MICE 2014 Preview : Interview with Shelli Paroline and Dan Mazur

Shelli Paroline and Dan Mazur are involved in comics (and the Boston comics community) in a number of different ways. Shelli is a founding member of the Boston Comics Roundtable, and is a comics illustrator (Shelli and husband Braden Lamb illustrate the Adventure Time and The Midas Flesh comic series for Kaboom! Studios, among other projects).  Dan is the co-author of Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present and is the founder of comics publisher Ninth Art Press.

Shelli and Dan are the co-organizers of the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE) which is coming up October 4-5 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (our preview here).  Shelli and Dan were nice enough to talk with us about what guests can expect at MICE this year.

Panel Patter: For those who may still be unaware, tell them a little bit about the purpose of the MICE show.
Dan Mazur MICE is focused on independent comics creators and their work, so the exhibitors are all artists, collectives or small presses. We want to give an opportunity to artists, especially local artists, to connect with the community, and with potential new readers. We believe that there’s a growing audience for independent and alternative comics in the Boston area, and we try to organize and publicize the show in a way that will attract newcomers, who may have only a vague idea of what independent comics are. It’s important to us to keep promoting printed comics as well -- especially hand-crafted, DIY, personal creations -- in the digital age. The internet is great for comics, but there’s still a very large place for comics on paper, comics-as-objects, and MICE is part of that space.

Shelli Paroline: Another thing that’s seemed natural is to make the show welcome to kids and families; we’ve designated the Sunday “Kids Comics Day” with three workshops offered for young readers and budding artists, taught by celebrated cartoonist like Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters) and Bob Flynn (Spongebob Comics). All weekend make sure that the exhibitors with comics for kids have a special yellow balloon so kids and their parents can find them. It’s good for the show to be an event both you and your kids can attend, enjoy, and stay awhile. It’s good for comics as a whole, because it encourages the next generation to recognize it as a form of entertainment and art.

Panel Patter: MICE is organized by the Boston Comics Roundtable and the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. What brought those organizations together to establish MICE, and what can you tell readers about them?
Mazur: Boston Comics Roundtable is an organization that brings together as many local comics creators as we can, for regular meetings, creative cross-pollination, social camaraderie, as well as raising the awareness of independent cartoonists in the community at large. Having an independent comics show in the area seemed like an important way to further all those goals. We took part in running the Boston Zine Fair in 2008, and that sort of evolved into MICE, with a focus solely on comics, starting in 2010. The Art Institute of Boston (which is now known as the Lesley University College of Art and Design) immediately responded to the idea of holding it in their building -- we’ve actually held the show in 3 different locations with Lesley / LUCAD. The whole University has proved very comics-friendly. Not only the art school, but also the Arts in Education Department at Lesley. They’re sponsoring a symposium within MICE, aimed at teachers and educators, called Comics and the Classroom.

Panel Patter: What are some of the challenges in putting together a small press show, and how did you handle them?
Mazur: I think the greatest challenge is growth. Our space is limited, and we try to squeeze as many exhibitors in as we can. But we still have to turn away a lot of creators who we’d really like to have in the show. That’s very painful to do, because the whole idea of MICE is to be inclusive and welcoming.

Panel Patter: How has the shown grown since its inception in 2010?
Mazur: Yes, both in terms of numbers (from a few hundred attendees, to nearly 2000 last year), and in the profile we’re trying to achieve -- we’ started bringing in special guests two years ago, and we’ve featured some pretty accomplished and well-known cartoonists. This year, Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, James Kochalka, Paul Hornschemeier, Box Brown, Emily Carroll.

Panel Patter: The show is free to the public. What drove that decision, especially when many similar events charge a nominal entry fee?
Mazur: It goes back to the zine fair roots of the show, which is a very anti-capitalistic place to start from. I think there are two main reasons we keep it free: We really want to encourage people who aren’t sure what independent comics are to come in and look around, because we think a lot of them will like what they find. Secondly, if there’s money being spent, we want it to go directly to the creators who are exhibiting.

