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A View From The Cheap Seats:
SPACE 2003 By Rich Watson
Now in its fourth year, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) is further proof of the growing strength in the ranks of the independent comics, as well as the diversity of both the books and their creators in an industry not known for it. Columbus, Ohio has been something of a comics mecca in recent years. Bone creator Jeff Smith and THB creator Paul Pope call this smallish Midwestern town home, and every Thanksgiving weekend the Mid-Ohio Con attracts a high volume of fans statewide and beyond. SPACE 2003 was held April 5 in the Rhodes Center at the Ohio Expo Center. The auditorium is part of a sprawling complex of exhibition halls and public venues that also played host on this day to a flea market and a circus. SPACE is the brainchild of Back Porch Comics' Bob Corby, and the major sponsor is the indy-friendly retail shop The Laughing Ogre. I've attended the show every year since its inception, and from very humble beginnings it has slowly but surely made its mark and attracted more and more creators and publishers. This year's lineup included top names like Scott Mills, Alex Robinson, Tony Consiglio, Jeff Nicholson, Bill Knapp, Scott Roberts, Ben Steckler, Layla Lawlor, Jason Yungbluth, and many more. And while this year's show had the misfortune to be played over the backdrop of the Iraq war, the conflict was, for a few hours at least, far from most people's minds.
"I'm really enjoying [the show] very much," said The Fallen: Evenfall creator Pete Stathis, fresh off the debut of his Slave Labor horror title. "I've gotten my book out to people. It's a little slower than I had hoped it would be, but my sales to retailers have been really good, so I'm hoping that'll make up for the difference. This is my first con ever as an exhibitor, so I don't really know what to expect. I'm told it varies from con to con, with the crowd."
Over the past few weeks, Marvel Comics has made waves with the announcement of the relaunch of their Epic imprint, in which they will take submissions from everyone and anyone who has a story to pitch. In an interview at the news site Newsarama, president Bill Jemas said "absolute, total unknowns" worldwide could submit full-script, 22-page stories with either established characters (preferably second-tier ones) or original ones to a two-person review committee. Currently, however, the guidelines for creator-owned work require creators to sign a work-for-hire agreement. When I talked to some people at SPACE about this development, the reaction was guardedly cautious, to say the least.
"I definitely wouldn't do anything of mine because I'm one man with no attorneys and they got $500,000 attorneys that can eat me up," said Askari Hodari creator and Columbus native Glenn Brewer. "So there's no way I'm letting them have anything of mine, man. I know those contracts, and they write them in a way that's in their best interests [to] screw you, basically, and I'm not saying they're bad, but they're trying to get the most they can get for as little as possible. And that's just business. I can respect that, but I don't wanna get screwed. So, no, I would never give them one of my characters. I wouldn't even propose it. They may come out with a book just like mine [and] call it something else."
"I'm not sure what [Marvel's] motive is," said Fantasy Theater writer J. Kevin Carrier. "There doesn't seem to be a whole lot in it for them other than just getting a lot of material to put on the market. All I would say is, anybody that's thinking of trying it, read the fine print, make sure that you're not signing away something that you might not necessarily want to sign away. Other than that, it's a business deal, like any other business deal - you look at it, you weigh the benefits, you weigh the risks, and that's something for everybody else to decide, but I'm not planning on pitching anything."
By far the one with the most to say on the subject was the guest of honor, Cerebus creator Dave Sim, a staunch advocate of creators' rights throughout his long and celebrated career. "Obviously, the major companies are always going to have to own and control the vast amount of material that's out there - in their own minds, and in practical fact - because they don't write and draw. And consequently, unless they can control somebody else's writings and drawings, it's very difficult for them to make a living. They also know that they have to share in order to get good people. What they're trying to figure out is, 'How little do we have to share?'"
Sim talked of his dealings with DC Comics during the 80's, around the same time that Elfquest, another trailblazing independent title, was being published through Marvel's previous Epic incarnation. He proposed to publisher Paul Levitz that any deal involving Cerebus should split the grosses 50-50 between creator and publisher. According to Sim, what Levitz didn't realize was that Sim was operating from a position of financial strength, unlike other prominent creators. "Where Frank [Miller] is negotiating for Ronin, and then later for The Dark Knight [Returns], and is working on the book while he's negotiating the contract, he's already decided he's gonna sign whatever it is that they come up with. He's working on the book. He's negotiating the contract. He's running out of money. He's gotta have money coming in from something. I had a monthly comic book, bringing in money. I could sit and negotiate for five years, trying to edge them up to the 50-50, and it was a ceiling: for them, the creator could only get five, eight, ten percent, while we gotta get this big chunk over here. And I just went, 'I don't think in a fair and just universe' - and I see the universe as being just; I see God as a fair and just god - 'I don't think you'll get the material you want to get, behaving that way. I think you will largely get second-rate things, or you will just end up doing something despicable to somebody else, the same way you did to Siegel and Shuster.'"
Sim made it clear that no matter whatever deals the major publishers offer today, there's only one option that makes sense as far as he's concerned. "Until comic books as a medium, the mainstream comic books, address, to me, that at some point we have to imitate the standards that existed before comic books came along - the 50-50 split that exists in comic strips (even if you wanna make it a huge threshold to get up there) - until they're willing to address that, we're keeping ourselves in our own ghetto and we deserve to be there. Because we're not being fair… I think fair is something that's gotta be measured down the fifty-yard line. And I think that that's what you've gotta do, go to the table prepared to say 'We'll meet you at the fifty-yard line, but you've gotta come this way if you want us to come that way. We have to guarantee that we're not trying to suck you into something that's gonna hurt you. If you don't hurt us, if you wanna do good for us, we won't try to hurt you. We can try to do good for you.'"
