During the first New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival last year—NOCAZ for short—organizer Erin Wilson surveyed the lines of tables with neat stacks of self- published comics in the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library, and confessed with a smile, “the industry is full of people trying to make it, but I’m excited about people making cool stuff.”
The festival’s organizers—Wilson, Ben Passmore, and Matthew Chandelier—moved to town several years ago and quickly met other artists, including the esteemed New Orleans cartoonist Caesar Meadows. Meadows has hosted weekly drawing jams since the late ‘80s that have produced a variety of local comics anthologies, including dafa FUNGUS and FEAST. The New Orleans Book Fair and local comics shops were also places artists could sell their work and share it with others. Still, despite this cozy infrastructure, comics and zines felt more like a scene and less like a community. Who else may have been self-publishing in the New Orleans area? Who may want to start, but couldn’t, due to a lack of access to materials or due to feeling intimidated by the slick, technicolor, bro-ladened world of popular comics?
“I think when we talked about starting NOCAZ, it was because there was a lack of [comics and zine fests]” says Matthew Chandelier. “A lot more stuff has been happening since the first NOCAZ. Two libraries have opened up zine collections. We were hosting readings throughout the year for a while, but then it seemed like it wasn’t even necessary because so many other people were doing it. It’s really awesome to see things building momentum.”
All three organizers seemed taken aback at the turnout of both comics fans and creators last year. If the goal was to provide a space for zinesters in New Orleans and around the country to mingle and meet each other, then NOCAZ was a success. Local artists and readers tumbled out of nooks and crannies to exchange their self-produced publications. Even so, the organizers wanted to build on the momentum and use the second festival to fortify the sense of community building among independent comics artists, engaging the New Orleans community at large in an effort to inspire new people to start self-publishing their own comics or zines.
“This year—our second—is supposed to be really big for us. We wanted to do something outside of just a festival and see if we could engage different ages of people,” says Passmore. “We also liked the idea of providing certain information for free. One of my motivations was going to art school and seeing how big of a waste of money it was. I don’t really want kids to go to art school,” says Passmore, laughing, “so maybe we can provide some sort of information and access, which I think is still something we’re trying to understand how to do.”
Throughout the year, Passmore, Wilson, and Chandelier helped local libraries start zine/comics art programs for kids, while producing their own work and traveling to festivals across the country. At a small press festival in Rhode Island, Wilson and Passmore appeared on a panel about starting new festivals.
“A lot of the readings and presentations [at other fests] are by really popular people and industry people,” Passmore says. “That’s fine. I go to a lot of those as a function of my enthusiasm for being a cartoonist and a part of the industry. But I think, for us, we didn’t want to organize an industry festival. We talked about that on the panel. It was clear to me based on who was [at the panel], that there was a bit of a difference between how we were oriented, which is no shade on them. We had some things in common, but that seems like a major difference.”
Another member of the small zine scene, Mike Maher, moved to New Orleans this past year. A former organizer of zine festivals in Baltimore, he quickly contacted the NOCAZ crew to volunteer and almost immediately began coordinating volunteer activities and duties. He also notices a difference in how NOCAZ is oriented, compared with other small press fests.
“Small independent festivals amplify types of voices that aren’t ever amplified. Go to SPX (Small Press Expo) and these “indie” publishers have a whole city block that’s their tabling area. So when you’re going through the rest of it, artists will only have half of half a table… and that’s all they can afford. Those artists aren’t amplified to the point that they should be because they don’t have the finances. So, I really like focusing on D.I.Y. because all voices are equally relevant as long as they’re not saying something that could provoke violence.”
Mainstream comics festivals have turned into orgies of commercialism, filled with limited edition action figures and printings at a premium price that squeeze out independent artists. Even small press festivals incur significant costs for the tablers: a half table might cost up to $150. By contrast, NOCAZ charges only ten bucks for out-of-state participants, and it’s free for Louisiana residents.
That’s not to say that other small press festivals are necessarily corporate havens or that NOCAZ is an artistic giveaway. But they like to think their main focus is on the artists and the attendees. “For me, the fact that we feed our tablers breakfast and lunch is a huge deal. It sounds like such a simple thing, but I had so much fun at NOCAZ last year and I saw everyone else in good spirits, and I think it’s because nobody was ‘hangry.’ They didn’t have to think am I gonna make enough money to eat lunch?” said Wilson. “A lot of the stuff that I’ve been vocal about contributing has come from other fests, like the people walking around offering tabling relief. In Washington D.C. at a fest, this amazing thing happened: I needed to go to the bathroom and they watched my table. When I came back, they had sold some stuff.”
“Zines are so associated with punk and punk subculture,” says Chandelier. “It’s an awesome tool to just make something and photocopy it. It’s also cheap, affordable, and accessible so that you can really get what you want to say out there. Taking those tools, and not just having them be stuck in the punk world, but sharing them with the community, with the youth, and having them at the public library so maybe people who normally wouldn’t encounter [zines] would encounter them.”The NOCAZ organizers want to radically change the idea of what a festival, especially a small press or comics fest, looks like and how it functions. Specifically, they want to provide a space that encourages a diverse array of artists, removed from the violent, superhero- dominated world of popular comics. The range of genres and types of zines are impressive. At the last NOCAZ, weird, body horror stories were stacked near intros to radical queer politics and vegan cookbooks; personal narratives and diaries sat next to Dungeons and Dragons parodies and home-brewed werewolf stories. One author drew a comic about a dream where Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, and Jessica Lange were his roommates. Some artists printed their comics using high-quality press, others used a photocopier.
