Dance Beside the Spinning Prism: A TCAF 2014 Running Diary

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

In its 11th year, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival sprawls over a week of readings, panels, interviews, workshops, art exhibits, awards, tangential academic presentations, cartoonist-introduced film screenings, hotel suite parties, and 300+ exhibitor tables. Those last ones filling the Reference Library are the heart of the event—it sounds like tens of thousands of people walked past them last weekend, whether looking for a handsomely produced Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel or a hand-stapled zine tribute to Dragon Ball Z (not necessarily dichotomous).

In 2011 I introduced my TCAF diary elsewhere with an Ernest Borgnine joke; that website and Ernest Borgnine no longer exist, but the festival remains. When everyone reading this is dead it will still be drawing cute nerds in denim jackets from the irradiated wastelands that used to be North America.

10:21 p.m. I didn’t go to the official launch event with Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) and Kate Beaton (numerous things, most recently some comics about civil rights paladin Ida Wells) because I was frantically working on slideshows for my panels tomorrow until it ended. Reunited with my precious friend and collaborator Mia Schwartz for the first time in six months, she tells me: “You’re looking so slutty.”

10:43 p.m. “You guys love brands, as young people.” — Bryan Lee O’Malley, making a special TCAF appearance to promote Seconds, his follow-up to Scott Pilgrim inside a hotel suite at the Marriott

1:24 a.m. Three hours later I am still in the same room, watching Kendra Wells sketch a One Direction pentagram ritualistically masturbating each other to summon the devil.

11:27 a.m. Thanks for all of your new comics, Hazlitt contributor Michael DeForge!!! Being famously prolific, there are three of them: Abbey Loafer, a pamphlet of sketchbook castoffs, and New Hits, featuring a story about the economic exploitation of imaginary mermaids.

11:45 a.m. Georgia Webber, of the good comics about vocal disability and great hair, has an elegant system to protect her voice while greeting hundreds of people every day: when she puts lipstick on, she’s signaling silence.

12:30 p.m. I felt slight trepidation before moderating the Comics Design and History panel, since I was only asked to do so a couple of weeks ago, but there wasn’t much to worry about: I was really only sitting there to facilitate Chip Kidd, Tracy Hurren (of Drawn & Quarterly), and Fawn Lau (from VIZ Media) talking about book designs they like. (I had never noticed how long D&Q’s translation of Beautiful Darkness delays revealing the title credits—much more effective than the original French version.) It’s similar to what Chip says about working with Chris Ware in this capacity: “You just want to get out of his way.” Speaking of which, it turns out Ware wanted to keep the audacious 14-part format of Building Stories a secret until the day of publication, a la Beyoncé. The people at his publisher in charge of maintaining happy relationships with bookstores vetoed this.

2 p.m. The combination of this much-needed burger and Steely Dan’s “Peg” is creating an alchemical effect in my brain. Michael McDonald’s soulful backing vocals as weekend leitmotif. TCAF is the kind of event that turns you into a scavenging animal, nutritionally (I spoke to more than one attendee kept alive by idle fistfuls of “weird Canadian chips”), so I’ll be subsisting on Donald Fagen’s jazzy-aneurysm singing for the rest of the day.

3:30 p.m. A lot of people on the Contemporary Erotic Comics panel grew up Catholic. There’s a lot of audience members, period (the bar is standing-room-only, and DeForge will later tell me that he’s never seen a busier TCAF event at this venue). So many heartwarming 20-year-old HamletMachine fans. There are seven cartoonists/editors onstage, plus me as host, but nothing feels unwieldy or overwhelming at all; even the glass dropped while we were talking about patriarchy and capitalism seemed to happen by design. I love hearing this mix of people talk about their backgrounds in the context of such work, whether HamletMachine mentioning formative Gundam Wing porn or Ryan Sands revealing that he used to be an altar boy. And I love what Katie Skelly says about trying to make comics where the end point of sexuality isn’t just a male orgasm: “A woman seeking pleasure for herself is still a radical thing.”

