Thursday, 19 June 2014

ELCAF 2014: good things come to those who wait

Oliver and I travelled down to ELCAF last Saturday, after spending a few weeks getting geared up for it- looking at the guests, exhibitors and programme and generally being excited about the proposition of spending a day immersed in comics (this despite the fact that we work in a comic book shop, hmm). We caught the 8:05 train to King's Cross and spent the journey annoying one another (me) and eating Jaffa Cakes (Oliver), and weather watching: it was rather gloomy and overcast with occasional curtains of drizzle, but it had been forecast to clear up. We pulled into London at about 10:50 and caught a taxi to The Oval Space in Hackney, both because we were eager to be there and because the tube frightens me. Our taxi driver seemed unsure where exactly the Oval Space was, and after looking at the map provided on the leaflet and failing to see a street name, so were we. A bit of Googling and pointing later, we'd set off and by 11 we were there. The Oval Space is a hangar style venue, with low ceilings, most often used for music events, and located a tad obscurely winding around and behind main streets. But we were there! Tickets exchanged, hands stamped nice and smoothly and in. I love the initial stepping into a comics festival- just taking it all in: all that amazing art and work gathered in one place for you to go through, knowing that everybody's there for the same reason.

This was the third East London Comics and Arts Festival, (I'd attended the second, but not the inaugural event), and it was already pretty busy; we decided to start on the left and work our way around, but to be honest, we couldn't get  to a lot of tables because they were so busy, which was great to see, and not a problem considering you have another 8 ample hours to get around to everything. My first impression (after pleasure) was surprise at how noticeably smaller the space was in comparison to last year, when the festival was also held in Bethnal Green, a few streets away in York Hall. That hall, although windowless, was much more spacious and with higher ceilings which meant people could pass around easier and air could circulate. ELCAF this year was hot- really hot. One of the lasting images of the day were people fanning themselves with comics and postcards (no air con). I stripped down a layer and got to business being the hardcore person that I am.

One of the first tables we stopped at was Swedish  artist Mattias Adolffson's stall who was there with his publisher Sanatorium: Mattias was away (that's him seated in the cream trousers in the picture above) but a lovely guy from Sanatorium was happy to talk to us. They'd dug out 2 copies of First in Line, Adolfsson's 2011 out of print collection from a shop somewhere and Oliver snapped one up (I'd given him Second in Line for Christmas, so I guess he's officially a fan now). Mattias was debuting Largest in Line, a gorgeous beast of a thing that opened into a double sided A2 (or slightly bigger than) poster book- a really fitting treatment to Adolfsson's incredibly intricate drawings. If I had to pick a book of the show, that would be it- I saw so many people clutching a copy- it's hard to miss!- and that might have fed into the curiosity around it (you can see pictures of it below listed with the other things I bought). Sanatorium also had what was for me the discovery of the show: a book of stupendous illustrated spreads by a young 22 year old design student and artist called Erik Svetoft (again, pictures in the bottom section)- he has a Tumblr here, for the interested. By the end of the day they'd sold out of everything he had, so I'm going to say that was a pretty successful first ELCAF for them. I'm glad they were so well-received- it demonstrates to them there's an enthusiastic audience for their work, which will hopefully make them consider other UK festivals, and spread the word to colleagues.

Another table we stopped at early on was the ace Takayo Akiyama's- I was really chuffed to  meet the London based Japanese artists and pick up some of her English language work, as a lot of what she's published is mainly available in French. Takayo and her publisher friend were trying to fins something with rudimentary French in it for me, at which point I had to kindly intervene and tell them I quite literally didn't know a word of the language. Takayo was lovely, really friendly and easy to chat to- here's a look at some of the goodness on her table:

I finally got to meet Patrick Crotty who was there representing one of my favourite comics publishers, Peow Studio- who had taken on a divide and conquer approach to comicsdom, with the missing two thirds of Peow, Olle Forsloff and Elliot Alfredius tabling at Oslo Comic Festival. Patrick was carrying a fractured  elbow, but 'It doesn't hurt at all!' he reassured me- I couldn't tell if it was the meds talking or not... I stopped at the Peow table a few times during the course of the day, and it seemed every time I did, I met someone who was a reader of the blog- it got that I started to avoid that corner... I jest! It was so strange and also nice to have people say nice things and I am never quite sure how to respond, so apologies and thank you- it really does mean a lot. Anyway, Peow seemed to be doing well, I saw a lot of people with Hanna K's book, New Frontier, and along with their own wares, they were also selling comics from Kris Mukai and Wren MacDonald which they'd bought from TCAF. I've only quite recently come across McDonald's work via Tumblr, and had been looking at his online shop- it was nice to be able to get some of his work and save a bit on postage costs!

