SMALL PRESS EXPO Shows The Diversity of Comics

SMALL PRESS EXPO Shows Comic Diversity

One of the biggest gatherings for independent and self-published cartoonists in the U.S., SPX is also one of the highest-energy comic book shows you’ll encounter.

While on a weekend trip, I dropped by for several hours on both days, and the room was packed at all times – indeed, reports indicate that attendance was up almost 20 percent from last year (okay, 19.  But that’s close).

To get an idea of what was going on at the show and in creator-owned comics, I chatted with some up-and-coming and veteran creator-owned comic book creators.  Here’s some buzz from the con floor.

Paul Friedrich (www.ilovepaul.etsy.com) of the Eisner-nominated Onion Head Monster, said he was “doing great as always.”  “The show’s even bigger than last year, and it’s been packed since it opened,” Freidrich said.  

Raina Telegemeier (www.goraina.com) of The Baby-Sitters Club and X-Men: Misfits), felt that the show’s appeal came from its “real sense of discovery.”  “Everybody here is into what everybody else is doing,” Telgemeier said. “People really come here to find something new.”  

Jeffrey Brown tried very hard to make a comic book journalist look cool.

During the course of the show, she gave away two advance copies of her forthcoming graphic novel Smile, one through a raffle, the other for the person with the worst dentist story.  “I’ve gotten some doozies, so it’s been pretty hard to decide,” she said.

The expo rarely slowed down over the course of the two days, with most attendees reporting brisk sales.  This was not a show where you were regularly treated to the familiar sight of someone sitting at a lonely table in Artists Alley – every table featured a consistent traffic of people stopping by to buy books, chat with pros, and of course trade samples of the work they’d brought.  Chris Staros of Top Shelf Comix said that he’d picked up more new books circling the room than he ever had before.

The atmosphere was that of a Finder’s Carla Speed McNeil (www.lightspeedpress.com) said SPX “has always been my New Year’s Eve.”  “It’s a refueling for me.” She reported that she hadn’t seen any affects of the recession on SPX sales this year.  

“On one level, (this proves) as long as there are copy machines, there will always be comics,” McNeil said.  “Beyond that, I haven’t seen it yet.”

Tom Scioli (www.tomscioli.com) , who premiered the latest volume of his 8-Opus series at SPX, felt that smaller and self-published books might gain more of a presence in the direct market in the future.

“Prior to the recent announcements from Marvel and DC, it kind of seemed like Diamond was trying to streamline their content,” said Scioli, who’s currently working on issue #30 of Gødland, his Image Comics series with Joe Casey.  “Now that it seems like they might not be the primary distributors of Marvel and DC, it seems like they might be reevaluating the value of the small press in terms of filling that gap.”

Scioli also felt that changes to the market might result in changes in how stories are told in comics format.  “I think you’re going to see future sprawling works – longer ongoing series like Bone, “ Scioli said.  “People will be looking at three to four volumes of a work.”

But it’s hard to figure out which way the market will turn.  Twenty-year comics veteran Robert  “R.” Sikoryak, who recently had a hit with his collection Masterpiece Comics from Drawn & Quarterly, admits “the whole experience in publishing is mind-boggling to me.”

An SPX attendee since 1995, Sikoryak has seen the show explode over the past decade, and was impressed by the crowd as he attended the show for the first time in its larger venue at the Marriott Conference Center in Bethesda.  

“It’s amazing to see so many people here,” said Sikoryak, who remained humble about the attention his book has received from “mainstream” media: “It’s really satisfying that some people want to talk about it.”

Interest in comics even extended outside the festival, with G.T. Labs’ Jim Ottaviani (www.gt-labs.com), briefly moonlighting from the show to do a special signing of his graphic history of the space program, T-Minus at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near the National Literary Festival.  

Ottavini called it a “dream signing.”  “Getting to sign books 10 meters away from Apollo 11…Neil Armstrong’s X-15 over your head…that’s pretty great,” Ottavini said.  

Some creators have even seen their books translate into other media.  At the Top Shelf table, Andy Runton (www.andyrunton.com), showed off a short animation of Owly produced by Sprint Animation Studios (www.spriteanimation.com).  “They were looking for a small property that had some buzz, and they were really excited about working with the book,” Runton said.

Runton called the environment at SPX “a family.”  “The best thing about this place is that it’s where everybody starts,” Runton said.

Jeffrey Brown (www.jeffreybrowncomics.blogspot.com), hosted some footage of the documentary Drawing Between the Lines (http://www.myspace.com/drawingbetweenthelines) about his work, and appeared in one of the show’s spotlight panels.  Brown revealed his desire to do more fiction work in comics, with one of his passion projects being a story about notorious packrats the Collier Brothers.  “Unfortunately, E.L. Doctrow’s latest book is about them…” said Brown, who called this year’s SPX one of the best he’d attended.

Books flowed freely from person to person throughout the show, with buzzed-about items including Kate Beaton’s (www.harkavagrant.com) new collection Never Learn Anything From History<, Fantagraphics’ three-volume collection of Guest of Honor Gahan Wilson’s work, and Josh Cotter’s new work Driven by Lemons (http://www.adhousebooks.com/books/drivenbylemons.html).  

Up-and-coming creators also reported good experiences at the show.  Xeric Grant Winner Melody Nadia Often (http://melodyoften.blogspot.com/), said she’d traded and sold many copies of her books In the Hands of Boys and Trinadot all weekend.  “There’s a positive energy here,” Often said.  “I feel like I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the people I wanted to meet.”  She said she’d learned that “it’s good to be persistent, and positive, and persuasive.”

Jason Pittman of Leftovers, Ltd.  (http://theexodus97.deviantart.com), a first-time attendee of the show, summed up the attitude of many SPX attendees when he talked about how SPX represented “no matter who you are, anyone can create comics.”  

“I’ve gotten back in touch with a lot of cool people since I’ve been here, and found a lot of cool new books,” Pittman said. “And everyone is so supportive.  It doesn’t feel like anybody is better than anybody at SPX.”

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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