4:53 p.m. *dancing to “Pony” in Mia’s hotel suite as an iridescent crystal slowly rotates*

8:23 p.m. The most Canadian thing about the Doug Wright Awards is not Scott Thompson’s hosting or the relaxing amiability or even all the Canadian cartoonists onstage here: it’s how the winners in each category almost seem apologetic. After winning Best Emerging Talent for The Journal of the Main Street Secret Lodge, Steven Gilbert says “I’ll try not to make it another 15 years between books.” Emily Carroll asks her wife to forgive her for “all the gross drawings of flesh houses I left lying around.” (That doesn’t get across the insidious effect of her story “Out of Skin,” which reveals its violations and transfigurations at a gradual, sickening pace.) Although the hall of fame inductee Jack Tremblay, who’s 91 but looks more like a rakish 70, did kinda flirt with Scott Thompson for a second.

9:26 p.m. I’m stepping out on comics briefly to visit the Danforth Music Hall and feel emotional about Owen Pallett playing songs I first heard when I was 18. After he suggests that people should maybe move back from the microphone unless they like venereal disease (“I’m a say-it-don’t-spray-it kind of singer”), some guy yells out “you can’t get it twice!”

11:37 p.m. Another dance party next to that rotating prism, except with a couple dozen more comics types and in near-total darkness.

3 a.m. Ha ha, well, looks like the cause of these cracks spidering over my phone’s screen will remain a fascinating mystery!

10:50 a.m. His new book comes out in July but Bryan Lee O’Malley isn’t even tabling at the festival or anything, he just came here to enthrall passing Tumblr teens, bright library light refracting through their dyed hair.

12:45 p.m. I’m watching Annie Mok’s table for her (she drew me a next-level Mother’s Day gift) and I can actually feel the individual cells in my body dying. Sunday is the quieter of the two days, relatively, but TCAF’s hectic, joyful atmosphere can still become exhausting when you’ve gotten yourself into a ruinous physical state (e.g. if Bryan Lee O’Malley was buying you drinks at 1 a.m. last night).

3 p.m. The biggest sartorial hit of the festival is these sweaters made by the folks at Massive—they sold out of buff Japanese men staring affectionately at each other. Sunday was sort of the unofficial date for everybody to wear theirs, and we managed to get seven into the same group photo, a record total of 14 baras. I did this midway through a quasi-date with somebody from the Internet?


 4:10 p.m. I’d never seen anybody pay using a Square reader before until Meredith Gran processed some purchases of her new book with one. It looks convenient, but you also get to hang out with Meredith, so there is still something to be said for physical books… collecting webcomics. (TCAF probably doesn’t get enough credit for the simple logistical convenience that exists now: operating with a budget made up of Canada Council grants and table fees even cartoonists can afford, they’ve managed to create a useful scheduling app, while the Toronto International Film Festival slaps important information onto theatre doors.)

4:30 p.m. A form to list your 5,000 new crushes would be a handy addition to the TCAF program.

6:22 p.m. I think at this point I was just lying next to Mia in her hotel suite making hapless baby noises? This is what happens when you spend your weekend wandering the same environs as 20,000 other people.

11:39 p.m. Scattered afterparty thoughts: with his Philip Sparks suit-and-shorts outfit, Peter Birkemoe probably wins the title of “most stylish comic book store owner” by default / new Robyn single is a big dancefloor hit amongst cute girls with abbreviated haircuts / how did DeForge sneak an entire bottle of whiskey in / [weeping] I just… I just love comics / Emily Partridge is giving me five Canadian dollars to kiss Sam Alden / Mia is slipping a loonie into my shorts for no particular reason / after the cruel intervention of Toronto liquor bylaws we released balloons into the sky as a kind of pretty accident.

Image via Vicki Nerino

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.