First of all I had a great time walking around as a fan and my main impression was that the Society did an excellent job of hosting the festival. I'm sure that Emma Rivera staying on as one of the key members of setting up the festival is part of this smoother transition. Reviewer Johanna Draper Carlson of Comics Worth Reading called this year's festival the "Best Ever!" And I would agree with saying it seemed to be the best in recent years. I'm curious how sales were for everyone who tabled. I'll break down my thoughts on the 2013 festival in a bit more detail below, apologizing in advance for my somewhat blurry phone photos.
1) Volunteers and greeters: Upon arriving at the Armory, there were two rows of tables setup for existing pass holders and those purchasing tickets. There were volunteers stationed there to greet people and make sure you were in the correct line which was nice. I didn't get a festival badge, just a wrist band. Perhaps it was because I just bought a day pass online. But for $12 you'd think they'd throw in a badge and lanyard. I didn't interact with any other volunteers during the day but everyone seemed to have a station and there were plenty of them walking around the floor. There was also a dedicated area near the front of the venue with a table for freebies and space to sit and read which people were utilizing throughout the festival.
2) Signage: For the first time since I've attended MoCCA there were signs hanging in each aisle to indicate the aisle letter. They were designed after Michael DeForge's show flyer and large enough to read easily. No guessing which aisle you were in as in previous years. The large signs made it easier to find a specific table if you knew which aisle letter they were in.
3) Uniform black fabric tablecloths: This was also a new feature. In previous years MoCCA would provide a white plastic disposable tablecloth. Lots of people still brought their own table coverings, but it was pretty classy that at least the fronts of each table were covered to the floor and made the overall flow more cohesive. As someone interested in conservation, I also like the idea that the tablecloths can be reused each year.
4) Red curtained partitions in each aisle: Again this really added to the uniform look and seemed to break the vast armory into a more accessible space. I did an informal survey of the exhibitors and the partitions seemed to have mixed reviews. Some were disappointed that you couldn't look across the venue and get a vibe of how crowded it was at any point. It also seemed a detriment for the people who had nice tall signs behind their booth which you could see from across the armory in past years. On the other hand, onlookers were forced to be focused on the aisle they were in instead of being distracted by someone or something they saw across the armory. I felt like the partitions made me take my time in each aisle, though this also was because I wasn't worried about rushing back to my table after 20 minutes on the floor. The partitions also made it so no one was bumping into the people behind them and had a space to hang their work as if they had a wall space. The only problem with this was that most of the exhibitors didn't know there would be a curtained wall until they arrived and some didn't have tape or a means of hanging their work behind their table. It also seemed like the partitions helped with dulling the roar of everyone talking at once. I didn't feel like I was loosing my voice after talking most of the day which is a bonus.
5) Aisle spacing and rows: The aisles were nice and wide and it seemed like each exhibitor had enough space to stand or sit comfortably behind their table as long as there were only 2 of them. The rows seemed to be set up well, but I soon witnessed that anyone who was in the center of a row was basically stuck back there unless they climbed underneath their table. Not the best solution for exhibitor comfort, especially if they were wearing a dress or skirt. Perhaps leaving a bit of space inbetween every few tables would alleviate this problem for next year.
6) It seemed like there was a lot of quality content this year. Perhaps it was the improved visual cohesiveness from the partitions and tablecloths making the entire venue looking less cluttered. But I was impressed with the amount of new creators and the quality of new content. There was no one section that I wanted to skip entirely because of poor presentation or lack of interesting looking content.
7) Table pricing: MoCCA Fest was started as a fundraiser for the museum. I understand the table pricing in this context. But as the Society has now picked up the slack, each exhibitor is still paying an ENORMOUS amount of money to have a table at the festival. This was the main reason I didn't purchase a table this year. The price has only been escalating each year and paying almost $500 for a table when my printing costs for a short run of a new book are in the hundreds seems ridiculous. I understand that the space still costs money to rent and maintain and after reading the interview that Comics Reporter did with the Society of Illustrators' Anelle Miller, I see that they were incurring some of the additional costs like shipping books for free to the Armory, wi-fi for the building along with the new aesthetics for the festival.
The good news is that student prices are much less than a regular table and it seemed like several students would split one table. The only problem with this is the crowding behind the table meant that often the 3rd or 4th exhibitors were out walking around themselves and not behind the table when fans would stop by. It seems to me that if the professional publishers (Top Shelf, Oni, AdHouse, First Second, Abrams, Fantagraphics etc) paid a larger amount since they are selling larger books and the small press creators were given a better deal on their tables there would have been less ambivalence by the mid-sized creators who decided not to show this year.
8) Ticket pricing: Again, I understand why MoCCA used to charge $15 a day to visitors to the festival when it was being done as a fundraiser. But spending $15 when I am generally spending $15 on 1 to 2 books seems ridiculous. If they want to support the comics community, MoCCA could lower the admission or even (gasp!) make it free. It seemed like Saturday foot traffic this year was slower, which may have been because I couldn't get a good view of the entire venue. But it's hard to justify spending $15 just to get in when you're on a budget and could split that $15 on five puppy-dog-eyed art students selling their zines.
9) Charging for the exhibitor booklet/map: I know the Society of Illustrators makes lovely take away books for their art exhibits. Call me crazy but I don't think that because they spent more money on making the souvenir booklet full color on glossy paper justifies charging $5 in addition to the $15 admission price. All I want is a map indicating where my friends are tabling, I don't care about the fancy write-ups and bios. Give me a cheap print out that I don't feel bad about tossing at the end of the day. I had assumed there was no updated exhibitor map on the MoCCA website, but I see after the fact that there was. I declined the $5 booklet and decided to discover the tables more organically.
10) Placement for panel discussions: I may have misunderstood how this worked, but it seemed like the panels were being conducted at the top of the stairs on the way to the bathrooms. This was the one area where acoustics seemed terrible which is the opposite of what you want when you have an audience trying to listen to a number of people speak. There was also minimal seating with most people hanging around at the sides and back, leaving space for those going up and down the stairs to the bathroom. From what I could tell on Saturday, the larger room downstairs where the panels used to be held was filled with tables, chairs and a smattering of people checking their email or taking a break. I was later told there was food for sale in this room, but didn't notice it myself. It did look like there was a bar area next door to that for the exhibitors which is a nice touch. I don't know how well this was advertised to convention go-ers since it was fairly empty down there. There was also supposed to be a gallery space somewhere in the armory, but I totally missed it.
11) Lack of signage for larger publishers: This was something I was a bit baffled by. Again, it may have been because of the new partitions, but it seemed like a lot of the larger publishers didn't have their publishing house signs up. If I hadn't seen my friend Steve in the line for Boulet signing at the AdHouse table, I would have continued on my way. (Boulet's first book to be printed in English "Noirness" was the best $7 I spent at the show.) I also purchased a book from what I thought was Topataco and then later realized was Oni Press. Maybe it was an attempt to have more of an indie vibe, but I was mostly frustrated by not being able to find the publishers I was looking for unless they were setup on the very end of an aisle.
As I said in the beginning, I think overall the Society of Illustrators did a great job with the MoCCA Fest this year. Any gripes I have are generally with the pricing which has been an ongoing issue. It seems like all of the aesthetic moves were well received by most. After walking around on Saturday, I had the same feeling of renewed interest in creating comics that I usually get after a festival weekend. I had lots of wonderful conversations, bought a bunch of amazing content from friends and new exhibitors alike, I only wish I'd had a larger budget.