Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 6, 2009

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is this weekend (May 9th-10th 2009), though lead-up events including Free Comic Book Day and an “Indoor Block Party” featuring Kid Koala have been scheduled to happen all this week.  I hadn’t really been payng a lot of attention myself until earlier this week.  On Free Comic Book Day I picked up Volume 3 of the Comics Festival sampler and finished it feeling downright inspired.  I’ve always liked comic books but considered it a hobby completely unrelated to my book collecting or even literary pursuits – I don’t even list the graphic novels I read when tabulating the list of “What I Read This Year”, even though I read dozens upon dozens of them every year.  Why not?  I couldn’t even tell you.  Possibly so I don’t have to own up in public to exactly how many of Marvel’s Ultimate [Insert Title Here] trades I own.

But the feeling I got after visiting the Beguiling this weekend is that anyone living in Toronto today who has any interest in book history, book collecting or literary movements at all would be absolutely foolish not to open their eyes and take a look at what is happening in comics here.  The book media has been touching on it in pieces and bits for a few years now.  “Graphic novels” are becoming part of the literary mainstream, beginning with Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer for Maus and continuing today with landmarks like Mariko Tamaki (and Jillian Tamaki)’s Governor General nomination for Skim and the New York Times‘ new Graphic Books Best Seller List.  The school system has figured out that adding graphic novels and manga to their libraries will actually get kids to read and independent, “adult” comic book artists are getting exposure as far ranging as political covers for the New Yorker.  Graphic novels are increasingly accepted as a legitimate literary form and Toronto is, right now, one of the most vibrant, innovative and productive comic-producing cities out there.

If you were a book collector in London in 1917 you would probably have been aware of the Bloomsbury Group and, if you were paying any attention, you would have been taking full advantage of being at the very heart of something new.  You’d have had your pick of new publications, shows, newspaper clippings and sightings as Modernism sprouted its wings and took off.  You might have decided, no, there was still surer money in Dickens and Trollope.  But for someone looking to get in on the ground floor of something that might (and did) become the new literary standard, Bloomsbury was the place to be and to collect.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the Toronto comic scene today is the new Bloomsbury.  But you can’t deny that smell of fresh ideas, new blood and being on the vanguard of something which, in thirty years, might be a huge influential part of the literati mainstream.

To list of Toronto who’s who in the comic world exceeds my space allotment here.  Take a look at the TCAF guests. Suffice to say in the four years that have passed between the 2005 Comics Festival (featuring Seth, Chester Brown, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Chip Zdarsky, Kean Soo, Kagan McLeod and more) and the 2009 edition, the quality of work and the number of artists has, in my opinion, jumped exponentially.  Further, the best artists in town are producing  some of their best work right now.  And, maybe best of all, few of them have had the leisure to quit their day jobs and so getting inscriptions, sketches and other collectible ephemera is dead easy.

Comic book collecting is nothing new, but the evolution of the genre right now is bringing the pursuit into book collecting turf.  The two activities have been separate so far: the expertise needed for one doesn’t help much with the other, and I can’t speak for other book collectors but I have never found the idea of owning a floppy, shrink-wrapped comic very attractive.  Graphic novels are, on the other hand, an entirely different matter.  These are books.  Bindings, book design, editions and bibliography is starting to become relevant.  Libraries and scholars need the materials.  Many more artists are working in a straight-to-graphic novel format rather than the old model of episodic issues followed by a graphic novel compilation.

Ten years ago might have been the best time to start a Toronto-based graphic novel collection, but the window is not closed.  It seems as if people are getting their big breaks daily in this city.  After seeing the samples of some of the new work coming out of the city, you can bet your bottom dollar I am going to get my butt out to the Toronto Reference Library this weekend and see what’s on offer.  I don’t want to be the one wishing I’d taken a chance twenty years from now when this is retrospectively viewed as the golden age of a budding genre.  Worst case scenario, I own some amazing works by local, emerging artists.  What’s to lose?

4 thoughts on “The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care”

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