In addition to the tables, neat stacks of zines, and friends and fellow artists couch surfing, NOCAZ is active in providing access to the knowledge of materials, methods, and new technologies to self- publish. Part of that process involves creating and encouraging existing educational programs built around zine-making and self-publishing, like programs organized by the Alvar branch of the New Orleans Public Library. “I want NOCAZ to be a place where young people in New Orleans can have access to making zines and self-publishing. Even as a concept, just the idea that I can write a thing and then I can share it with people and they’ll care, or that my voice is actually worth being heard. That’s actually a big hurdle for most kids,” Wilson says. “Kids spend so much time saying ‘oops, I did it wrong. What I drew is stupid’ but often their drawings won’t look any better or worse than drawings I’ve seen in zines before. It’s a huge deal to a kid to finish a thing and have it printed and stapled.”
In addition to general encouragement, NOCAZ offers to help publish any work by children. Says Wilson, “We [agreed] that we shouldn’t have a kids’ section, that kids should be considered as equals and have the experience of showing up at a really cool place where all these amazing people who have traveled from all over the country, and [the kids] are one of them. The idea of them having ten copies is so they can participate just as well as any adult could.”
In this digital age, Wilson sees zine- making as an introductory course to using tools and technology, such as photocopiers, computers, and various software available at the public library. Zines and comics aren’t simply catalysts for education; NOCAZ hopes that those children who participate will bring their friends into the hobby.
“It’s interesting, trying to get kids interested in zines. Like, are zines still relevant with all of this internet shit around?” Chandelier asks through laughter. “But I think they still are, and I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. There’s a magic to actually making a physical object and sharing it with people. That can work in interesting ways with the internet; a way to get people’s voices out there that aren’t out there in the standard media channels.”
Social media sites like Tumblr and access to technology like scanners, photocopiers, and graphic design software has greatly democratized the printed word and image. Questions about whether or not zines and comics in their printed form are still relevant not only among children, but in the culture as a whole do not worry the NOCAZ crew. There is no crisis of confidence there. Whether a person creates and shares that creation at a fest or on Tumblr doesn’t matter; Passmore, Wilson, Chandelier, and Maher just want people to “make stuff.”
“Print media’s relevance isn’t that it’s an antiquated thing—almost like the printed book is a fine art object, and that it’s precious,” says Maher. “I’m really allergic to that. What I get out of being handed a zine or trading a comic isn’t just a precious thing that I’m going to put away in a box and never look at it again. They took the time to make this, and I’m going to take the time to look at it and really get my grubby hands on it. I think the magic’s in a zine not being a precious thing. Sort of like on Tumblr where you just scroll through images, the main difference being a physical object forces you to spend the time with it instead of clicking through it.”
That movement to fetishize art also lends credence to the idea that a festival and a market are inextricably linked. NOCAZ stands in direct opposition to this idea. The NOCAZ take on festivals comes from a place of sensitivity, intentionality, and community- orientation that the beaucoup festivals in New Orleans seem to miss, despite rows of tents of NOLA-branded bric-a-brac.
“I don’t think the world needs more endless art just being made,” says Chandelier. “How that art is used, who has access, who’s talking— that’s what’s really important. Art can be one of the most powerful, wonderful, transformative things, but it can also really suck and just cause a lot of harm.”
While all four NOCAZ organizers are transplants, they have no interest in partaking in any sort of cultural domination or appropriation. And they’d like to keep it that way, even if they’re unsure whether or not they can. “Every two years we want to look at NOCAZ and ask if we want to continue making it happen,” says Chandelier. “Ask: is the fest doing what we want it to do, or just replicating some shit we don’t want replicated.”
If NOCAZ isn’t proselytizing comics and zines, if it isn’t providing a safe space for creators to meet, mingle, share, and inspire new creators to learn about DIY publishing in NOCAZ workshops, then they’ll change their strategy. The traditional conceptualization of a fest will be thrown out the window and something else will take its place. Its creators define NOCAZ as a sort of energy, one that doesn’t seek to exploit terms like “local” and “fest” as a means for self-promotion, nor appropriate the New Orleans name as a moniker of artistic authenticity.
“If NOCAZ ends up turning into a thing where it’s just a bunch of college-aged white people, or if the straight white gaze doesn’t get dismantled, and it’s just the same thing we’ve seen a million times before, then it’s not worth our energy,” says Wilson. “There are so many different options, and we’re not going to limit ourselves to the idea that the only thing we can do is sit in a room and sell stuff. The fact that we’re going to assess it after NOCAZ is over is a great motivation to make it as good as we can make it.”
The New Orleans Comic and Zine Festival will be Saturday, November 14th at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library (219 Loyola Ave.), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. NOCAZ is still accepting volunteers to watch tables for artists, help with meals, welcome guests, make signs, and help with workshops. For more info or to volunteer, visit nocazfest.com