How do you get to the MoCCA Fest?
Publish, publish, publish.
I always thought I would have liked to have lived and worked in NYC. It’s one of my few regrets about moving to San Francisco. But for the next few days, I get to do just that. It’s Saturday, April 1 2023 and I’m going to do something new for the very first time.
It’s an overcast drizzly morning, a lot like the weather back home. I’m too excited to eat much, so I put a protein shake and banana in my bag and head out onto Delancey Street. There are several bakeries and bagel shops within a block of my apartment, and I intend to try a different one each morning. Today it’s Donut Plant, one of the current fried dough establishments with unique flavors served up in rings the size of a spare tire. I choose a couple delectable options to go and hop on the F Train.
The Metropolitan Pavillion looks much the same as I left it yesterday, with a hardy band of fans queuing up outside. The doors don’t open to the public for another hour, but I waltz in flashing my badge at the front ticket table. I pause for a selfie in front of the 12-foot tall blowup of the show poster to metaphorically pinch myself—I’m really here!
I’ve spent the past nine months working in my basement studio on the first five issues of When We Were Trekkies. That’s a lot of time alone to produce 100 pages of comics. Sure, I’ve enjoyed a few afternoons going door-to-door hawking my wares at comic book stores around the Bay Area—but that’s a pretty low stakes affair. Many stores are willing to take zines and mini-comics on a consignment basis: no money up front, just a promise to reimburse for future sales, if any.
Happily, the books are selling and I’ve had a steady trickle of orders from my online distributor as well. But I haven’t met any of my audience face to face. I don’t really know who’s been buying, or what they’ve thought about it. Kind words from friends and family are appreciated, but inconclusive—they love me and are prejudiced in my favor. What does the rest of my audience think? Today I hope to find out.
My little stand is up and running in no time. One of the reasons I chose to debut at MoCCA was that I could table next to my brother and sister-in-law, R. Sikoryak and Kriota Willberg. I love that they are both full-time cartoonists. Rob has been in the business since college, starting as an assistant for Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly, and has worked in animation, magazines and book publishing ever since. Kriota graduated from dancing and choreography to physical therapy and has carved out a niche in medicine comics.
I select an oatmeal and apricot donut and offer Rob the remaining double chocolate delight, which he happily accepts. (The force of our family Sweet Tooth is strong in this one.) Before we get a chance to tuck in, there is a change in the sleepy atmosphere of the hall.
The doors must have opened. The soft buzz of our fellow dealers has turned into a dull roar. The empty aisles are now packed end to end—and our particular row, aligned with the main entrance, acts like a sluice gate for the flood of humanity pouring in from the street. I can’t see the facing tables just ten feet away. Then I notice that one of the figures in front of me is not shuffling by. A middle-aged man wearing a faded graphic t-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses is holding an issue of Trekkies and trying to make eye contact with me. “How much?” he asks.
First rule of selling: always treat paying customers with respect. Never mind that there’s a price on the cover, on the display copy and a cheat sheet in front of him. I smile and say “Four dollars an issue, but we have a show special, 5 for $15” I point to the display, and he picks up a bundle. “Okay. Do you Venmo?” You bet I do. And rather unceremoniously, I make my first sale. Not exactly the interaction that I was hoping for, but the ice was broken two minutes into the show.
The flow of humanity proceeds for the next 20 minutes without interruption. I watch people collect on either side of my table. R. and Kriota have 20 titles for sale between them, from internationally-distributed trade paperbacks to humble xeroxed zines, and there’s always some interest. The table to my right is cryptically labeled YYDS, where a young Japanese woman sits surrounded by delicate watercolors and dyed fabrics. There are silks draped over the side of her booth that wave with every passing patron, catching my eye and raising my hopes. She has a steady stream of fans, who overflow into my eyeline. I watch them idly scan my table. Nothing for them, I’m sure.
Almost nothing, that is: many of these young women pause to inspect one corner of my table. I made little business cards with my contact info on one side and a miniature comic book cover on the other. Over and over I watch these girls register an almost imperceptible double take, perhaps followed by a half step backward. They squint, reach for the stack of cards and pick them up. They try to flip the pages, of which there are none—and then hastily return the cards to the deck. I presume they hoped to find a miniature comic book, two by three-and-a-half inches. What is this fascination with the microscopic? And why does it seem to be a cultural attraction? Research for another day.
My next customer is less expected. A breathless fellow with an intense gaze and oversized parka descends upon me and declares “I was hoping you’d be here. My name is Kenneth. Can you autograph these issues I bought downtown?” Wait, you mean you came looking for me? “Yes, I follow you on Instagram. Are these the new issues?”
I feel a tiny rush of joy. He likes me! He likes my comics! And he wants my autograph!?
This leads to the biggest lesson of the day: As I squeeze a short message and a scribble of the USS Enterprise into the margins of Trekkies, I realize how unprepared I am. It’s perhaps the third time anyone has EVER asked me to sign my work, and I soon discover that it’s an important part of being a comic book artist. Fans like autographs, they want signatures, but what many really want is a drawing. Ulp. I’m not warmed up. I need to practice. Over the course of the weekend, I will sign more than a dozen issues, sometimes several for the same buyer. I don’t have any hesitation about writing a message, but a drawing? Fast and small and slick? That will take practice.
