 3D!

The third panel I attended on Saturday was Rokudenashiko’s Spotlight which was absolutely delightful. After a brief introduction by Rebecca Sullivan, Rokudenashiko began by telling her story of how she came to be a vagina artist and activist and how she was subsequently arrested multiple times. Accompanying Rokudenashiko’s talk was a slide show of some of her artwork, and she brought along some of her small sculptures to show as well, including a remote-controlled “Gundaman.” Much of what she talked about I was already familiar with having read her manga What Is Obscenity? (which I highly recommend), but it was wonderful to see and hear her in person. Just like her work, Rokudenashiko is incredibly charming, cheerful, and funny. The humor and cuteness that Rokudenashiko brings to her manga, illustrations, and sculptures is very deliberate on her part. She noted that many feminist creators dealing with similar subject matter frequently use their art to express their anger and sadness which makes for very heavy work. So instead, Rokudenashiko wanted to do something that was more lighthearted and amusing. It was only after she realized that some people couldn’t laugh and have fun with it that she became more aggressive in her activism efforts, but without ever losing her sense of humor and positivity in her artwork. However, some critics and academics don’t appreciate this, feeling that she’s making too light of a serious subject. Rokudenashiko was very pleased with her reception in North America, saying that the long lines of people waiting to meet her would never happen in Japan where most people are generally too embarrassed to engage so publicly even if they recognize her and are interested in and support what she is doing.

Last year at TCAF I attended a panel on manga translation which was fascinating, so when I saw the “Translation” panel listed as part of the programming for 2016 I was immediately interested. This year the panel was moderated by Deb Aoki and featured three panelists: Jocelyne Allen, who translates from Japanese to English, Samuel Leblanc, a Canadian creator primarily working in French whose debut comic Perfume of Lilacs was released in English, and the French creator Boulet who (after a disastrous attempt to work with fans) currently translates his own comics into English. Leblanc was able to work directly with his translator and was able to provide feedback on the translation being done whereas Allen very rarely had the opportunity to be in contact with the creators of the works that she was translating. Although each of the panelists brought their own perspective to the conversation, they all agreed that capturing the appropriate tone and style is one of the most difficult things about translation. That and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to make everyone happy with a translation since so many people are invested in it each for their own reasons, whether it be the original creators, the translators, the publishers, or the readers. Lately however, the trend in comics translation seems to err on the side of the artists’ original choices and intent rather than focusing on localization. There are also different types of translation work which require different sets of skills—translating comics isn’t the same as translating prose literature which isn’t the same as translating technical manuals and so on. One thing that can be particularly challenging for comics translation is that the amount of space allowed for text is often limited. The visual element of the comics can have a great impact on the interpretation of a scene and the resulting word choices as well.

TCAF 2016 Haul

It’s not everything, but it is most of this year’s TCAF haul

On Sunday I was only able to make it to two panels before heading back home. One of the reasons that I enjoy TCAF so much is that it is an incredibly queer-friendly and queer-positive event, both in the exhibitor areas and in its programming. I was especially looking forward to “Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy,” a panel moderated by Melanie Gillman and featuring Megan Rose Gedris, Jeremy Sorese, Dylan Edwards, Andrew Wheeler, Taneka Stotts, and Gisele Jobateh, all of whom are queer creators of queer comics. Historically, queerness in speculative fiction has been relegated to subtext, but more and more that queerness is becoming increasingly obvious and in some cases is even the focus of a work. Speculative fiction allows for the creation and exploration of worlds that reflect upon current societal issues while showing what other possibilities could exist. Several of the panelists mentioned that when they were growing up speculative fiction provided some of the only representation of queerness that they saw in media, such as alternative relationship and social structures or a wider variety of genders and sexualities. Frequently, it was the non-human characters that they were most easily able to identify with and the inherent queerness of speculative fiction helped them to understand and discover their own identities. (All of this rings very true for me, too.) Webcomics and self-publishing efforts have been huge in changing the landscape of the comics market to the point where more mainstream publishers, which are slow to evolve and risk-averse, are now reaching a tipping point where queer content isn’t being automatically rejected. Deliberately, intentionally, and unquestionably queer speculative fiction is an evolving genre. Whether they mean to or not, independent creators are currently defining the expectations, tone, language, and tropes that are being set for queer representation in comics and what queer speculative fiction looks like.

The final panel I attended on Sunday was “Discussing Diversity (More or Less)” which was moderated by David Brothers. The panelists included Karla Pacheco, Cathy G. Johnson, Gene Luen Yang, Anne Ishii (one of the marvelous people behind Massive Goods), Ant Sang, and Bill Campbell. Diversity is a huge buzzword right now and not just in comics and other media. (Even my workplace is trying to focus on issues surrounding diversity, so it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days.) In many of the conversations taking place in North America, diversity is often broadly defined as being non-straight/white/male which, in reality, is actually most of the world. The panel’s incredibly refreshing approach to discussing diversity was simply to talk about it as if was normal, because it is, rather than treating it as an exception or something unusual. As the panelists spoke about their own personal experiences and work, several common themes emerged, probably the most important being that there absolutely is a market, and a need, for diverse media. Though it can be a deliberate initiative, diversity in comics is a natural and often unintentional extension of creators’ own lives, interests, identities, and perspectives. There is also a distinct difference between providing more diverse representation in mainstream media and allowing a more diverse pool of creators to participate and express themselves within that context. While it might be a starting place, non-straight/white/male characters being written by straight/white/male creators sets an extremely low bar in terms of diversity. New voices and perspectives are just as critical if not more so in order to ensure that the comics market remains healthy as it continues to grow and evolve.

