One weekend a year Hackney is flooded with comic-lovers clutching armfuls of printed matter between clammy hands. The reason for their being there is ELCAF, the East London Comics and Arts Festival, which is as good as a church for those who worship zines, comics, prints and books as though print were their religion and indie bookshops their altars.
This year the festival took place across two days and two venues last weekend, with the likes of Michael Deforge, Brecht Vandenbroucke and Jillian Tamaki giving talks and more than 60 publishers selling their wares in the basement of The Laundry. We headed down there with photographer James Rawlings to chat to five of It’s Nice That’s favourite publishing aficionados, from New York Times art director Alexandra Zsigmond to cartoonist José Domingo, to find out about their weekend.
Alexandra Zsigmond, Art Director at The New York Times
“At the moment I’m the art director for the Sunday Review section at The New York Times,” Alexandra tells me, “and that means that I commission artwork for the section to accompany the articles. I also design the whole section, and choose the photography and the graphics."
Commissioning every week means Alexandra is always on the lookout for up-and-coming artists and illustrators from around the world to work with, which is what brought her to ELCAF. “I think one of the most important things is really to bring as many different illustrators into the section as possible and to really support both emerging and established artists. So I try to find as many new artists as I can, and festivals like ELCAF are really helpful in that regard.
“Yesterday I spent all day at the festival meeting artists and illustrators, and buying things,” she says. “There’s great energy here this year, the space itself has a really vibrant and dynamic feeling. Unfortunately I have to fly back to NY tonight, but I’ve heard that Drawn and Quarterly are gonna go out and do karaoke somewhere. Michael Deforge and Jillian Tamaki are avid karaoke fanatics, and it’s really incredible to be with them when they’re doing that. I heard Brecht Vandenbroucke is also planning some special songs he’s going to sing, so that will be good…”
Brecht Vandenbroucke, Artist and Illustrator
“They’re all good!” are artist and illustrator Brecht Vandenbroucke’s first words to me when we find a minute to sit down in a quiet corner at ELCAF. “Sometimes you go to comic conventions and there’s so much stuff, but it feels so cluttered. You see something amazing next to something that’s not good, and then you find something interesting again. But here it’s all very, very good. It’s beautiful!”
By the sounds of it, Brecht has had a busy couple of days trying to absorb as much of the festival as possible. “There has been a lot of signing, and I did a panel talk, and I saw all the talks today. It’s exhausting to look at, there are so many beautiful things.” As for his own work, he’s a man of many media. “I do a lot of things, so it’s hard to describe; I draw comics, I make illustrations, I do paintings. I would like to make more books, so that’s not what I am doing but what I’d like to be doing. I’d say I’m very crafty, with my hands. I don’t draw on a Wacom tablet – I have originals for everything. The narrative is very important in my work, so I’m not a good, aesthetic or decorative illustrator, my work is very idea-based. I’ll have an idea and I’ll try to make a joke about it, or just a confusing drawing. But it’s always an idea that has to trigger it."
Jillian Tamaki, Comics Artist and Illustrator
“I am an illustrator and cartoonist, that’s what I say when people ask,” Canadian artist Jillian Tamaki tells me. “I do a lot of things, and they overlap, and they seem the same but they’re different, so that’s what I’m going with right now.” This year she is ELCAF’s artist in residence – “although I’m not sure what that means, besides I do the posters” – and she’s been busily signing copies of her new book Super Mutant Magic Academy all weekend. The book “is a collection of my webcomic, which I’ve been doing for four years on Tumblr,” she explains. “It was really kind of a diary project, a thing that I would do every couple of weeks and just throw up online. It was reflecting what I was thinking about, or annoyed by, and now it’s interesting to see it all in one book. It’s a little bit a different process of reading it all in one go – you see things that you’re not aware of while you’re making it.”
Attending a bunch of comic conventions, both in the USA and in around the world, Jillian has seen a shift in the way comics and illustration are viewed in the industry. “When I first started I viewed them as very very separate things, and I don’t think that was necessarily my own mind blockage, it was just that a lot of people that knew I did comics had no idea I was an illustrator, and people that knew my illustration had no idea I did comics,” she explains. “They felt like totally different worlds. I think in recent years the profile of alternative comics has really gone up, as graphic novels became more mainstream and encompass more different kinds of stories.
“I think it’s sprung from a desire of commercial artists to explore all the facets of their artistic personality, and that means not just doing one thing. Sometimes it feels like the comics thing has become trendy, which immediately makes me a little bit defensive, because anything that becomes trendy eventually will become untrendy and fall out of fashion, and I don’t want that to happen for comics. I feel like it’s too valuable a medium to be a flash in the pan. But I don’t think it will be.”
Ken Kirton, Co-founder of Hato Press
Co-founder Ken Kirton has spent a long five years building London-based independent publisher Hato Press to get it to where it is now. “When my co-director Jackson and I started five years ago a lot of our time was spent on commercial printing and design work, so it took three or four years to try and make the press self-sustainable, to the point where we could hire someone just to push publishing projects with other artists, illustrators and designers. Now, Hato consists of the printing press, the publishing house, the graphic design studio, the digital production house, and in a few weeks time we’re going to launch a workshop space downstairs, to do workshops on printing, binding, type design and some coding."
We caught Ken not long after speaking on a panel with fellow independent publishes Annie Koyama of Koyama Press, Madalena Matoso of Planeta Tangerina and Sam Arthur of Nobrow and Flying Eye Books. “They had such amazing stories, there was a lot to inspire us and aspire to. There was one question about the worst mistake ever made – in my head I thought it might have been a few spelling mistakes, but it was stories about the mafia stealing trucks… There was a lot to learn from!”
Having had a busy day, Ken and the others at the Hato stall were looking forward to taking a break to admire the other stalls. “At six o’ clock we’re going to have a break, to try to buy as many books as possible. Maybe we’ll just take all of the money that we make here and just put it back into the other publishers.” Sounds like a good plan to us.
José Domingo, Illustrator and Cartoonist
“When am I going to eat?!” Spanish artist José Domingo says, as we sit down to chat. The NoBrow-published cartoonist and illustrator is a couple of hours off his talk to the Sunday afternoon crowd, and he’s been signing since he arrived at the festival that morning.
As for José’s work, his best-known book, Adventures of a Japanese Business Man, seems like something of a sordid tale compared to his more recent work in kids’ books. “I’m looking forward to making more books for kids,” he says. “I think it’s feeling connected to my time as a child, remembering the books that I loved and trying to pass on these feelings to the next generation of kids.” It’s quite a different way or working though, he explains. “I feel more responsible when I’m doing books for kids than when I’m doing books for adults. I have to take more care on the details, and make sure everything is well done. Adults can understand the ideas behind what you’re doing, but kids are straightforward. They either like the look of it, or they don’t. So for me it’s more pressure.”