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Over the past decade, Brooklyn has become one of the leading beacons of New York City's literary scene. The Brooklyn Book Festival was begun eight years ago to celebrate and promote the great literature written from and about the borough. Over the years, the festival has evolved to being mainly about Brooklyn and NYC to being more international, now inviting writers from all over the world. Since its inception, the Brooklyn Book Festival has included comic book panels on its schedule and comic book creators to its invitee lists. The 2013 Brooklyn Book Festival, held on September 22nd, may have had the best lineup of comic book creators and graphic novelists so far.
There's a good reason to involve comic book creators in the Brooklyn Book Festival. Although Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster may have come from Cleveland, New York City was where almost all of the comic book publishers were located for most of the 20th century. Consequently, many comic book stories were set in NYC. There many different versions: the Marvel Universe with Dr. Strange in Greenwich Village, the DC Universe version where Gotham substituted for NYC, or even Will Eisner's works about growing up on the Lower East Side, which felt to be very much based in the real world.
Most comic book stories have been based in the Manhattan part of New York City, but just as more prose writers have found their way to Brooklyn, an increasing number of cartoonists and comic book creators through choice or necessity have moved to Brooklyn. A number of artists work in communal studios reminiscent of the bullpens of the Golden Age of comic books. Comic book shops like Desert Island in Williamsburg and Bergen Street Comics in Park Slope have opened, trying to stand out from the comic book shops in Manhattan that sell primarily superhero books. Both stores have developed loyal customers.
Just as the panels at this year's Brooklyn Book Festival didn't make Brooklyn or NYC a necessary part of their subject matter, the comic book panels weren't centered on location and instead explored new ground. Francoise Mouly, Gene Yang and R. Kikuo, Johnson discussed comics and education. Art Spiegelman and Jules Feiffer discussed their careers, both of which include Pulitzer prizes. Jeff Smith, Paul Pope and Faith Erin Hicks talked about the Sci-Fi elements of their new books. Adrian Tomine, Dash Shaw, Rutu Modan and David Prudhomme talked about crossing borders throughout the world. There was a whole additional set of comics-related panels geared towards young readers.
At the panel "The Future: Big New Books in Comics Sci-Fi," Jeff Smith (Bone, RASL), Paul Pope (Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid, Battling Boy) and Faith Erin Hicks (The Last of Us: American Dreams) discussed the intersection of science fiction and straight dramatic storytelling. The panel was moderated by Calvin Reid, critic and head of the comics section of Publishers Weekly, and he drove the conversation in a number of interesting directions. The three panelists talked about how they all have a strong affection for sci-fi but also felt it important to ground their works with strong characters. The conversation gradually shifted to independent comic publishing as both Smith and Pope had their roots in the start of indie publishing in the 1990s and Hicks was one of the early adopters of web comics. All three believed that comics are becoming more diverse and will continue in that direction because of indie artists and publishers.
At the panel "The World (According to Cartoonists): Border Crossing Comics," Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde), Dash Shaw (New School, Bottomless Belly Button), Rutu Modan (The Property, Exit Wounds) and David Prudhomme (Rebetiko) discussed how cartoonists have to present characters in interesting situations, which often means making them cross borders that are literal or figurative. However, crossing those borders doesn't always – or even usually – lead to happiness. Each of the cartoonists discussed their work in relation to autobiography, which is an influence though not always in expected ways. There was also a discussion of coloring in relation to cartooning, something that is often overlooked yet has an enormous influence on how a reader responds to work.
Although I was not able to attend the other panels, I'm sure they were also quite fascinating. I've attended numerous panels on comics and graphic novels in the past with creators as diverse as Jaime Hernandez, Chris Claremont, Sean Howe and Gabrielle Bell. It's very encouraging to see comics integrated so totally into the festival since the literary world overall has been relatively slow to accept the artistic significance and integrity of comics as a medium. The Brooklyn Book Festival has also made a legitimate contribution to the comic discussion within Brooklyn and New York City because it is, unlike many other shows, free. Therefore, people who may not know much about comics but are curious can get exposure to some of the leading creators.
Although independent comic festivals have long provided counterprogramming to the large comic conventions like San Diego Comic Con and the Wizard series, it is a relatively new thing in New York City. When you combine the Brooklyn Book Festival with other celebration of independent comics such as the now-defunct Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, the new Comic Arts Brooklyn (which replaces the BCGF) and KingCon, there is a welcome abundance of comics discussion in Brooklyn.