I’ve wanted to hold a comics festival in my city of Durham, NC for quite some time, but I knew I didn’t want to do it alone. Shows have a way of taking over one’s life, especially if they start to get too big. However, I thought the time was right to do a show, given the increasingly vibrant alternative comics scene in town, events like the Durham County Library’s Comics Fest and the monthly Drink ‘n Draw, as well as the Durham Comics Project. All of these efforts seemed to be somewhat disconnected from each other, and one of my goals was simply to get all of the area’s cartoonists in a room together comparing notes.
The show that I eventually helped to create was called DICE: the Durham Indie Comics Expo. The first key was ensuring that each of the organizers was on the same page about the kind of show that we wanted, and each brought his or her own skill sets to the table. The other organizers were Bill Fick, a Duke art professor and printmaker who graciously allowed us to use his screenprinting studio space, Supergraphic, and long-time local cartoonist Eric Knisley, who handled the technical and graphics end of things. He designed the DICE graphics, including the logo, and handled the website. Bill and I met when he invited me to speak about minicomics at one of his classes. He and I conferred periodically with Duke librarian Will Hansen about the need for a show and centralizing comics in the Duke-Raleigh-Chapel Hill area. We brought in Eric when he expressed an interest, given his deep roots as a cartoonist in this area and his experiences with exhibiting at shows.
We wanted to create a show that would interest us. I’ve attended shows like SPX and MOCCA for years, and have found them to be inspiring in a number of ways. SPX in particular inspired my interest in small-press works and minicomics and indirectly led to my becoming a critic. SPX has a strong programming track and that was something I knew that I wanted to emulate. However, what I didn’t want was another “flea market” style show that forced artists to stay chained to their tables for the duration of the show and focused on commerce above all else. I was tabbed to pick most of the guests for the show. I chose to invite participants who I thought would be a good fit for our aesthetics and goals instead of making it an open call like other cons. I also wanted to emphasize local artists as much as possible. Here’s a list of things of the things we wanted in a show and how we made them happen:
1. An interesting, interactive space. I didn’t want a show in a hotel or convention center space. I wanted a funkier, more intimate and creative space. That’s where Bill was so incredibly generous as to donate the use of his amazing screenprinting studio near downtown Durham. During the opening night of the show, a screenprinter was actually working there and happily chatted with the public about what he was doing, including an interesting hand-crank print scroll. Supergraphic is one of many reclaimed spaces in Durham; it used to be a machinery shop years ago.
2. A gallery show. Gallery shows at large events like SPX are untenable for any number of reasons, but this was a priority for me for DICE. Super Graphic has an incredible gallery space in its front room and we chose to feature Eric Knisley’s “long books”: 1′ by 10′ stretched-out Moleskine sketchbooks that featured exquisite-corpse-style collaborations and Knisley’s own sketches. Fick built shelves to accommodate those books, but we also featured work by every participating artist. We held gallery shows apart from the show’s main day and they drew nice crowds on both occasions, the latter being an Art Walk night in Durham. It’s a tribute to Fick and those at Supergraphic— as well as to the artists who participated— that the show looked so spectacular.
3. A festival model. Inspired by the NC Literary Festival, the FIBD at Angouleme, The Projects in Portland, and other models, I wanted artists to be able to sell comics but not have specific tables. Instead, I acted as the show’s cashier (along with a couple of volunteers). My goal was to allow the artists the freedom to do what they wanted during the show. It helped, of course, that we did not charge artists for their participation. There were no table fees, nor was there admission charged from the public. Some artists wanted to participate in the programming. Others wanted to draw. Others wanted to explore Durham a bit and left for lunch or drinks and came back later. Still others felt more comfortable sitting at a table and selling their books directly, and we made provisions for that as well.
4. Programming. This was to be the heart of the event, and I wanted a decent variety that would engage artists and spectators alike. To that end, the panels were either workshops (each completely different from the others) or lectures. Every panel had great attendance.
5. Interactive Events. Eric Knisley had the brilliant idea of settling up a small table, and putting two chairs in front and a scroll of paper on top with a bunch of magic markers. As he noted, people love to draw, and they especially love to draw together. That table was rarely empty during the show or gallery events, as both adults and children loved sitting down to jam. The Durham Comics Project also brought out their “Comics Contraption”, an ingenious device that scrolls paper across a frame. A hand crank moved it along. The DCP folks then drew a couple of empty panels and encouraged whoever was there to draw something in them. When the drawings were done, they turned the crank and a fresh page emerged. People loved drawing on that thing.
We chose to hold the show the same weekend as the NC Comicon, a mainstream event about a mile away. We did this not in order to directly compete with the show, but rather with the idea of celebrating Durham as a comics town for that weekend, encompassing a variety of genres and styles. We only really started working on the show in earnest in the summer as we nailed down dates and an early guest list. While I carefully put together the show’s guest list, I did make a number of last-minute additions. My general philosophy about the show was to be as flexible as possible, a philosophy that served us well.
