I’m not sure where the time goes. A month in residency at CCOL, prep time for TCAF, TCAF itself…all came and went, like a colourful stampede. It’s been a great time, but only now am I able to take a second to digest some of the experiences I had.
Having had a chat with Jordan and in creating my comic for the residence, I was in love with this idea of “A home for comics”. In Toronto, there are a few different things this home could be.
In some ways, festivals like TCAF are a home for comics. A gathering place for creators and readers, designed to showcase a variety of voices and constantly push what a comic can be. My first TCAF (2009) was life changing – Here was a place full of life: Webcomics I loved were, amazingly, made by friendly normal people. More amazingly, a lot of people loved comics too, like I did. I’d spent a disappointing year in art school, and arriving at TCAF was like coming home, then. After over a decade, and after the online only pandemic years, it felt like home all over again this time. A beautiful home, even if it’s not there all the time.
In other ways, indie publishers are a home for comics. Getting to know other comics people, I started hearing them say “comics will break your heart,” over and over, like a prophecy. I’ve seen people discover comics and develop good skills, only to leave. When you’re drawing alone at home, it’s easy to imagine no one else could possibly want to read your story. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the business aspect of an arts career, and eventually conclude that if things didn’t work out, well, maybe the art was no good in the first place. As a small-time creator, indie publishers felt like an answer: a powerful force that could pick you and tell everyone “yes, this deserves to exist”, or make it so maybe, just maybe, comics could pay a bit of your rent someday. That was the dream. And truly, indie publishers work miracles every day, bringing new voices forward, and making creative work feasible.
But with time, I’ve come to realize indie publishing is extremely challenging too. Imprints put out comics they love, but turn away works because they have limited resources. The big, scary institutions I had envisioned – Drawn & Quarterly, Conundrum, etc. – were small businesses too, sometimes only one or two people working hard against crazy odds. In the past few years, both new and older, respected indie publishers have closed their doors, as the huge American publishing houses keep merging and there are less and less places cartoonists can turn to, no matter how good the work is. This might be a home, but I don’t know that there’s room for many of us in it.
At a talk from the Ontario Arts Council, Jack Illingworth, the literature grants officer, told us that Ontario desperately needs more publishers. Especially comics publishers. But given the times we’re living in, I don’t know who would be able to start such a venture. I wonder if the way forward has less middlemen, and it’s just lots of artists online, with their Patreons and social media and content, selling the experience of making comics as much as the comics themselves. Maybe that could work. A home on the Internet, flickering in and out of existence as trends and algorithms decide who deserves to make a living.
I’m not trying to be a downer – legitimately all these options have solid upsides, and they strengthen and complement one another. But I do wonder if a “home”, a safe place for creators, is a realistic goal at all.
Maybe, when it’s possible to do so, we can all meet up at CCOL and talk about it. Maybe this is the space for a house we build as a team, while we work on our inking or our storyboards or our pitches.