“Part of the magic of MICE is seeing hundreds of different styles of art and being able to talk to the creators”
Sort of like the rodent population in rapidly booming Boston, we have watched MICE grow significantly since the early 2000s. The major difference of course being that in the case of the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, their longevity and increased visibility is a positive thing.
By definition, MICE is “the New England area’s premiere event dedicated to the exciting and accessible art form of independent comics and graphic novels.” It’s also free and open to the public, which is great. But in a grander sense it’s so much more, as the show has fostered critical contacts between creatives and New England fans since before comics had their major mainstream moment, and continues to do so with integrity despite the current hype.
With comics and graphic novels of all kinds now being bigger business than ever, particularly since COVID downtime bolstered the industry, we asked MICE organizers how the boom impacts their conference and the Boston Comic Arts Foundation nonprofit behind it. This year’s event is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 22-23 at BU’s School of Visual Arts, where they’re expecting more than 5,000 attendees over two days.
Read below for our Q&A with Dan Mazur (MICE), Zach Clemente (MICE), and S.Matt Read (BCAF) about their experiences putting on indie comic festivals and the process of moving their spectacular to a new venue this year.
You know we have to start with a pandemic question. How much has COVID screwed MICE up? Is this a recovery year of sorts where things will be the most back to pre-pandemic normal?
ZC: It’s a hard question to answer. Year over year, MICE has been seeing more attendance and interest and we were excited about what 2020 meant for us. However, it really doesn’t feel like this gap in running “a fully-fledged” MICE was a step backwards for what MICE is and can become. We were able to be flexible in 2020 by producing a highly successful series of virtual programming called the “Month of MICE” and then again in 2021 by running a small yet impactful “locals only” show at Starlight Square in Cambridge dubbed “Mini-MICE.” Though we’ve been physically distanced from our loving community, these events helped us recognize that they’re still with us and eager for our return. We don’t really need to recover but rebuild. Especially since this year is our first in a new venue, we have the opportunity to decide how to approach MICE in a different world. Did we lose momentum? Perhaps, but if we did, it was easy to not fret over it and focus on bringing joy and excitement to our community as best as we could.
There is still a truckload of talent involved. Can you just briefly run through what it takes to solicit, field, and curate talent for an event like this?
DM: Each year, we get more and more applicants for tables. It takes reading a lot of comics, as you go through 400 or more applications, then trying to keep some grasp on what your own standards are to put one applicant “in” and another “out” or waitlisted, when the vast majority of them are really quite worthy at least. Toward the end when you’re getting to the final cut, we’re really splitting hairs to rank any one applicant over another. Of course we have other factors besides quote-unquote quality: diversity of all kinds (region, styles, types of comics). But basically we’re cramming a year’s worth of comics reading into an intensive 3-4 week period.
Being a benevolent indie org and all, how do you go about courting and involving better known talent but still treating all the artists with the respect they deserve?
DM: One great thing about indie comics, that I found when I entered the “scene” about 15-16 years ago, is the lack of vertical hierarchy. The “stars” of indie comics, as a general rule, don’t put on airs, and are very accessible, so it’s never been much of an issue. Our special guests are “stars,” but so are all our exhibitors, and I’m not just saying that, we really feel that way. We’ve had student cartoonists crammed into a group table, and a few years later, they’ve published a graphic novel and we’re inviting them as special guests with their name on the poster and all that. So there’s really no difference: we love and respect them all.
For the MICE crew, as far as the event is concerned, how has the boom in comic collecting impacted things? More interest? More attendance? Anything negative?
ZC: Something we’ve noticed is that there are more and more people interested in reading and more importantly making comics, which are the sorts of people we attract as audience members. The comics collector ecosystem is somewhat disconnected from the biomes of comics that MICE exists in, but a rising tide often lifts all ships; comics in general saw a boom and we are hopeful to see a direct impact on our festival.
Happily, interest in MICE has always been high, equally from hopeful exhibitors and frequent attendees. That hasn’t changed and it certainly feels like people are hungry to be back in October. The only negative component is that we can’t accommodate everyone. Gone are the days where a useful 20% of our exhibitor applications were from artists or groups that were a genuine mismatch for MICE. We’re now getting between 2-3x more applications than we have spots for with the overwhelming majority not only being appropriate to our guidelines but being quite good. We can’t help but disappoint and even anger people when we deny or waitlist people. This is a small but extremely worthwhile pain since it means that lots of people want to exhibit at our festival. Maybe one day we can support more but at the moment, it’s not on the table.
