Seattle’s Short Run comics and arts festival is in it for the long run

Forced to cancel the 10th annual edition of the beloved small press event, organizers have three books and a new space in the works.

In lieu of holding its 10th anniversary event in person, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival has been working on a commemorative book (cover designed by Eroyn Franklin). At right: Kelly Froh, Short Run co-founder and executive director, in the nonprofit’s first physical work space, which is shared with Paper Press Punch in Georgetown on May, 13, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The last time thousands of Seattleites poured into the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center for the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival was Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. On that day, people milled around the pavilion floor, browsing the zines, posters and comics that some 240 exhibitors had brought to the ninth annual event. They filed through a print-art show, packed into a dark room to watch a documentary about Seattle’s weirdo comics god Jim Woodring and jostled around a country/western-themed after-party at the Vera Project.

At a time when comics conventions are growing ever more glossy and corporate-slick, Short Run is a festival and a nonprofit arts organization dedicated wholeheartedly to the handmade, analog experience.

The festival’s pleasures are tactile and touchingly human: the young artist with ink-stained hands breaking a $20 bill for her first sale of the day; the gentle comfort of a darkened room full of adults quietly sitting cross-legged on the floor as they wait for a cartoonist’s lecture to begin; the nerdy young comic artist in the homemade T-shirt nestled in the corner trying to capture the organized chaos of a teeming convention floor in his brand-new sketchbook. 

Basically, everything that makes Short Run so important to the Seattle arts community — the closeness, the socializing, the passing of newly produced art from hand to hand — had to be put on hold as soon as the pandemic arrived in Washington state. 

Short Run’s eight-person, all-volunteer board wisely canceled the 2020 festival, which would have been the 10th anniversary extravaganza. Also canceled: the small nonprofit’s year-round education and artist support programming, which includes art classes and screen-printing workshops, as well as Trailer Blaze, its annual weeklong residency for women cartoonists at Seaview’s Sou’wester Lodge and Vintage Trailer Park. Just last month, in the face of too much uncertainty, it canceled the 2021 festival, too.

Before COVID, the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival drew thousands of small press fans to the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center, shown here in 2018. (Daniel Spils)

Kelly Froh, Short Run’s executive director and co-founder, explains over the phone how she and the board of directors have struggled to find a way to keep Short Run alive in a time of social distancing and lockdowns. “We just felt like we didn’t want to go completely dark, as quite a few festivals did,” Froh says.

But a virtual event held over Zoom didn’t align with the festival’s handmade feel. And it couldn’t replicate the inspiration and emotional support that the in-person festival offered, with its hundreds of artists gathered in a single big, noisy room, all showing off their latest work.

Froh admits that Short Run’s first pandemic year ran in “fits and starts.” When protesters established the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Short Run’s board tried to deliver zines to the crowd. But there was already plenty of information available. “It was handled,” Froh laughs. “The kids took care of it. They didn’t need us to help them make any art.” 

Similarly, a plan to cover the city with cheerful comic art (as an antidote to the depressing wave of COVID closures) fell apart during the protests, when Seattle’s streetlights and walls became a vital part of the civic conversation about police violence. “We couldn't take up that real estate,” Froh says, “so the poster campaign is on hold.”

Kelly Froh, co-founder and executive director of Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, in Georgetown on May, 13, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Despite those false starts, the organization still found ways to support artists in 2020, including hosting a pair of art shows at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery and hiring local cartoonists to contribute artwork to a pandemic-themed zine and other public art projects.

“Many comic artists work in the service industry, and most of them lost their jobs or had their hours cut,” Froh says. “We specifically chose artists that we knew just lost their job or who could have really used $250.”  

Entering its second year of the pandemic, Short Run is taking a more intentional approach to bringing the community together. This summer, it will host outdoor cartooning classes at Othello Park. And this fall, Short Run is opening a small year-round space in the Paper Press Punch studio in Georgetown’s Old Rainier Bottling Plant — the group’s first fixed physical location. 

