MoCCA 2010: The Cross Hatch Rehash

Categories:  Events

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[From L-R: Brian Heater, R. Sikoryak, Michael Kupperman, Sara Benincasa, Jon Glaser, Kim Deitch, Sam Seder, Gabriell Bell, and Emily Flake. Photo courtesy of Seth Kushner.]

Don’t ask me how MoCCA went this year. At least not quite yet. Get back to me in a day or so. I should have a sufficient answer for you then. In the meantime, I’m in desperate need of a nap—and I’ve taken two already today. It’s not just sleep deprivation that’s clouding my judgment, however. And it’s not something that will simply be corrected with a day or two worth of decompression.

It’s more a lack of emotion distance, I think. Emotional distance and scope. For once I find myself compulsively refreshing Google and a number of comics blogs, in order to piece together an approximation of an festival I attended from open to close (and then some).

I spent the better part (roughly 85-95-percent) of MoCCA underground. This wasn’t exactly my plan. I knew for certain that much of my weekend would take place in the panel room on the bottom level of the 69th Regiment Armory, sure, but if I had to wager (and if anyone were foolish or obsessive enough to bet on such things), I’d have put the over/under at roughly 40-percent.

The lesson I learned quickly, however, is the one that any vaguely responsible adult most likely encounters on a daily basis: if you want something to happen, do it yourself. Of course this isn’t to suggest that MoCCA and its small army of volunteers were anything less than spectacular (an extra special thanks to MoCCA director Karl Erickson and the museum’s president, Ellen Abramowitz, who worked closely with us, every step of the way). If anything, having been granted something of a behind-the-scenes looks at the inner-workings of the show gave me extra insight into just how many stars have to perfectly align in order for a show to work on the most fundamental level.

It’s just that, even with the greatest of volunteer staffs, panelists go missing, camera problems ensue (leaving us with no official footage from Sunday, incidentally—if you or anyone you know shot any good video or recorded audio, please e-mail me), projectors break down, people drop out last second, and name placards—well, I’m not really sure what happened to those. At some point, one becomes a host, a computer tech, a guide, an emcee, and a makeshift expert in any number of subjects.

[Additional Photos, Videos]

I suppose it’s fair to say that I had little idea precisely what I was signing up for when Abramowitz invited me to dinner, in order to offer me the gig. My name had apparently been placed on a shortlist by someone in the scene (whose name I don’t know if I’m allowed to reveal, and whom have yet to actually thank personally). I believe I jumped at the offer—though I may be misremembering it. I know I suggested bringing my friend Jeff Newelt aboard that night.

We took, I think, a fairly novel approach to things—for better or worse. It was partly out of necessity. After all, the date of the show had been moved up by several months. Last year’s show was the first MoCCA held in the Armory building—a space that apparently costs tens of thousands of dollars to air condition—not the level of cash non-profit comic museums tend to throw around for their fund raisers.

The 2009 show was held in June—as has been the tradition with MoCCA. As Abramowitz mentioned to me early on, it was the only thing anyone seemed to talk—or write—about after that year’s show. I’m certainly guilty of the latter. Honestly, who wants to pay $15 to watch bespectacled nerds glisten?

Due to the date change (a blessing, really, given this weekend’s lovely 70 degree weather), we had, at best, a skeleton attendee list to draw from when we began. Publishers just didn’t have names when we came asking. MoCCA, understandably, had snuck up on just about everyone.

Anyone who has ever met Newelt will tell you that when he refers to something as a “concept album,” it means he hold that thing it in the highest possible regard. He may, in fact, be 2010’s single greatest champion of the prog rock genre. Our approach was, essentially: “What if we got Frank Miller and Jaime Hernandez talking about superheroes?” “What if Peter Kuper and Bill Ayers discussed the history of activism in politics?” “How about Sam Seder and Jon Glaser and Sara Benincasa acting out some of comics’ funniest strips?”

I’ve long held that best way to uncover true insight into an artist’s work is through organic conversation. And for me, a number of these panels were an opportunity to work on that approach on a public stage.

When all was said and done, I was extremely proud of the way the panel shaped up. When we unveiled the list, I wrote that I believed that we had put together, panel-for-panel, one of the strongest lineups in recent memory. I still don’t consider that hyperbole.

We took a lot of things into consideration in the process, attempting to touch upon a wide variety of subject matter within the context of the comics world. We tried to represent a wide variety of styles and points of view. We looked to represent female artists and other represented groups, without lumping them into a clichéd corners like a “Women in Comics” panel, as though such a concept were still a novelty in this world.

One of the entirely valid criticisms I was met with during the show was a failure to properly meet the last point within the context of the “Sequential Activism” panel I moderated. Putting together a panel about progressive politics starring six white men certainly deserves scrutiny.

As for the final lineup, we had a number of folks back out for a number of largely personal reasons—that’s to be expected I think. Things come up and people can’t make it out to shows. There was a lot of shuffling in the months and weeks and days–and hours, really–leading up to the event, both in terms of panelists and everything else. I learned to become quite agile at shifting and switching and accommodating on the fly.

