Conventions and art shows tend to grow with success, but that growth can come at the cost of exponentially increasing competition in ways many of its exhibitors cannot keep up with. The number of attendees increase year by year, inevitably encouraging greater involvement with corporate interests. Cost-effectiveness becomes a question, as the commercialization and franchising of shows draw further away from the smaller, more improvised roots of conventions.
While some creatives need these shows for their livelihoods, others hone in on social media to expand their reach. A perk of social media is its accessibility for those who cannot travel or expend the costs of traveling to shows and high-stakes networking events. The reach for a number of these platforms is great, not restrained by time zones or borders. But when even those resources betray them, as social media continues to be an endlessly unpredictable spiral and potentially toxic, where else can artists go?
As the artist community publicly declare these grievances, smaller shows and punk-driven pop-ups have been appearing over the past several years in response. Not only are these gatherings making attempts to return to the humbler roots of early conventions and zinefests, they are trying to innovate and challenge the norms that bigger ones have failed to address.
In the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, New York, a store with a distinctly light blue-painted front stands. Unbeknownst to those who do not enter, history is held behind its doors, carrying thousands of titles by publishers large and small. From traditional hardcovers to zines, these texts take the reader through both the impersonal and personal, including topics on feminism, queer studies, and political theory.
Self-described as “98% radical” and “2% glitter,” Bluestockings is a volunteer-powered and collectively-owned radical bookstore and fair trade cafe. The space hosts readings, workshops, performances, talks, and films on the regular and updates a bulletin for related events around the city. It is named after The Blue Stockings Society, a mid-18th century English political movement and literary discussion group that aimed to promote female authorship and readership.
This year marked Bluestockings’ first ever Queer + Trans Comics Fest, started by members of Bluestockings’ own collective “after growing increasingly frustrated with the inaccessibility and exclusionary nature of many larger comic conventions.” Conforming to Bluestockings’ own mission, the Fest’s curation aimed to properly represent the works and stories of marginalized identities and those who would least likely have the resources to be featured in more commercialized shows. It ran for almost a week, with a rotating showcase of its artists from August 8 to August 16, 2019. (It is important to note that the weekend immediate to last day of Bluestockings’ Fest were Flame Con’s dates this year.)
The main showcase was relegated to much of the store’s central capacity, in which regular displays were put away to make room for the layout of tables that served the artists. Despite the store’s inherently cozy space, the Fest was comfortable to navigate in a way that would put larger, densely crowded conventions to shame. In addition, the layout was coordinated in such a way that made the store’s regular inventory still accessible if one was so interested. Bluestockings itself is already wheelchair accessible, and staff members made daily amends to the space’s layout in order to quickly respond to the changing rotation of artists.
The show also included a few small talks scheduled throughout the week, centering on business and creative practices potential creatives may be curious about, while also addressing the social implications which come with them. In “Talking About Money: How to Survive & Thrive While Making Comics”, for instance, the discussion centered on the weights of capitalism and the unavoidable issues many creatives face juggling a day job and personal work. Carmen Pizarro, Skimlines, and Kevin Czap spoke with Carmilla Zhang about their experiences and the applicable methods for balancing self-care and work. The group was also part of the roster of tabling vendors throughout the Fest’s week, sharing differing perspectives that were both personal but still practical. The presentation of the Fest’s panels were generally comfortably arranged squarely within the store’s own quarters against the rest of the show.
As someone local to the scene, it honestly filled me with such joy to run into faces old and new. Compared to the overwhelming cacophony of something huge like New York Comic Con, I did not face the stress of needing to swim through the warm bodies of strangers. My rush of excitement did not start to slowly dwindle the moment I entered its doors, it only lingered. Conversations were personal and lasted. The work was diverse, unique, and I was able to see myself in much of it. For instance, cartoonist and illustrator Hazel Newlevant was one of the tabling artists, and their presence coincided with their release of No Ivy League. Skimlines, who was present in the aforementioned panel, is the creator of the webcomic You Were Always By Me and much of her showcased work featured LGBTQ+ themes and presented the Asian-American experience. These are only a couple of names, but the many connections I made felt like they had meaning, and I can’t imagine creating such connections in any different capacity. Shows like these are necessary as others grow way too big and, ironically, ever more exclusive—and for their first attempt, I think Bluestockings’ collective was very successful.
In 1999, the Bluestockings Women’s Bookstore was founded by Kathryn Welsh. Initially aimed to specifically empower women, Bluestockings has evolved into a greater community space that seeks to welcome all following its financial duress and revival post-9/11. The space today has been successfully running on a break-even model for nearly 20 years, through the dedication of its staffers, volunteers, and the community’s public support.
A huge, huge thank you to everyone who helped to raise up our first ever @bluestockings queer and trans comics fest. For something that was cobbled together in a few months with the support of artist friends, I'm beyond thrilled that we were able to support so many comic artists. pic.twitter.com/HztXxWgiWF
— Joan Dark is always angry (@whoaitsjoan) August 17, 2019
Bluestockings has made it clear in its lifetime thus far that its endeavors have always been about uplifting community. It is not even just about Bluestockings: in these challenging times for artists and the responsibilities they face, I do hope this wave of more inclusive and healthier efforts for artists to live fruitfully continues. The Bluestockings Inaugural Queer + Trans Comics Fest is certainly not an end-all solution to a greater problem that includes even non-artists, but it should serve as a source of inspiration and another means of someday getting to that near-perfect solution. I look forward to Bluestockings thriving for 20 years more, and that in the midst of an oversaturated and bloated convention scene, this inaugural show surely won’t be its last.