Ever walked into a comic-con to a sea of Funko Pops, Furry-like getups, and just about a million Joker cosplayers, only to find yourself feeling a little out of place? Well, you're definitely not alone — and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival is here to help.
TCAF, held each May, is a laid-back, indie-focused event that connects creators with readers in a welcoming and completely nonthreatening atmosphere. Funded in part by the Ontario Arts Council, the event is totally free and open to the public (though you might find yourself with an empty wallet after perusing just the first floor). And don't worry about the frigid Canadian weather — the snow's all melted by May. (Usually.)
Founded in 2003, the festival has seen dramatic growth in popularity since it moved over to the Toronto Reference Library seven years ago. Last year saw 25,000 people walk through the doors over the festival's two days — twice that of 2010. The library itself is quite the sight, with five open-concept floors spanning 416,035 sq. ft. It's just about the perfect location for a con like this: Bright, open, and more than enough floor space for a few hundred comic creators to display their work.
TCAF is uncomplicated; elaborate cosplay is discouraged, and you won't find any $50-to-shake-Norman-Reedus's-hand-and-make-him-strike-a-pinup-pose-with-you kind of thing (although rumor has it that Chop Zoltron might be into that). Instead, you may even walk over to your favorite writer or artist and find no line at all at their booth. The festival's history laid out on the TCAF site best describes its aim:
"While most of shows of this nature are pop-culture events and tend to be insular in nature, we wanted to do something that dealt more specifically with the art form of comics itself, with an emphasis on genre appreciation and open interaction between creators and their community."
In addition to the three floors packed with exhibitors, TCAF holds several free workshops and panels to help out aspiring creators and offer some insight into the creative processes of today's biggest names. Check out audio below from the Image 25th: Designing New Worlds panel with Sloane Leong (From Under Mountains), Jamie McKelvie (The Wicked + The Divine), Simon Roy (Prophet: Earth War), and Andrew MacLean (Head Lopper), of which moderator David Brothers said: "We're here to talk about defining new worlds, which is kind of a long way of saying comics are fake, but you believe in them, and why does that happen?"
TCAF also dedicates a large section of the library to gaming and featuring the Comics x Games Jam, which "pairs comic artists with game designers to create unique works of interactive digital art." There's the "arcade", too, where attendees can play games by local independent developers.
There's no denying that TCAF is a win-win for attendees in nearly every respect — but creators are eager to voice their love for the festival, too.
Ryan North (The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Adventure Time) was contentedly rifling through an issue of Jughead as I approached, no line in sight. ("Ugh, sorry, look at me, I'm just reading my own comic.") We chatted for a few minutes about the best things about TCAF and what sets it apart from other cons:
"It's my favorite show, and what I love about it is that it is entirely open to the public, so you get people coming by who don't know there's even a show today. I had an interaction one year where someone looked at my Dinosaur Comics and said, "What is this?" And I was like, "This is a Dinosaur Comic, it's the same picture every day," blah blah blah. He's like, "No no no, like, what is comics? What is this medium?" And you get to be someone's first comic book. … I love the variety, I love that people can explore and experience comics for the first time just by wandering through a library, which is great."
Babs Tarr (Motor Crush, Batgirl), clad in a badass Motor Crush-inspired outfit, told me why TCAF speaks to her more than most other cons:
"It's just refreshing, because as someone who grew up with manga and slice of life comics more than superhero comics, coming here and reading these stories appeal to me way more than superhero stories. … It's like Small Press Expo, which makes me nostalgic for school, 'cause I started as an illustrator, not a comic artist. So that's more my speed."
Cameron Stewart (Batgirl, Fight Club 2), seated next to Tarr, added:
"… It has a really different vibe than a lot of North American comic conventions. … A lot of North American shows, and some of the international ones now, have just like, big media events, and it's more like movies and pop culture and that kind of thing. And this is one that still feels very much about comics, primarily, first and foremost. … I live in Toronto now, but prior to that I'd still come back and attend the show. It's worth traveling for. Some conventions kind of bum me out, and this has never been one of them."
For anyone who appreciates a comic-con actually about comics as much as I do, TCAF is pretty much the best-case scenario. Perhaps my feelings about it can be best summed up in a simple tweet from Jamie McKelvie after the festival: