A View From The Cheap Seats:
Gathering of the Tribe: SPX 2002
By Rich Watson
Before I begin, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the one-year anniversary of September 11 this week. It's been a difficult time, to say the least, for all of us. America has had to re-evaluate not only how the world sees us, but the way we see ourselves. The terrorist attacks on our country were an undeniable tragedy, however, in their zeal to prevent it from happening again, our leaders have taken steps that - if half the things I've read are true - may prove to be an even greater threat to our way of life. I, for one, am not convinced our leaders have our best interests at heart, nor do I believe they have any comprehension of what it means to run a democratic society. My best advice to you, my friends: know your rights as citizens. Know them and be prepared to use them when the time comes… which may be sooner than you think.
The Small Press Expo (SPX) has earned its place as the premiere independent comics exhibition in North America by virtue of not only the quality of the comics, but by their growing importance within and without the industry at large. Initially, it was unique in that it was one big Artists' Alley - an entire convention devoted exclusively to creators and publishers of indy comics - and the success of this simple formula has inspired similar shows across the country, from the California Bay Area (Alternative Press Expo), through middle America (Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, Denver Comic Arts Festival) to the media capital (MOCCA Art Festival). The result has been an increased awareness of the medium's versatility and creativity, acknowledged in many ways, from critical awards and praise, to an increasing bookstore presence, to Hollywood film deals. And there's every reason to believe that this growth will continue, if this year's show is any indication.
Located at the Holiday Inn Select in Bethesda, Maryland, less than a half-hour train ride away from Washington, DC, SPX takes up an entire weekend. Friday and Saturday is the show itself, and Sunday is devoted to workshop seminars on the business of indy comics, called the Small Press Summit, followed by a pig roast at a local park. In recent years, the International Comics Art Festival has been held at the same time, and the two gatherings cross-promote each other. In addition, there is the Ignatz Awards, an event honoring the finest in indie comics, voted on by the creators, and for the first time there were panel discussions during the show. SPX took up four rooms on the second floor of the hotel: one grand ballroom and three smaller rooms, adjacent to each other and across from the ballroom. Fans entered via a spiral staircase curling up from the lobby. This year marks the final one at this location; next year the event will move upstate and join forces with the Baltimore Comicon for what promises to be an even bigger attraction for fans and creators alike.
SPX is many things to many people. If you're a publisher, you get to roll out your newest books in a venue without competing with film and TV celebrities and supermodels. If you're an established pro, you get to touch base with a sophisticated comics audience that expects to see high-quality books. If you're a self-publisher of mini-comics, not only can you can find and build an audience, but you get to be exposed to others like you and learn from each other. If you're a retailer (they do not have tables but often visit), you get to deal firsthand with the creators without a middleman. And if you're a fan… it's simply comics heaven.
"It's very nice," said Jaime Hernandez, attending with his brother and Love & Rockets co-creator Gilbert. "I haven't been able to walk around much, because I've been sitting here signing, but everyone's very nice, and it's a nice change of pace from, say, the San Diego Con, which is just a big bookseller convention." Additional guests included Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller, Bill Plympton, Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, Scott Kurtz, Carla Speed McNeil, Leela Corman, Matt Feazell, Pam Bliss, Friends of Lulu, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Alternative Comics, Oni, and many more - some of whom I had the chance to speak with.
Last year, the September 11 terrorist attacks canceled SPX for the first time ever, which would have been held three days after. Almost a year later, the memories of that day - and the emotions that it wrought - still resound in the hearts and minds of the creators.
"Probably the greatest impact September 11 had [within the industry] was simply not going to SPX," said Understanding Comics author and comics historian Scott McCloud. "SPX was the important show; it's sort of the gathering of the tribe. All of us felt a little pang that the tragedy, even though it had not affected us the way it had people who were actively involved in the tragedy, it had affected us to the extent that this important event ceased to exist that year."
"I was asleep in bed when it happened," said Minimum Wage creator and New York native Bob Fingerman. "I got up probably around one in the afternoon, my usual time. I live right near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine [in Manhattan] and the bells were just ringing and ringing and ringing, and my first thought of the day was complete annoyance, 'cause I was like, oh god, what are they banging the bells for? I don't know what's going on, but I thought this was kinda weird. And then I called my answering service for messages and one was like, 'Hi, just calling to see you're alright,' [and I thought] oh, that's nice, he's concerned about how I'm doing. And then the next one was like, 'Just calling to see if you're alright,' and I was like okay, that's a little strange, and I thought maybe there was a fire on my block or in the neighborhood or whatever. And then the third call was from someone out of state saying, 'Just calling to see if you're alright' and then I thought something big must have happened. If people know about something out of state, it's not just local news. So I put on the news and boom, there it was, and then instantly my first thought was omigod, I hope my wife's okay, 'cause she works maybe a quarter mile away from the World Trade Center - and then [I thought] oh god, why is there no message from her? So I began getting pretty panicky. I tried calling her cellphone, but of course nobody's cellphone was working. So finally I did hear from her about two o'clock and [I felt] at least some relief."