Once again this year, Sim presented the Gene Day Award for outstanding achievement in self-publishing, named for his late mentor and a self-publishing pioneer from the 70's and 80's. After asking the assembled crowd for a moment of silence in memory of "those whose lives have been lost in the name of freedom" (a moment briefly marred by someone outside in the hall yelling), Sim presented awards to this year's nominees, and then to this year's winner - Crash Comics and Misa creator Tom Williams. The Columbus native said a brief thank you before departing from the stage.
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The creators at SPACE 2003 ranged from those achieving a fair amount of success with their work to those who are only just starting out, and many different levels in between. Stathis, for example, was going to self-publish Evenfall until Pulse head writer Jen Contino, after reading an advance copy at last fall's Small Press Expo, enthusiastically showed it to Slave Labor's Bob Simpkins. He had received an advance copy from the artist over a year ago, but it was misplaced during the company's move. He promised to read the book. "A couple of months later," Stathis said, continuing the story, "I got e-mails from Dan Vado, the president of Slave Labor - and by self-publishing, I had already sold 2,000 copies of the first issue and I was about three days away from writing the check for the printer. And Dan Vado sends me an e-mail saying 'I'm gonna publish you.' So it's like getting a phone call from the governor; 'You don't have to spend the money, we're doing it.' So there was a lot of luck involved, and what's even funnier is, after Dan Vado started reading the second submission, he stumbled across a box that had a whole boxful of submissions in it that had been lost in the shuffle of their moves, and he found my original submission! It's a combination of luck and perseverance, I guess. But luck definitely had a hand in it!"
Brewer has recently opted to take his crime comic Askari Hodari into a new medium - the movies. He and a small crew of friends are going to produce it, a new story featuring supporting characters from the book. "The film should be done in November. I'm gonna release it in conjunction with the sixth book, which is the last one. I'm gonna give it away for free for anybody who's bought all six books so far, just to say thanks, y'know, [to the] people who hung in there with me." The two-time Day Prize nominee says he may go with putting the film out on VCD instead of DVD. "It's like a bootleg DVD, basically. You can burn it on your computer, you can play it in some DVD players but I know you can play it on your computer. It all depends on which costs the least amount for me. VCD is a little more interactive. I thought about putting, like, outtakes, interviews with people who worked with me, stuff like that."
Long time small press veteran Tim Corrigan is also a musician, though his songs aren't always related to his many comics characters. He had his tapes on sale at his table along with his comics. Recently he went into the studio with an artist well known to Silver Age comic fans. "I started playing guitar in the late 60's. Most of the British invasion stuff was where I first developed my appreciation for music. The last two albums I did with Steve Keeter. He's very into the heavy, electrical sounds. So we blended the two together and came up with something really different, I think. We're coming from two different directions musically, and at first I was pretty sure it wouldn't work at all. But we found some common ground, and I was very pleased with the results."
The Wang creator Stan Yan is part of the Denver co-op Squid Works. "There are probably about ten active dues-paying members that are actually in the online catalog, and there are a lot of other creators that show up for things like jam sessions and things like that but don't have self-published titles of their own. We try to come up with a quarterly update so that we can let people know about us. Most of us have other full-time jobs, so we figure that, as a group, at least we can come out with something new every quarter, even if each of us can't."
One creator I was delighted to see active again is Marcus Lusk of Tales From the Bog, a popular anthropomorphic drama from the 90's (think Bone meets Pogo). He had spoken in the letters page of his book of opening a comic shop, the Cartoon Gallery, in his town of Birmingham, Alabama, and also he and his wife were expecting their first child. What's happened since? "The comic book shop… went through four locations - unfortunately, not all at the same time - [and] finally went down the toilet a couple of years ago. It threw me off track. I also had two kids; that helped to throw me off track as well - a divorce, that threw me off track as well! Finally, coming out of that hole, [I was] determined to come back this year." His website, talesfromthebog.com, is under construction and is expected to debut in June, where he'll operate Bog online. “There’ll be a weekly, Sunday-size strip, and what I’m hoping to offer is a monthly, six-page story that’ll be sent to subscribers as an e-mail attachment. Hopefully, at the end of each year, we’ll be putting out a trade paperback with that material, all the weekly strips and the monthly stories. I’m talking to a couple of different publishers, including Top Shelf. I’m probably not gonna go the self-publishing route again! Online, yes, on paper, no...The website may go up before June. I’m working on some stuff that has to do with the war, much more social-political stuff.”
Lusk said the new Bog stories will veer away from the comic book satire he had explored in the first run and be more topical and accessible – though he hasn’t completely forgotten about that story arc. “I do have one strip that I’ve worked on that has Cosmo turning his nose up at the latest relaunch of Cobweb. I came up with that when I saw the press release where Marvel’s relaunching Peter Parker yet again, and I thought, y’know, I wanna show him a couple of years down the line saying, ‘Y’know… I’m gonna go play with my Gameboy.’ I think that’s what the industry’s done: manipulated, just strip-mined its own customer base until now people are so cynical [that] they don’t care anymore.”
There were a number of panel discussions held during the show as well, and I had the opportunity to moderate one of them. The subject was small press promotion, in which we discussed how to get people to read small press books. My guests were Waiting Place and Sentinel writer Sean McKeever, Dog & Pony Show creator Pam Bliss, Amelia Rules creator Jimmy Gownley, and Amoeba Adventures artist Max Ink. (Transcript appearing soon at Slush)
There aren't very many shows like SPACE, but those that are around share a free-spirited, populist air borne out of a love for making comics and a sense of community that links everyone involved - and SPACE is no exception. "[I'm] having a great time," said Carrier. "Every time I come here I get to meet people in person that I only know through [mail] correspondence or the internet. And there's a lot of old friends, and I sell a few books, so you can't beat that!"