Sadly, because the kidling was getting cranky, I had to leave the festival before the food in comics panel which I was really hoping to attend. I was sad to miss most of the “What Women Want” panel’s third year, too. But I have come to realize that even if I wasn’t leaving “early,” it is impossible to see and experience everything that TCAF has to offer and choices must be made. Actually, this is something that I’ve known since the very beginning. There are always going to be panels I miss or that conflict with one another, and after the fact I’m always going to end up discovering comics that I would have been interested in and creators that I wish I had known about. But even so, that doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the event and I am tremendously happy with what I was able to attend this year. TCAF is such a truly wonderful festival. As always, I’m already looking forward to and planning for my trip to Toronto for the event next year.

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2015

TCAF 2015 Poster


2015 marks the third time that I’ve been able to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). I generally don’t go to very many conferences, festivals, or conventions unless it’s for work, but I had such a phenomenal experience at TCAF 2013 that it’s become an annual event for me. TCAF is totally worth me pushing through all of my social anxieties and general awkwardness. This year was great, too, and for the most part I handled it pretty well. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m getting used to the trip and generally know what to expect from the event or what, but TCAF’s expansion into more areas of the Toronto Reference Library made the crowds feel less, well, crowded which probably also helped.

I’ve actually been trying to make TCAF a family trip since 2013 and this year it finally happened. Everyone, including the nine-month old, was able to make it to Toronto. We set out from Michigan on Friday and arrived in Toronto in time for me to go to Sparkler Monthly‘s Manga Mixer. I went last year, too, and enjoyed myself, so I was looking forward to it even though I’m not much of a party person. I enjoyed the mixer this year as well and had the opportunity to talk about manga, comics, and all sorts of things with all sorts of people. I was particularly happy to chat with Lissa Pattillo and the rest of the folk at Chromatic Press again. And I met several of my fellow manga and comics enthusiasts in person for the first time, like Linda/animemiz, Ysabet MacFarlane, and Alex Hoffman, which was great. Later on in the evening Jason Thompson showed up and we talked for a bit, which was pretty exciting for me since he played a large role in introducing me to manga. He seemed to know who I was, too, even though we’d never met before.

Actually, people recognizing me or Experiments in Manga after I introduced myself was something that happened several times over the course of TCAF, which was an odd but kind of thrilling experience. (I guess “Ash Brown” is a name that tends to stick with people?) Another odd thing to happen was that a lot of people assumed I was one of the exhibitors or an artist myself. Granted, considering how many creators visit TCAF as exhibitors or attendees, it’s a pretty safe guess for someone to make and still end up being correct much of the time. Anyway. Some of my personal social highlights over the course of TCAF in addition the Manga Mixer: I had a nice conversation with Ryan Sands, said hello to the MASSIVE crew, ran into fellow Manga Bookshelf blogger Sean Gaffney, had the chance to meet Amanda Cosmos, briefly chatted with Jocelyne Allen, and talked with Ken Niimura and Aya Kanno at their respective signings. And there were plenty of other smaller interactions throughout the festival, too.

Manga Mixer presented by Sparkler

TCAF 2015 Manga Mixer presented by
Sparkler Monthly

I like to start off TCAF proper bright and early on Saturday morning by visiting the exhibitor areas. This has a few advantages: the crowds are relatively small and manageable, exhibitors haven’t sold out of anything yet (although, not everything is available for sale right away), and most of the festival programming for the day hasn’t started. I generally have a few tables that I know I want to stop by and a few things that I know I want to check out, but I also wander around to see everything that’s there. For me, part of TCAF is learning about and discovering new things; I always make a point to come home with some comics and artwork by artists whose work I’m completely unfamiliar with. If I could I’d bring home everything that caught my interest. I have to give myself a strict budget for TCAF to keep things from getting out of hand. I focus my purchases on independent creators and small publishers while at TCAF, but I also end up making a very lengthy list of comics and other books to obtain at a later date. Even after it’s over, TCAF continues to influence what I buy. This year I got my hands on almost everything that I really wanted, but there were a few things I’m still kicking myself for missing out on, like Gengoroh Tagame’s new artbook. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to pick some of those things up in the near future, though.

On Saturday, I attended a total of six (six!) panels. I basically found a seat in the Marriott’s High Park Ballroom and didn’t move for the rest of the day. (Should you ever attempt this yourself, I highly recommend bringing your own water and snacks with you.) One of the most challenging parts of TCAF is deciding which programs to go to because it is literally impossible to do everything. There are so many fantastic panels and creators that there are always going to be conflicts. But, rest assured, whatever you choose, it will be great. I have yet to leave a TCAF event disappointed or dissatisfied.

My first panel of the day was “Subscription Comics.” Moderated by Brigid Alverson, the discussion featured Box Brown of Retrofit Comics, Ryan Sands of Youth in Decline, Jordan Shiveley of Uncivilized Books, and Lianne Sentar of Chromatic Press. Although the models are different from one publisher to another, each of them features a subscription service of some sort. (I’m currently a Chromatic Press and Youth in Decline subscriber; next year I’ll probably be a Retrofit subscriber, too, considering the number of comics I buy from the publisher anyway.) The panel’s conversation focused on the benefits provided and challenges presented by subscriptions not just for publishers, but for creators and readers as well. Subscriptions get money to the publisher quickly and can help pay for upfront costs. It can be incredibly useful for publishers to know that there will be definite revenue when planning the year’s finances, too. For creators, publishers’ subscriptions can provide an appealing outlet for experimentation, a way to do something for fun on the side, and not have to worry about marketing and other aspects of promotion. The panelists tended to agree that an ideal subscription service would feature both big and small names. The more well-known artists provide the initial draw for readers and help support the publication of the rest of the comics. Subscriptions can provide the curatorial guidance needed in the astoundingly large world of comics which can frequently be overwhelming, especially for newer readers.