Patrick is unsure as to whether he's having a good time or not- 'semi-thumbs up?'

Peow offerings

Got to chat briefly with the super talented Dilraj Mann again- Dilraj's table was the first one on the left when you entered the hall, and that appeared to be serving him well- I passed by a couple of times to say hi and buy things, but it was just too busy to get to. We managed to chat briefly eventually, but all I could focus was on how he'd somehow made himself look even younger by cutting his hair, damn him. His book, Dalston Monstazz is on schedule for release next year with Nobrow, and mark my words, it's going to be  a knockout.

Sought out Robert Ball who was, of course, seated next to the indomitable Warwick Johnson Cadwell. They were in a row with British publishers Great Beast and Blank Slate Press, the latter manned by Woodrow Phoenix and Martin Steenton, along with the fab Joe Decie and Darryl Cunningham- it was essentially a line-up of the current first gentlemen of UK comics (Dan Berry was on the other side, next to Kristyna Baczynski). Robert was selling a new collection of his work, Dark Times, collating various older stories as well as 3 brand new ones, and Warwick had insanely cheaply priced pages of original art- Oliver bought a fantastic A3 Winter Soldier for £40. Everybody was really very warm. Joe seemed to be selling well 'because I talk to people!',  and I really appreciate the approach he has with people, never obtrusive or in-your-face, but open and easy to talk to. I guess I appreciate it more because I've been at tables where the person behind has physically turned their head and refused to make eye contact, which is off-putting. I'm pretty reticent myself but I think if you book and pay for a table to sell your comics at a show, when people come to said table, something should be offered -all it has to be is a smile or a hello- it doesn't have to be conversation of the year.

You could tell it was warm because Woodrow was wearing a florid shirt to better reflect the tropical temperatures in lieu of his usual more formal, dapper suit. It was Martin's last festival behind the table: he's worked in various positions for both Blank Slate and Forbidden Planet over the years, and he's now got a new job at the Pokemon Company. I guess I'm biased towards these guys, because they make up the first people I started reading in indie/small press comics, and the first people who talked to me when I tentatively began attending conventions- they're always kind and encouraging and generally just good people.

l-r: Woodrow Phoenix, Darryl Cunningham, Martin Steenton, Joe Decie

Martin doesn't seem too sure about what Woodrow's doing...

...but it's okay- it's guerrilla advertising

Oliver and I were wondering on the train what book publishers Faber and Faber would be sharing, and were pretty excited to discover it was signed early copies of Emily Carroll's upcoming book, Through the Woods. So excited, in fact, I can't recall what else they had. If you're looking to buy that, it's every bit as good as you'd imagine it to be, on top of being handsomely produced- the hardback's solid and the dust jacket thick and spot glossed. We each bought a copy and decided to break for lunch. At this point, it was about one o'clock. The rain outside had long cleared, and it was dry and sunny, and it was clear that it would remain so for the rest of the day. When we exited, there was a short queue of about 20-odd people waiting to go in. We had an excellent lunch in a nearby cafe- there was an ATM across the street and a line of people from the festival queuing to withdraw more money- on Oliver's suggestion, I took a quick picture through the cafe window: we were at lunch for over an hour and that line replenished itself for the duration- it was actually longer when we left. It was clear people were finding things to spend their money on.

Going back to the festival after lunch, we found 2 queues had been organised: one for people like us who had gone to lunch/to get money or those who had gone to a talk (the talk/panels were held in a separate area close by) and were trying to regain entry, and for ticket holders, and another for those attempting to buy them on the door. Both queues were very long- below you can see the queues stretching left and right respectively, with the entrance located just under the street-light:

We waited 50 minutes to get back in, the photo below was taken once we were close to the front again- but look at how far back the queue is still stretching- the queue behind us was similarly long. A lady walked past us at one point on the phone: 'Is this it?' she asked the person on the other end. 'Is this for comics, or a secret Fall Out Boy gig?'

