The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is this weekend (May 9th-10th 2009), though lead-up events including Free Comic Book Day and an “Indoor Block Party” featuring Kid Koala have been scheduled to happen all this week.  I hadn’t really been payng a lot of attention myself until earlier this week.  On Free Comic Book Day I picked up Volume 3 of the Comics Festival sampler and finished it feeling downright inspired.  I’ve always liked comic books but considered it a hobby completely unrelated to my book collecting or even literary pursuits – I don’t even list the graphic novels I read when tabulating the list of “What I Read This Year”, even though I read dozens upon dozens of them every year.  Why not?  I couldn’t even tell you.  Possibly so I don’t have to own up in public to exactly how many of Marvel’s Ultimate [Insert Title Here] trades I own.

But the feeling I got after visiting the Beguiling this weekend is that anyone living in Toronto today who has any interest in book history, book collecting or literary movements at all would be absolutely foolish not to open their eyes and take a look at what is happening in comics here.  The book media has been touching on it in pieces and bits for a few years now.  “Graphic novels” are becoming part of the literary mainstream, beginning with Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer for Maus and continuing today with landmarks like Mariko Tamaki (and Jillian Tamaki)’s Governor General nomination for Skim and the New York Times‘ new Graphic Books Best Seller List.  The school system has figured out that adding graphic novels and manga to their libraries will actually get kids to read and independent, “adult” comic book artists are getting exposure as far ranging as political covers for the New Yorker.  Graphic novels are increasingly accepted as a legitimate literary form and Toronto is, right now, one of the most vibrant, innovative and productive comic-producing cities out there.

If you were a book collector in London in 1917 you would probably have been aware of the Bloomsbury Group and, if you were paying any attention, you would have been taking full advantage of being at the very heart of something new.  You’d have had your pick of new publications, shows, newspaper clippings and sightings as Modernism sprouted its wings and took off.  You might have decided, no, there was still surer money in Dickens and Trollope.  But for someone looking to get in on the ground floor of something that might (and did) become the new literary standard, Bloomsbury was the place to be and to collect.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the Toronto comic scene today is the new Bloomsbury.  But you can’t deny that smell of fresh ideas, new blood and being on the vanguard of something which, in thirty years, might be a huge influential part of the literati mainstream.

To list of Toronto who’s who in the comic world exceeds my space allotment here.  Take a look at the TCAF guests. Suffice to say in the four years that have passed between the 2005 Comics Festival (featuring Seth, Chester Brown, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Chip Zdarsky, Kean Soo, Kagan McLeod and more) and the 2009 edition, the quality of work and the number of artists has, in my opinion, jumped exponentially.  Further, the best artists in town are producing  some of their best work right now.  And, maybe best of all, few of them have had the leisure to quit their day jobs and so getting inscriptions, sketches and other collectible ephemera is dead easy.

Comic book collecting is nothing new, but the evolution of the genre right now is bringing the pursuit into book collecting turf.  The two activities have been separate so far: the expertise needed for one doesn’t help much with the other, and I can’t speak for other book collectors but I have never found the idea of owning a floppy, shrink-wrapped comic very attractive.  Graphic novels are, on the other hand, an entirely different matter.  These are books.  Bindings, book design, editions and bibliography is starting to become relevant.  Libraries and scholars need the materials.  Many more artists are working in a straight-to-graphic novel format rather than the old model of episodic issues followed by a graphic novel compilation.

Ten years ago might have been the best time to start a Toronto-based graphic novel collection, but the window is not closed.  It seems as if people are getting their big breaks daily in this city.  After seeing the samples of some of the new work coming out of the city, you can bet your bottom dollar I am going to get my butt out to the Toronto Reference Library this weekend and see what’s on offer.  I don’t want to be the one wishing I’d taken a chance twenty years from now when this is retrospectively viewed as the golden age of a budding genre.  Worst case scenario, I own some amazing works by local, emerging artists.  What’s to lose?

The Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show

Despite the baby and I being sick with a nasty (un-swine-related) flu, my family and I bustled off bright and early yesterday morning to the Spring Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show in the St. Lawrence Market.  After 24 hours of reflection on the event I am now prepared to declare it a sad little affair which is, I suspect, staggering towards its ultimate demise.

