Make Mine MoCCA!
Memories of the 2006 Art Festival

(posted June 16, 2006)

I'd never attended a MoCCA Art Festival before, but after hearing my good buddy, Rocco Nigro, rave about the ones he'd attended the past several years, I figured it was high time I remedied that particular oversight. And if I was shaking up my decidedly placid lifestyle to make the trip down to the Big Apple--a little over ninety minutes by train--then, by golly, Rocco was coming with me! But he wasn't the ONLY one...

The last time--the ONLY time--daughter Julie had tagged along with me for a comics convention was way back when she was 7 or 8 years old. That occasion was one of the last annual gatherings held in the Ramapo High School gymnasium, a mellow little affair to be sure. Now, mere months away from turning sweet 16, she's no more interested in comics than she was back then, but she sure DOES like visiting NYC! Besides, this was purported to be an Indy Con--maybe this would be just the sort of atmosphere that was finally going catch the fancy of my aspiring young artist?...

So, after a 7:30 wake-up call (pal Rocco and his lady friend, Kara, drove down the night before, staying over so we could all get an early jump on things together), we soon bid farewell to the home-bound (by choice) Lynn and set out on our day's journey. Shortly after 11:30, we were standing on the steps of The Puck Building, waiting patiently in line to enter the festivities...

And when we did--WOW!

There were two large ballrooms and one medium sized one, all filled to the gills with tables, not unlike any other comics convention. But unlike the other conventions I'd been to, the breakdown here wasn't split between a wide range of artists, third bananas from long canceled cult TV shows, aspiring porn stars, and--the vast majority--box upon box of yellowing comic books being hawked by often bored and blase hucksters. Nope, these three rooms were bursting with (mostly) young, enthusiastic cartoonists, all gathered there for the opportunity to promote work they'd poured their entire hearts and souls into! Being that I'm almost completely out of touch with today's Indy movement somehow didn't seem to matter--just soaking up the almost palpable energy in that building was inspiring!

Okay, maybe not inspiring enough to get me to part with very much cash mind you, but hey, I've been trying to cut down on my funny-book intake over the last few years, and I couldn't let that difficult bit of self-deprogramming slip away over some crazy idealistic notion, dig? I was here pretty much to window shop, period, but where to begin?

Well, Julie and I circled the first room, then walked through the festively lit make-shift corridor to the second room, with Rocco and Kara (who, like everyone else in our party but her boy friend, was also a MoCCA first-timer) going off on their own for the nonce. We made our way through the slowly expanding crowd and gave each table a quick once over, being careful never to make eye-contact with the eager artisans sitting in the chairs behind them (because c'mon, if we did, we might be trapped somehow into purchasing their wares--or worse yet, having to disappoint them by saying thanks but no thanks! Better just to avoid such uncomfortable scenes altogether, I'm thinking...)

As we neared completion of our first circumference, I had yet to encounter a familiar visage amongst all these fresh (if oft-times furry) faces, but that was all about to change. Off in the distance, I spied the tall, nattily dressed figure of Jim Salicrup.

For many years, Jim was editor on most of my various Marvel Comics assignments, not to mention jobs over at Topps Comics and even the short-lived Stan Lee Media web address. We'd always spent considerable time together at those aforementioned, still missed Ramapo shows. However, following their demise nearly a decade back, the only other time I'd seen Jim was at a Big Apple Con almost a year to the day earlier, and then only briefly--he ran over from a Nancy Drew Convention (an important Papercutz property, don'tcha know) to touch base with me during a fun-filled hour he stole away from the girl detective. However, it wasn't just me who was happy to see Jim--daughter Julie and Jim had been exchanging MySpace messages concerning her recent obsession with David Bowie, and she was anxious to finally hear some of Jim's always entertaining anecdotes in person.

Well, Jim didn't disappoint. Julie later confessed that she was initially a bit intimidated by Jim--she didn't expect him to be so tall for one thing--but I think it was midway through a tale spotlighting the Beatles ex-drummer that she relaxed, as she was laughing just as hard at Jim's hilarious Ringo Starr impression as I was! And from that point on, much to our mutual delight, Jim took it upon himself to be our personal guide for the remainder of the day!

