Talking TCAF with Christopher Butcher

Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) has changed the North American comics scene profoundly. Ditching the prevalent for-profit comic show model, TCAF aimed to promote the work of comics to the public. It is free for the public to attend, takes place in the largest library in the city, offers childrens' and librarian and educator programming, and invites top-notch artists from all over the world, while only charging exhibitors a reasonable amount. Even though every major city now has an indie comic show, many of them following TCAF’s footsteps in various ways, TCAF is still exceptional in its breadth of programming, guests, and support for exhibitors.

TCAF takes place this weekend at the Toronto Reference Library. I spoke with Christopher Butcher, Festival Director at TCAF & manager of The Beguiling, which is the main sponsor of TCAF.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Kim Jooha: What do you do at The Beguiling, TCAF, and Page & Panel?

Christopher Butcher: My name's Christopher Butcher, I am the festival director of TCAF, and I co-founded it in 2002 with Peter Birkemoe, who owns The Beguiling. I'd been a customer of the store and I'd been living downtown for a while with my roommate Bryan O’Malley. He was making comics, but there was not really any comic conventions that a creator like him could go to, and I had a lot of friends who were in the same boat.They weren't quite Canzine, but they weren't also quite like the big FanExpo.

They wanted to go down to SPX. I think they had Joe Matt in the car, and he was a guest, but no one could drive. Peter asked, "Are you going to SPX? Can you drive a car?" I was like, "Yeah, I'll drive down for the group." I'd always taken van or car loads of my friends down to SPX. We would go every year, because that was the kind of show.

On the way, I was like, "Why are we driving to Maryland to go to a show? Why isn't there a show like SPX in Toronto?” And he's like, "Because it's too much work and I don't want to do it." I'm like, "But you're the only one who could do it. The Beguiling is the center of indie comics and making comics in the city." And he's like, "No, that's stupid." I was like, "Well, it's going to be a long car ride, then." I just badgered him for ten hours. Then, by about three quarters of the way through, he was like, "Ah, fine, I'll do it, but you have to do it." So, the deal was that I would mostly put together the show and he would mostly pay for it.

We both had very different Rolodexes of people that we worked with, cartoonists. He was part of the late '80s, early '90s alternative scene in Toronto: Seth, Chester [Brown], Joe Matt, and the D & Q guys. I was more contemporary, up-and-coming cartoonists: Oni Press, Image, and that kind of thing. So we started putting together the show. The first one was in March 2003. It was really under the radar for the comics community.

A lot of people don't know what the first show was. They think it was the one in 2005 where we had the tents behind The Beguiling and in the Honest Ed's parking lot, but it was actually on Trinity-St. Paul's on Bloor. It was a little church. We chose that space because Toronto had done an independent book publishers' fair there, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, which also didn't really fit the comics community in Toronto. We only had 600 people show up in the first year.

That's a lot, though.

That's a lot for the first year, but The Beguiling had done their 15th anniversary party and they had filled the Bloor. They had 7 or 800 people just to come out to see Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Seth, Chester, Joe, and I think somebody else on stage.

It was okay, it was a good start, and it grew from there. We started adding people along the way, because I think a lot of people realized that it is a really important thing to have a show like this in your city but it also is a tremendous amount of work and I think people don't realize that from the outside all the time. A lot of people would come and then leave after a year or two. To be honest, Peter and I are not the easiest people to work with sometimes, so that contributed a lot [laughs]. But yeah, we had a vision and we just had to keep doing it. We just had to keep pushing for the show to exist.

It really changed in 2007, because Toronto's public library system approached us and they were like, "Could you do something like TCAF in Toronto Reference Library?"

So the library approached you guys first?

Yeah. We were like, "Well, we're already locked in at Victoria College, but why don't you come and send some people out to see what we do, and if you think that that's cool, maybe we could talk about 2009?" Because we were doing it every two years. Peter was adamant that we didn't go more than every two years, because it was so much work that it took away from The Beguiling.

They came and checked it out and they loved it. They said, "You can come to Toronto Reference Library, that would be great." The library now is very different than it was then. The central atrium has pretty much remained the same, but everything around it has changed. There was no Appel Salon, the Browsery was very different, there was no space there, really. It was really cut off, lots of little hide-y corners and nooks. But, we still did it the first year, and it was successful. But it's been a learning curve, learning how to use the building and work with the Toronto Public Library staff, who we really disrupt what they do for three or four days. The two days of the weekend, but also in the preparations and things like that.

The Toronto Public Library's like, "You have to do this every year, because it's too hard for us to do it every other year." And we did. We started doing it every year, and that meant bringing in people that could be more available, year round. I think in the second year we brought in Miles, and in the second and a half year we brought in Andrew T.

