Today’s National Cartoonists Society: A Conversation with Steve McGarry

The National Cartoonists Society has been around since 1946 and despite various projects over the years to promote cartooning, it’s a professional organization first and foremost. The Reuben Awards which are held every year are an annual party for cartoonists and members, and for decades have been held in a different location around North America. This year the awards are being held in Huntington Beach California on May 18th, but from May 17-19, the city will be hosting NCS Fest. The festival is modeled after various European festivals, consisting mostly of free events held indoors and outdoors through the city. The event is also trying to change the perception of the NCS and who they are, as the event features a wide range of people from Floyd Norman to Daniel Clowes, Joyce Farmer to Lewis Trondheim, Ed Brubaker to Jaime Hernandez, and many others.

Steve McGarry is a British cartoonist and artist living in California, who is behind the weekly features Biographic and KidsTown. He’s a former record sleeve designer, who made the comics Badlands, World Soccer Diary, and has been a story artist on animated films including The Minions and The Secret Life of Pets. He’s also the father of Luke McGarry, an artist and cartoonist who’s nominated for a division award at this year’s Reuebens. A previous President of the NCS, Steve McGarry currently the President of NCS Foundation and one of the directors of NCS Fest. We sat down recently to talk about the origins of the festival, being inclusive, how the festival’s success might change the Reubens going forward, and the NCS today.

Alex Dueben: You are a former President of the NCS for the past few years you’ve been the President of the NCS Foundation, which I will admit I didn’t know existed until I read the press release about the festival. I’m probably not alone in that so just to start, could you talk a little about the foundation and what you do?

Steve McGarry: The NCS was founded in 1946 by guys who had got together during the war to draw for the troops, liked each other’s company and basically started a drinking club where they could give each other awards every year. That was the genesis, but they always tried to do good works – school visits and fundraisers and that sort of thing. At one point they started the Milt Gross Fund, which was funded by any profits that the Reubens made or any fundraisers they held to help cartoonists in time of need. I became president in 2001 for four years and I wanted to expand on the educational and charitable side of the organization. We created the NCS Foundation, basically incorporating the Milt Gross Fund but set it up to do more outreach, more educational projects, more charitable works. I stepped away from the NCS for a while and then five years ago I stepped back into NCS office and took over the foundation. When we do the Reubens, we always have some sort of public outreach. We’ll do children’s hospital visits. When we went to Memphis a few years ago we visited St. Jude, and we did fundraisers, an auction, personal appearances. We were able to raise over $100,000 for St. Jude that weekend. There’s a degree of self-satisfaction being able to do this for people. I was thinking, should we formalize this? The Reubens are essentially a private Oscars once a year moving to a different city. I didn’t want to do a comic con, but I did admire the European festivals like Angoulême and Lucca where it’s a big city-wide festival. I was looking around for how to do that. I found Julie Tait who founded The Lakes International Comic Arts Festival in England. It’s the best comics arts festival in UK and it’s become a destination on the European festival circuit. I began chatting to Julie and she came to the Reubens and we started to brainstorm. Long story short, a couple years later here we are with NCSFest. It serves a lot of purposes. One, it fulfills our remit to promote cartooning and the artform and reach out to the public and emerging talent. Two, candidly it repositions the NCS. We were a brilliant 20th Century organization, but the business has changed. We want to reflect what’s going on in the business and say, this is a fabulous organization to be a part of and artists should be here with us. We can do nice things together. It’s nice for our members because we might usually have six or eight speakers at a Reuben weekend but at the festival we have over 100. The naked self-promotion is good fun for everyone, but it’s nice to position the NCS at the heart of this huge festival.

Some people reading this will know or have attended a European festival, but for those who haven’t, what are you doing in Huntington Beach and how did you want this festival to feel?

Everybody’s been to a comic con, but nowadays it’s hard for the public to get tickets to a big comic con. You can be at any convention – a plumbers convention – and candidly it’s just a big soulless room without windows with rows of sellers and distributors. The festival is completely different in that with Huntington Beach, the vast majority of the programming is free. We have an open air marketplace where people who might not particularly be interested in comics can wander around and become versed in it. We have workshops that are free and available for families and kids. We’re doing readings at the library. Big names doing this for free. We have four major exhibitions, three at the Art Center and one at Pacific City. We have a big family zone which we’ve partnered with the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. We have a windows trail where we’ve married fifty businesses downtown with a well known cartoonist and they’re devoting their window space to cartoons. It’s a way of involving the community, celebrating cartoons and comics and the artform in a festival atmosphere. There will be goofy photo booths and tintamarresques, where you have a cut out where you can put your head through.

