MoCCA Fest for the Newbie, or: Surviving Comix

*(this recounts Saturday the 28th of April at MoCCA Fest)

I heard about MoCCA Fest, a fundraiser for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, well ahead of time this year and so it developed its own peculiar brand of hype. The bizarre organic networks of common knowledge continued to overlap with my life. Over the next couple of months, at least once a week it seemed to come up out of nowhere in unrelated conversations. Facebook started pinging. People from all over would be there. There was a general sense of preparing for pilgrimage, even for those in the area. I was determined to see what it was all about.

Arriving at the Armory on Lexington just before opening time on Saturday April 28th, I was abruptly invited to enter the hall first because I already had tickets. As I walked down the wide avenue of white tables flanked by pink-shirted volunteers putting on their welcoming faces for the day, I got to glimpse, just for a moment, the thing before it started. The central great hall was the focus- it was a sudden shock of light and color of alarming density. You may have been to full-scale comic cons and know how overwhelming they can be, not only in the sheer crush of bodies but in the delirious colors, lights, and displays. Imagine that and compact it into a smaller space with much better lighting and a greater focus on printed products. The initial impression of being slapped in the face with multi-color wall of intense and gutsy media stayed with me like an imprint on my retinas.


In the hive of activity there was a constant thread of moving pink blurs, the volunteers and their shirts, resonating with the impressively emblematic poster design by P. Craig Russell that seemed to hover over all giving the impression of festival in its Rococo flow, floating figures and winged suggestion. Standing nose to paper with his poster reminded me suddenly that I was about to miss his panel, so I ran downstairs to take a seat.

Panels for MoCCA Fest appropriately opened with a discussion of Children’s Literature, it’s place and future in relationship to comics and illustration. Sandra Couri of the New York Public Library headed the panel, joined by Jorge Aguirre, P. Craig Russell, Colleen Af Venable, and Matt Forsyth, each bringing their own harmonic variants to the conversation. They started off with the elephant in the room: how to raise the prestige of comics as a medium appropriate for children in the face of the bare facts, that comics remain the most circulated of library materials among kids. Russell weighed in with twenty-years of perspective on the “long road” that comics have taken from simple illustration of fairy tales to usurping a place in the hallowed children’s book sections of megastores. Overall, the passionate commitment of each of the panelists to their medium, as well as their candor, launched the festival on a strong note of individualism among authors and illustrators and an individual commitment to readership which might as well have been elegantly traced over Russell’s floating cherubim as a motto baring the heart of indie comics.


(*For more detail on P. Craig Russell’s panel, see forthcoming mini-article “Comics or Illustration?”)

I looked at my handy, scrawled checklist of people I meant to touch base with that day, and that list became my touchstone amid the constant feast of distractions on the main floor. If I could check them all off then I felt I might survive my first MoCCA Fest. Top of the list was trying to get a signed copy of the newly launched Cleveland by the late Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant.  I was doubly rewarded by finding both Joseph and Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s widow and fellow writer, ready and waiting to sign Cleveland. They encouraged me to come to their panel about Harvey later that afternoon but I assured them not to worry, that it was on my list in large letters with a box around it. Check.

I decided to shake things up a little and hit the list in random order while walking around. That was not a good idea. Every table arrested my attention. It was like gliding through a multiversal imagination where every shape and concept morphed and changed, but tended to recur in little common themes: zombies in wedding gowns, smiling monsters, expressive robots and well-meaning anti-heroes, all charged with tremendous energy and verve through the conviction of personal vision. To be brief: it was like looking into a collective unconsciousness brought to life through the extremes of dedication. And it was a card-carrying day for creators, declaring “this is what I really do with my life”.


Referring back to the list with some desperation (it was rapidly becoming a holy grail of concentration), I loped over to Power House Books to see if there were any familiar faces present yet. Among other things, Power House was proudly re-launching its newest action-packed photo and history book on comic book creators: Leaping Tall Buildings. The book’s photographer Seth Kushner greeted and directed what seemed like a constant swirl of people around Power House, bringing an air of orderliness to the mini-event and author Chris Irving discussed the project, its origins and development over time. It was a uniquely personal thing peculiar to MoCCA Fest, to directly hear the thoughts of the creators of these works, to see their strange, edgy passion and congratulate them first-hand on their work.


(Dean Haspiel, Becky Cloonan and Chris Irving sign copies of Leaping Tall Buildings and posters at the Powerhouse Books Table)

This reminded me of something I had managed to leave off my list. Seth kindly directed me visually across the entire space to a blue-checked shirt bobbing on the far end. Trip City, the Brooklyn-based and “filtered” electronic literary arts salon had produced its first print document in honor of the Fest in glossy black and iconic pulp fiction yellow: A Visitor’s Guide to the salon with contributions from a wide range of members. I navigated the garden maze of tables, trying to keep the shirt in sight. I lost it a couple of times, perambulated, caught it again to lay my hands on the thing. Jeff UK nodded sagely, agreeing that it was worth the effort, I mean, how could anything get more yellow than that? And for fans of Dean Haspiel’s artwork, Billy Dogma and Jane Legit stumble out of the wreckage of the back cover.