TCAF 2015 Poster - Pascal Blanchet

©Pascal Blanchet

Brigid Alverson was also involved with the next event, serving as the interviewer for Aya Kanno’s Spotlight with Jocelyne Allen interpreting. The discussion largely focused on Kanno’s two most recent series to have been released in English, Otomen and Requiem of the Rose King. She got the idea for Otomen when she realized that a lot of the men around her were otomen, but that in Japan a boy liking girlish things is still looked down upon, more so than a girl liking boyish things. Her editor at the time was a little uneasy about the series because Kanno had never done a comedy manga before; it took about a year to convince him. Being true to oneself is a theme that is particularly important in Otomen, and one that deeply resonates with Kanno. As for Requiem of the Rose King, there is an exaggerated element in Shakespeare’s plays that she doesn’t often see in modern works that she finds very appealing. Kanno described her version of Richard as a mix of all of the good parts of Shakespeare’s Richard, characteristics of the historical Richard III, and some of her own fantasy. Kanno did read a fair number of history books when conducting research for the series, but not much on the time period is available in Japanese, so the visuals of the manga tend to be heavily influenced by Shakespearian stage productions and much of the story comes from within Kanno herself as she creates her own personal interpretations of history. Kanno has always been interested in sex, gender, and sexuality, so it isn’t too surprising that those subjects play an important role in her work; both Otomen and Requiem of the Rose King deal with those subjects in different ways.

Next up was “Gay Comics Art Japan with Gengoroh Tagame,” featuring Gengoroh Tagame, the first commercially successful creator of gay manga, Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins of MASSIVE, and Leyla Aker, one of the editors at Viz Media and SuBLime Manga. Tagame was one of the featured guests at TCAF in 2013 and he is an extremely knowledgeable and charming individual, so I was very happy to see him return again this year. The panelists discussed queer comics, gay manga, and BL, the fluidity of the boundaries between the genres, and the usefulness and limitations of labels. It’s becoming more and more difficult to definitively draw a line between gay manga and BL. Many complicated factors influence how a person approaches a particular work: the style of the art, the gender and sexuality of the creator (which in and of itself is very complicated), the emphasis placed on romance or sex, and the intended audience, among many other things. Generally, fifteen to twenty percent of SuBLime’s readership, and up to fifty percent for some titles (usually the romance-oriented manga), are men and Tagame has a large number of fans who are women, so even the boundaries between expected audiences are blurring. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the different categories and genres applied to manga in Japan do not necessarily have exact equivalents to those used in other countries and vice versa. Categorization can be useful for marketing purposes, publishers, and readers, but it can also create situations in which the content or creators are being marginalized or pigeonholed simply because of the label that is being used. Aker mentioned that there were two major BL mangaka whose work is often requested by fans who ultimately did not want to be published by SuBLime specifically for those reasons.

Ken Niimura Sketch

Ken Niimura likes cats

Despite being a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’ve never actually read any of the comics. And so before attending Gurihiru’s Spotlight, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the work of the two Japanese artists who make up the illustration team: Chifuyu Sasaki, who focuses on design, pencils, and inks, and Naoko Kawano, who focuses on design and colors. Along with their agent Akihide Yanagi, who helped to interpret, the two women were interviewed by Deb Aoki. Sasaki and Kawano became friends in college and soon after began collaborating on artwork together. Although they each have their specialty, their creative process has always been a team effort. Previously, they both worked as office ladies and did some local illustration work on the side; it wasn’t until they responded to Marvel’s search for Japanese creators that their career as artists really took off. They still haven’t been published much in Japan—their style is considered “too Western” by some—however, they have found success in other parts of the world. One of the reasons they submitted their work to Marvel was to try to reach an audience that would better appreciate their style. Marvel has never asked them to change how they draw and they have been given a lot of freedom with the series that they have been involved with. In addition to Marvel and Dark Horse Comics, Gurihiru has also worked with Scholastic and Pearson Education as illustrators and colorists. Their two biggest influences when it comes to how they approach their art? Disney animation and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. One day Gurihiru would like to try creating their own stories, but in the meantime they’re so busy as artists that they haven’t had a good opportunity to develop those skills.

Noelle Stevenson’s Spotlight conflicted with Ed Luce’s Spotlight, which I was also very interested in. But, because Gurihiru’s session went over its time, I was already in the room, and I wanted to be there for the next panel as well, I decided to continue my siege of the High Park Ballroom. Stevenson was on a panel that I attended last year at TCAF and I was looking forward to reading her debut graphic novel Nimona which debuted at TCAF this year, so I was glad to have the chance to hear her interviewed by Robin Brenner (another manga-savvy librarian that I look up to a great deal). Stevenson is an engaging, intelligent, and well-spoken young creator. Topics of the casual conversation included Nimona, working as part of a team as a writer for Lumberjanes, and the importance of diversity in comics. Before being picked up by HarperCollins, Nimona started as a webcomic that was a part of Stevenson’s senior thesis. The first thing she knew about the story was its ending, but she actually began posting the comic online before the script had been finalized. As a result, the comic changed some as it progressed, and additional revisions needed to be made for the print edition. Stevenson first became widely known for her fanart, which is how her agent, who approached her directly, discovered her. Her work on Nimona and as a writer for Lumbarjanes has allowed her to create something of her own which subsequently led to other projects. As Stevenson describes it, “the writing was an accident,” but she is now being hired for her own unique voice rather than as someone to mimic an existing tone or story. She finds it very satisfying to be in the position to create something that isn’t just more of the same, feeling that diversity in comics makes for better stories in addition to challenging readers to expand both their worldviews and their capacities for empathy.

