Comics by the Coast: My Voyage to VanCAF

Sunny days, travel gone astray, new experiences in May.

Hello friend!

As winter draws (painfully) slowly to a close I thought I’d look back at the Spring of 2023, and my wonderful trip to Vancouver for the 12th annual Vancouver Comic Arts Festival.

Without a Net

Heading into the weekend, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Up to that point all the shows in which I’d taken part were more in the style of the big comic-cons—media guests, superhero comics, artist alleys full of fan art and prints. I’d never really participated in a more literary, author-driven comic art festival before. As this was a different type of show, I wanted to take a different approach to my table. At a regular show, a big chunk of my sales tends to be live portraits, which are generally superhero portraits—I imagine the customer as the superhero/villain/princess/video game character of their choice, and draw them like that. Because these literary festival type shows feature almost exclusively creator-owned work, I didn’t want to rock the boat by drawing portraits of characters I don’t own. So I resolved that I wouldn’t do any live portraits at VanCAF, my existing work would have to stand on its own.

Even the Best Laid Plans Can ‘Strike’ Out

My plan for accomodation changed a few times in the lead-up to the show. In my original plans, I had quite a tight schedule. The plan was, I’d get to Vancouver the Friday before the show, stay with an old chum, and then leave Sunday night shortly after the festival wrapped.

First, the initial invitation from the old chum didn’t materialize as planned, so I had to shift gears and find a hotel. Fortunately I found a good one not too far from the venue, and everything seemed copacetic. But, just as quickly, copacetic turned to so pathetic1. A few days before I was to leave, Westjet announced a lockout for that exact weekend, further complicating matters. My return flight got canceled, necessitating an entirely new itinerary. I found a different flight on another carrier, but this added days to my stay in Vancouver. The hotel I had originally booked with was full on the new dates (again, this was less than a week before the show) so in the end, I would be staying at three different hotels over four days. Just a ridiculous plan, but it was the best I could arrange at that late date.

Gout and About

Something I don’t often mention is that I suffer from gout. It’s kind of a silly condition, and there’s a lot of lifestyle judgment attached to it, so it’s not the kind of “illness” that garners a lot of sympathy when it comes up—even though there’s a major genetic component. I manage my gout with preventative medication, and also dietary choices, but every now and then—particularly when I’m dehydrated or poorly rested—I’ll still get a flare-up. Unfortunately I had a sudden, and terrible flare-up mid-flight to Vancouver, with my anti-inflammatory meds safely in my checked bags, unavailable to me in the cabin (lesson learned!). So by the time I got my bags and was aboard my transportation from the airport, my foot was on fire. I caught a break that my first hotel allowed me an early check-in (I landed around lunchtime) so at least I wouldn’t have to kill an afternoon hobbling around waiting for my room to be ready.

The day-one hotel was located in Davie Village, a colourful and vibrant area of Vancouver, with the beach just steps away. There was also an abundance of great restaurants just steps away, which worked out for me, since every single step hurt! I found a terrific burger place just up the street and got off my feet.

I get what you’re thinking, but no, this is not one of my gout triggers. IT ISN’T.

The Nap of my Dreams

One unfortunate side effect of the medication I take to manage gout pain is that, while it relieves my discomfort and decreases swelling, it also makes me dizzy and sleepy. This is a huge problem when I have to take it in the middle of a work day, and I have to power through while my eyelids get heavier and heavier. It is considerably less of a problem on a day when I had no real plans, and am a day away from setting up for the festival. As a parent of a whole bunch of energetic and noisy kids, a nap in the middle of the day is unspeakably rare and precious. I conked out without realizing it, and woke in the early evening, refreshed, and in a lot less pain. And most luxuriantly of all, I’d slept through a flurry of phone calls from work back home, about a particularly demanding client2. And I didn’t feel a bit bad.

Columbo Isn’t Good Enough

Feeling much better, I explored the Davie Village a little bit, soaking in the beauty of the glittering English Bay beach, and ample cool record shops around my hotel.

Not bad, Vancouver. Not bad.
Would now be a bad time to mention I don’t own a working record player?

After grabbing a bite to eat I went back to my hotel and found there was a nice, early 80s Columbo on TV. Columbo is second only to Dateline for the very best hotel viewing possible, in my opinion, but then I got a better offer. An old friend texted and offered a cruise around the city, which was the very best kind of text to get.

Send me a text, and you too may end up in a newsletter post.

No offense, to Peter Falk, but getting to see the city without the stress of having to actually drive myself was just a perfect activity. I feel so lucky to have such good friends in cool places, who are willing to share their version of the city they love with me.

Nothing like the feel of sand on your dress shoes.


“Look, Donny, we all love hearing stories about the really good naps you took, but what about VanCAF itself?”

VanCAF is an amazing environment, and The Roundhouse is incredibly well suited for a show like this one. On set-up day I got a tour of the centre from the Arts Programmer, and it was amazing how many ways one building can be a creative hub for the community. It was during this tour that I got to meet one of the driving forces behind VanCAF, Jarrett Evan Samson. Though he was spinning about a million plates, and dealing with neurotic, disorganized artistic types (c’est moi!) and a WestJet lockout that complicated travel for many of the show’s bigger guests, Jarrett was completely unflappable and seemed to be enjoying the chaos as the show came together. Though it was just as orderly and organized as a larger, commercial show, VanCAF had a real DIY, punk rock energy throughout which helped someone like me relax a lot. It’s hard to put into words, but it didn’t feel like my table was against the tables of other artists, as a lot of shows can. This show felt like my work was among other artists, and we were somehow all together in something. It’s a very cool feeling, and I suspect that is Jarrett’s influence woven into the DNA of the show.

