Non-Fiction Comics Festival Illustrates Graphic Novels’ Versatility | Comics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Non-Fiction Comics Festival Illustrates Graphic Novels’ Versatility


Published November 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

  • File: Zachary Stephens
  • Rick Veitch

Dinosaurs, competitive ice skating and life in Berlin during the decline of the Weimar Republic — at the second annual Non-Fiction Comics Festival, there's no topic too silly or serious for the comic form.

This year's fest — running from Friday to Sunday, November 17 to 19, mainly at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington — features an array of panelists and interactive workshops exploring the wide range of stories that can be told through graphic novels. About 50 cartoonists are expected to attend, including current Vermont cartoonist laureate Tillie Walden and former laureate James Kochalka.

The fest will kick off on Friday with the Hey Kids, Comics! listening party, hosted by Vermont Folklife at the Archives arcade bar. Attendees will collectively listen to recorded interviews with local comic collectors and cartoonists as they describe Vermont's comic book culture and how the state shapes their art.

On Saturday, catch keynote speakers Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch, Vermont natives who both worked on DC Comics' Saga of the Swamp Thing in the 1980s. In line with the festival's nonfiction theme, the speakers will discuss Bissette's mid-'90s comic book series Tyrant, about the birth, life and death of a Tyrannosaurus rex; and Veitch's ongoing series Roarin' Rick's Rare Bit Fiends, an exploration of dreams and the human psyche. Veitch also cofounded Eureka Comics, which specializes in making educational graphic novels.

Both Bissette and Veitch have had "amazing careers," festival organizer Andy Kolovos of Vermont Folklife said. "Rick and Steve very rarely make public appearances, so it's kind of a big deal."

Other panels on Saturday include a discussion with past and present Seven Days cartoonists Kochalka, Julianna Brazill, Keith Knight and Rachel Lindsay, moderated by music editor Chris Farnsworth; a conversation about the defunct political cartoon website the Nib with founder Matt Bors and editor Sarah "Shay" Mirk; and a session on what draws cartoonists and readers to comics about adolescence.

Tillie Walden - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Tillie Walden

Kolovos said the festival is especially pleased to host Walden, whom he calls "one of the best-known YA graphic novelists in the country right now." Her work includes I Love This Part, about two teenage girls who fall in love, and Spinning, a memoir about her time as a competitive ice skater.

Festivalgoers will have the opportunity to create art themselves at Paws and Puns: An Animal Comics Workshop as well as Resiliency Narratives, which focuses on techniques for telling traumatic personal stories.

This year, attendees can personally meet six cartoonists at book signings, held every hour on Saturday. These include Jason Lutes, best known for his Berlin series; James Sturm, cofounder of White River Junction's Center for Cartoon Studies; and Robyn Smith, author of The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town.

Stephen Bissette - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Stephen Bissette

Concluding the festival on Sunday are several more workshops: how to turn primary sources into comics, how art can be used to interpret qualitative data, and a virtual lesson about adapting nonfiction prose into graphic novels.

Kolovos said the festival will highlight the many topics beyond superhero epics that authors can tackle through comics. For example, he said, he's currently reading a scientific comic book about quantum mechanics. To Kolovos, comics exemplify the storytelling technique of "show, not tell." It's "the interplay between the words and pictures," he said, that makes them so effective.

"For a lot of people, it's a simpler way to engage with topics. You can be confronted by a 500-page book on something or a 100-page comic," he said. "Comics are a wonderful medium for addressing all sorts of things."

The Non-Fiction Comics Festival, Friday to Sunday, November 17 to 19, mainly at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington. Free.

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