So second year —

At the library, I mean, sorry. So, in 2010 or 2011, we brought in Andrew T and Miles to work it, and they've been with the festival very consistently ever since, and we've kept adding ... Beguiling staffers have stepped up and added more time, we've added more people. Some of our exhibitors had actually become staffers, because they also, in their worlds, organize little groups of people, for conventions or they act as mentors for younger generations of cartoonists. They're like, "We know what you guys do is really hard. We want to step up, we want to help out," and that's really awesome.

We've just had some great people join the festival, so now we get to do it year round. Then, adding Page & Panel store was good, because we just got an office out of it. The store is great, I love Page & Panel, but oh my God, I'm so happy to have an office to actually work in.

TCAF until 2014 was mostly run out of a computer on the second floor of The Beguiling. I just was there 70 hours a week in that chair. You know the one behind the counter on the second floor was my computer? We added that computer because I was doing so much TCAF work that it was hard to ring people through. All of TCAF was done at that computer until 2013, and then we finally got an office so I could have a computer behind a door that closed, which was good. I can just come here and work on TCAF stuff uninterrupted. I get twice as much done in a day. It's kind of crazy, the amount of work that we actually put out.

Before 2010, it was only you working on TCAF?

Yeah, no, we had a lot of people that stepped up for specific roles. We're very fortunate.

So you came to The Beguiling in 2002?

I was a customer at the store for a few years before that and I just became friends with Peter. I didn't work at The Beguiling at the beginning, and one of the employees got a job. I was there a lot, setting up TCAF stuff —

When you started working with TCAF, you didn’t work at The Beguiling?

I was just like, "I'm just a guy who's got this crazy idea, and I just need a computer to work on it with you." Peter's like, "Fine," so I stole one of the computers upstairs to work on. I got to know all the staff, because I was in there all the time, and they asked me to like, "Can you cover the register?" "Can you cover a day?” "I got another job, can you work five days a week?" I was like, "Great." I didn't like the job I had at the time and I wasn't great at it, so it worked out. I started working at The Beguiling in June or something like that, of 2003, but for the first seven or eight months I was just working on TCAF.

Was TCAF the first comic show that didn't ask public to pay?

We did ask people to pay in the first year. It was five dollars, or pay what you can, because everything in Toronto for the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s was five dollars/pay-what-you-can. And we made probably a thousand dollars or something like that at the door. Almost nothing. Because it was dumb. A lot of people were like, "Oh, I'm going to check this out, I'm not going to pay." Or like, "I would have given you a hundred dollars." Well, spend that money with the creators.

We decided in 2005, because it was going to be tents and it was going to be outside, to make it free and to attract as many people as we can. Treat it like everything else that happened behind Honest Ed's.

And that became the philosophy for the festival. It was determined by where we chose the venue one year, and we just went from there. And we went from 600 people in the first year to 6000. We were taking photographs of the area and counting people. As soon as there's no barriers to entry, people who were on the fence will be like "Oh, I'll go check it out then."

Now our success is a barrier to entry. People like you, who thought "Oh, it's not going to have the things I like.” No, we've totally got exactly, we've got more space than ever for people who are doing the art comics, the most alternative artists in that field are coming every year. But it's also— there's all this other stuff.

The festival started because I liked a certain type of comics. Peter liked a certain type of comics with a little bit of overlap and we both respected each other's ideas, and that's what the first show was. It was people from this spectrum, and as the show has gone forward and we've added more people and they bring their own tastes and we get more credibility, internationally, so we're able to attract different creators who might not have come or might not come to North America at all, that spectrum gets wider and wider and wider every year.

It means that we can cover more of what we think are the best comics in the world, and that's the point of TCAF. It is to create a platform and to make space for people who are doing good work. Charge the creators as little as we can get away with, charge the public nothing, and create a space where people can buy and take home these pieces of art work and creators can pay their rent that month. That’s what TCAF is.

How does TCAF choose its international guests? It’s very hard to see international — especially Japanese — guests in alternative or indie comic shows.

What we've done for the last couple years is, at our annual meeting, our wrap-up meeting after the festival's over, everyone who had any kind of position of authority with the festival comes to the meeting and we get their feedback. One of the things we say is, "Who is your dream guest for next year? International, local, whomever. Come with a list of names."

And then we take that list and start talking to publishers and we ask, "Does this creator have any work coming from you in spring of next year, when TCAf is?" Because we've found that when we bring an international creator who doesn't have a new work out in English, the attendance for their participation in the festival is low. Lower than we would like. When a creator does have a new work out, in English, their participation is much, much higher.

And ultimately, we have passed on certain guests because they don't have a new work in English. And they're superstar cartoonists and we feel bad about it. But the only thing worse than feeling bad about missing out on an opportunity to bring a good cartoonist to Toronto, for me, is bringing a great cartoonist to Toronto and having no one fucking show up. That has happened a couple of times in the past, both for TCAF and Beguiling events. It is gut-wrenching. It feels terrible.