Aya Kanno Chibis

Chibi Richard and Asuka by Aya Kanno

One of the most popular events at TCAF in 2014 was “What Do Women Want? Writing Comics For A Female Audience” and so this year Lianne Sentar facilitated a reprise of the panel. Joining her this time around was Sam Maggs, Sandra Bell-Lundy, Brenden Fletcher, Svetlana Chmakova, and Sydney Padua. The group provided a nice range of perspectives on the subject as the panelists are all involved in different parts of the comics industry: publishing, journalism, syndicated comics, mainstream comics, manga-influenced comics, and webcomics. The panelists argue, and I agree with them, that by expanding the range of stories being told about and for women in addition to increasing the diversity of their representation in comics, men’s stories and representation are inherently expanded and increased as well. Stories aimed at straight, white men are often the default in mainstream media, but if allowed, women-oriented stories can be just as universal. Last year the panel included a lot of angry ranting, but this year tended to be much more positive in tone, a good indication that the state of the comics industry is already beginning to change for the better. The group hypothesized that the Internet has a played a critical role in allowing this to happen. Social media and webcomics in particular have provided platforms for creators to freely express themselves, reach a widespread audience, and form communities and support networks even when working on a comic that is especially niche. The big publishers are paying attention to these developments and taking note of what readers want, but the inertia of a well-entrenched industry used to telling a particular kind of story can be difficult to overcome and there will continue to be missteps. The road may be bumpy, but it is improving, and there are now other viable options for creators and readers outside of mainstream publication, as well.

I thought about going to the Queer Mixer again this year but ultimately ended up hanging out in the city with the family, finding plenty of good food to eat and beer to drink, enjoying the pleasant weather outside, and visiting Toronto’s public parks. Because TCAF starts a couple of hours later on Sunday than it does on Saturday, we were able to sleep in a bit on Sunday morning before heading out for brunch. Afterwards I made my way back to the Marriott and the Reference Library while the rest of the family explored the Royal Ontario Museum. Compared to Saturday, at first it seems like I hardly did anything at all on Sunday since I only attended three panels. But, I also made it to Ken Niimura and Aya Kanno’s signings, and spent some more time in the exhibitor areas talking to and collecting signatures from some of the other creators. The other three-fourths of family wandered around the library for a bit as well, tracking down some of their favorite artists and adding to the pile of comics that were coming back to the United States with us.

My first panel of the day was “Get Published In Japan!,” moderated by Deb Aoki and featuring Yuri Yamamoto (an editor at Akita Shoten for Princess magazine who is working with Aya Kanno on Requiem of the Rose King among other series), Ken Niimura, Abby Denson and independent manga artist Yuuko Koyama (who self-published some work together in Japan), and Gurihiru’s agent Akihide Yanagi. While the panel addressed some of the more technical issues and challenges that confront non-Japanese creators when trying to break into the manga industry in Japan—such as language barriers and the lack of support for submitting materials digitally—much of the discussion actually focused on the importance of the relationship between an editor and creator. In Japan, editors tend to play a much more prominent role in the creation of comics than they do in most other countries; editors are often considered a part of the creative team, and some even act as the writers for the artists they work with. It’s a relationship dynamic which may take some foreign creators, many of whom are used to working more independently, time to adjust to. As Niimura puts it, “Finding the right editor is like finding the right girlfriend or boyfriend,” a good match is required to really make the relationship work. The panelists agreed that one of the most important traits for creators to have is the ability to positively take critique and criticism in stride, always working to improve based on those comments with the knowledge that even if they are severe they are intended to help them better themselves and their work. Of course, the advice that creators receive, even for the same comic, will differ depending on the editor they are working with. Some editor’s in Japan intentionally seek out foreign talent, while others still show some discrimination towards non-Japanese creators. But, as long as a submission to a manga magazine is in Japanese, it will always be reviewed for consideration.

TCAF 2015 Haul

Most, but not quite all, of my TCAF haul

It was then back to the Reference Library for the “Manga Translation” panel facilitated by Robin Brenner and featuring translators Kumar Sivasubramanian (who has done manga translation for Dark Horse and Vertical) and Jocelyne Allen (who has worked with Drawn & Quarterly, Digital Manga, Viz Media, and others) as well as Deb Aoki (who has served as one of the judges for the Manga Translation Battle sponsored by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs). Over the course of the discussion, the panelists identified some of the things that make manga translation particularly challenging, such as sound effects, the size and shape of word balloons and the limited space for text, choosing appropriate gendered pronouns, puns and wordplay, culturally specific concepts and jokes, and so on. Both accuracy and readability are important for any translation; the audience must always be kept in mind since translation choices and tone will change depending on what the publishers and readers want or need. Some series, like Blade of the Immortal, demand a “rawer” translation with much of the Japanese terminology left intact because that is what the audience has come to expect. Different publishers have different policies and requirements for their translations, too. For example, some allow translation notes while others do not. Many manga fans may not realize that the translators ultimately aren’t the only ones responsible for a manga’s translation—adapters and editors, as well as the original publishers and creators, are also involved in the decisions that are made. More than one translator may work on the same series, too, so additional effort is needed in order to maintain a consistent translation over multiple volumes. It’s also worth noting that it’s very rare that a translator has the opportunity to work directly with creators or to ask them questions about their manga. Generally translators don’t know anything more than any other reader and they can be taken by surprise by the manga’s developments, which can present problems for translation.

