A Q&A with NCS Foundation President Steve McGarry on the New ‘NCS Fest’

The National Cartoonists Society (NCS) recently announced a change in format for their Reubens’ Awards weekend from a closed membership-only event to an open-to-the-public European-style comics fest. The Daily Cartoonist interviewed former NCS President and current NCS Foundation President Steve McGarry on the updated event.

TDC: This is a big change from the Reubens weekend we’ve all known. What was behind the decision? 

SM: There were a number of factors at play.

The National Cartoonists Society was formed in 1946 and for almost 40 years, the Reuben Awards were presented at an annual dinner in New York. But in the early 1980s, the decision was taken to stage the awards in a different city each year. That was a pretty dramatic change at the time.

By the late 1990s, the event had evolved from those simple gala dinners to a three-day extravaganza that included seminars, presentations, roasts and elaborate stageshows. Venues have included practically every major U.S. city, as well as Toronto … but every so often, the NCS has really let its hair down and tried something dramatically new, whether that was taking over a cruise ship and sailing to the Bahamas or hiring dueling disco pirate ships off the coast of Cancun. We felt it was time to shake things up again.

The Reuben weekends are a great excuse for cartoonists to get together each year, see old friends, make new ones and get a little rowdy. But there is also a serious side.

Obviously, the actual Awards are a celebration of the best and brightest in our profession, and the seminars and presentations are an intrinsic part of the weekend. But the NCS exists, in part, to raise awareness and appreciation of the art of cartooning and so we include at least one public event in the weekend’s program.

We usually stage a free signing session and invite the public in to get sketches, autographs and meet the cartoonists … and they are a huge success.  We found that our members enjoy these events as much as the fans, so we wanted to find ways of expanding this aspect of what the NCS does.

There are a plethora of Comic Cons all across the States now and the NCS has a presence at most of the majors. We have a huge booth at San Diego and WonderCon, a strong presence at New York … but what we don’t have in North America is a European-style Comics Festival.

Typically, a ComicCon is held in a sterile, windowless convention center where the public has to buy a ticket to wander around a grid of booths. Events like Angouleme in France and Lucca in Italy are completely different animals. They are these wonderful, free, festive celebrations of comic art where cartoonists and cartoon fans congregate in a town and the local population and businesses get fully involved.

So we decided that the NCS should throw a free festival and invite everyone to come and celebrate cartoons and comic art with us!

TDC: Is the plan to continue with the same format and venue in 2020?

SM: The honest answer is that we don’t yet know.

There’s an element of “if we build it, will they come?” This is quite an audacious undertaking. The European festivals are typically government-funded. We don’t have that luxury in the States and will have to rely on grants from arts foundations and corporate sponsorship to underwrite this. If it’s successful, we will have created what could grow to be one of the world’s biggest and best comic art festivals and a major event on the calendar.

If it works, then it would be an annual event with the Reuben Awards at its core, just as the Oscars are held in L.A. each year. In that case, we then envisage that we would stage a signature event on the East Coast later in the year so that we don’t disenfranchise NCS members on the other side of the country.

Of course, worst case scenario is that we will simply have staged an incredibly memorable Reuben weekend. It will be a case of “remember when we threw a festival one year?” just as we now reminisce about partying on disco pirate ships in Cancun or having a picnic lunch on a private island in the Bahamas!

TDC: You mention the festival in Angouleme in France and Lucca in Italy … and the NCS is bringing in help from The Lakes Comics Festival in the UK … can you be more specific beyond what you’ve said already as to what makes a festival more European than North American? 

SM: Conventions are more like trade shows. They are held in a giant halls where artists, publishers and vendors set up their wares at booths and the public buys a ticket to attend and walk the convention floor. In truth, there is very little difference between a comics convention, an electronics expo and a dental equipment trade show.

Festivals are completely different in that the entire town plays host to a celebration of comic art. At The Lakes, for instance, they hold workshops, seminars, lectures and exhibitions at the Arts Centre, artists and small press take over the Town Hall, you’ll stumble across live art demonstrations, street theatre and there are pop-ups at venues big and small all over the town.