(*for more on this, see my upcoming separate review of the Trip City Visitor’s Guide)


After a large cappuccino and some deep breaths across the street, I went for some morale support to check in with longtime comics writer, editor, and scholar Danny Fingeroth, who was signing his picaresque archival book The Stan Lee Universe and chatting with friend Gary Hallgren of Air Pirates Fame. He was a seasoned veteran after all, and surely MoCCA Fest couldn’t shake his cool. Instead he agreed that the Fest could be completely overwhelming, but assured me that was part of the fun.  Undeterred, I dropped some lurking Marvel Darkhawk memorabilia on him and neatly checked his name off before leaving him to waiting queues of conversationalists.


                         (Danny Fingeroth and Gary Hallgren sign works for fans)

I was late, of course, for something, I assumed, and I was right. The award ceremony for Klein Award winner and guest of honor Gary Panter was underway. Being a newbie to things comics, I wasn’t all that familiar with his work, but Bill Kartalopoulos guided us through Gary’s career from a rural childhood in Texas, to the punk scene of the 1970’s, to Gary’s glorious notebooks unbound into collected volumes. Gary plunged pretty deeply into the mindset of the artist for us, emphasizing what an “obsessive thing” it is to pursue a life-long vocation, and how one learns to “work with that they have” in terms of skills and materials to produce the “ideas” of their own particular art. The accessibility of the talk was remarkable; I came away feeling I’d been educated and challenged to see the seriousness in all artistic pursuits.


                                     (Gary Panter receives the Klein Award for 2012)

I was flagging, but still holding out for that Pekar panel. Joseph and Joyce were counting on me and my list, after all. On the flood-tide of the even more crowded but jubilant floor, I saw a flash of close-cropped white hair. P. Craig Russell had appeared. I made a beeline before signature-hungry fans noticed his entrance and I managed to arrive second in line. The guy in front of me had about fifteen items he wanted P. Craig Russell to sign. They emerged from the seemingly bottomless rucksack like a tour of Craig’s work but I took the opportunity to look over the long history of his remarkable contributions, from more “mainstream” superhero comic work in the early days, to the ins and outs of adapting Neil Gaiman’s works (and he was currently working on the Grave Yard Book while in NYC); the most constant and megalithic achievements have been his opera and fairy-tale adaptations paired with his breathtaking world-creating mythological style.


                               (P. Craig Russell  signing the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde)

He signed his newly released  The Happy Prince, one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and humored me with some anecdotes about his gorgeous Siegfried: Ring of the Nibelungen, which itself had a twenty-year hell-bent history. I checked off that much-honored item reluctantly, but left him to indulge his fans.

I was on my last legs but still had a little way to go, down to Cleveland for an hour to take a whirlwind hike through Harvey Pekar’s weighty and enduring legacy, always appreciated by the faithful, but more profoundly felt since his recent departure. But it was, as everyone insisted, a time to celebrate as much as remember. Rick Parker, Dean Haspiel, J.T. Waldman, Joyce Brabner, Joseph Remnant, Sean Pryor, and Jeff Newelt all piled in to represent. For those who might have missed their book-launching events for Cleveland that week (like me), this was a reprise eagerly anticipated.


                                               (Pekar panelists in discussion)

Jeff Newelt started off by pointing out that this was a “tribute panel” of people coming together to talk about Harvey with love, humor, and respect. Joyce was particularly giving in sharing her first impressions of Harvey, her admiration for his “honesty”, focusing on the “painfully true”. For those who were newer to Harvey’s work, we heard and saw a recap of many of his major works. Joyce discussed Our Cancer Year and the struggles she faced constructing that work, and Dean Haspiel recounted not only his long fannish pursuit of working with one of his personal comics heroes, but the strange origins of the American Splendor film from offhand wish-fulfillment comments to poignant reality.

The panel discussion returned, in the end, to Harvey’s posthumous works, to the fate of the Pekar “Comics as Art and Literature” Memorial in  Cleveland, and to the possible completion of yet more remaining manuscripts. Firstly, the upcoming Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me, illustrated by J.T. Waldman, was offered in “sneak preview”, then the panel turned to Joseph Remnant’s work on Cleveland and the quixotic complications he faced as a researcher of a particular landscape and history inextricable from Harvey’s work. It was a relief not to have a sense of closure, as we listened to the prospects for quite a few as of yet unpublished Pekar stories.  The gratefulness in the room was palpable and buoyant and it had nothing to do with saying “goodbye” to a comics legend.

I was broken down and done. If I could get up the stone staircase, crawl down the cavernous steps, and heft my tote full of signed books and ephemera I might be able to live to tell the tale until MoCCA Fest 11. I drew a line through the last item on my list and then looked at the palm of my hand where I had written “afterparty”.

Yeah, right. Or maybe. But if I didn’t survive that, it would be my own fault.

Something about that Pekar panel made me feel pretty sure that I wasn’t a newbie anymore, that I was now officially a fellow pilgrim. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art started something here with this fundraiser that became far more than a fundraiser. They ended up solidifying the indie comics community by bringing them together in one place for an intense period of time and an intense exchange of common goals and ideas. Ten years later I think everyone knows that and recognizes how it’s changed things in a fundamental way.  Long may the pilgrimage continue.

 -By Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and @Hannah Menzies on Twitter
-Photos by Russ Shannon