This essentially meant that Jim--who's long been involved with MoCCA and seems to know virtually everyone in the comics field--would invariably grab most anybody who walked by and then proceeded to introduce Julie and me to them. And upon those several occasions when Jim's blindsided prey would react in surprise and then delight upon learning my identity (I heard "Gee, Mr. Hembeck, I've loved your stuff since I was a just a little kid" more than once, which was mostly nice, save from those times it was uttered by a sixty year-old-plus fan...), Jim would theatrically make a rolling motion with his hands, instructing my admirer de jour to continue heaping on the praise with a commanding "More..". I was never quite not sure if he was doing this for my benefit or for Julie's--as in, see kid, your dad IS important! Well, in a really, really minor sort of way, but...

At one point, Jim noticed Art Spiegelman a few feet away.

"Hey Fred, you wanna meet Art?"

What could I say--no? I mean, I'd seen him at a number of conventions in the past, but never quite mustered up enough nerve to go over and introduce myself. The man has a Pulitzer Prize after all, and what've I got? A FOOM card? But before I had much of a chance to ponder the situation, Jim was introducing the Hembecks to the celebrated cartoonist. I was sorta surprised that he even knew who I was, but was even more delighted when he said something about enjoying my work--I don't recall the exact words, as I was in mild shock, and was struggling to mumble a few words that wouldn't peg me for a complete dope. Luckily, I had our trusty digital camera to fall back on. When you're unsure of exactly what's best to say, ask to take a picture--it's just that simple!

(Of course, when the camera finds itself in the hands of my goofy teen-aged daughter half the time, far too many of the photos wind up being extremely unflattering close-ups, with more than a few facial up-shots that could've easily doubled as Gil Kane nostril reference pics!...)

The only two major purchases made (aside from a couple of anti-Bush books bought at the behest of my partisan offspring) were Alex Robinson's "Box Office Poison" and Alexa Kitchen's "Drawing Comics Is Easy (Except When It's Hard)". I had only learned about the latter tome several days earlier courtesy of Heidi MacDonald's column, The Beat. How appropriate, then, that when we approached the table where Denis Kitchen's 8 year old daughter was selling and signing her remarkable book, who should be standing nearby but Heidi herself! Quick--get the camera!

After exchanging pleasantries with Ms. Mac (who later introduced us to her mom, keeping the daughter motif going), and then reacquainting myself with the legendary Denis (we long ago worked, tag-team style, on a page for the fabled "Spirit Jam"), I got down to the REAL business at hand--chastising my own daughter, nearly twice the age of the small Kitchen, trying to find out just exactly where HER book was? Of course, considering I haven't had a book of my own published since before little Alexa was born either, well, it was probably best not to push the point. But at least now we BOTH have a common goal...

Turns out I'd long ago done a sketch for Alex Robinson at a con when he was but a wee lad, so he happily drew a nice little illo in my copy of his breakthrough book--and even gave me a nice discount to boot! I look forward to reading it soon, and then shelling out some more shekels for the follow-up.

Who else did I see? I'm afraid I'm not all that familiar with the new crop of cartoonists who dominated the affair, so I fell back on old reliables: Gary Groth, Bob Schreck, Joey Cavalieri, several other artists whose names I've unfortunately forgotten, MoCCA founder Lawrence Klein (and his dad) and a whole bunch of MoCCA volunteers, several of whom I number amongst my MySpace friends. Every time I saw Matt or (as he's known) Goddamn Jared, I reveled in a childish delight by mockingly identifying myself as their MySpace friend, as if that were somehow a secret and/or elite organization! Hah!

I was especially happy to meet MoCCA man Gary Dunaier after all these years. Gary, as rabid a New York Mets fan as myself, has been corresponding with me on and and off for many, many years--so far back in fact that he started in those ancient days when your only recourse was to use a stamp! Having been involved in all the pre-event hoohah days earlier, the poor guys voice was failing him from overuse when we spoke, but at least I finally learned the correct pronunciation of his last name--it's "Deny-er', not the more French sounding way I'd always imagined it to be. What else could I say to Gary but "Sacre Bleu!"? Or maybe, "Les Mets--magnifque!...".