The May 2009 Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show

1.  First Impressions Last: I’ll begin on the outside and work my way in.  We approached the market building to find the usual Sunday Antiques market in full and lively swing.  It was a beautiful day and the colourful booths were busy and full of tourists and collectors.  This, however, was not the Book Fair. After some searching we fought our way to the front door of 92 Front St. proper, finding it lamely signed with an 8 x 11″ print out announcing the event within.  Passing from the sunny, bustling out-of-doors into the cool, dank and deserted room was sobering and not a little frightening.

2.  Show us the money: I don’t begrudge any organization their fees, because I understand that all events have costs associated with them.  But what, exactly, has Heritage Antique Shows been doing with theirs?  $7 per person is a moderate entry fee, but other than rental of the space, I fail to see what Heritage contributed to the show.  Pre-advertising was nonexistent, limited, as far as I could tell, to their vintage 1998-style poster board website and fliers being distributed at the door (why do I need a flier for an event I am already at?).  The website is limited and unprofessional.  Nothing was done to the hall except to provide bare tables for the vendors.  The “snack bar” seemed to be running on rations – there was something especially pathetic about reading a specials board which lists the Soup of the Day as “NO SOUP”.

By comparison, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair costs $20 to get in, but takes place at the Park Avenue Armory, issues its own catalogue, provides a floor plan, map and guide to the guests, has a beautiful, functional website, is warmly and tastefully decorated for the event and hosts private events during the show.  I don’t ask Toronto’s show to rival the “Best in the World”, but surely they can provide something other than a dark hovel for book gnomes to sniff and scratch books in.

3.  This isn’t thirty years ago:  The draw of a book fair used to be in part the opportunity to see the wares of out-of-town book dealers, as well as those dealers who keep a closed shop.  But alas, this is the age of, and the stock of unseen vendors is no longer a big undiscovered mystery.  If you are going to ask book collectors to come out and see your wares, you need to show them something they didn’t see 45 minutes earlier online.  What might that be?  Oh, I don’t know.  Debut some new finds.  Offer show specials and discounts.  Mini-raffles.  Free appraisals.  ANYTHING.

This is probably a big part of why the busiest aspect of the show by far was the “Paper” part.  Postcards, prints, maps and various ephemera were getting a lot of attention.  Well – there’s no yet!  Paper collectors still have a reason to come out and root through boxes and binders.  Book collectors – not so much.

4. Retiring Attendees: I passed quite a few people having hushed conversations about the attendance.  Attendance is down again, always declining.  Not just on the customer side either – it looks as if dealers are opting not to come show either.  The site was looking barren.  The fewer people show up, the fewer dealers show up, and so on.  I’m willing to cast stones in all directions on this one.  The attendees on both sides of the glass were as antique as the books.  With dealers shutting doors left right and centre, they don’t seem over-eager to participate in an exercise in self-promotion like a Book Fair.  Many booksellers are quietly fading into semi-retirement, relying on their existing customer bases to keep them company until they finish.  Customers, on the other hand, are dying off quicker than new ones are born.  There may be a way or a venue for younger, more forward-thinking dealers and collectors to gather, but this wasn’t it.

5.  But it wasn’t all bad…: Okay, there were a few good things about the event.  It was lovely to see all the local books, the Canadiana on display.  Lots of Toronto history, Ontario history, Canadian literature.  This may not be the New York fair, but New York doesn’t have our books.  I was especially pleased to find a dealer right at the end featuring a signed copy of a book by my own great-great uncle George T. Denison, Recollections of a Police Magistrate.  After some internal struggle, a few phone calls to relatives, and a short, unsuccessful bout of haggling I did not buy it, however, reasoning that someone in the family has probably still got a copy somewhere.

And I did buy one book for myself: a first edition of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors.  They say every collector ought to have a copy and somehow I’d avoided getting one until now.  This copy cost me less than a new copy of the latest edition would, and is still in beautiful, usable condition.  Success!

Now all this said, I would go again because I have no alternatives.  But there was a gloomy atmosphere at the fair this time around, a sense of impending doom.  If this fair is going to survive, some changes need to be made.  Or, perhaps, someone needs to pick up the slack and mount an event that’s more suited to a literary city of Toronto’s calibre.  Anyone???