A View From The Cheap Seats:
SPX: The Comics
By Rich Watson
The Small Press Expo is always a great place to try out new comics - or comics you've never tried before, from graphic novels to mini-comics. The following list of some of the books I bought there can be considered one big blanket recommendation of stuff to read; some of it brand new, some of it has been around longer, all of it really good. And keep in mind that this is only a tiny portion of what was available at SPX.
Creature Tech by Doug TenNapel
This graphic novel has a very wacky premise - basically it involves space eels, demonic cats, science run amok, rednecks, and the Shroud of Turin, among other things, but it somehow holds together and makes for a fun and entertaining read. There's an underlying theme about religion vs. science (I had a very interesting conversation about this exact subject at SPX with Jay Hosler, whose current mini-series, The Sandwalk Adventures, explores similar themes), so it's not totally goofy. The artwork makes great use of facial expressions and body language, which is not surprising, since TenNapel is an animator. (www.topshelfcomix.com)
Shades of Blue by Jim Harris, Rachel Nacion, & Cal Slayton
This book's developed quite a following in the past year or so. In the early issues, it seemed like the creators were gonna take a Daria-kind of approach to the idea of a super-powered teen, but now it's closer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I think - supporting cast, mentor figure, and all. I would've liked to have seen it continue in the former vein, but either way, the book is fun. It even has a somewhat somber undercurrent at times, which shows up best in the way the antagonists come across as sympathetic; again, a trait associated with the characters on Buffy. Cal Slayton came on board as artist with issue 3, and his art is a tremendous improvement overall. It gives the book the feel of an old-school Saturday morning cartoon. (www.ampcomics.com)
Lorelei by Steve Roman and others
I've known Steve for years, and while I've never been big on erotic horror comics, this one in particular is particularly noteworthy. The title character is a succubus - a female demon who preys on the souls of evil men. And yes, while there is the expected share of nudity and near-nudity, there's also some fabulous writing, especially in the origin story from 1996, reprinted in this first issue (included along with new material). The characters come across as very human and very believable. (The museum scene is the best example of this - I got a good laugh out of it.) As for the art, it works well for the most part, although certain parts of the, um, female anatomy are a bit off in places. I liked Neil Vokes and his slightly animation-like approach, and Steve Geiger, who gives Lorelei a very modern look. Hopefully this time Steve will be able to sustain an audience this time around with Lorelei - he's more than earned it. (www.starwarpconcepts.com)
Supernatural Law by Batton Lash
I first got this book at Free Comic Book Day earlier this year, when Batton did a signing here in New York and was giving out freebie copies. I bought a TPB to go with the free copy, and at SPX I bought another TPB. The book is X-Files meets The Practice. Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd are lawyers whose clientele consist of monsters, witches, demons, ghosts, vampires, and other such critters. Crazy, right? But what Batton does so well with this book is he makes you believe it 100 percent. He writes Wolff and Byrd like real lawyers and gives their cases verisimilitude by applying detail: depositions, hearings, summonses, etc. What happens is that the horror elements conform to the confines of the very structured world Batton has created, and he does it with a great deal of humor too. But that's not all! Wolff and Byrd, and their secretary Mavis, are given personal lives too. In fact, there are a bunch of ongoing subplots involving a huge supporting cast of friends, lovers, family, other lawyers, and other clients. And it all takes place in the real world - New York. Brooklyn, even! (I especially like that Mavis is from Queens. Makes me think I might've known her growing up!) Bottom line: Supernatural Law is a whole lotta fun to read, not just because of the premise, but because of the characters. Just don't ask me to explain Wolff's hairdo... (www.exhibitapress.com)
Rosemary's Backpack by Antony Johnston and Drew Gilbert