The one person Jim didn't have to introduce me to was Tom Hart. Known to most of you as the Great Northwest based cartoonist responsible for the award winning antics of Hutch Owen, I instead warmly recall him as one of the humble but always helpful clerks behind the counter at "A Strange Land", the Kingston, N. Y. comic book store I frequented regularly during the late eighties and on into the nineties. I haven't seen Tom in more than a decade, so when I went over to his table with my hand outstretched ready to shake, I witnessed a brief moment in his eyes where confusion mixed with latent recognition, all of which disappeared instantly once I identified myself! We spoke nostalgically about several of his old colleagues at the store as he continued to spread specialty undergarments for sale out across his table (how I neglected to take a photo of THAT, I'll never know!...), and then spent a few pleasant minutes catching up. Tom's a swell guy--I'm really happy for his success. Then, purely out of habit, I asked him when the last issue of CAMELOT 3000 was coming in, and took my leave...

Later, not long after Julie had shown Jim her sketchbook (earlier on the train, she'd effortlessly produced one of her deceptively on the money caricatures of friend Rocco), we noticed a stray balloon on the floor. Julie picked it up and said to Jim, "Y'know, if I had a sharpie, I could draw YOUR caricature on this!". Watch out what you say around Jim Salicrup, folks--as if by magic, the man instantly pulled a black sharpie pen out of his jacket pocket!

Well, Julie held up her end of the bargain, and for the rest of the day, Jim dragged that balloon around, oft times holding it to his shoulder and making the requisite Rosey Grier/Ray Milland quip! (Garnering one of my favorite recurring reactions from Julie--she'll laugh just as enthusiastically as the assembled crowd at one of these arcane references, only to invariably end with "I don't get it?..." We had ourselves such a busy day, there just was no time to explain "The Two-Headed Transplant " to her--who knows if there'll EVER be?...)

Before lunch, Jim walked us the two blocks over to the MoCCA museum proper for a quick visit, which was fun. Then we sat and listened to one of the talks for a few minutes when we returned before hooking up with Rocco, Kara, and local Brooklyn resident, Bill Alger, lunch being next on our agenda.

(Bill, you may recall, is not only a talented cartoonist and a good friend, but is the driving force behind 2006's break-out website, The Al Wiseman Blog. If you haven't already visited the site, well, I don't want to intimate that you're a bad person or anything, but people ARE starting to talk--what exactly are you waiting for, hmm?)

Longtime neighbors Joe and Hilarie Staton were standing outside The Puck Building as we left. They were just about to go inside where Joe would spend the rest of the afternoon drawings nifty pictures for fans at the MoCCA table. After a little chatter--which we continued later, after our grumbling tummies had been sufficiently nourished--we took to the streets of NYC in search of sustenance! Largely because we had a pair of vegetarian's amongst our number--Rocco and Julie--we wound up in a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment that catered to their specific needs (the remaining four of us managed to find something to chow down on as well).

Testing my daughter's resolve, Jim bought Julie a shot of wheat grass, which she was unfamiliar with. She eventually downed it after he explained it was merely liquefied grass. Julie actually wound up liking it--hey, thanks for hooking my kid on grass, buddy!

And what a location! We sat out in the open air portion of the establishment in the back, brick walls on three sides of our plastic lawn table, a rundown apartment building hovering over our shoulders on the other, with a bucket of thick grey mop water not six inches away from my chair! Luckily, it was odorless--mostly. But, y'know, hey--the food was good! And during the course of our dining discussion, Bill managed to thoroughly impress Julie by knowing just who Alvin Tostig was. (He was Levon's father. Yup, Julie's currently obsessed with Elton John--who'da thot?...)

Once we returned to the MoCCA Art Festival, we encountered good ol' Peter Sanderson, and he hung out with us for several hours until it was time for him to go see "Cars". We discussed Marvel, past and present, as well as Peter's upcoming plans for his "Comics In Context" column. Watch for a series on the new ETERNALS book, a sequence that may very well go on (begging your pardon, Peter) eternally!....

