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Ten years of TCAF

TCAF 2012 (photo: TCAF)

If you’ve attended the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in recent years, you may find it hard to believe that this thriving event began a decade ago in a modest church space, with about 70 artists and 600 comics lovers in attendance. Compare that with 2012, when TCAF attracted 18,000 visitors to its current home at the Toronto Reference Library and at several satellite venues scattered across the city.

Expect more crowds at this year’s 10th-anniversary celebration on May 11 and 12, thanks to some big-name attendees including Art Spiegelman (Maus), Françoise Mouly (art editor for The New Yorker), and Japanese artist Taiyo Matsumoto (debuting his new manga series, Sunny), as well as hundreds of emerging local and international artists.

Surprisingly, TCAF has remained free for the public even as its popularity has grown. For Christopher Butcher and Peter Birkemoe, co-founders of TCAF (and manager and owner, respectively, of the comics bookstore The Beguiling), this approach has been key to the festival’s success.

Our goal has always been about taking the medium of comics, which we love, and making it as accessible as humanly possible “ and that starts with being free, says Butcher. Removing every barrier to entry is the best way I can think of to interest people in the medium, and partnering with the library is really what drives that idea, because TCAF is free and going to the library is free. You go there to read, you go there to experience.

How have organizers kept TCAF free, when most comics conventions charge admission fees? Birkemoe says it’s a combination of hard work, luck, and dedicated volunteers. The festival receives some financial support, which this year includes a grant from the Toronto Arts Council (the first since 2005). The Toronto Public Library has provided a free venue since 2009, and children’s publisher Owlkids is a sponsor, assisting with operational and publicity costs.

The relationship with Owlkids has grown naturally over many years because of the large number of Toronto artists attending TCAF who they have published, says Birkemoe. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Owlkids to promote and develop our kids’ programming.

Outside of Owlkids, TCAF organizers have avoided corporate sponsorship. While Birkemoe says popular artists such as Chester Brown, Kate Beaton, and Bryan Lee O’Malley, along with cartoonists Andrew Hussie and Jeph Jacques, have put the biggest strain on our attempts to control crowding, TCAF remains a grassroots event dedicated to giving new artists a chance to exhibit their work.

Someone who is producing reasonably professional work but who has not yet exhibited at TCAF does get a certain amount of weight over someone who already has, says Birkemoe. That keeps things fresh and interesting for the audience, but it is also a way of ensuring there’s an opportunity for the up-and-coming artists to exhibit, both locally and from afar.

Click on the thumbnails below to see photos from previous years.