Although the Comics vs Games showcase has been a part of TCAF for four years now, 2015 was the first time that I had the chance to attend any of its programming, largely because much of it was actually located in the Reference Library this year. At one point in time, my love of games rivaled my love of comics, so I was particularly looking forward to it. “Comics vs Games: Microtalks!” featured eleven speakers: David Calvo, Alfe Clemencio, Amanda Cosmos, David Hellman, Andrew Hlynka, Kim Hoang, Rachel Kahn, Xin Ran Liu, Matthew Ritter, Jason Shiga, and Miguel Sternber. The group included game developers, artists, and aficionados, as well as comics creators, each of whom gave a very short presentation discussing various aspects of comics and games, generally touching upon the similarities and differences between the mediums and what creators working in one could learn from the other. Both comics and games can be a form of storytelling that requires a reader or player to actively engage in the creation of a narrative from disparate images and moments. Of the two, generally games are considered to be more interactive, which greatly impacts the experience of the story, even if it’s a linear one. But the incredibly innovative work being done by Jason Shiga proves that comics can be interactive as well. Art obviously serves a function in comics where it is a critical part of the narrative, but it’s also important in games where the artwork is responsible for creating and establishing a setting and environment. Traditional illustration techniques can be used to inform game art and design, and even three-dimensional games can successfully incorporate two-dimensional artwork and animation.

Believe it or not, the above is just a small fraction of what I could have written about TCAF. Each of the individual panels and spotlights could have easily had an entire essay devoted solely to them; I merely expressed some of my own thoughts and experiences, and touched upon a few and not by any means all of the major themes and topics addressed at the various programs at the festival. TCAF is an absolutely fantastic comics event. If you ever have the opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it. I know that I certainly plan on returning every year that I possibly can.

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2014

TCAF 2014 Poster

©Michael DeForge

Last year I attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) for the very first time. It was an event that I had wanted to go to for years and I had such a fabulous time that I immediately began planning to return. TCAF is the only comics festival that I have ever been to so I can’t really compare it to others, but it is fantastic and I can’t recommend it enough. I certainly plan on going every that I possibly can at this point.

Last year I was only there for the main festival on Saturday and Sunday, but this year I pulled into Toronto on Thursday evening which gave me plenty of time to explore the city itself. After figuring out how to use Toronto’s streetcar system (I’ve never ridden a streetcar before) my “early” arrival allowed me to attend the opening reception of Toshio Saeki’s art exhibition at Narwhal Projects. Saeki is described as the “Godfather of Japanese Eroticism.” The gallery was a showing of a selection of his original drawings and silkscreen prints. They were beautiful, disconcerting, erotic, and surreal works. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to see them in person.

Friday was my “free” day in Toronto. While I was wandering all over the city, I made sure to make my way down to The Beguiling Books & Arts. Last year I got there a few minutes before it closed, so I was looking forward to spending a more reasonable amount of time exploring the store this year. The Beguiling is one of the best comic stores I’ve ever been to. It has a fantastic selection of materials and a marvelous staff. I highly recommend anyone visiting Toronto to check it out. The event that I was looking forward to on Friday was the Manga Mixer Night hosted by Sparkler Monthly at the TRANZAC Club. I sadly missed out on the gathering last year, and one of my TCAF goals for this year was to overcome some of my anxieties and to try to be a little more social, so to the mixer I went! And I’m glad that I did. I had a good time and Kuriousity‘s Lissa Pattillo and I were beautiful wallflowers together. We had a very nice conversation about manga, blogging, and TCAF.

Over the course of the festival I had the opportunity to briefly meet several other of my online friends in person: manga translator and all around awesome person Jocelyne Allen, my fellow Manga Bookshelf cohort Sean Gaffney, and the great A-run Chey who somehow managed to pick me out of a crowd. I certainly made some progress this year in the socialization department, but I still didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself to Deb Aoki and Erica Friedman, who were both kept very busy moderating various panels, or to Vertical’s Ed Chavez even though I was standing next to each of them at some point during the festival. Next time I’ll make it happen! I know there were at least a few other manga and comics bloggers at TCAF—like Brigid Alverson and Alexander Hoffman, among others—but I missed them, too.


“Ureshidaruma” by Toshio Saeki

Saturday was when the main festival actually began. Last year I didn’t get to spend as much time in the exhibitor area as I would have liked, so I got up bright and early on Saturday in order to visit as many artists and publishers as I could first thing in the morning. This turned out to be a good decision, because the exhibitor area seemed to only get busier and busier throughout the day. I couldn’t see everything before the Saturday panels started, but by the end of the day I managed to visit most of the tables that I wanted. Sadly, there were a few things that I was hoping to get that were sold out by the time I was able to make my way to the artists’ respective tables. But at least that meant that the creators were doing well, and I was very glad to see their success. While I went into TCAF knowing there were certain things that I wanted to pick up, I also allowed myself the opportunity to splurge on a few random items that I hadn’t even heard of before and discovered some great comics in the process. And of course, I also managed to compile a rather lengthy list of things that I wanted to check out later, too. I continue to be very impressed by both the quality and variety of creators and art at TCAF.