As the six o'clock hour drew near, marking an end to the days events, we took the elevator upstairs where we found Rocco and Kara listening to the Fantagraphics panel discussion. As it turned out, Kara had held up pretty well at her first comics gathering, only nodding off briefly a bit earlier as her enthralled companion listened somewhat more intently. Once the panel ended, and Rocco snagged his desired signatures from the various participants, we headed downstairs where things quickly became a comedy of confusion as, in looking to locate missing link Bill Alger so that we could all go out to dinner (geez, didn't we just eat two paragraphs ago?...), we somehow lost Rocco and Kara!?! Eventually, after a fruitless search, Jim and I planted ourselves firmly in one spot, and sent Julie off to round everybody up. Which, finally she did. Nice job, kiddo.

Jim knew of an elegant vegan restaurant, a mere twelve blocks away! Considering Julie was adamant about walking the thirty or so blocks back to Grand Central--and this place just happened to head us in the right direction--well, it sounded fine to me.

And it was. Pretty darn fine, in fact--and there were no mop buckets anywhere in site either! Julie's favorite part was looking over the contents of Bill's ipod and playfully mocking the various emo bands he had stored on there! You get your laughs where you can, I guess...

After dinner, we said goodbye to Rocco and Kara, who were staying over at Bill's so that they could return for day two of the festival the following day. Jim, our constant and valued companion, volunteered to walk with us to Grand Central, giving the three of us time to spin even more stories--Julie's polar bear anecdote, my college comics contacts, and of course, Jim's many, many tales of Marvel.

Stopping me in mid-monolog, Jim directed our attention to a very special park as we passed it, The Peter Park (I think it was called...). He asked me to name the most famous Peter in New York history, and when I couldn't quite come up with what I knew was the right answer (Peter Stuyvesant), I blurted out "Peter Sanderson?" No, he corrected me--Mr. S is more of a Bostonian legend, not New York. As we continued to walk along, there were elaborate markers celebrating an impressive range of Peters right there on the sidewalk--Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Peter Cooper, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, and (this being the whole point of Jim interrupting me) Peter Parker the Amazing Spider-Man, complete with a Ditkoesque half-Peter--with glasses--half-Spidey head! In an odd way, this particular sidewalk sculpture was quite impressive and endearing, all at the same time.

After a long, long walk (which didn't seem to faze city-dweller Salicrup or the young hale and hearty Julie in the very least, but began to wear on tired old Fred the last dozen or so blocks), we finally reached our destination. Wouldn't you know it--we'd just missed our train, but no matter--another was leaving in just under an hour at 10:02. Time enough for us to go inside, grab a piece of cheese cake and a beverage, and listen to Mr. S spin a few last yarns. After finishing our dessert, we thanked Jim for everything he'd done to make this a undeniably entertaining day, and boarded our train for home.

Any concerns I had about dragging Julie along had long since vanished. She--like myself--had a fabulous time! True, she wasn't exactly won over to the panelogical medium during the course of the day, but she IS pushing for the two of us to put together a book ala the Kitchens, so who knows? Maybe NEXT year, the Hembecks will be sitting behind a table at MoCCA and Jim Salicrup will be introducing me as, "Oh yeah, and this guy is Julie Hembeck's dad..."?

Perhaps then it'll be time to pass the Hembeck mantle on, not unlike Alvin Tostig and his offspring, Levon, y'know?...

The few photographs that are known to exist of the notoriously camera shy Rocco Nigro usually feature a frown, but could the rare smile above be the due to the delightful Kara, or perhaps some hilarious crack uttered by the shutterbug?

Yeah, MY money's on Kara, too...

MoCCA time!

What hath MySpace wrought? Julie Hembeck finally meets fellow Bowie fan, Jim Salicrup.

One of us apparently got the wrong memo concerning the dress code!...

Sorry, Jim Shooter--the amazing Alexa Kitchen just beat your record, and handily!

