Ever since I moved to Toronto in 2018, I’ve heard about the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival (TCAF), which I had narrowly missed in 2018 because I arrived a month too late. So, it really isn’t surprising that the moment I got the chance, I made arrangements to attend the festival in 2019.
With events like TCAF, Comic Con, and Fan Expo, I like to plan my visit. I went through the schedule in advance, chose some panels I wanted to attend and which creators I wanted to check out. And, voila, I was ready for my first TCAF!
I started off my TCAF 2019 with the Page to Screen Panel which featured Gabriel Bá, of Umbrella Academy fame; Brian Selznick, the man behind Hugo; Renée Nault, who has adapted The Handmaid’s Tale as a graphic novel; and Jeff Lemire, who adapted Gord Downie’s music album, Secret Path, and has several properties currently being adapted for screen.
There were several hiccups to actually getting into the session, with none of the volunteers knowing what to do with people with badges. So we were shunted around until we were sent to stand in the rush line that was last to get called in. I ended up sitting quite far away from the stage, and because the acoustics weren’t great, I had trouble hearing the speakers. Plus, the moderator was reluctant to adapt his script for the session and seemed to run out of questions part way. It wasn’t a great start to my TCAF experience, but the speakers shared some insights that I found fascinating.
What was most interesting to hear was how the creators spoke about the power of cinematic visuals and its ability to translate pages of a comic book into short second-long scenes. Selznick made a point about how his characters spent pages trying to get from one point to the other, whereas in the film, the drama of the sequence was conveyed through a single hand gesture. What surprised me was how Selznick wasn’t even bitter about it—in fact, he was amazed at how brilliantly the gesture on screen captured the moment he had created on the page.
Renée Nault spoke about having to reduce chunks of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale so that she could keep the brevity of her comic book. It’s that interesting intersection between words and images that allowed her to remove a great deal of text while still conveying the essence of the story. She also mentioned how she has systematically avoided watching the Hulu adaptation for fear that it would influence her comic’s aesthetic. I haven’t yet read her adaptation, but I am certainly curious to do so now.
Jeff Lemire had an unusual task with adapting an album of music, but because of the amount of music he listens to, he felt in tune with Gord Downie’s rhythms and words. Getting the beats right, on the other hand, was something he had to work hard on.
The next session I attended was the Five Years of Toronto Comics panel, moderated by WWAC’s own Ardo Omer. The panel included Jason Loo, creator of Toronto’s superhero The Pitiful Human-Lizard; and Stephanie Cooke, Steven Andrews, and Allison O’Toole, editors of Toronto Comics Anthology.
As a relative newcomer to Toronto, it was enlightening to hear about the experiences of these creators and editors who have made it their mission in life to highlight their city. The passion that they have for Toronto is amazing, and one that I hope to share in soon. I also found it interesting that Toronto has changed so much in just the past five years; Jason Loo noted how a certain landmark that was featured on the cover of his first volume, Honest Ed’s, has now been demolished, ensuring that there is no cultural relevance to the image he so painstakingly incorporated in that initial volume.
Though I was buoyed by the passion the creators shared, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for immigrants in the comics scene. Steven Andrews was the only immigrant on the panel, but there was barely any discussion about how immigrants fit into the comics community in Toronto. That’s something I really would have liked to know about since I am now an immigrant in Toronto.
The final panel I attended that day was Contemporary Comics Activism, and it was my favourite of the three. Featuring Daria Bogdanska, creator of Wage Slaves; Bessora, writer of Alpha; Cole Pauls, creator of Dakwäkãda Warriors; and Gord Hill, creator of the Antifa Comic Book, this was a fiery panel that beautifully articulated the importance of comics in activism, and vice versa.
I was particularly captivated by Daria Bogdanska, who seemed to be very level-headed. A Polish immigrant in Sweden, Bogdanska found herself working illegally as a waitress and making far less than her Swedish compatriots. When she learned that her colleagues hailing from South Asia earned even less than her, she decided to unionise and push for changes. And she documented it all in her comic book, Wage Slaves. Bogdanska was profound, but also disillusioned. She hoped to open people’s eyes to the plight of immigrants, but accepted that her book may not have the power to change the world. I have not read Wage Slaves, but having heard Bogdanska speak so passionately, I am desperate to read her book, and I do hope she can change the world.
