Things Will Never Be the Same

Things Will Never Be the Same

On my desk at my job I have a copy of Superboy #150 standing towards the back, propped up against the wall behind my work-mandated Macbook's charger and a Tommy LaSorda bobblehead. It's one among the last floppies that I ever purchased two years ago after I stumbled across some old Superboy issues in a local shop. The cover of #150 grabbed my attention immediately because it was so obviously a Neal Adams cover. More than any of his other covers in that time frame, the detail, depth, and liveliness on display were ahead of their time.

For comparison's sake, here's the closest-by-issue cover not done by Adams, Superboy #147, drawn by Curt Swan, followed by #150:

June to September is three months, but if you told me that these covers were a decade apart I would believe you. Imagine my visceral reaction to flipping through a longbox of Superboy issues around this time and seeing Mr. Cipher reaching out at me, crushing the Kent family telephone in one hand with a visual verve so intense that you can practically feel it crunching in your own hand.

I like to look carefully at the cover once in a while when I need a few seconds to myself. Something about the composition of the cover – especially Mr. Cipher, nearly everything about him – calms me down and draws in my focus like a piece of fine art hanging somewhere much more considerately.

My copy of Superboy #150 is stuck at my office in Hollywood as I am self-quarantined at my apartment elsewhere in Los Angeles. This morning the LA Times showed ~470 confirmed cases in California. By the end of the day that number has nearly doubled to ~870.

Things will never be the same.

Today, on the same day that Canada and the US closed their border to non-essential traffic, TCAF was cancelled. Five days ago, on March 13th, TCAF released a statement effectively discouraging people from making plans to attend if they had not yet done so. Just two days before that, on March 11th, they released a joint statement with VanCAF about how the shows were going on as planned in the wake of ECCC and MoCCA Fest both canceling. They touted "enhanced cleaning procedures" to reassure attendees, but explicitly put full refunds for exhibitors on the table.

As of me writing this on 3/18, VanCAF has not yet cancelled its show, but one has to think that news is coming shortly. Apparently a lot can change in a week when there is a global pandemic.

Things will never be the same.

Just before all of this started happening, I began reaching out to TCAF because I wanted to understand what their plans were. ECCC and MoCCA Fest had both just cancelled, and it got me thinking – yet again – about the kind of risk that exhibitors assume when they put money down for table fees at these shows, especially these larger shows.

Creator investment in these shows easily reaches four figures when you consider table fees, travel fees, transport of wares, and lodging fees (not to mention other costs incurred at the time of attendance, like food). All of this is done with no guarantee of return on investment: they are at the whim of the crowd each day at the festival. Even when it comes to refunds, while any festival can make good on returning exhibitor fees, odds are that most of the money creators put up for these shows goes to other sources – hotels, Airbnb, airlines that are all going bankrupt – where full refunds may be either impossible or a massive pain in the ass.

Independent of any and all refunds, committing cash in this economy or increasing debt by any amount is something none of us can or should take lightly.

In light of all of this, I had planned to write a TCAF companion piece to my "Standing with Artists" article, which I wrote about Comic Arts Brooklyn in support of the Festival Workers' mission of festivals opening their books. Exhibitors at CAB paid collectively upwards of ~$50,000 without any indication of how their money was spent. On its most recent application CAB included a breakdown of how exhibitor fees are earmarked, and while it still raises other, equally important questions about inequities, those questions can only be addressed collectively once the step of transparency has been taken, so, good on CAB for taking that first step.

The question remains why TCAF finances are so opaque with respect to exhibitor money, especially when it's public knowledge how much money they receive from three different levels of Canadian government. In 2019, TCAF received a combined $56,354 from national, provincial, and city arts councils. In 2018 that sum was $103,133.

If you take the mean cost of a three-foot exhibitor space, the mean cost of a six-foot exhibitor space, the estimated number of exhibitors (let's say 366 based on the number on this page at the time of this writing) and split that down the middle, assigning half-spaces to one half and full-spaces to the other, TCAF would stand to pull in $89608 from working creators.

It is, of course, impossible to know the exact figure without TCAF simply providing it, but the above calculation is a defensible ballpark.

Before continuing beyond these numbers, take a minute to consider that the sponsors that account for all of that grant money each year are three among twenty-three sponsors. While the other twenty may not provide similar sums, they're certainly providing some support or service that TCAF does not otherwise have to cover with grant or exhibitor cash, such as the cost of travel for special guests who are attending.

Go ahead and look at the numbers again.

Now consider that the various levels of Canadian government offer this money expecting it to be used in a certain way. If TCAF didn't use money how the governments expected, there would be consequences: minimally, they wouldn't be granted that money again. There is a measure of accountability tied to that money.

What accountability is there for the +$80,000 sum coughed up by the comics community year after year?

There is none.

It is naive to look at the completely upside-down things happening economically across the globe and not turn that same critical lens on the prevailing economic relations in comics today. They will not always prevail. Once-a-year festivals are fragile, and online hashtags will never yield the same sales numbers for even a fraction of prospective exhibitors, especially not when the economy comes crashing down for prospective buyers.

I urge the comics community to take this opportunity to collectively consider the role that financially opaque festivals have in the material makeup of comics going forward.

Because things were already tenuous.

And, now, they will never be the same.

Austin Lanari

About Austin Lanari

Call me a bedbug to my face.