Interview with Chris Butcher, founding TCAF Director

[Original Publication Date: February 3, 2010,
Publication: books.toronotoist.com]

Chris Butcher is the manager and book buyer for the internationally acclaimed Toronto bookstore The Beguiling. Working in the book industry at a bookstore rather than exclusively at a comics shop, Butcher has had the opportunity to see a great deal of change in the way graphic novels and comics are sold to the public. He is also the author of the influential blog comics212.net and is Director and one of the founding members of the popular Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which will return to the Toronto Reference Library in May of this year.

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to catch up with Mr. Butcher to get his take on changes going on in the industry as a whole, with the ways comics fit into the library system, and to find out some history behind TCAF.

Dave Howard: Chris, you are the manager of the Beguiling.

Chris Butcher: Yes, I’ve been at the Beguiling for seven years now.

Howard: Why did you start working at the Beguiling?

Butcher: I was unemployed [laughs]. I used to work at a comic store in Brampton and got sick of the suburbs and moved. I was still really into comics and doing some freelance work in comics: colouring, lettering and production, things like that. I shopped at The Beguiling, and I’d bugged Peter Birkemoe, the Beguiling’s owner, about doing a comic event in Toronto that was similar to SPX or the fledgling MoCCA show. We’ve got this great talent in Toronto, this huge community of not just small publishers but big, internationally respected cartoonists. And all of them pile into mini-vans every year and go to the MoCAA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) show in New York and SPX (Small Press Expo) in Maryland, to go to these other shows because there was nothing really in town that showcased work that’s not superhero-oriented, despite the fact The Beguilng is one of the best stores in the world. He said “No.”

Howard: He just said no, flat out?

Butcher: It is really a lot of work to put on a show like that. And so that was that. But then I trapped him in a car on the way to one of these shows – and, seriously, it was like 10 hours to go to a show that we thought we could both do better. And at the end of 20 combined hours in the car, there and back, he agreed to it. Then we set a date for five months later and TCAF was born. We’re holding our fifth Festival this May 8th and 9th, at Toronto Reference Library.

So I just ended up working at the store by co-founding TCAF, being around all the time, and having a couple of responsibilities piled on, and then another couple, and another couple until finally I was managing the store.

Howard: So you conceived of TCAF before you were employed at the Beguiling?

Butcher: Yeah, I kind of thought I was done with retail – it never occurred to me that I would work at The Beguiling itself. I really just wanted to do something that was creative, freelance, that was outside of a retail context. A big part of that was the idea of doing – I was planning on doing some smaller events like readings and that kind of thing, you know, working with The Beguiling, but really, TCAF was what it was about. I had enough people in the industry, friends of mine, who said “It would be a shame for you to drop out of retail all together, you add a lot to the discourse on comics retail.”

Howard: Certainly, that’s the truth. It’s why I’m interviewing you, yes.

Butcher: [Laughs] It’s not following a hundred percent of my passions but I still get to do enough really interesting, creative stuff and promote, sell, and put great books in people’s hands, that it’s all sort of dove-tailed nicely.

Howard: You’re a buyer for The Beguiling?

Butcher: Yeah, I’d say I do about eighty percent of the buying for The Beguiling.

Howard: You recently criticized one of the manga publishers on your blog, comics212.net, and then their people actually replied to your criticisms in the comments section. I saw that and thought, my god, this guy holds a lot power, if he can make these kinds of comments and these guys are replying to your blog. They’re reading your blog.

Butcher: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I started out on the internet as a 12 year old many many years ago, so I have a lot of longevity in and around the industry, and I’m reminded of that by well-meaning people who say “You’re Chris Butcher, I don’t know if you know what that means but, basically, we’re gonna listen.” And that’s always weird, I’ll be honest with you, to realize that I’m a guy who can look at a situation and say “This isn’t right” or “This is the way things would work in an ideal world and here’s what I recommend” and then have the people who I’m talking about actually come up to me and say “We tried what you said, that’s a good idea.”

It’s surprising to me, but I do have a really really influential blog. It’s getting ah — [laughs] very few hits, but it’s geared to industry people, it’s not geared to the mass market.

Howard: It’s geared to industry people, and that’s one reason I wanted to interview you for this column: it is a books column, and I understand there are industry people who read books@torontist. What would you say to the book industry people about comics, specifically manga? You’ve taken a trip to Japan recently, is that right?

Butcher: Yeah, I took my second trip to Japan this summer as a bit of a reward for making it through another TCAF. We did TCAF in May last year and I went back to Japan in June and July. Phenomenal trip.

You know, going back to your last question, really looking at the ways in which the blog is influential, I think it’s because I came up in the industry before there really was social media – message boards were about as far as it went. You just end up chatting and learning how to put your ideas forward in a way that’s not…well it’s online so it’s a little combatitive, but in a way that’s not…awful. I don’t think young people today get that same opportunity.

Howard: And you’re talking with other people who share your passion.

Butcher: Especially when you’re younger than everyone else, and they’re talking on a different level. I’ve said some stupid things in the past, but, you just raise your game if you’re talking to people who are ten or twelve years your senior. And especially if they have more experience.