SPX first-timer and Brooklyn resident Sal Cipriano, of the webcomic Broken Donuts and the anthology Altered Realities, thought of family members in Manhattan. "All lines were dead and I was trying to get in contact with my dad and my sister, who were both in the city, and my sister's boyfriend, who worked right near there - that was actually the first person I got in touch with. I got in touch with him before I got in touch with anybody else, and he was right down there. He was okay, just scared. And I finally got in touch with my sister, who wasn't able to contact him at all. It was a pretty scary feeling. I walked outside and my car was covered in soot. It was totally freaking me out, really bad, for days. I couldn't eat, write, do anything."
Axel and Alex creator and Maryland resident Terry Flippo heard about it while taking his daughter to the orthodontist. "We just thought it was some guy flying around in his private plane. By the time we got home the other plane had hit, and I was kinda glued to the set for the rest of the day… It was hard to get back to work after that. I just wanted to focus more on my family and cut back on the drawing and stuff. It was just tough. It really was."
For some artists, the event was a tremendous source of artistic inspiration. "I've always had an interest in doing political stuff," said Deep Fried creator Jason Yungbluth. "Just before 9/11 happened, I had been saying to people, 'Well, I wish I had been an adult in the 60s, [during] Nixon and Vietnam and the civil rights movement and all that stuff - there's no great subject matter to write about!' And then almost on cue, y'know, the World Trade Center [was attacked] and I was like 'Okay, here's the defining event of my generation; I guess I have something to write about now!'" Throughout the past year, Yungbluth has done a number of political cartoons online at his website whatisdeepfried.com, which were collected for his most recent issue. In describing the U.S. government's actions against Iraq, he compared the situation now with Vietnam and condemned both President Bush and the media for their roles in promoting an undeclared war. "The fact of the matter is, Sadaam Hussein might be a bad man, but he's not our enemy. He didn't attack us, we've got his country under our thumb, and we're supposed to buy this crap that it's imperative that we get in there and take his country apart. What about Osama bin Laden, what about al Qaeda, what about the real people who attacked us? This is the kind of stuff I address in my comics, and I try to be as non-bellicose as I can. I try to make my humor subtle and my comments on-target. The more coverage I hear, the more I think this country's insane."
While last year was not too far from people's minds, the atmosphere at SPX this year was very celebratory. For some of the older comics veterans, seeing so much positivity was the fulfillment of a promise they helped instill a generation ago. "The most significant change is the rise of what we call the graphic novel," said From Hell artist Eddie Campbell, who chronicled the early days of the indie scene in England in his Alec trilogy of books. "The old-fashioned periodical pamphlet is giving way to a more ambitious idea of what the comic book is. It's exciting times. We're carving out new territory every year. We've had Ghost World and the Ghost World movie, Jimmy Corrigan winning the [Guardian] First Book award in London, things like that. It's exciting times."
The Tale of One Bad Rat author Bryan Talbot spoke of how '70s underground comics evolved to suit the individual artists' ideas. "There was a whole ethos to the underground movement: music, and politics, and religion, the whole thing. It was a whole movement, the underground movement, and underground comics came out of that, in the late '70s. That's when it started changing; that's when small press started - rather than doing comics based on the underground movement, [there were] individual things, individual points of view, individual stories, and they could be any sort of stories, from detective stories to personal autobiography. The underground stuff has all but died out."
"One of the most pleasant things I've seen is the freedom to create what everybody's doing," added Jaime Hernandez. "We have so much to choose from, different subjects now, when it used to be just Marvel and DC. Now you have self-publishing, making mini-comics, and the independent publishers now have enough backing to produce some nice, nice stuff, nicely published things, on any subject, which is the most important part, I guess."
And the subjects one could find at SPX were many and wide-ranging. Steve Roman started his comic Lorelei, about a Vampirella-like female demon, back in 1989, and over the years the book has fought for survival despite financial problems and a struggling market full of floundering companies. This summer he relaunched the book as a 64-page quarterly anthology and is using the internet to promote it after encountering some harsh realities of modern conventions. "I went [to San Diego] for the show this year, and I had more people walk past me than ever looked at the book. It was the sort of thing where guys who would've bought it ten years ago were being dragged away by their girlfriends and their wives and being told, 'It's not for you!' But also because the show had somehow turned into a multi-media event instead of a comic convention, so it was mainly about people dressed up as Star Wars characters and Japanese schoolgirls!… So now I have a website set up; it's starwarpconcepts.com, and I'll be setting it up so that people can order it directly from me. So I'll see if I can get back the audience I used to have. It also seems to be the way a lot of other people are going now."
Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho recently brought his syndicated newspaper strip to Image in order to make it a comic book, after being fed up with the limitations of the newspaper industry. "There are five topics you can't touch in a family newspaper: sex, religion, violence, drugs, and racial issues, and those are the topics I wanted to touch, and I was getting censored every week - or it seemed like every week… They knew when they got Boondocks, and with Doonesbury also, what they were getting. But with my strip, one of the common complaints was that they thought it was a generic family funny-animal strip, but it's gonna actually be something like Doonesbury. So a lot of feature editors complained, but the readers loved it… Image has been fantastic. They've been promoting and doing everything I wanted them to do. They've been bending over backwards to get Liberty Meadows out to the public, so I'm very, very happy with Image."
Fingerman's critically acclaimed series Minimum Wage, about New York life as viewed from the fringes, has undergone reconstructive surgery. When it is re-released this fall as a hardcover graphic novel retitled Beg the Question, it will contain redrawn artwork, rewritten dialogue, and all-new pages. What made him make such massive changes after over two years? "I went back in and y'know, after all that time, I could see what needed fixing, I could see what needed a little fleshing out, 'cause I wasn't looking at it as piecemeal anymore, when it was being done in a serialized format, with pamphlets, that kind of thing - you don't think of it quite as much as a cohesive book… If you're gonna read something as one thing, I want the characters to look the same on the first page as they do on the last page. If you look at the first Minimum Wage book, and you look at the last issue that came out, they're like night and day… For the last eight months all I've been doing is retouching and retouching and retouching. In every single panel, the main character Rob has been redrawn, so that's like a thousand new Robs right there; and then Sylvia's been redrawn in almost every single panel. There's whole new pages that replaced some pages that were already in there - 40 new pages of art. It's a ton of new stuff. So in a lot of ways, it's hard for me to think of this as a reprint at all because it's been so massively retooled. I think anyone who bought the previous books are gonna feel like they got their money's worth in buying this."
K Chronicles cartoonist and newlywed Keith Knight described the secret to making his autobiographical strip funny while talking about his new compilation book, What a Long Strange Trip It's Been. "[I write] anything that I don't think is gonna get me in trouble with my mom - for the most part, I'll pretty much go after anything if I won't get sued or my mom won't get pissed. As far as what's funny - generally, if something makes me laugh, and I'm a pretty hard person to make laugh (I think), even a little, it's gonna be pretty funny. I think part of it is the way it's told. Part of it is the pace, the rhythm, and also my strips are so wordy that the text in my strips are half the strip… It's fairly intrusive, but it's part of the strip now. It's become important to the strip as what it does say and what the art says."
McCloud, meanwhile, talked about the growth of web-based comics and how these days artists increasingly see it as one more option among many. "They want to make comics first, and for some of those comics, they think the web would be a good venue; for some of them, they think print would be a good venue, and I think that's a very healthy attitude. I think print comics might be marginalized, but they're certainly not gonna be eliminated. It could be that for much of our daily information, we're gonna be using computers, getting stuff through the network. It's certainly more efficient than print in a lot of ways. It could be that the bulk of our information we get that way, but I do think paper will still be important, and I think for its artistic qualities paper will still very much be recognized. People will be creating works for print that use print more effectively than they do now."
As mentioned, SPX hosts the Ignatz Awards every year, and this year, Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros was the emcee for the informal ceremony. His company scored two wins - Scott Mills' Trenches for Outstanding Story and James Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries for Outstanding Series. Self-publisher Megan Kelso took home two awards, for Outstanding Mini-Comic and Outstanding Artist. Dan Clowes' Eightball was named Outstanding Comic. Look for a complete list of the winners to be posted at the official website, spxpo.com.
I have been coming to SPX since 1997, as a fan, an exhibitor, and now as a reporter, and I have never regretted my time there. For me, SPX means making a lot of money from selling my comics, but more importantly, it's about making new friendships and renewing old ones, and never have I been more reminded of that than this year, the year after we were denied this event through circumstances beyond our control. The existence of shows like SPX serves to remind us how important comics truly are and how much good they can accomplish.
I want to thank all the people who graciously took time to talk to me for this article, my buddies Brent Erwin, David Hedgecock, Terry Flippo and Jim Coon for the table space for my comics (especially Brent for his fabulous sales tactics!) and my travelling buddy Reid Cooper for making the hotel arrangements.
See you next year.