The night before.

Turning the Tables

For the most part, I’ve been supremely lucky when it comes to neighbouring tables at comic shows. Sure, there have been a couple placements that made for a long weekend3, but some of my best pals in the comics world have come from just the great fortune of being beside someone on a floor plan. VanCAF was another lucky show, as I was placed next to Jason Turner, a terrific cartoonist whose work (largely romance and autobio comics) was right up my alley. I bought up a ton of his Bird Comics for my kiddos, and got his complete True Loves stories, devouring them on the plane. He was great to chat with, and an all around good dude.

How could I not become pals with someone wearing a jacket as cool as that?

Found Friendship Festival

Another great moment from the show was when a festival goer walked by my table, and read my signage, and then said, “Don Sparrow? Like, Don Sparrow from the Found Footage Fest?” recognizing my name from my periodic contributions of artwork to the NYC comedy show the Found Footage Festival. It turns out, the festival goer who knew my name was Vancouver cartoonist Robin Bougie, who is the partner of Rebecca Dart, an animator and artist whose work I’d seen as a fellow special guest on FFF’s “Shaturday Morning Cartoons” web show. So that was a very cool and unexpected connection to make! I messaged the great George Pasles, of FFF fame to let him know, and got the perfect response.

Glomer abides.

Continual Connection: Comrades Coordinate for Coastal Catch-Up

As briefly mentioned in a previous post, on my first trip to Vancouver way back in 2007, I audited some classes at Regent College with friends from back home. Cut to last year, and one of those friends, David, is now an assistant professor at the same college!

See, I told you.

So it was great to connect with him, and have a tour of the stunningly beautiful UBC campus. Many friendships are by necessity limited to a place, time or circumstance, and as tough as that is, as I get older I understand that a little better. But even so, I am so grateful for the friendships that do continue, regardless of time or distance. Traveling to Vancouver is a great excuse to see one of the groomsmen from my wedding, and I was fortunate to have the time to take a walk and grab a meal with David.

Sure, it’s a beautiful campus, if you find picturesque mountains and exquisitely manicured floral gardens “beautiful.”

Cool Threads

As some of you may know, I inadvertantly caused the 2020 Pandemic by ordering a giant box of t-shirts in January of 2020 for sale at Sask Expo Regina in May of that year. The shirts were a mixture of gags from my web-comic “Don’t Know (Maybe So)”, but primarily the classic “Kick Me” tee, seen here:

Though designed for use in fields, the shirts also work indoors.

Once comic-cons started up again after the pandemic, I offered the shirts for sale at shows, and they exactly didn’t sell terribly, but were a distant third place behind sales of live drawings and my comics. Worse still, they sometimes caused confusion because more than once, for some reason, people thought that the live portrait I was offering would instantly be printed on a t-shirt, live before their eyes.

Lucky for me, VanCAF offered a great service where exhibitors could ship books and other items ahead of time, and they’d be waiting when the exhibitor arrived. As I was low on copies of “Don’t Know (Maybe So)” #1 and #2, I opted to have the new books sent directly to the show, which freed up some space while I was packing. Since I had the extra room, I packed up the last of the t-shirts, thinking nothing of it. But unlike other shows, the shirts absolutely killed at VanCAF, and I sold my entire stock, apart from one gargantuan t-shirt which wasn’t anyone’s size. So that was a welcome surprise for sure!

MeeT & Eat

The very best meal I ate in Vancouver came—perhaps to my surprise, if no one else’s—from a Vegan restaurant my dear friends S & M took me to after the Saturday of the show, called MeeT, where I enjoyed a terrific appetizer of mini-tacos, and then an enormously generous portion of wonderfully flavourful poutine. As a meat-lover4 from way back, I can be picky about the texture or taste of meat alternatives, but I can tell you honestly, there was no ‘sacrifice’ here—I loved everything I tried there as much as I would if there had been traditional meat and cheese served. Plus it was a really cool space, with outdoor seating overlooking the character of Yaletown. And again, I might never have tried it5 without the guidance of my Vancouver friends, showing me the cool places they love.

A Novel Epilogue

As much fun as I had at the show, it was one of my slower ones in terms of sales. I didn’t have the live portrait stream to rely on, and while sales were solid, Vancouver is an expensive place to stay—especially since I had to add a couple of days because of the Westjet strike. I was pleased to get to know the comics scene in Vancouver a bit better, and proud to represent Saskatchewan at the show (alongside my friends Elaine Will and Mark-Allard-Will, who also tabled at VanCAF) but with the sales being kind of average, I came home a little in the red. I was OK with this—you have to try new things to find out how they’ll go, or how to do them better—but it left me wondering if I should do the show again in the future.

But then, two weeks after the show, I got a call from a Vancouver art director, who became aware of my work through VanCAF. We were able to collaborate on the cover for a novel needing a retro comic book style, which was right up my alley.

Riding a bike to a comic store is pretty relatable for my childhood!

The work went as smoothly as it can go, and the book is now garnering praise for the design, which is a great feeling to be a small part of. I’m at work on a second piece for Peter, the art director, and I might never have gotten on his radar had I not taken a swing at trying a new show. The excitement I had at testing my limits, and trying something new led directly to my adventures in France, which I’ll share with you in a future post.

Vancouver, you are eternally beautiful, and I hope to visit again soon.

More posts coming soon, including some tour announcements, info about a new book, and the long awaited story of my trip to France. Thanks for reading, I love you.