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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Comic Book Holiday: SPX 2003
By Rich Watson


For the attendees of this year's Small Press Expo (SPX), this convention is more than just an opportunity to promote and sell their product. In many ways, it's not unlike a holiday vacation: a celebration amongst friends, colleagues and loved ones, with its own unique traditions that reaffirm the joys of their shared passion - in this case, comics. For one weekend in September every year, established professional artists and fledgling newcomers share equal footing as they present their diverse stories directly to an audience appreciative of the medium and fully aware of its limitless potential. It's the camaraderie and the festive atmosphere, however, that keeps so many creators coming back year after year after year.

Last year, the SPX committee had announced that the show would move from Bethesda, Maryland, its present home, to Baltimore and merge with the Baltimore Comic-Con, but weeks later, that plan was pushed back to 2004. This year, outgoing executive director Greg McElhatton confirmed that the show would, in fact, stay in Bethesda. "That's one of the reasons why we opened up Sunday - we wanted to spread the crowd out between Saturday and Sunday; something the hotel finally agreed to this year. So without having to worry about a fire marshall shutting us down like we've had to in past years, we can spread the crowd evenly enough now that we can stay here, since the show defies all attempts to keep it from expanding. So this way we can let the crowds and the number of attendees continue to grow without having to worry about getting ourselves thrown out in the street halfway through Saturday." He talked about the good relationship between his successor, Steve Conley, and Baltimore Comic-Con organizer Marc Nathan, as well as the network of quality Maryland retailers that help to keep independent comics in the forefront year-round. "I think it helps that we've got such amazing stores in the area, like Big Planet Comics or Phoenix Comics, ones that really support the indie books. It's great because SPX may only come once a year, but the rest of the year there are these good stores that remind everyone about the great wealth and variety of comics that we have. And as a result, it keeps people always looking for more, always looking for good things, so when SPX does come, we've already got that built-in base of people in the area that desperately wanna buy, plus everyone who comes from all over the country, because they know that at SPX, they will find great comics."

Bethesda is a small but affluent naval town, located just outside the borders of Washington, DC. In addition to SPX, it offers a variety of year-round events including outdoor concerts in the summer, children's exhibitions, a literary festival, a marathon, a bicycling race, and more. Among the many restaurants include those that serve Afghan, Cajun & Creole, Lebanese, Mongolian, Persian and Thai foods, in addition to a number that offer live music. And its close proximity to Washington provides it with an increased number of leisurely diversions.

SPX is held at the Holiday Inn Select on Wisconsin Avenue, less than ten minutes walking distance from the subway and flanked on all sides by a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants where creators and fans congregate. Over the years the show has held fond memories for many regular attendees.

"My memories of SPX are always of the people - of seeing my particular friends and making new friends," said Dog & Pony Show creator and online columnist Pam Bliss. "There's people I see only at this show every year, and all the fun activities that take place after the show - eating meals in all of Bethesda's fine restaurants, sitting around in the hotel lobby and talking, staying up way later than I ever stay up at home in the country in Indiana. I sat next to Scott McCloud one year - that was pretty exciting! And it was interesting to hear his comments, and sharing some of my opinions on the world of comics with him was a lot of fun… I had a padded envelope - it was empty - and I'm sure he thought, in good faith, that it had been discarded. When I went to put away the piece of display equipment that went into the padded envelope, it wasn't there. So I always tell people Scott McCloud stole my padded envelope! It's an exaggeration. [laughs] It makes a funny story, so that's why I tell it."

Finder creator Carla Speed McNeil talked about an old SPX tradition - the post-show pig roast usually held on Sundays, discontinued this year in favor of a third selling day. "Everybody appreciates the extra selling day, and I certainly do, but I've met more people at the pig roast - just wandering around, still boggled from the show. It was nice to have a social hour that wasn't in a smoky bar room. I've got very fond memories of sitting on the grass, shooing wasps away from my drink and talking about cicadas with Bryan Talbot and whatever. There are many, many other good memories, but that's the thing that'll stick in my mind."

"I remember coming here for the first time and not knowing anybody, just having a lot of Xeroxed comics," said Box Office Poison creator Alex Robinson. "It was my first real convention, [and] it was exciting and nervous… and now here I am with a big trade paperback and a skinny trade paperback [the forthcoming collection BOP! More Box Office Poison]. I've become friends with so many cartoonists and met so many cool people… It's just beautiful." (Talk to Alex on his official message board)

As always, creators come to SPX to promote new work and support older ones, and there was much to be found on both counts. "I love the show. This and APE are my two favorite shows in the whole world," said True Story Swear to God creator Tom Beland. "San Diego's fun, but it's too busy. And it's nice for sales, but this is sort of [like] your own people, so it's nice to be able to see people in small press. And I think people [here] are more approachable, and I like that; [it's] sort of relaxing." Following on the heels of the book's first trade paperback, Chances Are…, he said that AIT/PlanetLar will release a compilation of his strips early next year, subtitled 100 Stories. "I wanna go back to making those again, because those are the ones where you really have a lot more fun with it. 'Cause you can take one topic and kinda fly with it, but a comic strip, to me, is like a 40-yard dash, and a book is like a marathon. By the time you get the book done you're just drained!… They organized all the strips into categories. It's bizarre to see someone take your stuff and say, 'Hey, we went through all your stuff to categorize it'… but they're out of order now[laughs]."

