Essay on Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m excited that the essay I presented at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival academic symposium, “The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse,” has been posted on Women Write About Comics (here).

Although this piece began as an overview of the culture of comic fanzines in Japan, it gradually evolved into a discussion of how English-language fanzines have been impacted by the intense pressures of a creative market that provides neither stability nor opportunities for emerging artists. Here’s an excerpt:

This level of competition in formerly free-for-all online spaces has resulted in the widespread frustration succinctly expressed by @rogvaettr’s tweet. From the perspective of someone who simply enjoys fandom culture and indie publishing, we’re living in a golden age of comics and illustration. For many aspiring artists and writers, however, these glossy fanzine anthologies are another shot of anxiety onto a battlefield already pierced with arrows.

The tensions always implicit in any creative industry have been exacerbated by prolonged economic recession and steeply rising costs of living in urban areas, the combination of which has forced freelancers to take on more work while also maintaining an active social media presence. To many people, the intrusion of professional-level competition into ostensibly amateur fandom spaces feels like a betrayal of the sense of community based on affective attachment that formerly provided a relief from professional pressures and anxieties.

This essay was an enormous undertaking that spanned almost half a year, and I want to acknowledge the support of my brilliant editor Kat Overland. Writing about online discourse is difficult, and Kat helped me make good decisions while also directing me to number of useful resources on indie comics. I should mention that Kat is a lot of fun to follow on social media, and you can find them on Twitter (here). I’m also highly indebted to Masha Zhdanova’s essay “A Brief History of Webcomics: 2010 to Now,” which is an interesting and excellent discussion of webcomics in a transcultural context. You can read the essay on WWAC (here) and follow Masha on Twitter (here). Last but not least, I want to thank Anna Peppard (on Twitter here), who organized the TCAF Academic Symposium and encouraged me to share my initial draft with an amazing group of Comics Studies scholars.

DC Zinefest 2019

I tabled at the DC Zinefest this past Saturday, and it was a positive experience.

I sold out of almost all of the zines, bookmarks, and stickers I brought, and I was able to use that money to buy zines from the other people tabling at the event. I love zines, and I love the subculture surrounding zines. It’s good to support other writers and artists, and it’s always nice to smile at someone and look them in the eye and tell them how much you value and appreciate their work.

The Zinefest staff were wonderful. I tend to get overwhelmed by the crowd at events like this, so it’s important for me to be able to step back and spend a few minutes in a relatively calm space. I think the people who organize DC Zinefest understand that everyone needs a quiet place, so they set aside a small, screened-off area at the back of the room where people could chill out for a bit without bothering anyone.

My experience with anime conventions has been that the staff are primarily focused on crowd control and therefore operate under the assumption that aggressive confrontation is the best way to minimize trouble. This has led to some awkward situations when I’ve given panels at anime cons, so I appreciate that the DC Zinefest staff took it for granted that everyone who participated was a responsible adult, and I’m grateful that the organizers were willing to provide simple accommodations in good faith.

This was the first time I’ve tabled at an event like this, and here are some things I learned:

– It’s good to have some sort of vertical display for your zines. I’m not a huge fan of the elaborate fortresses constructed by some of the professionals who table at anime and comic conventions, but a low-key vertical display uses space efficiently and helps catch the eyes of people casually walking through the room. I’ve seen a lot of variations of these displays, and I get the feeling that a lot of structures are made by the artists themselves. I only trust myself enough to put together Ikea furniture, so it might be worth looking into where to buy a premade display if I table at an event like this again in the future.

– It’s good to incorporate short written descriptions of each zine into your vertical display. Some people used sticky notes, some people used index cards, and some people crafted display notes by hand. They were all cute and creatively presented, and they were useful to me when I only had a limited amount of time (and money) to look at other people’s tables.

– Along with written descriptions, it’s good to rehearse at least two different elevator pitches for each zine. It’s important to design zine covers that are able to speak for themselves, of course, but it’s also important to engage the people who stop by your table. A few people asked me questions that I didn’t know how to answer, and it would have been helpful if I could have said a sentence or two about the zine as a response, even if my description didn’t directly address what they were asking.

– A lot of people who stopped by my table were a bit awkward. That’s totally understandable, since going up to an artist’s or writer’s table is an awkward situation that takes some experience to get used to. Since I can sometimes be a bit awkward myself, I think it might be good to practice a few simple conversation starters, such as “I like your shirt” or “Do you like video games?” as preparation. It sounds silly to have to practice small talk, but I found that I got better at it with each passing hour. I was downright friendly by the end of the event, which makes me think that practice and experience probably help smooth over some of the awkwardness of this particular social interaction.

– It’s good to table with a friend, or at least to have someone who can drop by for an hour or two and give you a chance to walk around and stretch your legs. The floor layout of DC Zinefest is well organized and has enough room for people of all sizes, but I still think it’s a good idea to apply for a half table (instead of a quarter table) if you have more than one or two zines. If nothing else, a half table comes an extra chair, which means that anyone who comes with you will have a place to sit if they (or you) need it.

The only slightly critical thing I have to say about this experience is that I had a bit of trouble with some attendees – all adult men – who wanted to buy something for $1.00 and insisted on paying with Venmo. If you’ve never used Venmo, it’s a money transfer service that allows smartphones to communicate via QR codes and thereby complete transactions quickly, usually within five to ten seconds. What a few people (about one per hour) did was to make a big deal about having trouble with Venmo. They would make a scene and refuse to let me direct the transaction from my end, and I got the impression that they might have been trying to pressure me into giving them what they wanted for free. I understand that sometimes money transfers can be tricky, and I understand that sometimes QR codes don’t scan, but this happened so many times that I started to suspect something bigger was going on, especially since all of these Venmo “problems” were solved immediately as soon as my male tablemate stood up, spoke to these men at eye level, and told them that they could try transferring the payment to his account instead. The idea that grown-ass men would try to use some sort of stupid “my Venmo doesn’t work” scam to get a $1.00 sticker or bookmark for free at a local zine fest makes no sense to me, but something weird was going on.

