Updated: Aug 19, 2019
Networking is a must, and creative professions are in no way excerpt. You can be the most literate newsletter-er of all times, giving hearts, likes and retweets left and right, but if you want to build real connections that result is festival invitations, publishing deals and sales, you need to eventually show your face.
Not a big fan of capitalism pushing you out of your comfort zone? Don’t worry! Small indie festivals are full of like-minded souls. If you’re looking a trial of your social skills, visiting a festival like Comicjuju might be just the right thing for you.
Welcome to Stuttgart!
The first edition of this small comics festival took place in the second half of July in the town of Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg. Right out the bet, around here foreigners don’t stand out, as expats make 40% of the population. Maps and city guides might talk about the strong industrial presence, but don’t be mistaken, Stuttgart’s culture and art are also quite prevalent. During that one weekend, aside from the comics festival, each town quarter had a celebration, there was Pride-related program, vegan march, and a huge fish market.
‘In the particular case of book culture and comics we also have a few events which are definitely worth taking a closer look: the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film (ITFS), the Book Weeks in Stuttgart’s House of Commerce and the Comic-Con which takes place at Stuttgart Trade Fair (to name just the three biggest ones). Besides that there are heaps of publishing houses around Stuttgart.’ says Sarah Chand, one of the three main organizers. She’s currently teaching at Uni while working as a freelancer. Her main goal for this year is to finish her book called Hine and hopefully get it published. ‘One thing we were missing was a small festival to celebrate Comics in general and to focus in detail on the independent comics scene – that’s why we decided to start Comicjuju.‘
I met Sarah four years ago at comics symposium at Klenová, medieval castle located in the south-west of Bohemia. The event, organized biennially by Gallery Klatovy Klenová and supported by Czech-German Future Fond, welcomes eight artists from Czechia and Germany, who create and network together during one week.
Ever since I was referring German artists I met on my travels to the organizers and now, in Stuttgart, I am the invitee. ‘Germany's comics scene is still quite small, compared to the US, France, and Belgium – that’s why it’s even more important to reach out and get in contact with other artists and comics lovers. One way to do so is to attend all the great comics festivals out there, or to get active yourself and organize one.’ adds Sarah.
Let it begin! (and by it, I mean shopping!)
I arrive on Friday, give a workshop on Character Design and start the introductions. There aren’t that many people, as the artist presentations take place mostly during the weekend, but I get a chance to talk to Julia and Frank, the remaining two organizers. But more importantly, owners of Superjuju store, the vibrant and very much alive heart of the festival!
The Superjuju store, comics shop located in the central part of the city, boasts an impressive collection of curated books, offering the most intriguing read from publishers as Drawn Quarterly, First Seconds and many others. It manages to keep a welcoming look to customers who might not be exclusively looking for comics. There are prints, postcards, stickers, patches, bags, all with an artsy touch, making the store an ideal place for a, first or last minute, gift-shopping.
After a weak resistance, I buy the first book in fifteen minutes. It’s Tillie Walden’s Spinning, a touching autobiography about the cruel reality of competitive skating (and being gay in Texas), last year’s winner of Best Reality-Based Work Eisner Award. I guess owning a bookstore is a good option if your comic book-shopping goes above a certain level.
Why organize a festival? Their answer is zen-master-level simple: ‘Because there was no festival like this in Stuttgart before.’ says Julia, who used to be an artist before opening the shop. When it got bigger, her husband Frank left his IT job to help her run it.
Befriending the Artists
Nerds and comics fans might not be famous for their smooth social skills, but having a friendly place to meet and a shared passion is a big help. I make this the topic of my conversation with Eva Müller, comics artist from Hamburg.
She thinks festivals are an easier way to meet other people: ‘I always struggle at parties, but it’s easier for me during events like exhibitions, dinner parties for artists, comic fairs, etc.’ she says. It’s better when she has something to contribute because then she feels like she belongs. That’s her advice to any struggling artist: ’Go to the more quiet events, like Fumetto festival in Switzerland or the Hamburg Comic Festival. Both are big but still indie, and you get to visit nice cities.’ And what to do next? ‘Get in touch through art. Show your work, participate in events, become part of the festival program.’