Given that we had our own space, we knew costs could be kept relatively low. We conducted a short Indiegogo campaign that raised about $1500 or so to help cover costs like transportation for some guests, website hosting, food for the guests (this was important given that there weren’t many places in walking distance to eat), paper, ink and other supplies. We didn’t start the show to make any kind of profit, but having a fundraising campaign prevented us from losing money. We were also fortunate that we had sponsors who donated alcohol for the gallery show and others who donated services for other aspects of the show. Perhaps the most important aspect of DICE’s success was that we had a community that really wanted the show to exist and to succeed.
As far as the guest list went, I wanted to feature as many interesting local alt-comics cartoonists as possible. So that included Mark McMurray, Jenny Zervakis, Mark Cunningham, Kevin Dixon, Adam Meuse, M.R. Trower, Paul Friedrich, Rio Aubry Taylor, Jan Burger, Adam Meuse, Marx Myth, and Amy Richards. I also wanted to prominently display the work of Amy Godfrey, the librarian who runs Comics Fest as well as the Durham Comics Project. In addition, there were a few out-of-towners who came for the show: Bob Oxman, Jesse Mead (like Taylor and Burger, both graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies) and Anthony Meloro. One of my key guests was Joan Reilly, co-editor of the anthology The Big Feminist But! She expressed an interest in traveling to Durham to do a presentation on her book when I saw her at Autoptic. Another key guest was Tom Hart, founder of the Sequential Artists Workshop.
Reilly opened the programming with a lecture and slideshow about her book. Then came a Three-Card-Nancy workshop with Tom Hart that saw a number of participants frantically working around a big table. Supergraphic is divided in such a way that the front area had the gallery and merchandise tables and the back room had the panels; it was easy to close a door so that neither room would disturb the other. We had a critics’ panel that featured Ken Parille (of East Carolina University), Craig Fischer (of Appalachian State University), and myself. I spoke about Mineshaft, another featured aspect of DICE. Publisher/editors Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri both live in Durham, and the gallery show displayed a number of their covers on a table. Fischer had a wonderful talk about the use of black panels in comics, while Parille’s discussion was about the use of introductions in Dan Clowes’ Ice Haven. Ken said he aimed that topic at me, because I bemoaned the lack of discussion about that comic in his excellent Daniel Clowes Reader.
Godfrey did an intro-level comics workshop and talked about the Durham Comics Project (which is seeking out autobiographical stories from people in the area). Richards did a presentation on her ABCs of NC Coloring Book as well as tips on fundraising for projects. Taylor (currently teaching comics at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter) did a writing workshop that started with tarot cards. Fick finished things up with a screenprinting workshop that interested a lot of the artists.
The show had some late cancellations and we had to shuffle the programming around a bit to accommodate some folks. We also quickly realized that we didn’t have nearly enough table space for the huge variety and amount of comics that the exhibitors brought with them. We didn’t advertise nearly as much as we wanted and didn’t pound social media as hard as we needed to. That said, the space was still packed on Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours and had a nice flow of people all day long. The gallery events that we held brought in a different kind of audience but also filled up the room. All three of the show’s organizers were quite pleased with the results, and while we have yet to make it official, there will likely be a DICE in 2014. We are hoping for additional partnerships to expand the show very slightly, but it should be roughly the same kind of event. DICE might not be a show for everyone, but it seemed to strike a chord with those looking for a change of pace.
Small-scale shows are popping up all over the country these days. They are partly a statement of local cultural identity, and partly events that connect to a larger network. Here’s the advice I’d give for those pondering creating their own shows:
1. Lock down your space. While it sounds obvious, your venue will have a great impact on the kind of show you can have. Venue fees are by far the biggest expense and hurdle in creating one’s own show, so if you can get one for free or for greatly reduced costs, most of the battle has already been won.
2. Organize your show around your own aesthetics and resources. If you have access to a university full of professors interested in doing talks at your show, let them. If you have access to a large working studio space that will emphasize hands-on participation, go with that. Your show will work best if you have a vision for it beyond simply selling some comics in a room.
3. Emphasize your local scene. Out-of-town guests are important and can draw fans, but events like this can be important for your local community scene.
4. If you’re looking to make a lot of money from this event, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. Unless the money is going to a charity, shows that have barriers to entrance to fans like high ticket prices or artists in high table prices add little to the alt-comics landscape. Certainly, you shouldn’t put yourself in the poorhouse by running a show, but consider crowdfunding your show or carefully gauging your expenses to make back that money and not too much more.
5. Start small. Every artist you invite adds an extra level of logistical planning. Your first year of a show is a trial balloon to gauge interest, so don’t expand unless you’re sure you have the audience and infrastructure to do so.