For the finale we have Charlie Adlard who’s the artist on The Walking Dead. The Lyon Festival, one of our partners, have commissioned a composer and so Charlie is going to live draw in this huge tent while this composer plays live music composed especially for this and it will be preceded by a zombie walk along the pier. We’ve partnered with the Orange County School of the Arts. We’re very keen to involve local schools in everything we do. The Orange County School of the Arts theatrical department is doing the makeup so kids can get their face painted as zombies and join in the zombie walk. We got the creative writing department to write an Orange County themed comic strip and then we got the graphic arts department to do the basic artwork and then all these superstars are going to come and live draw this forty yard long comic. It’s a way of involving people and letting people see the fabulous world of comics and all the cool things we can do with it. We’re going to have live performances. We’re working on the schools programs. We’re going to invite students. We’re going to do Spanish language programs. There’s a lot of cool things like that that you wouldn’t find at a comic con. A con is basically people selling you wares and it’s not really a celebration of comics and cartooning anymore, so it’s getting back to that to some extent.

Art by Luke McGarry

You have a wide range of people at the festival – Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Ed Brubaker and Joyce Farmer, Lewis Trondheim and Dan Clowes. A lot of people that most would not associate with the NCS.

We’re trying to show this is a broad church. I think the perception of the NCS is that it’s old white guys who make comic strips – and it’s not. Part of this outreach is to change that perception. Look at who we have as members. Look at whose art we’re celebrating. Look at the exhibitions. I did a history of soccer at the National Football Museum in the UK last year so it was easy for us to basically replicate that here, though it has more LA Galaxy and US soccer, but it’s basically the history of soccer. We’re celebrating 90 years of Popeye which is ubiquitous. We have a French exhibition where they re-imagine classic comics figures as females. That exhibition addresses the under-representation of women in comics. Look at our guest list. We’re trying to be as inclusive and broad as possible. To try and dispel some of these myths that have grown up around the NCS. There is a disconnect between the online comics community where there are cartoonists who rail against these old dinosaurs. I think all cartoonists – probably without exception – are comics fans. Anybody that does good work appeals across the spectrum. The medium might have changed but good work is still good work whether it’s done by a 95 year old or a 15 year old. One of the selfish aspects of this is to present the NCS and put a spotlight on it and what we’re doing and who we are. At the same time we’re entertaining the public.

As you said, the NCS was a great 20th Century organization, and in the past 20-25 years people like Will Eisner and Roz Chast and Mad Magazine cartoonists have been awarded Reubens for example, and there have been some changes.

We’ve increased the categories. There are two webcomics categories, we’ve just introduced a variety category, there’s online animation. We celebrate illustration, advertising art, animation. We recognize that, for example, my boy Luke and his way of doing business is completely different than the way I did business at his age. There are parallels, but it’s a completely different approach. He has never sent out a postcard or taken out an ad in the lookbook or any of that. He creates a daily comic on social media and among his followers are editors and buyers. When his cartoons go viral, art directors will contact him. Even older cartoonists are learning from young cartoonists about social media and webcomics. Everyone is interested in adapting and figuring out new ways to work. And in return we can help young cartoonists. We have decades of institutional wisdom to help advise creators about contracts and rights. So we can help younger cartoonists, but we can also learn from younger cartoonists and explore the emerging markets that 20 years ago didn’t exist.

As you were putting together this guest list, on the one hand Reubens Weekend means you have hundreds of cartoonists coming, but it seems to have a California feel to the list.

We have a head start because any other festival has to invite guests and figure out how to bring them in. We’re different in that we’re already bringing in a couple hundred established cartoonists into town. So from a logistics point of view we have a guest list of a couple hundred cartoonists before we do anything. Some of it is underwritten by publishers, some is underwritten by the French Comics Association, some of it is underwritten by syndicates. One of the reasons for choosing Southern California is that there are so many studios and publishers and artists in this part of the world. So it’s easy for us to get Floyd Norman, a Disney animation legend, because he lives in LA. Sergio lives in Ojai. Ed Brubaker is easy because he lives in LA, but Sean Phillips lives in the UK. However, Sean is an NCS member so we can say to Sean, what can we do to get you here? Same with Charlie Adlard. Some of it is just practicalities.

