Comics Arts Los Angeles 2015: The Best of Indie Comics in the Worst of Venues

Comic Arts Los Angeles held its second event this past weekend, and the first two-day event. As someone who stays mainly within mainstream comics, I was scared and intimidated about going, but now, having gone, I am very glad I went. I was only able to go out on Saturday due to family commitments, but the afternoon I spent there was my first time at an indie comics event, and it was fantastic. It’s pretty much the antithesis of San Diego Comic Con in every way, and that’s kind of great.

CALA takes place in a tiny gallery in the Fashion District. My friend and I parked a few blocks away and walked through the fashion district (my first experience), past the street venders selling bootleg movies, fried food, and sliced fruit and vegetables in plastic cups. The gallery itself has no signage, but there were volunteers holding programs and a large man in the ubiquitous bright yellow EVENT STAFF windbreaker outside on the street.

When we got there at 12:45, the first panel was scheduled for 1:00pm. We weren’t allowed in right away because the venue was at capacity, but we were allowed up in about five minutes, past the woman sitting on a stool selling knitwear, and upstairs.  Upstairs was a single room that had been reorganized into aisles and tables. This part was familiar. I’ve seen artist alleys and dealers rooms at all kinds of conventions. Past the aisles there were taped up pages directing to the  area for panels, which were taking place just on the other side of a wall. When you turned the corner, you could see there were maybe about 60 folding chairs set up, a narrow aisle between rows of three chairs, a single table at the front, and a projector with the panel title being projected against an upper corner wall.

The last convention I went to was San Diego Comic Con, so this was a little different, to say the least. The 1:00pm panel was titled “Now You See Me: The Artist’s Responsibility to Social Justice,” moderated by Iris Jong, one of the founders of CALA.

The questions were really thought provoking, and the panelists gave wonderfully honest answers. Here’s a few of my tweets:

Right after this panel was Noelle Stevenson’s Spotlight panel, moderated by her Lumberjanes co-creator and longtime friend Shannon Watters.

Noelle and Shannon before the start of the panel.
Noelle and Shannon before the start of the panel.

I wasn’t tweeting during this panel because I was recording it, because it was that good. My video recording, unfortunately, is not that great because like, a minute after the panel started a really tall person sat down right in my line of sight and I could not find a good angle around them for the rest of the panel.

The head in question.
The head in question.

But trust me on this! It’s possibly the best solo-person panel I’ve ever seen at a con, and that’s partially due to the fact that Noelle and Shannon are obviously really good friends. It’s clear that Shannon knows what questions to ask to set Noelle off on talking at length about any number of topics (like Zam Wessell from Star Wars), but managed to do so in a way that was conversational and not awkwardly interrogatory.

After the Spotlight panel, Noelle and Shannon were both signing merch on the other side of the wall, since they had both Nimona and Lumberjanes available for purchase. There was space along the wall for about 10 people to stand, and it was already filled by the time I made it around the corner, so I asked a CALA volunteer where the overflow line was going to go (so they could keep the walkway clear) and we ended up standing on the opposite wall down a little bit until Noelle had signed enough things that they had room for us along the main wall.

I had brought along a giant gift bag with the Nimona scarf to give to Noelle, and my friend who was with me captured the moment when Noelle peeked inside the bag and saw the scarf for the first time.

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After giving Noelle her scarf, my friend and I wandered around the tables and bought a few indie comics, and collected a few postcards and cards. I got to meet women whose work I’d seen online, women who have been part of the indie comics scene since the 90s, and also women I’d never heard of before who were just starting out. There were men there too, of course, but the ratio seemed fairly even in terms of exhibitors, and also in terms of the attendees like myself. Unlike the big cons I’ve been to, at CALA it felt like diversity wasn’t a minor consideration, but a motivating philosophy. I have zero complaints about the diversity of presenters, exhibitors, and even volunteers. The panel topics and special guests were similarly diverse.

My only complaints are about the space and accessibility. There are definitely accessibility issues, since the entire event takes place in one space, even if that space has demarcated zones, and that space is upstairs. I’m not even sure there was an elevator available for attendee use, and if there was, it wasn’t clearly labeled. Due to the narrow aisles around the tables it felt like the space was always at capacity, even if it wasn’t technically at capacity, and as someone with sensory issues and larger than average, it wasn’t the most friendly space. There was no place to sit down and chill inside the space, but if you left, you exited into the fashion district, which also has no space to just relax, and risked not being able to get back in. Because of this, people were hanging out just outside the entrance, on the second floor landing.

If there is a Comic Arts Los Angeles in 2016, which I really hope there is, I hope that they can find a better venue. There’s no way for them to expand when confined to a tiny one floor gallery in the fashion district, and the existing venue is not very friendly to begin with, both inside and outside. In addition to narrow aisles, the panel room chairs were tiny and made of plastic, which meant I was sore the next day from trying to fold my body into the space it was given, which wasn’t much. (It doesn’t fit very well.)

This is the feeling that I’d feared when going to an event like this, especially because CALA is such a small organization and so new and they’re doing such great things. I feel guilty even mentioning how uncomfortable I felt because I want CALA to do well, and I know how expensive venues can be. But I saw a community that seemed to pride itself on being a place for people “outside the norm,” and until these accessibility issues are addressed, it’s not a place for everyone, and it’s not a place where I can feel comfortable. 

Kate Tanski

Kate Tanski

Recovering academic. Fangirl. Geek knitter.
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