I attended four panels on Saturday. “What Do Women Want? Writing Comics for a Female Audience,” was moderated by Chromatic Press’ Lianne Sentar and featured Laura Lee Gulledge, Kate Leth, Joan Reilly, and Noelle Stevenson. It was an excellent panel looking at men and women and masculinity and femininity in comics and the North American comics industry. Generally, comics readers are assumed by the industry to be both male and straight and so that audience is the one that has traditionally been catered to. There have always been female readers but recently there have been more demands for a wider variety in comics, perhaps due in part to what the panelists called the “Sailor Moon Generation.” These are the women, and men, who were exposed to female-friendly Sailor Moon when they were younger and who are now old enough to create the types of comics that they want to see or are in the position to support and encourage other upcoming creators who want something more than the industry’s default. The key to the discussion was the importance of variety in comics and that great stories will attract all sorts of readers regardless of their intended audience.

“Comics Design and History” focused on the physical design, production, and presentation of graphic novels. The panel was moderated by Chris Randle and included designers Tracy Hurren from Drawn & Quarterly, Fawn Lau from Viz Media, and Chip Kidd, who has designed books for Vertical and PictureBox among many other publishers. They each chose three book designs to discuss and talked about some of the decisions that go into the design process. For example, one of the first steps when a comic is being translated into another language is to determine whether the original cover is suited for the new demographic. Unflipped manga has the potential to be accidentally displayed with the back cover as the front, so Kidd very deliberately created a design for Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan that was interesting and informative regardless of which direction the book was facing. One of the series that Lau discussed was Taiyo Matsumoto’s Sunny, talking about the choices that went into its deluxe presentation. One of the biggest challenges in book design is achieving a balance between production values and the budget, and then finding a printer that can actually produce it.

Queer Mixer presented by MASSIVE

TCAF 2014 Queer Mixer presented by MASSIVE

Considering the fantastic lineup—Jess Fink, Michael DeForge, C. Spike Trotman, HamletMachine, Graham Kolbeins, Katie Skelly, Ryan Sands—I should have known that “Contemporary Erotic Comics” was going to be a popular panel. It was held in one of the smallest venues and was completely packed, but it was absolutely worth squeezing into the crowd. Chris Randle was the moderator for this panel as well. The panelists discussed their first experiences with erotic comics (manga and doujinshi were frequently cited), the challenges of working in and making a living off of pornography, and some of the current trends in sex comics as a genre. The panel’s emphasis on the need for variety and different perspectives dovetailed nicely with parts of the “What Do Women Want?” discussion. Kolbeins, who has been critical to the efforts to bring gay manga to English-reading audiences, was able to provide fascinating insights into some of the difference between Japanese and Western porn comics industries. In Japan, pornography is often meant to exclusively be pornography; adding any sort of message or social commentary can be seen as watering it down. On the other hand, in the West sex comics often allow creators to address issues other than sex; as long as certain plot requirements are met, they are more or less free to do whatever they want with their comics.

The last panel that I attended on Saturday, moderated by Deb Aoki, was “Women in Manga!” The panel included all of this year’s mangaka who were featured guests at TCAF: Moyoco Anno, est em, and Akira Himekawa (A. Honda and S. Nagano, a two-women team). All four of them admitted that they brought their work along with them on the trip; they may be traveling, but they still had deadlines to meet. Even though they are women, they said that they are largely treated the same as their male counterparts when working in seinen. (In many cases, readers don’t even realize that they are women!) However, working in shounen used to present more hurdles, though it’s not as difficult now as it once was. In the end, readers care more about the content than the mangaka’s gender. Regardless of the genre or demographic that they are working in, the panelists normally receive respect. The exception to this would be boys’ love which is somewhat looked down upon. est em felt this was because that instead of the more usual manga contests which award the creators with a series, boys’ love mangaka often become professionals through their doujinshi and this is seen as a sneaky, backdoor way of breaking into the manga industry.

One of the heartbreaking things about TCAF is that there is so much great programming that it’s impossible to attend it all and hard decisions must be made. Sadly, “Women in Manga!” conflicted with the “Queering Comics – LGBTQ identity in comics and graphic novels” panel which I really wanted to attend. Since I couldn’t make it to the queer comics panel, I decided to show up for the TCAF Queer Mixer at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre instead. Now, I don’t generally go to things like parties and mixers, but I was enticed by the promise of on-stage presentations and interviews. And I wasn’t disappointed. Anne Ishii of MASSIVE made a fabulously entertaining host and more than a dozen of the queer creators who were at TCAF this year were spotlighted as part of the event. I was already familiar with some of them and their work, but others were new to me. And I’ll admit, it was pretty awesome to just be in the same room with a bunch of other amazing queer folk. One of the best things about TCAF is how marvelously inclusive it is, and the annual Queer Mixer is representative of that.

