Book Festivals: Cartoonists’ New Turf? – The Decatur Book Festival (part 2)

In deference to the church-going crowd (or maybe the hung-over crowd… what do I know?), the Decatur Book Festival wasn’t set to get underway on Sunday until noon, so I took advantage of the only cool time of day here in Georgia–the early morning–for a quick jog around Decatur’s beautiful old cemetery.  After that I got together for coffee with fellow cartoonist Chris Schweizer who lives in Decatur and teaches at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design.  I learned some interesting stuff about his upcoming sixteen volume (!) series for Oni Press, but I’ll let him dole that info out himself whenever he sees fit.

My first stop of the day proper was the Target-sponsored children’s tent where Mutts cartoonist and childrens’ book author Patrick McDonnell was giving a presentation in support of his new book South.  He talked about his characters as he drew them for the crowd on big sheets of drawing paper and dispensed funny anecdotes about the strip along the way.  Taking a page from the Book of Liefeld, he noted that apparently no one in Muttsville mows their lawn or shovels their snow, allowing him to rarely have to draw feet.  A story that got big laughs from the crowd revolved around a woman who apparently sent a lengthy complaint letter about the character Mooch’s Herriman-esque speech patterns in which a “sh” sound is added to lots of words (see pic below), as in “yesh”  for “yes” and “shmaybe” for “maybe.” McDonnell’s written response to this woman was apparently just one word: “Shorry!”

Maybe everyone but me knows this, but McDonnell mentioned in his talk that he was involved in some way with a biography of Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman and the book is slated to come out in the next year or two.

And here’s something I’ve never seen at a comics event Q&A: McDonnell, whose real-life dog Earl (the inspiration for the strip’s namesake) recently died, called on a woman in the crowd with her hand up.  She asked whether he had gotten a new dog since Earl passed away and then offered up a (totally adorable) stray black puppy that she had apparently found at Six Flags and couldn’t keep.  The cartoonist, handling this unusual turn of events with amazing tact, said that he couldn’t take the dog himself because he had to fly back to New Jersey in the morning, but that he’d offer up his demonstration drawings of Mutts characters to anyone in the crowd willing to adopt the dog.  I came pretty close to taking the dog myself when my wife left briefly, but she likely would have divorced me when she returned.  Apparently she feels a cat, a dog, me, and a seven month-old baby are sufficient company.

Here he is drawing Earl and Mooch, as well as doing a “reading” from a giant copy of the wordless book South:




And here’s a picture of a car I saw parked outside the festival belonging to an obvious Mutts fan, judging by the giant “YESH” on the dashboard:


At this point it was about one in the afternoon and the heat was starting to get really oppressive–which meant it was time to beat a quick retreat to the VIP lounge for a cold beer.  On our way back downstairs we wandered into the art gallery below and were surprised to find it full of nothing but Skip Williamson artwork.  Apparently he’s doing something at the festival in conjunction with the gallery show.  Here’re a few pics of the show:




(My wife and daughter can be seen lounging about in the second pic there, and the third one just above is a print by Williamson and S. Clay Wilson.)

The talk I was at the festival to give occurred at five at the Decatur library and, although there was apparently some confusion as to who exactly was going to be on the panel, it wound up being Rich Tomasso, Rob Venditti, and me.  There was a good crowd on-hand, but there was definitely a bit of “culture confusion” going on as far as panel format went.  At a comics event, if you’re on a panel, that usually means that there’s going to be a moderator there to run the show; apparently, at a book festival you’re meant to be ready to go with some sort of talk.  Luckily, all parties concerned, including the woman from the festival who had been drafted to introduce us, were able to discuss things briefly beforehand and work something out.  The crowd was good, particularly for the last slot on on a Sunday, and their questions pretty much ran the show.

To close this fantastic weekend in Decatur, my wife, my daughter and I enjoyed a meal on the square and then listened to a great open-air concert from Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers (who’s also a North Alabama vague acquaintance of my wife).

All-in-all, what do I think of the book festival format vs. the comics convention format?  It’s a mixed bag of course, I suppose–although I had a lot more fun here than I’ve had at any recent convention I can think of.  Likely, though, this is because my actual obligations for the event were pretty minimal, freeing me up to be as much an attendee as a guest of the event.

Financially, the two models are really an “apples and oranges” comparison.  At the festival, my book was for sale… but not by me.  Sure, I’ll see royalties from sales, but certainly not the way I would from selling my books by hand at, say, SPX.  On the other hand, I didn’t have to spend the whole damn time behind some table trying to cover my hotel room expenses in book sales.

And speaking of such things, there’s a very apparent difference in the way things work financially between the two models.  No one is charged admission to a book festival, and yet the organizers seem to be able to cover guests’ hotel rooms, a VIP area, gift cards to local businesses, etc.  And the key seems to be sponsors.  Maybe when the likes of Target are willing to sponsor a great outdoor free comics festival similar to the Decatur Book Festival, then truly (crash, boom, pow) comics won’t really be for kids any more.

Many thanks to Justin who was instrumental in inviting me to the festival, as well as all the great folks who organized and ran the event!

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