We also work with a lot of international funders, consulates and cultural agencies from countries. They love comics. If you're working in the book or the arts department of a cultural agency, you like comics. Everywhere else in the world but North America. People who work for the French book office are huge BD fans. The people who work in the Spain arts and culture understand comics. They maybe don't dig super deep into the history of comics, but they have five or six favorite comics. People who work at consulates always try to get their favorites in the city that they work in.

And a lot of it is who's available, and we're trying to plan further and further in advance. It's always tough. But we have actually, successfully, had a couple of books come out in English because we were willing to bring the creators over. Or had those books come out around TCAF because we were willing to bring a creator over.

That makes me feel really good, it's getting more works from translation into print.

Translated works are rare in English.

Yeah. North Americans don't like to read works in translation.

I was surprised to see the "Image 25 Years" event in this year's TCAF. It's super-mainstream, even compared to First Second. Last year there was Brian K. Vaughan. But there has been no Marvel or DC at TCAF. How do you decide that boundary?

There's actually Marvel and DC work at TCAF every year.

I didn’t see them!

It just doesn't get the same spotlight. TCAF has a politics to it, and that politics is ... so irrelevant outside of the comic book industry, but it is creator ownership. If you make the work and then you own the work after you make it, then we will support you. Again, as long as the work's any good. We don't work with a couple of smaller publishers that don't have good creator ownership contracts. Image isn't like that, and we've always been welcoming to Image creators. I think a thing about Image in general, Brian K. Vaughan specifically, is that they've been very vocal and very critical of Marvel and DC and the practices of Marvel and DC owning all of your work after you do them.

If I can take a bunch of people that would never come to TCAF and get them to come to TCAF and to see the message that creators who make a book should own that book entirely, then I'm winning hearts and minds. That means that we're creating more freedom for people to create the work they want to create.

More importantly, Image is a model that has real financial success attached to it. I don't believe that comics necessarily have to be a thing that you create and never make any money from. I think that's a broken idea. It plays into the fantasy of the poor artist starving for their artwork. Life doesn't have to be like that. It is, for a lot of people, but it doesn't have to be like that. Image is one of the many models where if you've got a good idea that will resonate with people and you're willing to put the work in, you can win the lion's share of the rewards from the sales of that work.

Now, a lot of the work ends up looking like Marvel and DC work, but a lot of it doesn't. I think that the fact that Image can publish something like Sex Criminals—which is legitimately a good comic book, but more importantly has ideas in it that are about sex and relationships and just existing in the world as a human being—is important, and I think the fact that it's wrapped up in something that looks more commercial and less what we think of as artistic, is not a fault of the work at all. I think it's absolutely a strength.

I knew Image would be a weird thing for a lot of people to accept, but for me it's always been, even Image didn't realize it, but more in our family than they have been in the mainstream comics family. Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? I think the deal they're giving people is good. I think the production quality is above average, but obviously not as nice as a really nice Fantagraphics book.

I think that the more people that are making work at Image, the more people will eventually go on and make work elsewhere too, because there are things that you can't do at Image, stories that you can't tell there. They're a publisher with an identity and an ideology, and not every work fits there, but the fact that they were able to relax things up to the point to have Island come out with Brandon Graham and Emma Rios editing it, that included, Michael DeForge doing what Michael DeForge does, is incredible. I think that they put 15 issues of that out, is also incredible. I think that there's more space for that at Image than maybe even Image realizes. So, I'm hoping they have a good year. I'm hoping they see what the rest of the industry could look like at something like TCAF, and I hope that changes things for the better.

What do you think about other shows that follow TCAF’s lead?

Ultimately, as long as they're free to the public to attend, we're strongly in favor. We really want the model of comics show that we've come up with that, through trial and error, through finding the best way to serve the public, to serve the creators, and to serve the medium to become the dominant model.

The Comic-Con model of $40, $50 admission is bullshit. It has to stop. It won't stop, there's too much money in it, but if I can work with the team to present a different model and then that model is adopted and then spread far and wide, then Comic-Con model starts to look stupider and stupider to people. And that's a win.

Americans say that one thing that makes it harder for them to start a comic show is the lack of government funding.

Yeah. That's real. That's one of the discussions that's happening online right now, about how it's easier to make comics in Canada, because you can devote more time to it because you don't have to work another job to get health insurance. That's a really basic thing. I am not working 40 hours a week to provide healthcare before I can start working on my comics. That is totally legitimate.

When you get beyond that, when you get to, "Oh, I can get grants for my work, I can get touring money for my work. My publisher can get grants for my work." That's a whole different model. I think by and large we are tremendously lucky to live in Canada and to make comics in Canada. TCAF is tremendously lucky to be a festival in Canada. It does make it hard for shows that want to follow in our footsteps. No lie. It absolutely does.