I'll address the queueing situation in more depth towards the end of the report, but first I'd like to talk a bit more about some of the cool things and people we came across. Case in point:  newly minted UK comics and zines collective, Jazz Dads, who had a host of publications from David Biskup (who I got to meet briefly), Ed Cheverton, Rosie Brand, Nick Edwards, Disa Wallander,  and more. Had to control myself and not spend all my money in one place. Further along, I got to meet Antoine Cosse who was at the Breakdown Press table and buy his new comic, NWAI, which looks staggering: lyrical black and white double page spreads with spotlit stained colour panels. He signed a print for me and spelt my name correctly without asking, and was generally very impressive. I wanted to ask him why he was moving back to France and to tell him to stay because he makes the UK scene a richer place, but I thought that may have be a bit intrusive, so I left it and settled for smiling and nodding like a goof instead (please stay, Antoine!).

Lee Shearman was tabling again with his amazing micro library books: incredible intricate miniature leporellos and dioramas that go from flat to 3D. This year he had a miniature cardboard/paper record player and little CD's in sleeves- so good:

I got to meet Benjamin Wright who was being assisted by his sister Anna- Ben is the author of that very good Flesh of the Simpson's comic and also makes these really cool wood badges of the Turtles and Darth Vader of  which I had to have one. They were both really nice and easy to talk to. He'd done a new Turtle Fighters comic in collaboration with Isaac Lenkiewicz (who was unable to attend) which I picked up. They'd also got a box of old Dinosaur Attack! card packs with stickers and gum that they'd unearthed, which for some stupid reason I didn't get and am now very much regretting:

Jack Teagle and Donya Todd's table was in the same rows as Ben's- Donya was had a trio of fab-looking new comics The Sea Witch, Skate Like A Girl and The Burger Boys (all of which are available here), as well as a selection of gorgeous paintings, some of which have also made their way onto her Estsy shop. My approach to festivals is to circle the room once and then take photos/buy things later- unfortunately (for me) it got so crowded later on, I only have the few pictures I was taking as I went along- so this report isn't as accurate a representation as I would have liked it to be. One of the things that struck me about ELCAF last year, and even more so this year, is that it seems to attract a much more diverse crowd than any other festival I've been to. I don't know if that has something to do with being located in London- Thought Bubble, for example is situated in Leeds where I live, and I consider it to be very much a multicultural city. It may seem like a little thing, and although I have never felt anything less than welcome at the comic events I've attended, I was ridiculously pleased to see three other head-scarfed Muslim ladies having a good time looking around.

In terms of exhibitors, ELCAF was stronger than ever- I'm aware there were a few disgruntled people at the beginning of the year when they tightened their curation policy, but it works to great effect. Nobrow have a strong graphic illustration identity, and that carries over in the show. Another aspect they do phenomenally well is bring in a number of European outfits and artists- something I'd love to see more UK comics events take a look at- most concentrate on American and Canadian figures. In Misma, Apa Apa, Centrala, Delebile, Planeta Tangerina, Inuit, Sanatorium -to name a few- you've got French, Italian, Portugese, Spanish, Swedish art represented. It's so refreshing and I think inspiring to UK-based exhibitors (and attendees), to be exposed to work you don't see anywhere else; the mix of UK and overseas talent is perfectly balanced.

Once more into the fray-  I finally got to meet Amsterdam's Gallery 33 curator Samuel De Goede- that's the gallery that Brandon Graham and Marian Churchland did an exhibition at last year (I think), along with that super dinosaur show , and counts Robert Ball, Thomas Wellmann, Guillaume Singlelin, Dilraj Mann, and a host of other comics artists as people who it has hired to contribute to its shows. Sam and I correspond quite a bit and he's very invested in and knowledgeable about comics, so it was cool to meet him in person- so tall! Greek artist Katherina Manolessou was doing a hybrid monster workshop in the middle with some kids- I loved this dinosaur at her table. Speaking of that display, it reminds me another exhibitor was remarking about how innovative and helpful the wooden scaffolding behind each table was, allowing them to hang prints, signs, and a place to store their boxes and packaging neatly out of the way.