“We’re going to have a hundred square feet, and we’re going to have walls, so we’re making a minigallery with a reading room,” Froh says. Once the Georgetown Art Attack returns in full force, the goal is to have a new show every month. “It’s the tiniest show that you could possibly be in, but it’s still a great way to keep artists making and showing work,” she says. 

Short Run Board Chair Mita Mahato calls the space “a hub where we can do things on our own terms a little bit more.” Short Run will continue to host education programs and art shows around Seattle, but Mahato says, “To have a central space, where people know where we are and how they can reach us, has its benefits, too.”

Unable to celebrate its 10th anniversary in person this year, Short Run is publishing an expansive retrospective (aka "festival in a book"), featuring photos and artwork from past events and essays by members of the local comics community. (Short Run)

This summer, Short Run is working with Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery to compile four 20-minute videos profiling local cartoonists, including Megan Kelso, who has spent the last year working on a comic-art mural at the Climate Pledge Arena, and Meredith Li-Vollmer, who has been a passionate advocate for using comics to communicate important public health issues in King County. Titled the Short Run Slideshow Series, the videos will debut on the Hedreen Gallery’s website in June or July. Froh says they serve as a digital edition of the festival’s customary panel discussions and artist spotlight series. 

And Short Run is putting out three publications this year that Froh thinks will help bring the complete Short Run festival experience back to the community.

The current project is an ambitious book that celebrates Short Run’s first decade, set to be printed in July. Made up of photographs of past festivals, art from Short Run attendees and personal essays about the past and future of the festival, DECADE: 10 Years of Short Run Comix & Arts Festival is proving to be a substantial chronicle. “It was supposed to be like 60 pages and it's now over a hundred pages,” Froh says.

Mahato says the book “gave us an opportunity to work with a number of artists that we want to support, that we love and that need to be a part of this commemoration.” (It’s available for preorder on Short Run's Etsy store now.)

“I wanted the book to give the feel of a crowded festival where you walk in, you’re overwhelmed, but you start to see people you know, or that you’d like to know, and it’s exciting,” Froh says. 

With plenty of photographs piled on top of comic art, “everything is full bleed,” she adds. “There’s literally no gutter or white space to be found in the book. We do not give you time to even breathe.”

Short Run’s new publication will showcase Trailer Blaze, the organization’s annual weeklong residency for women comic artists, traditionally held at Seaview’s Sou’wester Lodge and Vintage Trailer Park. (Short Run)

This fall, Short Run will produce an anthology of work by the women cartoonists who were chosen for the Trailer Blaze artist residencies (a creative opportunity nixed by the pandemic). 

And then right around the end of October or the beginning of November, when the festival usually happens, Short Run will publish a newsprint catalog showcasing comics, zines and handmade books created by Washington makers since Jan. 1, 2020. The goal, Froh says, is to make the catalog look like the Scholastic book order forms many kids adored in elementary school.

“We’re going to print out like 5,000 catalogs, and we’re going to ship them all over the place,” Froh says, “to comic book stores and community centers and art centers.” Artists will have space inside to describe their book, show off some art and direct customers to websites where they can buy a copy.

The idea is to get people to buy local, small-press and self-published comics, of course — the kind of books that don’t have mammoth corporate marketing budgets behind them. But Froh also sees it as a way to encourage artists to keep making their work at a lonely time, when they don’t have much audience feedback, when it’s hard to summon the motivation to make something new. 

Barring some new and unforeseeable horror, the Short Run Comix & Art Festival will likely return to real life in the fall of 2022. That gathering will be special for many reasons — because it will officially mark the 10th Short Run festival, because it will be the first festival after a two-year gap, because art after lockdowns (and reflections and frustrations) is likely to be strange and joyous.

But that’s a long way away. For now, Mahato says, every Short Run staffer feels “almost a slight desperation, wanting to let people know we’re still here for them.”

Short Run longs to reengage with artists and writers and creators and have “real heart-to-heart conversations about what our artists need right now.” And when the community can finally put on weird outfits and happily cram into a big sweaty room full of comics again, those artists will be there for each other, bumping shoulders in the aisles and passing their newest creations from hand to hand.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Paul Constant

Paul Constant

Paul Constant is a co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books.