Who gets to decide whether print is "dead"? Who gets to survey everything print — a medium that has been around for centuries and likely will continue until trees can't be synthesized into some kind of paper — and say, "This no longer exists"? Newspapers, sure, are biting mouthfuls of dust as they compete with an online marketplace that has fueled journalistic mayhem, terrifyingly insipid "content" farms and an existential crisis in newsrooms around the world.
Meanwhile, a zine writer is photocopying some pages, stapling them together and preparing to sit for a couple of hours at a table to sell them for a few dollars each. Or trade them for someone else's.
Also, Erin Wilson jokes (kind of) that when electricity is over and the government mandates rolling blackouts, people will need something to read.
Wilson and a group of zine makers and comic artists founded the New Orleans Comics and Zine (NOCAZ) festival not only to showcase a growing network of independent print publishers in the South but to open that network to communities whose voices never were able to be a part of it — people who rely on print as a vital lifeline, its "death" be damned.
The festival returns for its third year Nov. 19-20 at the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library.
"There's this narrative that everything is digital and print is dying, and while I know the print industry is suffering on certain levels, that's an experience of an upper-middle-class life," Wilson says. "I know a lot of people in my neighborhood who don't have smartphones, who don't have computers. They have a TV, maybe ... You have a Boost mobile phone you add minutes to. You don't have a smartphone, you don't read Facebook. ... Things being in your hand, despite how much technological advancement we have, just can't be truly replaced."
Brandon Ledet started the film website Swampflix with a collective of southeast Louisiana natives, then transformed their essays and idiosyncratic reviews into handwritten zines with lo-fi, high-contrast Sharpie illustrations. Inspired by zine makers at NOCAZ's inaugural event, Ledet entered Swampflix into the festival for 2015 with zines about movies featuring killer ants, the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, a collection of its "movie of the month" features and writing about wrestling films. This year, Swamp Flix adds zines based on its Marvel Universe chat series Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.
"We were all laid off at the same time, so there was a gap where we didn't have much to do, but we were still watching movies," Ledet says. "I was reading about movies every day and not writing. ... It became a personal goal, 'I'm going to post a movie review every day, since I'm watching films and I need to get the pen moving.'"
New Orleans comic artist Caesar Meadows — whose often-surreal slice-of-life stories and illustrations have filled miniaturized pages packed into baubles in coin-operated machines around town or tossed from Mardi Gras floats — also presides over the comic anthology Feast and Mogi Womp!, a frequent comic-making jam in his living room. He returns to NOCAZ in 2016 with a new format, the Nano-Qube.
"It's a 1-inch-by-1-inch-by-1-inch hinged plastic cube filled with six unique and very tiny 16-page comic books," he says. "The tiny comics are about these two goofy bar patrons, Hard Lick and Spooky Toof, and their inane and inebriated interactions. ... My aim was to create an unassuming nano nugget of comical whimsy that, when cracked open by the curious, celebrates, in my humble opinion, the struggle of grappling with the fundamental absurdity of existence."
Comic artist and festival organizer Ben Passmore will offer his Daygloayhole series — a "dystopic post-apocalyptic punk comic about killing things, gentrification and post-Marxist alienation" — and a newer, short comic Your Black Friend.
"I'm always trying to find entertaining and novel ways to talk about all my feelings about life in New Orleans," Passmore says. "A dystopic landscape is a kind of perfectly disingenuous stage to talk about police violence, racism and gentrification in one breath and pornography-addicted cockroaches in the next. I always want to make things that are as challenging as they are fun to read. Your Black Friend came out of a few conversations with other black punks in New Orleans about navigating a mostly white punk scene here and embodying a type of blackness that both white and black people have a hard time understanding."
The festival's convergence of zinemaking and comics puts together under one roof a snapshot of independent press in the South, with room for other artists from around the U.S. Taking stock of festivals around the country, Passmore found them expensive, exclusive, nearly identical — and super white.
"Cartoonists and zinesters were going to festivals in other cities and we were asking each other informally why there wasn't a festival here," Passmore says. "Pretty early on we started talking about what it would mean to have a New Orleans festival. ... Essentially it was cartoonists and zinesters getting together and wanting to have a New Orleans-focused or Deep South-focused comic and zine festival. We weren't sure if anyone was going to come, so we said we better have comics and zines, so we can cast the widest net possible."
A New Orleans festival, Passmore says, needs to be inclusive for all of New Orleans, not another homogenous art fair, and definitely not a high-priced comic convention.
"We should do a festival that responds to the economic and social geography we're in," he says. "Most of the other conventions are industry conventions — they're very white — and you couldn't tell much of a difference (between them) looking at them. ... We were like, one, these people are not coming to New Orleans for our people, and two, what kind of people do we wanna have?"
The festival also isn't cost-prohibitive — table registration for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama residents is free — and other applicants can pay on a sliding scale.
"If we have to choose between a first-timer and their first zine and they've never showed up before, or a big press that has 30 books and they've been around a bunch of times," Wilson says, "we're gonna pick the first-timer."