The difference between our festival and the European festivals is that there are places in Europe that will have a budget of half a million Euros to stage a festival. We don’t get any of that. We’re a nonprofit and although we’re working with our partners like King Features and Wacom, we’re working with a limited budget. We don’t have a budget to fly people in from all over the world, but because we have a team with the likes of Tom Richmond and Bill Morrison, we’re used to running Reubens and we know how to negotiate hotels and we know the logistics of that side of things. By bringing in Julie Tait and Mathieu Diez, we have these people with incredible know-how and connections. If we had done it cold, there’s no way I know how to deal with the police and the fire and the city and the permits and insurance. Organizing the marketplace is a full time job in itself. The logistics are staggering. That was why I couldn’t figure out how to do until I made these connections. The other side of the coin is that they’re excited to be working with the NCS. We’ve now got this cross pollination so for Year 2 we already know that we have people coming in from Finland, Japan, China, and we’ve already got concrete assurances from people who want to be a part of this. It’s a mix of wish list and practicality. Long story short there’s some practicality about the guest list, but then some things just fall into your lap. Liniers is a massive superstar and King Features said, we think he’d like to be involved, and we said, yes please!

You touched on the issue of diversity earlier and this is a conversation we’ve been having in comics. The NCS is a primarily white and male organization, though less so than it used to be. Julie Tait and the Lakes Festival have been a part of the conversation around diversity – and not in a good way. Huntington Beach and Orange County have reputations for not being welcoming to a lot of people. It’s easy for you to be flippant and say, we have three of the world’s greatest cartoonists – Jaime, Gilbert, and Sergio – none of whom happen to be white, but can you talk about how you approached this?

It’s deliberate. I don’t really want to get into the Lakes thing, but from my point of view, we wouldn’t be working with them if we didn’t have complete faith and trust in them. We know what their intentions are. As far as inclusivity, I think the show speaks for itself. We have people like Floyd Norman and Robb Armstrong and Lalo Alcaraz. We have a huge number of female cartoonists. We have Dana Simpson. These are deliberate in that part of our mission statement is that we firmly believe as an organization in inclusivity and fairness. Any idea that a female cartoonist isn’t as equally important as a male cartoonist is an awful thought. We don’t have “women’s panels”. There are panels that are made up entirely of women, but that shouldn’t be the focus of the panel. It’s about the work.

Huntington Beach has this reputation for right wing extremists. There are parts of the city I wouldn’t dream of visiting … but I think that’s true of any large city. Huntington Beach has changed dramatically and the city is very keen to work with us to dispel those preconceptions. Huntington Beach is the surfing capital of the world. They’ve got volleyball. They’ve got this huge airshow. But to be involved with an international arts festival has really excited them because it allows them to demonstrate there’s more to this place than you might expect. Candidly, it’s a big city in Southern California, in Orange County. But even that’s changing. Look at the blue wave. It’s not Ronald Reagan country anymore. Quite honestly the McGarry family yo-yoed for years between here and the UK. I was heavily involved in magazines and newspapers in the UK and throughout Europe. I had no intention of putting my kids through high school in California – until we found the Orange County School of the Arts. That was a thousand kids that were actors, dancers, musicians, artists and kids of every persuasion and ethnic background and preference celebrating art together. It was a fabulous place.

Art by Tom Richmond

Do you plan to do this again next year?

Candidly, we don’t know. That’s the honest truth. Every week that goes by this begins to look bigger and more successful. The city is laying on shuttle buses for the parking and wrapping them in cartoon art. Huntington Beach and Pacific City have given us huge gorgeous stores free of charge so that we can stage exhibitions. In downtown we have a store with TVs and we’re running Popeye cartoons continuously. We have a popup store they’ve given us for months and we’re going to have signings and events. Pacific City has given us this gorgeous space that’s going to house an exhibition by the French Comics Association. We think this is going to be very successful, and if so, we would be foolish not to do this again and again and again. The interesting part is do we continue to do the Reubens here? Since the eighties we’ve taken the Reuben Awards on the road. Some have been really successful but our most successful Reubens have been on either coast – LA and Orange County or New York and New Jersey. We get much greater attendance then. If we do the festival every year here and hold the Reubens every year here then we would have to counterbalance it with something on the East Coast. We don’t know, but by the time the Reubens come around, we should know. If I was a gambling man – and as an Englishman I probably am – I would put money on us doing it again. And why would we not hold the Reubens here if we can throw this kind of spotlight on it? What we don’t want to do is disenfranchise our members from around the country. We’re still kicking ideas around. Do we do a huge Christmas party in New York? We might give out the legacy awards there like the Gold Key and Caniff? The other alternative is maybe we look at doing NCS Fest East? We really don’t know at this stage but we’re not dismissing anything.

