MICE 2017 poster by Michael DeForge.

“You look around and there’s not a lot of fan art, not a lot of licensed stuff happening,” said Zack Giallongo, one of the cartoonists who exhibited at MICE 2017. “It’s people putting themselves out there, making their own creations.”

Since its inception in 2010, the annual MICE, or the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, has provided a venue for Great-Boston area writers and artists to share their comics work with a wider audience. This year’s event, which was produced by the Boston Comics Arts Foundation and hosted by Cambridge’s Lesley University College of Art and Design–and free, once again provided an alternative to the commercialism of larger comic conventions.

“It’s focused on the comics experience more than superheroes and intellectual properties and video games,” said cartoonist Josh Neufeld, another exhibitor. “It’s just a really nice vibe. Not too big, but just large enough. Any type of comic you’re interested in–you’ll find it here.”

Basically, if you’ve ever passed through a large-scale convention’s artists’ alley–MICE is that, spread out across multiple rooms and levels.

Every artist has a story to tell

With cars and bicyclists constantly speeding by, there’s never a dull moment on Massachusetts Avenue. But inside Lesley’s University Hall, a different type of action was on display–on paper. While six creators (Kazu Kibuishi, Mark Siegel, Isabel Greenberg, Jason Shiga, Michael DeForge and Liz Prince) had the privilege of being MICE “Special Guests,” it was clear all exhibitors had a desire to create unique work and share it with the world.

Zack Giallongo and Hannah O’Neal

Giallongo, for example, was there to promote his comic Crater + Nine, about a robot and a dog on an alien moon.

“I feel like you get a big population of people who are here because they want to get cool stories and cool art from people, but they also want to support those people,” said Giallongo, who has been a part of every MICE.

Tabling with Giallongo was Hannah O’Neal, an animator showing off her first comic Zula. A fan of Conan the Barbarian, O’Neal took a stab at her own barbarian tale in the short, mini-comic (sword pun intended). O’Neal had attended MICE many times before to support her creative friends, but this was her first year as an exhibitor.

Another first-timer, creator Ian Densford took a proactive approach to engaging passersby, handing out small prints promoting his upcoming comic Trench Dogs. Set to debut in the fall of 2018 via the Naval Institute Press, Trench Dogs will tell tales from World War I with a twist–the characters will be anthropomorphized dogs.

“Richard Scarry was a favorite of mine growing up, but, obviously, Maus was a big reference,” Densford said.

Creator Ali Burke had browsed the halls of MICE in the past, but represented Fine OK Press for the first time at this year’s event. Through Fine OK Press, Burke and her Tennessee-based collaborator Tara Hamilton produce ongoing series like ARRO, set three years after a gene-altering disease contaminated drinking water and wiped out most of North America. In addition, Burke was promoting The Ooze, a one-off space-horror tale and, ultimately, humbled by all the eager comic fans passing through MICE, excited to support their local artists.

Ali Burke promoting Fine OK Press

A chance to educate

In addition to introducing the Greater-Boston area to new artists, MICE provides attendees an opportunity to learn more about the cartooning craft. Over the course of two days, panels covered such topics as world-building in comics, character evolution and inking techniques.

Neufeld ran the “Writing for Comics” workshop on Saturday, October 21. The cartoonist was the ideal choice to run this session, as he’s also the lead instructor for Pine Manor College’s Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration, offered through the school’s Solstice Low-Residency MFA program. During the hour-long workshop designed for novices, Neufeld covered basic comic terminology and walked participants through the relationship between writers and artists, as well as the panels they create.

“The best kind of comics are when the words and pictures are equally important, giving you different kinds of information,” Neufeld said. “That, together, is sort of the magic of what comics are all about.”

Josh Neufeld, Laura Williams McCaffrey and Jonathan Todd at the Solstice MFA table.

Being new to Boston, this was attendee Quintin Collins’ first time at MICE. Collins participated in Neufeld’s workshop and received what he considered to be an engaging introduction to comics terminology, ideation and decision-making.

“Overall, I found the workshop enriching and accessible,” Collins said.

Sharing a table with Neufeld was Jonathan Todd, who completed the Solstice program focused on writing for children and young adults (and did his thesis as a graphic novel). In addition to promoting Pine Manor’s program and his own comic, Cecil, Todd was getting the word out about the upcoming Boston Kids Comics Fest, which is set for April 28, 2018 in Jamaica Plain. With so many conventions designed to appeal to older comic readers, Todd and Tony Davis of Cambridge’s The Million Year Picnic comic shop, felt it was time for a kids-focused comic show.

A local institution

The Cartoonarium, where attendees could watch live drawing demonstrations.

Speaking to both exhibitors and attendees, one thing is abundantly clear: MICE is an essential part of the Greater-Boston comics scene. While major shows like Boston Comic Con can bring big names from the pop culture universe like Stan Lee and Charlie Cox to Beantown, MICE can dig a little deeper and shine a light on creators the mainstream hasn’t had a chance to meet. The expo can also spark discussions revolving around such topics as comics and Islam, or LGBTQ representation in comics.

And, of course, much of the credit for this important show is owed to those who volunteer their time to making MICE a reality. All the hard work isn’t lost on exhibitors like Neufeld.

“I’ve been to a lot of different shows and you can tell a lot about the quality of a show by its volunteers,” Neufeld said. “At MICE, they’re always asking how people are doing, giving out water and refreshments. So yeah, I love this show.”