Janna Klaevers, an artist residing in Berlin, emphasizes the need for a community in order to become a better artist. It’s not without occasional difficulties though: ‘The first ice-breaking is often a struggle for me. But once the first step is done I get more comfortable and I love these opportunities to talk to other artists and/or enthusiasts. I think it’s really important to reflect on what you are doing (the success and the struggles) and to learn from the experiences of others.’ she says.
Can she offer any advice? 'Well, the thing that’s always easy to say and hard to do: Don’t think about it and just jump head-in! In the end, you all have got something in common to talk about.’
Unsurprisingly, most of the program is carried out in German, which I understand none. Even so, I am quite intrigued by the concept of ‘author reading’. For those who are familiar with this concept through prose, it might seem a bit odd when applied to comics books. How exactly do you read pictures…?
‘Usually, when you make books, you don’t have much contact with your readers. The comic reading allows you to see peoples’ reactions.’ says Eva, whose book has already been translated to English and French.’ It helps and is a lot of fun. Especially showing new work. But I am also always very very nervous.’ she admits.
For most of the German artists, this is a common way how to present their book. How does it look like? They take a few scenes or put together a coherent storyline from an existing comics and then cut the panels into micro-animated segments. Often they look up music to go alongside the pictures. Then they read out the text bubbles and the more theatrical ones even perform sound effects. As the panels appear in rhythm with the reading, you never really know what you’ll get and the surprise of unexpected visual makes quite an entertaining experience.
It partly solves the old problem of presenting comics. Exhibiting comics, as paper on walls, is kind of dull, even more so as a lot of artists add text in post-production, so the showed originals can’t even be read as a comprehensive story. In the end, their presentation is not much different from the reading experience you get from comics on the Nanits app, animations, sounds and all, but having the author present it is definitely a nice touch.
Neighbors to Neighbors
As for our little Czech delegation, me and Marek Rubec (the only Czech artist to ever do the Google logo illustration!), we have our presentations on Sunday. Since none of my books is (yet!) translated to English, I show excerpts and talk more broadly. The bar comfortably fills up as I start talking about the comics I’ve done and my creative process. I am happy with my delivery (I haven’t done an English presentation for quite a while) and even happier with the audience’s questions. ‘Do you see the images in your head before you draw them?’ is followed by: ‘When are you switching the drawing styles, is it hard to come off the story emotionally as well?’ and I have to take time to think, as I’ve never even answered these questions privately before.
Marek, on the other hand, has already made a translation mark with its Jarmil, a light-hearted story about an anthropomorphic monkey. He shows photos of the town of Štětí in almost a social-documentary style, full of grotesque characters, socialist architecture, and life that goes nowhere for most of its inhabitants.
As I mentioned, I don’t speak any German, I understand very little of the presentation, though I still get a very good idea on the story as a whole. Luckily, there is one book with English text, with a poetic title The Tragedy of Dying House Plants. It consists of quick, almost childish drawings, caricatured faces and a bitter commentary on our lives, stuck between the urgent need for social media validation and the impending doom of upcoming climate catastrophe.
Its author, Sheree Domingo, tells me more: ‘I started the plant zine after working together with some scientists and other comic artists on a project to throw light on the gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas and its opportunities and risks. It made me think a lot about our relationship with other organisms and how we define our species. Mix all that with my own dying house plants, climate change, and broken hearts and you’ll get the whole picture.’
Even though artists are not exactly famous for being people loving attention seekers in real life (on the internet though, that’s another story!), Sheree is very comfortable with presenting her work in a more ‘theatrical’ manner: ‘I really appreciate comic readings, I don’t think it’s „theatre“.’ It gives the audience a different kind of experience: ‘Readings are such a nice way to experience comics in another way, e.g. if the artist uses sound. And to hear the artist reading/ interpreting their comics by themselves.’
The question still stands. Is networking any good for your career? You might meet a lot of wonderful people, see inspiring art and travel a bit, but will all that eventually transform into something tangible work-wise?