So, getting back to being online, getting to talk about and see this stuff, I’ve worn a lot of hats in this industry so I can see from a publisher’s perspective why they make the decisions that they do. Maybe people who have only been retailers for the past twenty or thirty years don’t really understand why publishers make the decisions they do that don’t seem obvious, or that don’t seem to benefit them, or even the publishers themselves. There’s a lot of long-term thinking, though often there’s a lot of short-term thinking, too. But I’ve also seen from the creative side, and I’ve worked as a retailer too, and that sort of adds up to, you know, a picture of what I think of the comics industry.

I try to be fair and I try to look from everyone’s perspective. But when it comes down to it, in the end it’s me and it’s what I’ve got to say about things. And that’s part of why, getting back to this question, why I find Japan and their industry so fascinating. You know, first off it’s in a foreign language that’s not impossible, but definitely really difficult to learn or be proficient in. And they’ve got a comics industry that, when I really became aware of it in the mid 1990s was…exploding.

Howard: Can you tell us about that? Keeping in mind that the people in the book industry people in North America may be reading this. How can we benefit from what they have done?

Butcher: We need a better commuter culture for one – and I think that’s something Torontoist readers can appreciate. We need a better transit infrastructure. Basically the entire city of Tokyo is moving through the transit system every day, almost no hiccups. They’re confined – and this is before cel phones, before pda’s and personal electronics. They need things to take their minds off their surroundings – they’re crammed in like sardines on the subway cars. And so everyone bought manga and just buried their face in the pages of it, something that can just transport their minds away from that situation.

The biggest magazine was Shonen Jump – meaning “Boys Jump” – a magazine for kids. It’s got all the most popular stuff in it, like Dragonball Z and stuff like that, and was selling a million copies every week in 1996. That circulation has settled down, it’s now running about 300,000 a week in Japan, I think. That’s way off of it’s high but it’s still phenomenal compared to anything in North America. The best single issue comic I think sold 580,000 copies, it was a Spiderman issue with Obama on the cover of it. The next comic was nowhere near those sales. The average comic sells about 40,000 copies. So it’s really a different economy of scale, it’s really a different level when you look at Japanese consumer penetration into comics. People are more aware of them, and people have favourites – both historically and currently – there’s a continuation of material. There’s a canon, I guess you can say, of material in Japan. And really that’s only something, this canon-building argument, it’s really only been something that’s been happening quite recently in graphic novels in North America.

Well, I’m getting way out there, [laughs] but to bring it right back, what you can look at, as a publisher, here in North America, is to look at the manga book and all the work that is serialized there. The comics appear in anthologies first, and then they’re made into graphic novels, so the material has weeks and months to build up a fan following. That’s not generally done here, and I think that that’s important. Social media can definitely fill some of those gaps, to have people using social media to preview graphic novels or serialized graphic novels.

Canadian publishing in general – and I have a lot of friends in Canadian publishing – needs to raise their game. They need to be edgier, they need to be more forward looking, less conservative, less stuffy. It’s all stuff you would throw into any generalized Canadian publishing rant. It’s the same for graphic novels only in miniature, because in most cases Canadian publishers can’t even work up the courage to publish a graphic novel. I’m trying not to say that in as negative way as it’s going to come off. Kudos to companies like Tundra Books, in terms of mainstream Canadian publishers who are going after and producing more graphic novels. Lots and lots and lots of baby steps, but at least they’re doing it, and it’s a lot more than a lot of other publishers can say. Unfortunately.

But then you look at someone like Drawn and Quarterly, headquartered in Montreal. They are one of the best publishers of comics and graphic novels in the world. They put out spectacular, spectacular looking books that are fantastically interesting, if not outright excellent. And they’ve done their first kids book this year featuring the Moomin characters. They’re recognized around the world. They’re rewarded for doing risky, exciting, interesting work. It’s just a shame that more publishers aren’t doing that work. My two cents.

Howard: How does the comic book industry compare to the prose book industry? Manga, as well as the higher end graphic novels: do you think there’s market cross-over, or do you think they’re different beasts?

Butcher: I think there’s more and more crossover. Manga readers aren’t just born manga readers. Obviously people grow up – if they grow up with books at all – grow up with prose books, and there’s just a percentage of people who respond to comics and graphic novels, particularly if they’re presented in a school context. Using more comics and graphic novels to reach kids and impress them with book culture, I think is really important. They respond to comics and books in general if the books are around.

Howard: So do you think the book publishing world would do well to try and adopt more graphic novels or do you think graphic novel publishers should exist separately from prose publishers? Or is that tough to say?

Butcher: Well, just going back on what I just said about Canadian publishers – man, print is having such a tough go of things right now – I know that most publishers are just trying to not only keep their heads above water. They’re really just trying to figure out what print publishing is going to look like in the next five years. For me to go and ask them to start investigating what is, to them, an entirely new method of publishing – basically mature picture books – is pretty arrogant on my part, I’ll be honest.