Huntington Beach is keen for us to come back and we do like the idea. When you talk to artists from around the world and you say, we’re throwing this festival and mention these kinds of names and you tell them it’s in Southern California, the weather is gorgeous, it’s half an hour from Disneyland, it beats some of these wet and windy conventions in places nobody wants to go to in the winter. [laughs] It’s got a lot going for it, but the proof is in the pudding. When we were pitching it, I could only pitch so much. It’s easy to pitch to the people who know our world, but if you’re used to surf contests and volleyball competitions, it does take a bit of explaining. Year two, we’ll have facts and figures that will allow us to go to the city and corporate sponsors.

I laughed because the nominees for the Reuben were announced this morning. Are you pulling for anyone?

No. [laughs] Luke is up for advertising, so I think I’m allowed to pull for Luke. [laughs] Candidly, I like to see different names and different work getting spotlighted. We’ve had some interesting names win the Reuben the past few years, from Roz Chast to Glen Keane. I’m as curious as you are to see how it plays out.

I’m in my thirties and you have young sons, for my people my age and younger, what’s the benefit of the NCS and why should they want to join?

Traditionally, if you got accepted to the NCS it was a validation of your professional status. It was a difficult organization to get into – as any professional organization should be. That opens up the door to charges of elitism. We’ve tried to dispel that notion, but this is still an organization for professional cartoonists. What HAS changed is what constitutes a professional cartoonist in the 21st century. Maybe you don’t make a living as a full time syndicated cartoonist now. In this day and age maybe that means you work at an ad agency but you have a huge following on social media, for example. There are revenue streams that exist now that were unheard of 30 years ago. So the definition of a “professional cartoonist” has evolved. But one aspect that never changes is networking. People like to see their friends and talk shop. The way it changed – and I can probably go on forever about this – but it used to be that you worked in isolation. You might call them up, but you rarely got to see your friends. That’s changed to a great extent. You can facetime. There are conventions. The NCS has chapters. It’s easier now to interact with your peers so that aspect has changed somewhat but the NCS is still a great way to make contacts. Maybe you’re attracted to the good works that we do. Maybe you want to do hospital visits and raise money for charity. Maybe you’re looking at this nakedly and asking, how does this help my career? We have booths at all the big cons and we offer free table space to our members. We offer discounts on things like Wacom equipment. You get a huge discounts on a table at NCSFest! Our members include publishers, syndicate heads, art directors – so there are contacts to be made.

If you’re one of our speakers at NCS Fest, that means you’re an established pro so we give you a complimentary membership for a year. A couple years ago we introduced the 27 Club specifically for artists 27 and under. It costs $27 a year and they’re full NCS members until they turn 28 and they get all the benefits of the organization. What better way of getting a discount from Wacom? There’s tons of promotional and networking opportunities. I think it’s whatever you make of it to be honest with you. If you just want to party, we’re a great party organization, but we’re so much more. I can’t imagine not wanting to be part of the NCS. I joined the NCS when I first came to the States because I had heard so much about it. The first cartoonists I met when I came to California were Mell Lazarus and Sergio Aragones. I was in my thirties and it was such a thrill to meet these guys and they were lovely people. So I don’t think you get away from the fact that most cartoonists are fans. I don’t know any young cartoonist that doesn’t have some sort of hero whether it is Sergio or Mort Drucker or maybe they learned to read in part by reading Family Circus. There’s some emotional connection.

I’m obviously going to be an advocate for the NCS, but I would encourage any young artist in South California to come check out NCS Fest. If you’re not, check out a local chapter. We’re at every major comic con now. It can’t hurt your career to be involved and you may get a lot out of it. That’s Steve’s infomercial for the NCS. [laughs] And to be able to visit somewhere like St Jude and interact with those kids and their families. We put 60 cartoonists in a room and we make the kids laugh with what we’re drawing and they’re drawing with us, and it takes their minds of their struggle for a little while. To be part of an organization that does stuff like that, if that was the only thing we did, everything else would just be a bonus.