Eva is a fan of festivals, but she thinks the build stones for a career lie somewhere else. ‘The thing that pushed my career the most was my decision to dedicate myself to art and live exclusively as an artist. No other jobs, only the art-related ones. Concentrating on it and working hard helped a lot.’ Some of it is people-related after all: ‘Recently I was in Tokyo for a two-month funded art residency, that was a huge advancement too.’
Sheree points out that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that could have been a breaking point, but it surely straightens the existing bonds: ‘During festivals, you have the opportunity to briefly talk to a lot of people and get to know them. I met my publisher David Basler from Edition Moderne again after festivals.’ But festivals are usually very busy, so it’s hard to close a deal with people, who are constantly overwhelmed by all those books and people. ‘I never made any publisher deal directly at a festival.’ she admits.
In my own experience, networking works like somewhat of an investment. You go
(sometimes blind) into a situation hoping it’ll work out. You may look up people and publishers before going, so you have a better idea of where to go and how to start a conversation. It feels a little artificial and I found myself trying hard not to come off as an energy vampire, but hey, it’s work. If you don’t look out for yourself, you aren’t getting anywhere career-wise. The awkwardness and the badly hidden pushiness are part of the deal. I gradually learned to let go and have a good time with the people I meet. Nowadays you don’t even need to exchange business cards, as everyone’s social media are in reach and google will point you the right direction with the most basic info.
I remember my time in Angouleme, where I pretended to be a journalist (long before I was writing for Nanits) so I had an excuse to talk to strangers. These days, even though I have a legit writing job, I don’t need this clutch anymore. Seeing works of others is sufficient enough for me to always find something I want to ask about. But! If you’re not there yet, coming at strangers is surely terrifying sometimes, having a made-up story is completely fine. Sure, don’t go around pretending to be giving out publishing deals, a cover-up story making you a rich art collector is over the top as well, but if an Instagram-influencer-alter-ego is what makes you less nervous to start talking with people than that’s just fine. You won’t be needing it soon anyways, as you will find out immediately that especially at these kinds of events, people are happy to connect.
Lost in Logistics
Needless to say, Stuttgart is more on the posh side of things. Even Berliners consider it to be expensive.
When visiting festivals, Stuttgart or any other city in any other country, be sure to do the math beforehand. If you’re not being reimbursed after but hoping to get the money back in sales, count how many books or merchandise you would need to sale to cover the expenses. Search for cultural institutions, that offer transportations and accommodation grants to artist promoting their country abroad. Offer to do a workshop and set an appropriate fee for its attendees.
Keep in mind that you’ll be getting exposure, networking opportunities, and market space. On the other hand, there are transportation and accommodation costs, food, pocket money for all the wonderful art and last but not least, the actual time you will be billing to nobody else but yourself.
But in the end, it’s all about the people that come your way and that you can never predict. Comicjuju is a wonderful event I am really happy I got the opportunity to attend. I met old friends, made new ones and was exposed to so many great books, that I can’t wait to get back and use all that inspiration. Thanks to the Czech Center in Munich, our expenses were covered and we were even given a fee for our participation in the program.
As Sarah puts it, a few weeks after the festival, when the dust settled and her sleeping schedule returned to normal: ‘In the beginning Comicjuju was planned as a small event and when we started thinking about all the possibilities (exhibitions, readings, a zine, workshops…) it quickly grew. We first thought it’s better to ask a few more people if they were interested in participating – to have at least a small group for the final event. But almost everyone we've asked said straight away yes! The feedback before, during and after the event was overwhelming and it was consistently positive. I've absolutely enjoyed it, all smaller organization troubles and worries are already forgotten and we’re planing next year’s Comicjuju.’
So there’s gonna be the second time? ‘Yes, there’s a Comicjuju planned for 2020 and we have a small list with things we would like to change. The main thing, I would say, is to start the planning earlier to have a chance to get some cultural funding and find some sponsors. And we’re looking for people who are seriously (!) interested in helping and supporting us to grow the Comicjuju team.’
After all, maybe the easiest way to network is to be the one who creates space for others to meet.
Author: Štěpánka Jislová
Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.