Much of the afternoon was a whirl, as we squeezed around and tried to get to the tables we could. It was crushed at this point, with queues outside still operating on a one in/one out system. I spent a quick few minutes catching up with Louise Evans (aka Felt Mistress) and Jonathan Edwards (Jontofski), who had a new book of their Hibernation exhibition, for which Louise had made a whole array of stunning felt characters (you should go see them here), all given detailed costumes and background stories- some of which were enormous, and Jonathan had created artwork for. You might now Jonathan's work from the series of Marvel superhero portraits he did that went viral last year. It's difficult to describe his work, because it is so multifaceted, but the bulk of it takes a lot of its cues from fine art, a painterly, cubist style- there's a lot of caricature and a MAD magazine aesthetic in it also- when he does illustrative work he tends to go for thicker lines, a more cartoony look. Whatever- all of it is very good.  It's always humbling to meet Louise and Jonathan, they are so talented and always involved in some brilliant projects, and yet they are very down to Earth and lovely to talk to- and very knowledgeable about pulpy crime novels, which I find handy! Moving on, here is Viv Schwarz's table- she was doing live drawings/paintings that you could buy from her at a haggled price, as well as having a new printing of her Rabbit Stew comic:

A striking print at Portugese publisher, Planeta Tangerina's stall:

Here's Chris Ware doing a signing:

Although I was much more excited to meet Anouk Ricard, who was really shy, but nice:

There were so many people at this point, and it was so warm it was an effort to make it to tables, and then you were conscious of people waiting behind and to the side of you. I'm glad we'd got there early and done a bit of buying, because I can't imagine turning up at 1 o'clock, queuing and then throwing myself into the throngs of people. I would imagine it may have been quite intimidating for the younger children participating in workshops in the middle of the hall. Ironically, the steady stream of new attendees being fed in via the queues outside benefited exhibitors and sales to some extent, with some reporting better than Thought Bubble sales, which is huge, when you compare the two shows. 

Queues in themselves at a festival aren't a bad thing- it's indicative of popularity, or a sudden surge of attendees, and quite often they're fast-moving. Unfortunately this wasn't the case at ELCAF. The problem was the smaller venue. Last year, at York Hall, the talks/panels with guests and cartoonists were held  on the convention floor, at one end which had a raised platform area accompanied by a large screen and microphones. I imagine that despite the microphones, the hubbub of the convention was carrying over, so it's understandable and admirable to want to improve upon that experience and offer a separate space for the talks. However, what doesn't make sense is at the same time downsizing your venue, when it's natural to anticipate growth for what is a successful, growing festival which is all the more likely to attract an even greater number of people with guests like Chris Ware in attendance- arguably the biggest name in American alternative comics. 

Talk space accounts for maybe 40 people maximum- you can't cut that from the con floor. As a result, the smaller venue and growth in attendance meant the place got very full and a one in/one out policy was implemented, with the formation of the two queues, and security alternating between them to allow people in. People were getting frustrated at the wait and leaving, and other frustrated at having to wait despite already being admitted the first time round. Nobrow's managing director, Sam Arthur was on hand to assess the situation, walking up and down the queue and chatting to those waiting to reassure them. I saw some people reporting on Twitter that the security were rather heavy handed, although my personal experience didn't match up with those accounts- everybody I encountered was very friendly and helpful, but firm in the job they were allocated. I have some sympathy for people in that position as it's not easy to be seen as the people denying entry, and dealing with the fallout of that, but I think they did a good job. I'm tempted to say the change in weather accounted for the influx of people, but the queues were still as long when we left at 5. Inside, it had gotten incredibly close- making it even warmer! and more difficult to get to tables, leading to a lesser experience.

I got in touch with Nobrow's Sam Arthur after the festival to enquire about the queues, change in venue and growth anticipation- with permission, I'm reproducing the bulk of his response here, as he articulates it more succinctly than I could summate:

"The queuing situation wasn't something we were very happy with, and it is something we will be working towards changing for the better at next year's event. Although, I suppose too many people or an over-subscribed event is a 'good' problem to have as it clearly shows we have a great deal of interest.

The change of venue from last year was for a variety of reasons. The size of last year's venue was ideal, however as we had no separate space for talks and the catering/bar could have been better, we thought these things could be improved (based on feedback from last year).

The Oval Space offered us more space when all of the separate areas were taken into account, however the main area was slightly smaller than York Hall. We based our estimate for space requirements on last year's numbers and hoped for more people with extra interest generated by Chris Ware and Seth's involvement. It is extremely hard to predict exact numbers and also when people will arrive at the venue, which we can only judge based on past experience. In terms of this year's event, we were constrained by the cost of a venue and also those venues that are actually available. Many of the exhibitors might not have been able to attend if we shared the costs of a larger venue with them; likewise we try to keep entrance fees down so people can spend their money inside the venue with the exhibitors. It's important for us to get the business side of the event right as it needs to be sustainable and (as this is an event arranged at our own financial risk) it needs to grow organically. If we overextend we risk not being able to continue the event in the future.