This graphic novel is a pleasant little sci-fi romp about a girl who comes into possession of an artificial intelligence cleverly disguised as a backpack. But now that she's got it, a bunch of bad guys want it for themselves. There's giant robots, a chase along the roof of a speeding train, cyborgs, cops, rollerblades and lots more. The art is okay, though the proportions tend to be a bit off in places - limbs occasionally being too short or too long. Plus there's not a great deal of line weight variation; everything has that Bryan Talbot-like heavy outline without the level of detail he uses. Still, the characters are very distinctive (especially Rose herself) and the images communicate well. Rose herself is written very nicely; not a punk but not a goody-goody either. She reminded me a bit of Courtney from Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things only without the sarcastic streak. It's an enjoyable book overall - might be especially good for pre-teens. (www.cyberosia.com)
Complex City by J.E. Smith
This series is in the same vein as Astro City, Powers, and Top 10, only not all of the characters that occupy this city are superheroes in the traditional sense. It revolves around a cop named Bulldog Malone - who's an actual bulldog - and the weird characters he encounters working his beat. Like Astro City, there are certain archetypes at play here, only the difference is that they come from different genres (the world-weary hard boiled cop, the genius inventor of cool gadgets, the virtuous all-powerful superhero, etc.), and it's clever to see them interact with each other. The art has a nice Silver Age feel to it, but although it's not quite realistic, it's not quite cartoony either, though some characters look more cartoony than others (the kid inventor Fidge, for example). The writing is notable for the way the characters interact (the rivalry between Fidge and Dr. Handsome, or Bulletproof's infatuation with Ubermodel), and you can't go wrong with that. (www.bettercomics.com)
What a Long Strange Trip It's Been by Keith Knight
I met Keef at SPX two years ago, when I bought his first "K Chronicles" compilation book Dances With Sheep, though I knew about him beforehand because I'd also bought his second, Fear of a Black Marker, so naturally I was excited about picking up his latest collection. "The K Chronicles" strip is mostly autobiographical, though he also talks about current events, pop culture, and lots of other stuff. Though his strips can sometimes turn into illustrated rants (i.e. whenever the text far exceeds the pictures), his ideas always make you either laugh or think or both. And his drawings have a very endearing charm to them, in a Jules Feiffer-kind of way. He does funny stuff. (www.kchronicles.com)
Road to America by Baru with Jean-Marc Thevenet
This European graphic novel is set in Algeria during the 1950s. It's about this Arab boxer on the rise to becoming a star, while being used as a pawn by both sides of a political revolution. The art is dynamite. It has a very sophisticated and stylish inking line with lush colors. And the story is fascinating: Said, the boxer, makes it clear he has no interest in choosing sides, but the more famous he becomes, the harder it is for him to avoid the conflict. Gorgeous book. (www.drawnandquarterly.com)
Gabagool! by Mike Dawson
In the tradition of Hate and Double Cross comes this ashcan series about your basic group of lovable losers who just wanna quit their day jobs and make as much money as possible doing as little as possible. The writing is kinda like if Kevin Smith were Italian (I especially liked the rant columns by cast member Lenny in the back). Lotta goofy fun. (www.mikedawsoncomics.com
dog/bone/spirit by Pam Bliss
Once again, the Queen of Small Press shows the rest of us how it's done - only this time she does it without words. It's a slightly wistful, yet beautifully elegant story about the spirit of a long-dead wooly mammoth searching for the way back to its native time period, and the dog it befriends along the way. The whole story has an extremely dream-like feel to it, like a memory from a time long ago, and that may be in part because of the way the art weaves seamlessly from one sequence to the next. This is one of the best stories I've seen from Pam in a career full of great stories. (www.paradisevalleycomics.com)
Personal highlights from SPX this year would include these:
- Talking to that retailer guy from Washington state (I think) on the Metro to the hotel (unfortunately his name escapes me).
- Watching Brent Erwin entice people into stopping by our table with just about whatever techniques were available, especially Terry Flippo's basket of candy!
- Talking cartoons late, late, late into the night with Lore artist Jen Hachigan. Well, it was more like her talking and me listening, since she's in the industry and therefore knows her stuff - but it was pretty educational!
- Singing like maniacs to Faith No More on the radio with Reid (DC 103, which plays semi-decent rock).
- Seeing my friend Bibi again, who comes to SPX every year and is a fan of my work. I finally got her e-mail address this time, so now we can talk year-round. (Hi, Bibi!)
And that's that. Thanks to everyone for coming out and supporting small press this year. Next year's show in Baltimore should be even better.