Not perfect, however, which leads me to valid criticism number two: things got a bit jumbled when we had to switch a couple of Sunday panels due to a scheduling conflict. The result, unfortunately, was an accidentally truncated YA panel. One hour shrunk to 30 minutes, thanks to an accounting error. I spoke to moderator Heidi MacDonald that night about what had happened, and she told me that they were able to stretch it out a bit (I was busy prepping my own panel as theirs drew to a close)—though not nearly as much as anyone would like. I humbly offer all of my apologies to the panelists and audience, alike.

The problem was compounded by technical difficulties. I spent a good chunk of the panel standing next to the stage, attempting to fix the projector with an A/V volunteer. It had spontaneously gone on the fritz. We removed the gear from the room, isolated the problem, and set it back up (for those concerned with such minutiae, the issue was a faulty cord) so Raina Telgemeier could show her visuals.

Yet more technical problems plagued the final panel of the show. I hosted a screening of shorts from Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, Michael Kupperman, and Debra Solomon. Short of some piece of equipment bursting into flames, a wonky DVD drive may have been the worst imaginable technical glitch to suffer through during a video-centric panel. But thanks again to the great A/V volunteers, we were able to locate at fix the problem before the end of the panel. I sincerely hope “Waking up the DVD Drive” aren’t the only words anyone remembers from the event.

While the reaction to the show seems largely positive, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion regarding the panels online. The themes seem thus far seem to the bearable temperature, the overall organization of the event (on a personal note, I’m pleased to report that, despite opening the armory doors a bit late both days, we managed to start the majority of the panels within roughly five minutes of their scheduled beginning, something Paul Karasik was kind enough to compliment me on), and the swag that people walked away with.

In retrospect, I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised. This year, for obvious reasons, I projected far more importance on the programming than I ever have before. Thing is, only a small percentage of comic convention attendees do likewise. I guess we were hoping that we might be able to shift that a bit. And I will say that nearly all of the panels had attendees that exceeded the number of available chairs. (And, if Frank Miller should ever return, we might have to hold our panels at Madison Square Garden.)

There were, however, a number of favorite moments for me. Leading a discussion about progressive politics with Bill Ayers, Peter Kuper, Ward Sutton, Tom Hart, and Josh Neufeld was easily a highlight in my career in comics criticism up to this point. Co-moderating with Douglas Wolk an exploration of Alex Robinson, Becky Cloonan, Nick Bertozzi, and Eric Reynolds’s favorite books of the past 10 years was quite enlightening.

Emceeing the live comics reading was some of the most fun I’ve ever had at such an event. R. Sikoryak, Michael Kupperman, Gabrielle Bell, Kim Deitch, Emily Flake, Jon Glaser, Sam Seder, and Sara Benincasa—all were phenomenal. I’ve heard nothing but incredibly complimentary comments about the panel—particularly the surprise 3D segment of the show (glasses and all). Special thanks to Sikoryak and Kupperman for all of their help leading up to that weekend.

Spending Sunday morning watching Rick Parker and Tom Hart run separate comics workshops was a lot of fun, as well—and Hart is a saint for putting up with our makeshift tablecloth projector screen for that one panel. I’m not sure that Parker’s approach to “string theory” is mathematically sound as he believes, but to his credit, he and Hart are two of the kindest people you’ll ever have the pleasure to encounter in this industry. It was great to meet the Scandinavian artists who had traveled all the way to the show. Meeting David Mazzucchelli and Chipp Kidd for the first time, just after the Klein Award presentation was great—same for Miller, Hernandez, Ayers, Al Jaffee, Gahan Wilson, Arnold Roth, and James Sturm (and a whole slew of others, of course).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on our party, as well. I donned my skinny tie to spin a soul/rock/ska/punk set sandwich between sets by Dean Hapsiel and Paul Pope. Honestly, I think the most in-person compliments I received that weekend were a direct result of the roughly hour-and-half I spent behind the proverbial wheels of steel.

Heck, I even got some pleasure out of dumb, self-assigned tasks like grabbing water bottles for cartoonists. Far and away my biggest regret, however, was the fact that I had so little time on the showroom floor. I know I missed a lot of amazing debuts and the chance to interview a number of cartoonists—two of my favorite parts of this gig.

I’m anticipating that I will reflect a bit more on the show in the coming days and weeks, both personally and within the confines of this blog—the latter of which will hopefully be facilitated by the receiving of video and audio from the panels I helped put together.

I wish I could have written a more definitive account of how to run a festival, but despite all of the work outlined above, I’ve only played a small role in a larger festival. Ask the always-amiable Sarah Morean in August, after the end of the Minneapolis Indie Expo. She’ll have played a large role in a smaller festival, an insight that will likely be far more valuable to all prospect grassroots con runners.

As for me, the question I’ve been asked the most over the past three days is: “will you do it next year?” My primary answer is a particularly ambiguous one: “It depends on whether or not MoCCA’s staff asks me back.” I hope they do, of course, if only to soothe my fragile ego temporarily. Assuming that is the case, my answer will likely become, “ask me again in two months.” It’s not that I haven’t taken a good deal of pleasure and personal reward from this experience. It’s just that, again, I’m tired.

I really have felt as though I’ve had a second—or, perhaps more appropriately third—full-time job for the past couple of months, and the job that actually pays me is plenty of work in and of itself. The more I reflect upon the show, however, the clearer it becomes that the whole thing was worth it on a personal level. Perhaps I’ll see you next year, after all.

–Brian Heater