Anyway, that’s another reason why it’s good to table with a friend – so that someone can play “bad cop” if an interaction seems as if it’s heading in a difficult direction.

Those minor instances of strangeness aside, I had a fantastic time. The organizers knew what they were doing, the staff was great, my fellow tablers were lovely, and the event was a huge success. I’m truly grateful that I was able to table at the DC Zinefest this year. I met some cool people, I made some good trades, and I came home with a bag full of interesting zines. I’m looking forward to next year!

American Anime Conventions

Earlier this year an artist I know through Tumblr asked me about anime conventions in the United States, and I ended up sending them a long email based on my experiences and bits of gossip I’ve picked up here and there. This information is aimed at a professional artist who has already exhibited at a few regional conventions and has enough experience and polish to start aiming big, and I thought it might be useful to reproduce my message here, if only to preserve a snapshot of what the American convention scene looked like in early 2018.

Youmacon (in Detroit over Halloween weekend)
From what I hear, this con can occasionally be a bit of a dumpster fire in terms of its administration, but I’ve always had a good time there. Rooms at the convention center hotel are relatively inexpensive, and the attendance is always well over 20,000 people.

Katsucon (in National Harbor right outside of DC over Valentine’s weekend)
With around 15,000 to 18,000 attendees, Katsucon is a bit smaller than Youmacon, but it’s always run very efficiently. I’ve heard that the people who manage the Artist Alley are extremely professional, but the deadline for application is a bit early. The Gaylord Resort where the con is held is absolutely lovely, and the staff will take care of you if the con gets snowed in, which occasionally happens.

MAGFest (also in National Harbor right at the beginning of January)
A gaming convention that’s also held in the Gaylord. The focus is on indie games, but there is a relatively large Artist Alley, and I’ve heard that people can make a killing on commissions at this con. MAGFest is also an excellent place to make professional connections, not in the least because of all the industry people who hang out here. It’s a really fun event if you love games, because the exhibition space is all about people showing off their playable demos. A word of warning, though – most people behave themselves, but there is some hardcore drinking that happens at this convention. If it makes a difference, though, there’s always a diverse crowd in attendance, and it’s not just a bunch of gamebros.

PAX East (in Boston during the first weekend of April)
This used to be a sausage fest of truly epic proportions, but then the anime fans got their grubby hands on it and now it’s much more inclusive of all genders. Attendance is huge (way over 80,000 people), but I hear that the Artist Alley isn’t that competitive. They’re always looking for fresh talent!

Sakura-Con (in Seattle at the beginning of April)
Around the same size as Youmacon, but in Seattle! In my experience, Sakura-Con is a great way to make connections with the West Coast art scene, as the con is both well run and relatively laid back. Seattle is gorgeous in April, and it’s not as expensive as you might think, especially if you stay in one of the smaller (but much trendier) hotels a few blocks away from the convention center. My recommendation is Hotel Max, which will make you feel like a rockstar. If you’re interested in spending time in Seattle but want to forgo the insanity of a large convention, GeekGirlCon (in October) is a decent alternative, although with only 2,000 attendees it might be too small to be worth your while.

Otakon (in DC at some point during August)
The big East Coast anime convention, generally with around 25,000 attendees. It used to be in Baltimore, and you would always hear news reports about cosplayers meeting terrible fates, but it recently moved to beautiful downtown DC. The Artist Alley was huge in Baltimore, and it’s even bigger in DC. There’s always a wide range of artists who table here, from experienced professionals to students who are just starting out, and people seem to have a lot of fun.

Anime Expo (in LA over the 4th of July weekend)
This is the big one, and it’s always absolutely insane. You’ve probably heard stories about how crazy AX is, and they’re all true. Because the Artist Alley is so enormous, I hear that it’s not particularly competitive, and I also hear that people make a ton of money at this con. There’s none of the pressure or industry blitz of the San Diego Comic-Con, and it’s worth mentioning that artists from all over the world (especially from Asia) table here. Since most of the American anime companies are located in Southern California, there are also a lot of freebies floating around, as well as free world premiers of various shows and movies.

Toronto Comic Arts Fest (at the central Toronto library during May)
Clocking in at around 5,000 to 6,000 attendees, this is a good size for a comic convention, and it’s especially welcoming to artists in their twenties. Even though there’s a very strong focus on comics (as opposed to merch like prints and stickers), a lot of people show up with zines that they obviously photocopied and stapled themselves the week before the con. There are always a lot of interesting people and up-and-coming artists tabling here, and it has a warm and relaxed atmosphere.

Small Press Expo (right outside of DC in September)
This is the holy grail of conventions for people who want to be professional comic writers and artists outside the DC/Marvel studio system. This is where the Ignatz Awards happen (basically, you nominate yourself and then there’s an open ballot over the weekend, so it’s incredibly low pressure despite being such a big deal). This is where people get discovered, and this is how you get your first book deal. Because it’s relatively small, it’s extremely competitive, but the lottery system guarantees that even newcomers have a chance to get in. What most artists do is piggyback alongside a friend who gets accepted and then share their table, so it helps if you can convince other people to apply. The staff, the artists, and the industry professionals are all super friendly and supportive, and the bonds that people form here tend to result in high-profile comic anthologies that make tons of money on Kickstarter and launch people’s careers. SPX is definitely a goal to aim for!