But we didn't get government funding I think until 2012 or 2013, for the festival itself. It was privately funded by The Beguiling, and we were still able to offer a free show.

But as soon as the government funding came in, we were able to offer a better program, and have more exhibitors and more international guests. I think all of the things that I said stick, but there's a scale that you can operate a show that we do with private funding that does sustain itself, and I hope people find that. I hope people in the States find that. It means you've got to find as many like-minded people as you can, and some of them have to have some money to start.

I also want to talk about Page & Panel, because it's the TCAF shop. Why is it different from The Beguiling? Page & Panel even has food and drinks!

\Page & Panel was conceived as halfway between a comic book store and the official library gift shop. Basically TCAF doesn't look like The Beguiling. A lot of the stuff that you find at TCAF you'll find at The Beguiling, but things like prints or enamel pens aren't at The Beguiling every year. Page & Panel hopefully represents a fuller idea of what TCAF actually brings to the library year-round, whereas The Beguiling keeps its focus very firmly on comics.

Every store does react and adapt to its neighborhood. Having a drink fridge is because 4,000 people walk through the library everyday, some of them are thirsty and it earns at its space, having little snacks.

The product mix is always evolving too, we want to stay fresh and we want to do different stuff, so we'll bring in new lines, some of them work, some of them don’t. We want to have it be a cool retail shop that's curated and that doesn't always easily exist anymore, because online shopping has made it easier to hunt, pick, and find the thing for the cheapest discount. It's working great. I think it's because it has the TCAF name behind it, that lets people expect a little bit when they walk through the door. The store is contributing to the overall bottom line of TCAF, which is really amazing.

Would you recommend others to do the job you have: starting comics show or comics retailing?

It's hard to build anything. Starting from scratch is the hardest thing. It's not impossible, but it takes much more work and effort. I have a very firm belief that putting something into the world that is not well thought out can hurt the chances for the people that follow.

When you say, "Should people start a comic book store?" I don't know that they should, unless they've got a strong brand, unless they've got a lot of experience already working in comic book stores, unless they've already got a lot of experience working in real retail stores, because fully half of comic book store ordering now should be through real book store channels. Ordering through Diamond is done, like you still have to order through Diamond to get certain things, but not everything, and anything you cannot get through Diamond is usually better to get it from a different distributor. Finding the kind of person who has all of those abilities or finding the team that has all of those abilities is tough, so to the average person if they were like, "Should I start a comic book store?" I'd say, "No, unless you have all of these things. You can still try, and I'm not going to stop you, but I'm going to be aware that if you fuck this up."

Every time a comic book store closes, if they've got 100 customers, it's not like those 100 customers go to the next store up the street. Half of them have stopped collecting comics. We don't want comic book stores to close, unless they're bad, unless they're toxic, because you lose comic book readers, and every comic book reader is a possible customer for your store, and a possible occasional customer once a year, once every couple of years, but everything helps. When that comic book store closes you lose those readers, and that doesn't help us. I would rather have a successful competitor than a competitor who aren't in business.

Running a comic book show doesn't require as much specialized knowledge as running a bookstore does. It does require very specialized knowledge in smaller doses, things like how to deal with hotels and if you fuck that up your show is over. If you forgot to order a book or you didn't set up an account up, your store doesn't close, you just like don't get that book. If you don't understand how hotel bookings work and guaranteed room rates and having that money and things like that, then they just cancel your hotel on Friday night and none of your guests have anywhere to stay and all of your room bookings are blocked and everyone's pissed at you and the show stops. I've seen that happen literally three times. Once in Toronto.

If people want to approach me about starting anything, I just say, "Start small and within your means. Find somebody who's got money, or if you're the person who has money, find somebody that's going to put the work in. Split everything fairly with them and just do your best. Start small and grow." A couple of people that have actually approached us before starting shows and they've had great shows and they've continued to grow and that's awesome. Some people try to start with the biggest show in the world and either end up catastrophically failing or just wasting like a $100,000 on nothing.

I think there's lots of space for people to create things, and I think that people are finding new ways to create more space for other people everyday. I would never say don't do a thing that you want to do. I would say, "Really think it through and try to do the best job that you can, and find the people that are doing the work and ask them the questions, and ask them for things that they might even not know to ask as well."

Should someone start a comic book show? Well, like I said, it's very hard. You will work a crazy amount of hours, and you will definitely trade parts of your health, because we're all sitting in a chair 16 to 18 hours a day. Think about what you want to do it and what you're willing to give up for it, because there's always a trade. If you can do something cool and you know you can do a good job of it and you can put good work into the world, then that's like the best thing. You should totally do it.