TCAF 2014 Haul

My 2014 TCAF haul

Then came Sunday, the last day of the main festival. Also known as “Ash’s day of manga.” I made it to three events, each one focusing on the festival’s featured mangaka. First thing in the morning was Moyoco Anno’s Spotlight with Ed Chavez. Probably not too surprisingly, Vertical’s releases of Anno’s manga—Insufficient Direction, Sakuran, and the soon to be published In Clothes Called Fat—were used as a jumping off point for the discussion. Anno talked about her approach to writing seinen, choosing to focus on what she as a woman can bring to the demographic rather than trying to compete in the same areas where men could do just as well. As for shoujo, she doesn’t feel that it has changed much over the last twenty years; it still follows the same unrealistic tropes, especially in regards to love. She feels that the large gap between real relationships and how they are portrayed in manga can sometimes be problematic for readers. When asked, she sweetly replied that her favorite character to draw was Director-kun, her husband Hideaki Anno (who also happened to be in attendance).

Those who stayed for the entire Moyoco Anno Spotlight were at a slight disadvantage when it came to the signing that immediately followed. I was the first person put in the rush line for her signing, but sadly I still didn’t get the chance to personally meet Anno. However, this did mean that I had time to walk over to Toronto’s Japan Foundation in time for Akira Himekawa in Conversation. The two women, who are best known for their Zelda manga, are celebrating their thirtieth year of collaboration and were being interviewed by Deb Aoki. They were both incredibly engaging and enthusiastic about their work. I actually haven’t read very much of Himekawa’s manga, but I’ll certainly be making a point to now. And after seeing examples of some of their current series, I really hope that more of their manga will be licensed in English in the future. I love the Zelda franchise, but Himekawa’s recent work, much of it in full-color, simply looks gorgeous. While I was at the Japan Foundation, I was also able to see the Seiji Ozawa Photography Exhibition—a showcase of archival materials focusing on the young, Japanese music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1969—which was great.

The Japan Foundation also sponsored an interview with Yohei Sadoshima, whose literary agency represents Moyoco Anno among many other creators, about the future of the manga industry. Unfortunately this conflicted with the est em Spotlight. As a huge fan of est em, there was no way I was going to miss her panel. Erica Friedman was the moderator and it actually ended up being one of the best interviews that I attended at TCAF this year, making it a great way to end the festival. est em got her start as a professional mangaka through boys’ love after being approached by an editor who was intrigued by her doujinshi. Interestingly enough, she hadn’t actually read much mainstream boys’ love, which may partly explain why her manga tends to be somewhat unusual. Although est em is probably best know for her atypical boys love manga, her current series—Golondrina and Ippo—are both seinen manga. I think that Viz is probably my only hope, but someone please license Golondrina for a print release! est em explains that the reason her work is quirky is because it incorporates what she personally finds to be beautiful or interesting. She especially enjoys exploring and working with themes that address the spaces in between two opposing forces. (Over at Okazu, Erica recently posted an excellent and much more thorough write-up of the est em Panel at TCAF.)

So there you have it! And that’s just scratching the surface of this year’s festival experience. In short: TCAF 2014 was phenomenal. The guests were amazing. The programming was fantastic. I hope that I’ll be able to go again next year. That’s the plan, anyway!

Random Musings: Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2013

© Taiyo Matsumoto

I first learned about the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) in 2011 when Usamaru Furuya and Natsume Ono were invited to the event as featured guests. (As a side note: translations of their diary manga from the trip are included in the 2013 TCAF program guide.) It took me two years to finally work up the courage to attend TCAF myself and get my passport in order. 2013 marked TCAF’s tenth anniversary. This year’s festival featured over four hundred creators from nineteen different countries, including mangaka Taiyo Matsumoto and Gengoroh Tagame. While there were festival events throughout May, TCAF 2013’s main exhibition took place on Saturday, May 11th and Sunday, May 12th.

In order to keep the cost of the trip as low as possible, I crossed over the border into Canada from Michigan early Saturday morning along with my good friend Traci (who contributed a guest post here at Experiments in Manga not too long ago.) I arrived in Toronto in time to see The World of Taiyo Matsumoto, an exhibition at The Japan Foundation featuring original artwork by Matsumoto (creator of Blue Spring, Tekkon Kinkreet, GoGo Monster, and the recently released Sunny.) Matsumoto himself was in attendance for a special interview and artist’s talk. The turnout was huge—standing-room only and some people even had to be turned away. Matsumoto admitted that he never expected so many people to turn out to see him and that he was greatly honored. The event and exhibit, which focused on Matsumoto’s artwork, were marvelous. I certainly learned quite a bit: Matsumoto and Santa Inoue (creator of Tokyo Tribes) are cousins and they regularly talk about manga and help each other out; Tekkon Kinkreet was originally intended to be six volumes long, but ended after three since it wasn’t popular enough to continue (although Matsumoto said that he is satisfied with its conclusion and has no desire to revisit the story); in the beginning, Matsumoto was actually reluctant and even resentful working on Ping Pong, which became his breakout manga; and while Matsumoto has always been an innovative artist, more recent developments in printing technology have allowed him to experiment with different drawing materials and techniques, moving even further away from the use of screentone.