Bessora, a novel writer who lives in France, was approached to write Alpha by illustrator Barroux. The story follows a man from the Ivory Coast as he makes a hellish journey to Paris. Bessora’s aim was to tell a good story—for her, politics came second. But she also pointed out that a good personal story was a political act in itself—it had the power to put people in the shoes of the protagonist and change their minds about how they felt about immigrants. The personal really is political with Alpha. Honestly, everything Bessora said in the session was like a soundbite that I wanted to embed in my heart.
Cole Pauls’ Dakwäkãda Warriors puts the spotlight on Yukon First Nations, reimagining them as spaceship-flying warriors fighting a cyber nemesis. If this doesn’t sound like something we should read, I don’t know what is! Pauls has been getting a lot of attention recently, but his intentions for the book was to educate the children of his community. The story wasn’t meant for everyone, but it certainly sounds like it could appeal to everyone.
Gord Hill’s Antifa Comic Book is actually a historical book about the rise and fall of fascist movements the world over. His book is not only timely and relevant, but acts as an educational document. From all the panelists, Hill was the only one who felt that the comic form was the best way to give a voice to his activism—the others all believed that activism was part of their lives, and would have been expressed with or without the comic form. I felt reinvigorated at the end of the Comics Activism panel. It was quite a heart-pumping way to end my very first visit to TCAF.
I had an early start on day two of TCAF and, honestly, I couldn’t get there fast enough. My first session was the Characters of Age panel, featuring Ezra Claytan Daniels, Seth, Aimée de Jongh, who did the art for Blossoms in Autumn which I reviewed for WWAC’s Izneo Pubwatch, and Julian Hanshaw. The session, interestingly, became more about memory than about characters of age, which made the panelists and the audience ponder the connection between the importance of memory as we age. I was glad to see that the panelists did not harp on too much about nostalgia, that cliché that follows people who are older. In fact, everyone seemed to agree that the older people got, the more present or future-leaning they were. There were also some unexpected comments about how people don’t ‘feel’ their age—people seem to feel a different age than what they actually are, or even several ages. The panel gave me much to think about, but more than anything, I came away desperately wanting to examine my own memories.
My next session of the day was Contemporary Queer Comics with A.C. Esguerra, Steve MacIsaac, Eric Kostiuk Williams, Sophie Yanow, and Blue Delliquanti. I loved this session and listening to the experiences these creators have had in inhabiting and creating queer spaces was very enlightening. I was glad to hear that things are looking up for queer comics, but a bit disheartened that the genre is still in the realm of self-publishing or micro-publishing. They’re mainstream in the sense that the online presence of these comics is much more visible, but the major publishers still aren’t ready to take the leap into publishing queer comics.
However, it was noted several times that TCAF has become a good space for queer comics, and I certainly saw an abundance of queer comics and people over this weekend, more so than I have in my 11 months in Toronto. Having said that, the panelists were actually quite concerned that the more visible and vocal queer comics becomes, the more likely online establishments are to de-platform them (as we have seen with Tumblr and Twitter). That’s worrying and I really hope that the future is brighter than that for queer comics.
My final panel of TCAF 2019 was Writing For Others, where Vivek Shraya, Jamila Rowser, Richard Marazano, Andrew Wheeler, and BC Holmes discussed the collaborative process between writers and artists. Most of the creators hailed from North America, barring Marazano, a French writer and artist, and their insights were illuminating, and surprising. French comics take between 2-5 years to complete, and writers dictate much of the visuals, whereas in North America, the turn-around is much faster (sometimes only a few months, if not less), and artists are given much more freedom. Plus, apparently European creators can push back against publisher deadlines in an effort to ensure high quality comics, a notion that made everyone else on the panel and the room sit up. By the end of the panel, I was certain that the North American creators were going to move to Europe!
I loved the camaraderie between the panelists of this session, and the insight I got into the comic-making process. I learnt about project management, how to share constructive feedback without being negative (I need more of this in my life!), the uneven split of labour and rewards between writers and artists (but in a good way, interestingly), and how the process of making a comic differs in the Americas and Europe.
My weekend at TCAF was an excellent experience and so different from Fan Expo and Comic Con. I felt like I was more connected to comics during these two days, that I belonged in this world, and I came away with a reading list longer than my arm. As much as I love superhero comics, which drives events like Fan Expo and Comic Con and which I hope some day to make myself, it’s the slice of life, personal and political stories that I encountered during TCAF that made me feel more a part of this community. This is what comics are all about and I will be waiting with bated breath for TCAF 2020.