At its 2015 event, NOCAZ tables spanning the light-filled second floor of the Main Library were covered with zines and comics covering anarchism, queerness, identity politics and Rust Belt punk scenes, and intimate and charming diary entries about race and beauty — as well as surreal pseudo-fan art and other-dimensional interpretations of pop cultural megaliths like Dragon Ball Z and The X-Files, or portraits of pasta. Gorgeous prints from the New Orleans Community Print Shop and Darkroom were pinned above one table, a few steps from a folder filled with primary-colored student art, around the corner from a puppet show, a Seinfeld zine "about nothing," and New Orleans comic artist Otto Splotch and his Quarter Vomit.
"I don't see a need for it to become 500 tables," printmaker and organizer Mike Maher says. "There's something really dehumanizing about that. It's nice it's confined to that space. It's less commercial, and it feels familiar, and it's not driven by 'We're selling stuff.'"
"There's already an art market — we don't need to make an art market," Passmore says. "We have ideas about who we'd love to come, who we'd hope that NOCAZ is elevating, and giving access to information and trading with people. Part of our conversation about growth is not how many attendees, or how many tables, [but] who's tabling? Who feels like NOCAZ is their home?" NOCAZ the festival is an extension and culmination of NOCAZ the group, aligning itself "in ways that don't have anything to do with the festival but in ways we work in the city, the work we do and the work we write," Wilson says.
"We're trying to build an infrastructure, and NOCAZ is a part of it," Passmore says. "We're more interested in building our culture around it. I think we're more activist-y than other festivals. ... It's more community organizing than event planning."
On its website, on a page labeled Black Lives Matter, above Wilson's portraits of three black men killed by police in 2016 (Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Jai "Jerry" Williams), NOCAZ writes, "We are committed to doing our part as a little comic and zine festival, and as individuals that live here and love it, to fight for the freedom of all people."
New Orleans aims to be the most literate city in the U.S. by 2018. That's no small feat, considering more than 40 percent of the city's adults struggle with basic literacy, according to the Data Center. One quarter of the city's workforce has difficulty reading, writing and using a computer, making digital access a burden to much of a city adapting to the digital-first times without the tools to do so. The New Orleans Public Library supports several literacy programs, which nearly faced serious setbacks in May 2015, when a citywide ballot measure determined whether voters would support a 2.5-mill property tax earmarked for library funding. (They did.) Mayor Mitch Landrieu even stumped on its behalf, telling voters that if the millage didn't pass, "We're going to have to suffer the consequences."
NOCAZ also encouraged its followers to support the millage vote. The library not only is NOCAZ's home but also a lifeline for many New Orleans kids and families that NOCAZ hopes to reach. (The library's rent-free arrangement with the fest — which occupies two floors with dozens of tables over a weekend this year — is "sort of like if your landlord was a cool friend who bought a house," Passmore says.)
"We talk about access and having people who aren't just white college students," Wilson says. "And for a lot of people who don't have computers or don't have access to scan [their work], the library offers the ability to extend that accessibility."
Leading up to the festival, NOCAZ hosts youth workshops on writing and illustrating at several library branches. This year, the group will print its inaugural youth anthology in collaboration with Press Street. The money generated from sales of the anthology goes to the kids who made it, along with the "experience of, 'I wrote something, I submitted it'" and making $5 from something they created, Wilson says.
While schools may encourage or teach computer skills in the classroom, it's an experience many kids in New Orleans don't have. According to the Data Center, only 58 percent of households in Orleans Parish and 68 percent of households in Jefferson Parish have internet access that's not dependent on a mobile device — compared to 71 percent nationwide. (In St. Tammany Parish, 78 percent of households have internet access.)
"Kids get that knowledge at school, and that's great, because they'll need it," Wilson says. "I have kids in my life I take to the library and they're so excited for one hour on the computer, because they don't get to do that at home. ... A comic (book), you're alone in your room, you're by yourself, you take it home — you don't cram it into the one hour you have at the library."
NOCAZ youth workshops are free, all materials are provided, and attendance is growing. (At a recent workshop at the Martin Luther King Branch on Caffin Avenue, more than 20 students were pulled from class to attend.)
"In a few years, if all the kids who go through the youth program make their own comic or zine, that's worth it to me," Howard says.
"I love comics. They were definitely transportive for me as a kid," Passmore says. "Growing up with no TV or radio or video games, it was the chief cultural transmission for me. ... Having been a poor black kid, it was nice when I felt I had a platform, or thing I could control and make, to communicate ideas and feelings — whether it's my love for creating robots or, in my adult life, some nuance or more complicated ideas. ... People don't necessarily have access to a lot of information. It's still good for us to have this thing where we're sharing, 'You can make a comic for no money.'"
Organizers are reluctant to slam the internet. That experience is valuable, too. Zine- and comic-making — and a festival partly intended to celebrate it — isn't a fetishization of the print medium. It's a way to reach someone, not as an art piece to sit on a shelf, but as an active object made with intention.
"There's really something great and very personal about making something and putting together a book and getting it into someone else's hands," Howard says. "There's a level of connection that's lost on the web. Not to knock the internet — I put most of my comics on there, too — but it's a different transaction you're making when you make a physical object and make the time to give it to somebody."
"While I don't see print the same as it was, say, organizing unions in the early 20th century, there's still a concrete effect of having printed material," Maher says. "You can scan it and put it online, and you can see it and it looks cool, but there's a certain magic to having something you made, reproduced cheaply, that you can sell cheaply and distribute cheaply. That's the whole point — reproducing your art, where it's not a fine art or one perfect object, but something that can be disseminated — and getting your ideas out there."