Has your nonprofit benefited at all from the comic boom? Can you just explain in brief what the nonprofit is, what it does, and why it is important for people to support it year round?
SMR: I do believe we’ve benefited from the uptick in comics interest. Up until the pandemic, indie comic festivals in particular had seen an increase in attendance in the Greater Boston area. In 2019 for example, MICE attracted some 4,200+ attendees. Organizationally, we’re excited and energized by the public’s enthusiasm for comics, and we each try to support the festival as best we can.
The Boston Comic Arts Foundation, known as BCAF, supports MICE and is the fiscal sponsor of the Boston Comics in Color Festival, a first-of-its-kind annual event featuring cartoonists of color in Boston. These festivals are grassroots endeavors, support hundreds of creators every year, and help educate attendees about comics and making art.
Festivals like MICE and BCICF take most of the year to plan. Almost every organizer I know has a full-time job outside of working for an indie comics festival, but if you attended one, you’d think it was put on by full-time event planners. (In fact, we have been complimented by an event planner who was blown away by the quality of the festival.) Supporting the Boston Comic Arts Foundation provides direct support for both MICE and BCICF and will allow us to keep putting on these fantastic events for years to come.
Is the independent world pretty separated from the major comic world, MCU developments, other comic cons and such? And if there is any connective tissue, what would you say it is?
ZC: You’ll get a lot of answers to this depending on who you ask. How do you define a work being “independent”? Would it be based on subject matter? Print run and distribution numbers? Production design and format? It’s a question that begs pedantry! The short answer is: not really. Even if Marvel and DC operate mostly in their “own world” as far as comics publishing goes, the people who make their books certainly don’t. There are many artists and writers who are just as eager to work on Batman as they are to make a book for an independent publisher, we often invite local comics makers to be part of our programming even if their current work would be considered “too mainstream” to exhibit with.
One material division between “mainstream” comics and “independent” comics are cons and festivals that spring up around them. Something that MICE and other independent comic arts festivals have in common that sets them apart from your typical comic-con is that we’re almost exclusively focused on comics as craft and celebration of comics-making. The entirety of MICE is around making, reading, and buying comics. Comic-cons have a tendency to bleed into other interests outside of comics. This isn’t a knock on them, we firmly believe that MICE and similar festivals benefit directly from the continued popularity of more commercial comic-cons.
What were the major goals for MICE organizers this year? What has your team done to accomplish them?
DM: Number one goal has been adjusting to the new venue, the new host, Boston University. They have been fantastically wonderful and amplified our own excitement about getting back to MICE. Even so, just learning the different departments, who’s in charge of what space, can we set up here, who do we talk to about this, can we put this on the wall? Figuring all this out in a few months, as opposed to the gradual 10-year process at our last venue, is a challenge we’re handling right now. And I think the way we are accomplishing this is by adding a few key players to our organizational team, and also by the returning, long-term organizers sort of finding new reservoirs of energy, spurred on by that great motivator, a blood-chilling fear of failure. And by the way, our previous host, Lesley University was equally wonderful over the ten years we held the show there, but with all their efforts to adjust to the late-pandemic era university challenges, they weren’t able to offer us space this year.
And finally, any artists in particular that we should be excited for? What is everybody really anticipating?
SMR: We have a few outstanding teaser events that I feel compelled to call out because they’re happening a few days before the main MICE festival. We have the ever-popular Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Lunch Lady series and Star Wars) leading a free comics workshop at the Public Library of Brookline (Brookline Village) on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 3:30pm. Then we have a fantastic banned boomk panel featuring Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer), Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Hey, Kiddo), and Jerry Craft (New Kid), moderated by Joel Christian Gill (Fights), also on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7pm at BU’s Jacob Sleeper Auditorium. It’s really going to be a fantastic start.
But of course, there’s the main event. After three years of waiting, we are extremely excited to present over 200 creators at this year’s MICE! For curious first-time attendees, the best thing to do is walk the entire exhibitor hall and let yourself get pulled in by the comics and artwork on display. Part of the magic of MICE is seeing hundreds of different styles of art and being able to talk to the creators about their work. For longtime fans of MICE, we know you’ll be on the lookout for our special guests (12 this year!), as well as MICE mini-grant winners, which will be on display at the welcome desk. And for both groups, our free, in-person programming complete with panels, live-drawings, demos, and workshops will be running at the same time. There are so many programs this year. Making time for these events is a popular way to enjoy MICE, and we all know it’s been a long time coming. We look forward to seeing everyone.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.