Proud papa Denis Kitchen, happily raking in the cash for his talented daughter, Alexa--every father's fondest dream!

The Beat's Heidi MacDonald, smiling happily after snapping a picture of Jim and I, undoubtedly relieved that the lens didn't break!

Heidi, her mom, and no, that's NOT the crazy uncle that's usually locked up in the attic--it's Jim Salicrup again! Get used to his mug--you'll be seeing a quite a bit of it should you choose to continue scrolling downwards...

Bill Alger KNEW Jim could do a dead on Stan Lee impression, but who would've ever suspected he had Al Wiseman down too?...

Group shot taken by Julie. Bet you didn't know I was that short...

Dame Darcy.

Gary Groth, smiling (sorta)--a man who, if need be, will testify under oath that those Hembeck books from the eighties were NOT published by Fantagraphics! (It was actually Fanatco Enterprises, friends...)

Tom Hart, former long-haired comic book store clerk, current close cropped Indy comics sensation--AND underwear salesman!

Fred, Jim, and the late Pat Morita. (Actually, that's the award-winning Art Spiegelman--but hey, imagine getting a pic of him with Marvel's Ralph Macchio? THAT'D sure be something, huh?) (Sorry about the lousy photo, Art...)

That's Alan Rosenberg in the MoCCA shirt, and the fine new penciller of Firestorm, Jamal Ingle, getting the Hembeck thumbs up!

Gary Dunaier just got news that the Mets FINALLY unloaded Kaz Matsui!

"Wow! Having my picture taken standing next to Jim Salicrup--does it get any better than this?..."

This is one of my MySpace friends. His name is Matt. Anybody wanna guess how I managed to remember that?...

Even folks in MySpace--not to mention MoCCA--have been known to have their, um, disagreements...

Those trippy lights in the corridor between the two ballrooms--it was almost like being at Epcot again! Almost...

Okay, look, the attendance was pretty darn good, but it WASN'T exactly Disney World, y'know?...

"And if you look closely at the window on the 31st floor of The Daily Planet building Julie, you might just see a bright red streak fly out eventually..."

Hey kid--stop Pucking around!

"HOW exactly do you spell "Hembeck" again?..."

(I sure hope this Alex Robinson guy's book isn't full of typos...)

(Yup, another one of those arcane references--from "F Troop" this time--that would simultaneously confuse AND amuse daughter Julie...)

"Jim! Jim! What happened to you? Didn't you used to have, like, y'know, a BODY?..."
It takes a lot to shock Goddamn Jared, but this did the trick.

Peter Sanderson

"So Peter, would you mind telling me a little bit about what you thought of that "V For Vendetta" flick? I've got a few minutes to kill..."

"Y'know, Peter, I'll never be insulted again when people say I'm full of hot air!..."
(Not that they ever did, Jim--heh...)

"Gee, maybe I should consider going into the ever burgeoning field of prop comedy?..."

Joe and Hilarie Staton, on the streets of New York

Joe Staton, sitting behind a table, drawing and smiling (Joe is ALWAYS smiling at conventions!). Could we please see what you've got there, Joe? Maybe you could turn it around?...

THERE we go! Scooby dooby do!

And there's our Julie, entering the Friends of Lulu's Art Idol contest drawing her creation, Emo Boy (no doubt inspired by Bill Alger's ipod goodies).

Meeting Bob Schreck for the first time was a thrill--ESPECIALLY when he clued me in on where he got that nifty shirt!...

MoCCA guiding light, Lawrence Klein, Jim Salicrup, and that ubiquitous balloon...

Outdoor dining in front of a brick wall--"Would you like catsup with your balloon, sir?..."

Is it any wonder that they once called this man "Jim Sauerkraut?"

"Enough, Julie--ENOUGH! Will you PLEASE put that @#$%ing camera away?!?..."

Rocco is a bit more Zen-like whence ducking Julie's itchy digital camera clicking finger...

Not the Hembecks, though!

(Hmm, looks like I need a trim--and I ain't just talkin' beard here!...)

Later, on the streets of New York...

That's all for now, folks--can't wait til next year!

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