© Maurice Vellekoop

From The Japan Foundation, I headed over to the spotlight on Gengoroh Tagame, a highly influential gay manga artist. Joining Tagame were Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins to celebrate Tagame and his work and to discuss the recent release of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, which they all had a hand in bringing into being. The panelists were all very enthusiastic and had a great senses of humor. Because of this, the spotlight was engaging and entertaining in addition to being informative. Apparently, there was a rumor that Tagame did not want his work translated into English. He assured us all that this was not true. In fact, he was surprised that it took until now for a collection of his manga to be released in English. It is possible that the rumor may have had a chilling effect on the licensing of Tagame’s materials. Like so many other people (myself included), he is very excited about the publication of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. He is also unbelievably happy that others share enjoyment in his fantasies. Tagame is unusual in that very few gay manga artists in Japan are able to make their living on their artwork alone, most hold at least a second job. The panel ended with a very interesting conversation about gay manga and bara (manga typically geared towards gay men) and boys’ love and yaoi (manga typically geared towards women.) It’s difficult to generalize about the genres and the distinction between them isn’t always as clear as some people claim or would like; there can be considerable grey area, crossover, and overlap between the two. For a time, yaoi served as an outlet for gay manga before bara became more publicly acceptable and gay manga magazines were established. Tagame actually started out by submitting his work to yaoi magazines when he was eighteen and he continues to have a large number of female fans. In line for his signing after the talk were people of all (adult) ages, genders, and sexualities, which was wonderful to see.

After having my copy of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame signed, Traci and I met up together again. We made our way down to The Beguiling Books & Art which is an astounding, award-winning comics store. If you find yourself in Toronto, I highly recommend stopping by The Beguiling. It has new comics, old comics, out-of-print comics, mainstream comics, alternative comics, independent comics, domestic comics, international comics (including the largest selection of manga that I’ve ever seen in one place), and more, more, more. And since the shop was across the street from Koreatown, Traci and I took the opportunity to chow down on some delicious Korean food before heading over to Church on Church to catch the tail end of the TCAF Queer Mixer. Unfortunately, we missed the reception and artist talks, but we still were able to see the exhibit Legends: The Gay Erotic Art of Maurice Vellekoop and Gengoroh Tagame which was well worth the trek across town. (Honestly, I was more interested in the art than I was in the mixer itself, anyways.) On a more personal note, I have never had the opportunity to walk around a queer neighborhood before. It was an awesome and somewhat surreal experience for me; it made me very happy just to be in the Church Wellesley Village area.

On Sunday, I attended the Comics Editing International panel which brought together four comics editors from different countries and backgrounds: Thomas Ragon from Dargaud (the oldest comics publisher in France), James Lucas Jones from Oni Press, Mark Siegel from First Second Books, and Hideki Egami from IKKI/Shogakukan. The group talked about the similarities and differences between their work as editors and the comics markets in their countries. The panel was fascinating. I love IKKI manga, and so was very excited to hear editor-in-chief Egami speak. IKKI is different from most magazines in Japan; it appeals to mangaka who want more control over their work and artistic vision as well as those who want to escape the factory-like system associated with so many of the other magazines. Egami mentioned that the manga industry in general is in decline in Japan, and so publishers are beginning to look outside of the country more and more where once they were almost exclusively focused on the domestic market. IKKI has even started to experiment by publishing left-to-right comics with horizontal text, hoping that they will be more easily adapted, translated, and distributed in other countries. I also attended Sunday’s Queer Comics panel which featured Zan Christensen (who is utterly delightful), Erika Moen, Justin Hall, Chip Kidd, and Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez. They talked about queer comics specifically and the representation of queer characters in comics in general, with a particular emphasis on non-binary and fluid sexualities and genders, which I personally appreciated. It was a great group and a great discussion.

My very small, TCAF haul

For the most part, I intentionally flew under the radar while at TCAF. I saw several of my fellow manga lovers around (Deb Aoki, Brigid Alverson, and Jocelyne Allen, just to name a few) and I know that there were even more of us there, too, but I tend to keep to myself and didn’t seek anyone out. I did, however, wander around the exhibitors’ area for a bit. Because I promised that I would, I made a point to introduce myself to the wonderful ladies of Chromatic Press and Tokyo Demons, which is one of my more recent obsessions. (I had been invited to the Chromatic Manga Mixer on Friday night, but I sadly wasn’t in town yet.) I also chatted with Alex Woolfson about  Artifice and The Young Protectors and stopped by Jess Fink‘s table long enough to awkwardly profess my love for her work. Ryan Sand’s new publishing effort Youth in Decline made it’s official debut at TCAF, so I picked up a copy of the first issue of Frontier to show my support. One of the best things about TCAF, other than the chance to see so many fantastic artists who I already follow all in one place (and there were a lot of them there), was the opportunity to discover creators who I wasn’t previously aware of. This is how I ended up bringing home Andrew Fulton‘s minicomic Pubes of Fire, Pubes of Flame which continues to greatly amuse me.

I really do not do well in unstructured, social settings; simply attending TCAF was a huge deal for me and a tremendous personal achievement. I largely consider my first TCAF experience to be a success. I am very happy to report that Traci and I both had a phenomenal time. After only a few hours of being there, I was already making plans for a return visit for next year’s show. Seriously, TCAF is amazing. There was so much going on that I had to make some extremely tough decisions about which programs to attend over others. I saw a ton of incredible work from incredible creators from all over the world and I still feel like there was more that I didn’t get to see. So next year, I’ll be showing up no later than the Friday before the main exhibition and preferably earlier. I’ll be scheduling more time to spend exploring every nook and cranny of the exhibitors’ area. I’ll also be carrying around some snacks with me during the festival; I was so busy and engaged by the programming and exhibits that I actually forgot to eat for most of the day. Next year, I hope to have the guts to actually introduce myself to everyone and maybe even socialize a bit more, too. (Please do not be offended if I didn’t say hello to you this year!) As long as there’s a TCAF, you can expect me to be there.