The local businesses participate, giving over their window displays to comic art, with many staging in-store signings. The festivals attract a huge influx of tourists and those local businesses – the pubs, the restaurants, the shops – benefit from the crowds that the festival attracts.

In Huntington Beach, the city has given us use of the pier and we will have marquees and tents just yards from the beach and the Pacific Ocean. They are closing down main street to vehicles, we have full use of the arts center and the library and we are taking over the Hyatt Regency, where we will have programming in three ballrooms and various small halls.

We will be creating a giant mural running the full length of the pier and inviting all our luminaries to participate … families will be able to sign up in advance to have free cartooning classes at the library with world-renowned artists … there will be a parade (that’s top secret right now) … it’s going to be amazing!

TDC: Will there be individual booths or chances for members to engage in commerce? 

SM: Absolutely. Instead of a small enclave at the back of a convention hall, our “artists alley” will be tented tables running the length of main street (which, as I said, will be restricted to pedestrians.) We are charging non-NCS members $200 to table all day Saturday and Sunday, NCS members $100 and if the NCS member is also registered for the Reuben Awards events then the table is free! There will also be official NCS tables where NCS members who don’t want to table all two days can book blocks of time to sign and sketch and sell their wares.

We are also going to be putting a lot of focus on children’s and young adult books. We anticipate that the festival will attract lots of families and we want to be able to give them the opportunity to meet the people who create the books they love.

I also believe that many NCS members would prefer to “appear” at the Reubens, rather than just “attend.” So, we are going to try to accommodate as many NCS members in the programming as we can possibly can, whether that means them actually conducting a seminar or workshop, participating in a panel discussion or being part of our Pechakucha events – which, for the uninitiated, are these mini-talks where an artist gets 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide to talk about anything they want.

“Pechakucha” means “chit chat” in Japanese and I first encountered this idea in Tokyo last year. It’s a brilliant way of showcasing artists and it’s loads of fun.

TDC: How did you arrive on the dates? Was there an opening you saw in the traditional fest schedule? Was there feedback from the membership to move it off of Memorial Day or did the idea of Fest change a part of the intended audience and necessitate a move? 

SM: The Reubens were always traditionally held in late April or early May. We regularly used to get complaints if the event fell on Mother’s Day weekend! It was moved to Memorial Day weekend in 2000 when it was realized that the financial district in New York would be deserted that weekend and we were able to negotiate really favorable rates with the World Trade Center Marriott.

From then on, we fell into a pattern of holding the Reubens over the holiday weekend because the theory was that people could travel Monday and not worry about taking a day off work. But that meant that while we could usually get good rates if we held the Reubens in a city, resorts were not particularly motivated to fight for the business because they were already expecting good business.

As Huntington Beach is a destination resort, it was easier to stage the event  mid-May and avoid a weekend where the hotel would have less capacity.

TDC: The opening guest list: Daniel Clowes, The Hernandez Brothers, Penelope Bagieu … is stellar … but is it a signifier of a conscious decision to open the doors even more to cartoonists and formats that may have been under-represented in the NCS? Or are they just great guests that will draw a good crowd? 

SM: That’s just the first wave! We have more incredible names lined up and will be rolling them out over the next few months! And yes, it’s a conscious decision to celebrate comic art, in all its many guises.

I tell people that the NCS was a wonderful organization for the 20th century but it is important that we make sure that we are also a great 21st century organization. Our profession has changed dramatically in a relatively short space of time, but the one thing that remains constant is that all professional cartoonists are comic art fans at heart – that’s why we all got into the business in the first place!

Perhaps the NCS does need to a better job of underscoring to all artists that there is respect and admiration for what they do, no matter what avenue they choose to work in. The main aims of the NCS are to promote the art of cartooning to the public at large … to use our talents to educate and inspire aspiring artists …  and to foster good fellowship and solidarity between professional cartoonists.

Hopefully, NCSFest will help further all those ambitions.

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