There’s no time to fuss. More eyes drift over my table, and I hone my patter to draw them in. “True stories of conventions in the 1970s! It was a different scene back then. Not always pretty.” The potential customer steps closer and I deliver the coup de grace “And I have the pictures to prove it.” I flash my photo album with pictures of scantily-attired space princesses and rubber-suited monsters, and start to reel them in. Many conversations begin and more than half turn into sales. The time flies by. And then I get some company.
Larry Robert Bugal is one of my oldest friends, and we’ve known each other since, well, when we were Trekkies together. He continued to attend conventions after I hung up my badges and shows up at the occasional Dark Shadows or D&D event. I have a big gap in my family of friends—I’m not in touch with anyone I knew between the ages of 18 and 35, and Larry is one of the few guys I know from adolescence. We don’t see each other very often, but we always pick up right where we left off, and I’m grateful for the connection to another time in my history.
He catches the rhythm of my patter and tries it out on a few passersby. I take this opportunity to leave my table for the first time in 4 hours. Wandering down the next aisles, I stop and engage with anyone who says “hi.” There’s no lack of hellos—cartoonists spend a lot of time alone and many are starved for a little conversation. When I introduce myself to some younger creators, they are deferential, assuming that my grey beard indicates a long career in the biz. I smile to think that they have more ink stains than I ever will. (Not just because I use an iPad.)
When I return, Larry has expanded his sales pitch, starting with my lines and adding his personal spin. He’s in the book! It’s his story too, and it’s a blast to share the fun. His help is doubly welcome because the afternoon is busier than ever… I rarely have five minutes between potential customers, and some patterns are emerging. If I spot a grey haired fan in the crowd and start my pitch—there’s an 80% chance I’ll make a sale. My books touch on a powerful strain of nostalgia, if nothing else. But that also means if someone younger stops for a look, I may have nice chat, but there’s only a 20% chance they'll buy something.
When that happens, it almost invariably goes like this: “You know, my mom/dad is really into Star Trek. I bet they’d like this.” Pause. “How much is one issue?”
The MoCCA (Museum Of Comics and Cartoon Art) Arts Fest is one of the largest small press events in the country, and this weekend will attract 8000 attendees, up from 5000 last year. That’s still a fraction of the 125,000+ that the San Diego or NY Comic-Cons will gather, but our attendees are “cherce,” as they say. Everyone here is specifically interested in the sort of comic books that I’m selling. Some even more than others.
It’s a delight to meet an art instructor from Syracuse University who teaches a cosplay class (of all things!) and who is completely taken with Trekkies. He finds the historical backdrop of the series as interesting, if not more so, than the coming-of-age adventure it’s wrapped up in. Later, another academic (from D.C.) grabs a bundle of comics and gives me her card—she’s writing about the intersection of comics fandom and the immigrant experience, and wonders if I’d like to talk about it? There’s nothing like that kind of validation to make hundreds (or is it thousands?) of hours of work seem worthwhile. I wrap up my first day feeling accomplished in a whole new way.
The second day plays much like the first, but more relaxed. I have more time to wander, and meet other folks, like J.T. Yost, who distributes my comic on his Birdcage Bottom Books website. Or the renowned animator Bill Plympton, with whom I share a mutual pal and we get to have a friendly chat. Comics Beat editor-in-cheif Heidi MacDonald stops by to visit the Sikoryak/Willberg table, and I introduce myself (which leads to a nice notice in her convention report the following Monday). I stumble into conversations with a favorite book author and a noted designer who I have admired from afar and find myself accepted like one of the team. Because I am, after all.
When 5pm rolls around on Sunday evening, our hosts ring a bell and we all applaud for having made it through the weekend. I’m exhilarated. I sold or gave away 80% of the stock that I brought with me, paid for my table and half of my plane fare. Tomorrow I’ll make the rounds at a couple of stores and see if I can consign the remaining inventory. But most importantly, I feel welcome in my new world. I spoke to fans, peers, and personal heroes and felt recognized, respected—even liked. The doubts that plagued me over the past nine months have evaporated like that. Poof.
There’s no better way to learn something new than by doing it, I had hesitations about starting my comics before I’d perfected the story or my drawing style. But it's so much more important to have an imperfect-but-finished product than an unfinished masterpiece that will never be seen. Because I’ve taken these first steps, I have a small but growing body of work, I’ve got an idea who my audience is and how to reach them. Best of all I’ve got the confidence to get me through the second half of this story and the next one after that. I’ll be mulling that over on the plane ride home and for weeks to come.
But right now? I’m living and working in New York City. Time for a tasty falafel dinner and quick subway to the Film Forum. There’s a 4K restoration of a Bob Fosse flick held over for another week. If it’s a nice night I’ll walk back to my place on the lower East Side, by way of Mulberry Street. After all, I love this town.
* * *
Thanks for reading! If you know anyone who might enjoy stories about pop culture and the people who love it, please send them my way—I'd really appreciate it.