Paroline: We pass this good will on to our exhibitors as well. For instance, we offer annual MICE Mini-Grants of $75 toward the print production of new mini-comics. This year, we awarded six grants to Sara Goetter, Reilly Hadden, Ansis Purins, Laila Milevski, Hannah Fisher, and Nick Offerman. On top of that, we hand out MICE bucks, a gift certificate to be spent within the exhibit halls, as an audience prize during our Iron Cartoonist drawing competition. We really believe in free.
Panel Patter: How did you create the process of selecting publishers and creators for the show?
Mazur: Out of awful necessity, after the tables sold out in a few hours two years ago. We could have gone to a total lottery, or a totally curated show. Instead, it’s a compromise: we want to make sure that visitors to the show will be exposed to the most accomplished and, in our opinion, best comics creators in the area, and also that the show represents our idea of independent, alternative comics. So we curate a percentage of the tables. The rest of the applicants go into a lottery. We’d like to have them all, but we don’t have the room, so we let fate decide.
Panel Patter: The focus of MICE has in previous years been on local creators, but this year you've expanded the focus by inviting Raina Telgemeier, James Kochalka, Dave Roman, Emily Carroll, Box Brown and Paul Hornschmeier as special guests. Tell us about these creators, and why you wanted them to be special guests of MICE.

Mazur: We’re really proud of the quality of these guests, and the range of their work. Emily Carroll has been a name that we’ve talked about since we first started inviting special guests two years ago; she’s a fantastic cartoonist, just published her first collection Through the Woods, and someone we really want to present to Boston readers (she already has quite a few here). She does a lot of horror stories, but they transcend the genre: beautiful, poetic and deeply creepy. Paul Hornschemeier is a recent transplant to the Boston area from Chicago; this in itself is a major coup for local independent comics. He’s been doing character-based, serious comics for over a decade, someone who has both the writing and graphic skills to make graphic novels worth of that exalted term. 

Raina Telgemeier is one of the most popular creators in YA graphic novels; her roots are in auto-biographical independent comics, and she brings honesty, intimacy and humor to her books (Smile, Drama, Sisters) that really connect with readers. Dave Roman is another great YA cartoonist, who does crazy fun stuff like Teen Boat, and Astronaut Academy. James Kochalka was the pioneer of the diary comic - his “American Elf” is the epic of that genre; he was one of the leaders of the movement toward DIY and indie comics in the 90s and 00s (he wrote a book called “The Cute Manifesto,” which really lays out the DIY ethic that inspired many cartoonists), and his recent work is really wonderful kids’ material with that same spirit. 

Then there’s Box Brown who really represents the current generation of cartoonists, influenced by Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, and then going off in new directions; his graphic novel Andre the Giant is a great example of a cross-over success: it’s a very personal, very “indie-comic” approach to the story of a famous wrestler.. and it made the NY Times best-seller list.  In addition, Box has done a lot for the medium with his small press, Retrofit comics, which specialize in mini-comics, to return to that theme of keeping the printed comic alive and thriving.
Panel Patter: Who are some of the lesser-known folks that you could highlight for readers to seek out at the show?

Mazur: I’m not sure I want to do that. I have many many favorites among the exhibitors. They’re all really good. That’s not an exaggeration.

Paroline: Yes, you’ll have to decide for yourself and the MICE Debut Comics is a great place to start. These are the books that all the creators have worked so hard on to have them ready for this show, and they’ll be really happy if you say “Oh I saw this on the website,” and then buy them!
Panel Patter: In addition to being an organizer of MICE you are also comics creators and illustrators, and exhibitors at MICE. What work will you be highlighting at MICE, and do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
Mazur: I have a new anthology I both published and have a story in. It’s called SubCultures, and features 36 stories by different cartoonists, each about a different subculture (from goth fetish clubs to cryptozoologists, punks, ravers...even cartoonists).  More info here.

Paroline: I’ll have the latest volume of the Adventure Time comics  (we’re up to volume 5!) and the complete run of the science fictional original series of The Midas Flesh -- both of which are comics I illustrate with my husband Braden Lamb and are penned expertly by Ryan North.

Panel Patter: Thanks very much for speaking with me! I look forward to attending and encourage Panel Patter readers in the Boston area to do the same.