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Also attending with Beland was his wife, TV and radio show host Lily Garcia, who, as fans of the book know, has been the focus of the series ever since it went full-size, chronicling their relationship. "I feel like Wilma Flintstone sometimes because I'm appearing as a comic book character! Usually people ask me [if] I feel bad about him writing everything that happens. Actually, no - I mean, he always asks my input, and they always talk about him in the show anyway, so it's like dual revenge! I don't feel bad about it. I also write a column for the paper which is also autobiographical. I wrote about my experiences, and it's about self-help and motivation, and I published two books on them, so people know about my life. It's just so funny - I never ever thought I would be a cartoon character! That is something so awesome, but I've learned in life that you never know how it's gonna end or what's gonna happen. You just have to live day by day." She said that she read comics sporadically growing up in her native Puerto Rico, but ever since meeting Beland her knowledge of not only the books but also the business has increased. "Tom already knows what I'm gonna like: human interest, anything that has to do with autobiographical [stories] - I love those. He always buys them for me. My first one was Pedro and Me. I actually read it at this convention three years ago and I cried my eyes out… I'm slowly getting into it. There's a lot of really good people doing great stuff."

Vogelein creator Jane Irwin has re-released her mini-series as a manga-sized trade paperback and found an increased level of success with it. "So far, the book has been selling hand over fist. I was worried that it was going to be difficult for people to take a $13 price point instead of a $3 price for a comic book, but it hasn't seemed to be an issue at all. It's been selling very well, and people seem to be incredibly pleased with the smaller package." She said that a talk with a retailer convinced her to go in this direction, one she plans to adhere to in the future. "I've definitely decided to stick with the graphic novel format because they're more portable, people seem to like them better, they've been choosing the graphic novel over the flimsies, and it definitely seems to be the way to go. I don't regret doing the flimsies; it was simply what I needed to do at the time, but all of my books are gonna be published as graphic novels."

Raina Telgemeier has been self-publishing her autobiographical book Take Out for about two years, and this year has seen her appearing at a number of different cons. "This year I went to SPACE, I went to San Diego, I went to APE, I went to ShoujoCon and I went to the Big Apple Anime Fest." She said autobiography just comes naturally to her, and while she hinted at bigger plans down the road, she remains committed to her mini-comic for now. "It's just what I always enjoy doing the most, more than telling fictional stories… I've always been writing and drawing about myself."

McNeil, currently doing the art for Greg Rucka's spy series Queen & Country, has found the change of pace an artistic challenge. "It's always been worth it to me to put the pressure on and see what it can do to make me speed up. At the beginning of this summer, I could manage about a page and a half a day, and now I'm up to two. I'm using it to try and be smarter about all the freaking cross-hatching that has become such a part of my style but is so time-consuming. If I had a clean line style, I could do five pages a day. I still don't know how to spot blacks. I'm hoping that it'll push me towards that and make me faster. [Going] faster always seems to improve me. That's been the chief thing. Well, that and it's gotten me out of debt." She credits her husband for helping to make up her mind about working on the book, which was inspired by an old British television series. "For this man, the last novel he read was 14 years ago in college; some untranslated Russian novel, I should imagine (he's a linguist). The fact [is] that he leaned over my shoulder, looked at this book that I picked up to decide whether or not I would take the job and said, 'Oh yeah. Sandbaggers. 1977. Brit spy TV. Best TV show ever made' - and turned on his heel and disappeared. I said, I gotta do it."

For me, SPX has always been a vacation - literally. In the past, I'd schedule my vacation time from work during the week of the show and I'd spend the week preparing for it. (This year, with the new job and schedule, I only had to take a single day off.) I also associate the show with the eateries around the Holiday Inn - from the Mongolian restaurant I ate in this year with a bunch of friends (a culinary first for me) to the bar and grill where James Kochalka performed one year, to the tiny mom-and-pop diner across Wisconsin Avenue where I've eaten Sunday morning breakfast, to the Pizza Hut where I've ordered out from my hotel room late at night. SPX has always felt like a holiday to me, and like a holiday, time seems suspended, yet can be remarkably fleeting. Bethesda is a good town for a convention like SPX - and the fact that it has endured here for so long, and will continue to endure, is a positive reflection on the comics fans who support this show and its creators.

"I've been delighted with how well it's turned out," said McElhatton. "We have an amazing number of exhibitors here, just some of the best stuff I've seen in comics, and such a great crowd that's willing to buy it. You can't get a greater love for the medium than you can here at SPX."


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