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Taking MICE Virtual: The Indie Comics Expo

The COVID crisis and public health orders have made business difficult for everyone—especially for the organizations who plan and produce the conferences and workshops graphic artists relish. (See our recap of HUE from earlier this year.) So, when we heard that events were going virtual, we wondered how our favorite indie comic event, MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo), would transition to the new reality. Long-time Guild member and Board BFF, Ed Shems, is intimately involved with MICE. He gave us his take on how the event fared in the virtual environment.

Unlike large scale, brand-heavy comicons, MICE’s focus has always been on the comics creator.

What are is MICE?

Celebrating its 10th anniversary (and what a year to mark that milestone!), MICE is produced by the non-profit Boston Comic Arts Foundation and hosted at Lesley College of Art and Design. MICE typically takes place over a weekend in the Fall and features workshops, speaker events, panel discussions, and an exhibition hall for creators. The event is free to attend and produced by a team of dedicated volunteers. (MICE is also a non-profit; any proceeds beyond the event costs are allocated to the next year’s expenses.)

Unlike large scale, brand-heavy comicons, MICE’s focus has always been on the comics creator. The event has featured workshops and events around the topics of making, producing, marketing, celebrating comics, and connecting the local audience with local creators. As a free event, MICE also focuses on accessibility for financially strapped creators. Funded by sponsors, donations, and raffles, the event is able to charge exhibiting artists extremely reasonable table costs. (The Guild is an enthusiastic supporter of MICE.)

Shems became acquainted with MICE when it was going into its third year. As President of the then Boston Chapter of the Graphic Artists Guild, he exhibited at MICE showcasing videos of a comic-related event the Boston Chapter had just produced. The friendliness and quality of the two-day event astounded Shems, and he was hooked. The next year, he volunteered to help on the exhibition floor. The following year, MICE organizer (and Eisner-awarded comic artist), Shelli Paroline, asked him to be the Special Guest  Coordinator. Shems accepted and hasn’t looked back since; he’s been involved with MICE every year since then.

Planning for 2020

The year started well for MICE. They had secured their show date early, and in February, the organizers were already reaching out to potential speakers. When the Massachusetts lockdown occurred in mid-March, MICE monitored how other events were responding to the crisis. (The event typically takes place in October, giving the organizers time to restrategize.) By late Spring, they realized they would have to make the event entirely virtual.

Shems already had a lot of experience producing Guild webinars and used that experience to rethink the workshops and panel discussions. He helped produce three events: He moderated a talk by Ebony Flowers (in partnership with his alma mater, RISD); introduced a panel discussion, “Creating Graphic Novels for Middle-Grade Readers,” and co-moderated with Paroline “Portfolio Rescue for Comic Artists.”

However, a larger issue for MICE was rethinking how to handle the exhibition space. For many comic artists, exhibiting at shows is critical to growing their businesses. Exhibiting permits comic artists to reach new audiences and potential publishers, and, through sales of their goods, provides an essential source of revenue. The MICE organizers were particularly concerned that they would be able to provide a virtual space that would meet these needs.

Their solution was a combination of mini-grants and a Creators Showcase. The Creators Showcase consisted of videos featuring the exhibiting artists and frequently rotated in between panel discussions and workshops. The individual videos were compiled into an hour-long video that’s published on their website.

Artists were also invited to compete for the mini-grants (based on existing work) intended to help comic artists fund their publication costs. Graphic novelist, Nate Powell, was invited to judge the applicants, and 32 mini-grants of $100 and one top “MICE Mini Grand Prize” of $500 were awarded. In addition, grant winners are showcased on the MICE website with links to their work for sale. Radiator Comics partnered with MICE to provide a MICE grant winner page on their website and the option to sell through Radiator Comics.

With a creative, forward-thinking team, a crisis can lead to new and unanticipated opportunities .

The Takeaway

Shems’ takeaway from the event is that MICE’s success is due to the dedication and accountability of a committed group of volunteers working in the background. (He gives a particular shout-out to Zach Clemente, who handled the production, ensuring that the 100+ speakers were able to participate virtually without any technical hitches.) Shems’ second takeaway is that people are hungry for comic-related events, eager to support the industry and artists, and want to see—and buy—new work.

If MICE becomes an in-person event next year, Shems hopes that a virtual component will be retained. One outcome of this year’s virtual event is that people from far away could attend and participate. That outreach could be extended, broadcasting some panels and workshops online. It shows that a crisis can lead to new and different opportunities with a creative, forward-thinking team.

Video and image @ MICE. Used with permission.