Improvements can clearly be made, perhaps we need to make the event two days long, perhaps we need to sell tickets for sessions rather than full days and perhaps we have to charge a higher entrance fee and higher exhibitors fees. Also some people leaving the exhibition hall to go to a ticketed talk event in the Pickle Factory across the street had to queue to get back into the exhibition hall – this was not something we had considered, so we apologise to anyone that this happened to.

Despite the queues we feel most people had a good day and many exhibitors appeared to be positive at the end of the day. We are yet to get feedback from them and also from our market research carried out on the day, so this is purely speculative and based on what people were telling me on the day. On the whole we were very happy with the event, but it is a challenge to keep costs for exhibitors and ticket buyers down whilst continuing to maintain a good venue experience for all. We have learned much from this year's edition of the event and everything we have learnt will be put into making next year's even better."

In conclusion it was an excellent show, marred by the frustrations of queuing and being squashed in with too many people in a space that was unequipped to deal with the sheer volume of bodies. ELCAF is still a fairly new show though, and last year the event was ostensibly perfectly pitched, so any niggles thus appear all the more glaring in comparison. I'm confident Nobrow will learn and improve from this- I think from their viewpoint, spacial miscalculations aside, the takeaway is all positive- there was very visible growth and demand, sales and success, fantastic to see for any visiting guests, and that's something they will no doubt build upon next year.

Here's that quick, promised look at that book of the show- Mattias Adolfsson's Largest in Line (underneath the cut I've included more pics of everything I bought, if that's something you might be interested in):

If you're still around, here's a look at everything I bought- I've included links to artists website/stores in the title of the book, where able (in that there is somewhere to link to):

Books from the Jazz Dads table: Poke Quest by Rosie Brand (this looks so cool- a tribute to Gameboy Colour RPGS with a handmade charm- the comic sees a young girl and her familiar batter for the ultimate prize), Slowly Dying by Disa Wallander, and Psychocyst by Nick Edwards. I don't think Jazz Dads have an online store yet, but you can follow their Tumblr here, which has more information on their books and artists, and an ask- I'm sure they'd be conducive to posting things out if you were to send them a nice message. 

I had most of the offerings on display at the Peow table, but was super excited to pick up Kris Mukai's Commuter (I love her work) and Wren MacDonald's What's in Brick's Bag. I have already devoured both these and so can recommend them unreservedly.

Connor Willumsen's Treasure Island 2 from Breakdown Press- I am so excited to read this second installment of Willumsen's book- he is hands down one of my favourite current cartoonists- doing stupendous experimental work. Dictadores: Francisco vs. Leopoldo ('Dictators: Francis and Leopold') by Sergi Puyol and Irkus M. Zeberio, a flip-book comics from Barcelona collective Apa Apa, which imagines some incidents from the lives of the dictators, mish-mashed with Tintin in the Congo- it looks beautiful and intriguing. I can't read Spanish, but luckily it has an English text running along the bottom of each page.

Bought up all the English language things from Takayo's table- Siamese Twins. Annabel and Coco, Food according to Awesome and Possum

Benson's Cuckoos by Anouk Ricard, author and illustrator Alexis Deacon who was selling copies of his book Jim's Lion, an illustrated version of the late Russell Hobans' tale which is a mixed prose, illustrated pages and comics- really so lovely- here's a couple of pages:

Spread from Jim's Lion, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

Gelatology is an absolutely beautiful risographed book of abstract ice-cream constructions- look, I know some people pooh-pooh this kind of thing, but it's the right blend of a fun concept with superb production values/aesthetics and solid design. It's good. I believe the original idea of it involved an exhibition with ice-cream prints and eating and experiments and this is sort of an off-shoot publication of that. Limbo by Erik Svetoft- this is the book by the 22 year old Swedish whizz I was referring to earlier.

I could photograph this whole book, but here are 3 spreads from Erik Svetoft's Limbo:

NWAI by Antoine Cosse, and You can say anything you want as long as you don't talk to me by Disa Wallander:

Spread from NWAI by Antoine Cosse

A spread from Disa Wallander's book
And finally, here's that 3D diorama from Micro Library Books- flat and then free-standing:

If you've made it to the end, thank you very much for reading! May I also suggest you read this much shorter, and better summary of the event by Stephen over at Thunder Chunky- he covers a lot of the things I missed.