But I believe it’s consumer demand that’s going to push publishers into that field and realize there are great works of literature and great populist stuff being created here and that people really respond to it. And I think that, to a large degree, any publisher who puts their head in the game can come up with something that is, at least, popular and sells all right. On top of that, in terms of great works of art, finding someone who’s a Seth or a Chester Brown or someone like that, that’s going to take more work. But do I think there’s a possibility, definitely.

I would say that any publisher who hasn’t seriously invested in graphic novels already really aught to do so because, even just looking at publishing statistics, comics and graphic novels are one of the only areas in traditional print publishing that aren’t suffering massive sales downturns like every other segment. That might be different when we get the 2009 numbers over the next couple of months, but it’s true right now.

Howard: How about electronic publishing? How do you think that is going to impact comics? I’m thinking of the new tablet devices being released now.

Butcher: I think it’s going to change publishing phenomenally over the next couple of years. I’ve got a copy of Seth’s new George Sprott up on my bookshelf – I’m looking at it now. It’s about eighteen inches by twenty inches or something like that, it’s massive. It has blue foil set, hard cover binding, it’s full colour.

Howard: It is an art object in itself.

Butcher: The telling of that story, the format, is just as important in a lot of ways as the content. George Sprott, the book, has to be big, the format has to serve the material. And that is something digital publishing is not going to replicate. Where it gets tricky is… not everybody’s Seth. Not every work needs to have ornate packaging. Not every work is going to move readers to purchase it in print and keep it forever. I almost think that – and this is neo-luddite of me – I think the change is going to be along the same lines as hardcover books versus trade paperbacks or mass market paperbacks. Mass market books that fall apart quicker, show damage easier, they aren’t going to appreciate in value, or be as nice looking, but they’re cheap – I think that’s going to be the divide there, when it comes to digital work and print work going forward. Some people want the hard-cover book, especially a first edition hard cover, some people want what’s cheap and easy.

Howard: TCAF is happening at the Toronto Reference Library for the second year in a row. There’s a strong link between TCAF and comics and libraries in general, and I’m hearing that libraries love comics. Is that something you can speak about?

Butcher: I personally believe – and I’m not speaking for the library here – I personally feel that libraries love comics because of the circulation numbers. Lots of librarians love the material, too. But comics and graphic novels are probably a little more expensive on average than traditional books. They are a little more costly to invest in and get interested in, so people are always looking for deals, and the library’s the best deal in town. Everything’s free.

But beyond that I think that circulation drives things, and librarians realize that graphic novels and manga –especially manga – are high interest items that turn over quickly. In terms of numbers, it just makes sense for libraries to keep graphic novels in stock.

Howard: Can you tell us why TCAF is such an anticipated event for cartoonists and people in the comics industry?

Butcher: A big part of the reason we partnered with the libraries was not because the library means books, and it puts comics into a book context –  the important thing is that the library is free. You can go into a library, which is something every kid does, knowing that if you need a book you can get one there for free.’

Howard: They are community centres.

Butcher: We realized that partnering with the library would really help reinforce the fact that TCAF is a free festival and is something that works as a kind of outreach, a not-for-profit event that trys to promote graphic novels to everybody, promote the comics medium to everybody. We really try and curate the selection of comics and graphic novels, the authors and artists who are exhibiting at TCAF, so that everyone knows that everything exhibited there has a broad appeal, is up to snuff. We also we want people who aren’t just selling super hero commissions or selling furry or anime drawings – like, “We’ll do a drawing for you for ten bucks” – but people who are putting the best face on the industry and the best face on comics as a medium.

Also, by making the admission free, hopefully the person who comes in who maybe only has five or ten bucks in their pocket isn’t paying that to us at the door but is instead giving that money to a creator who could very well only have five or ten bucks in their own pocket as well.

Howard: There was a lot of excitement around last year’s event among creators and artists – it seems TCAF brings artists together.

Butcher: Yeah and no – you can do that on the internet too, you know? You can have a message board or some sort of social media thing to bring artists together. It’s great. But I think what’s important about TCAF is, it gives them an opportunity to make a few dollars, too, you know? It’s one of those things where, we actually for the first three festivals didn’t invite anyone who we weren’t completely confident could keep their costs as low as possible and make an actual profit at the show. Like people would ask to come and we would say, “Look, you’re coming from California, I don’t know that you’re going to sell $1400 worth of material to pay back the costs of getting out here, the cost of the material, and the cost of the table.” In the past few years we’ve opened it up and realized that we’re creating a centre for people to make sure we’re getting their work into people’s hands.

The internet is such a great, democratizing sort space for communication, for exhibition, for showing off material. We need TCAF to be all that and more, we need it to have a marketplace component so that exhibitors coming there are getting some sort of financial reward from it. Getting people in the door to see this work and to hopefully spend money on it. And it’s the most direct way we can think of to support creators doing work we enjoy, other than just buying the books ourselves. And of couse, as a bookstore, we we do that too. Really we’re trying to create something that is positive on a number of levels, not just for readers or citizens of Toronto, but for the creators themselves.

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