Monday, September 24, 2012

The Next Level: SPX 2012

As I say after every Small Press Expo, it's possible for different fans to experience the show in entirely different ways. The show has now reached such a scope that it's become nearly impossible to see and experience everything, from programming to the tables themselves. The most obvious divide is between the webcomics crowd and art-comics crowd. It's not so much that there's active enmity between the two groups, but rather that the two are almost entirely invisible to each other. That made this year's Ignatz Awards ceremony to the art-comics side of the fence, because the patter and in-jokes of the presenters came almost exclusively from the other side of the fence. Not everyone appreciated it (and one especially awkward attempt at performance art was met by loud heckling), but while I found those antics to be baffling myself, it was clear that half the crowd was enjoying it. Given that the show's programming skews heavily toward the art-comics side of things, the Ignatz awards and the subsequent entertainment (Super Art Fights) served as a sort of balancing act.

That said, there's no question that this was as a fine a show for proponents and practitioners of art-comics as has ever been staged. Thanks to a number of savvy logistical decisions made by executive director Warren Bernard and his crew, this was a show that ran smoothly and maximized the time and money of every participant. The presence of art-comics legends like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine and Francoise Mouly provided the proverbial rising tide that lifted all boats, as virtually every artist I spoke to reported solid to record-breaking sales. An enthusiastic crowd that was mustered by the tireless efforts of the SPX staff was rewarded by what was easily the deepest roster and greatest quality and variety of comics I have ever seen at a show. For the first time, I actually found myself scrambling at the end of the show to go find an artist I hadn't seen or a book I hadn't picked up; usually, the last hour or two of the show sees me retracing my steps in an effort to find something interesting.

My SPX journey began on the Friday before the show. Actually, preparations for the show started several months before that. Last year, SPX announced a partnership with the Library of Congress where representatives from that institution would comb the floor and selected minicomics, self-published comics, original art, flyers, Ignatz Award nominees and other publications that otherwise would skip the LOC and be lost forever after their initial print run. The idea was to forever preserve this art form that any citizen could then examine in the future or scholars could peruse. A few months before the show, Warren Bernard called me up and asked me if I'd like to be the guest curator for the Library of Congress for this year's show. I didn't hesitate for a moment on this and began the research and considered what sort of book I wanted to include. Essentially, I wanted unique expressions crafted at a high level that the LOC reps might otherwise pass over for any number of reasons. I also wanted books that I knew were about to go out of print but felt it important to include. I contacted a number of artists and publishers beforehand to ensure that they'd dig around for rarer items, and they filled out a permission form. Collecting the books and the forms added some extra work to my already-packed SPX schedule, but gathering these books and knowing that this part of the collection would be listed as selected by me was a serious responsibility that I did not take lightly.
The author is third from the left, in the back. Photo by Warren Bernard.

Bernard also invited me to a tour of certain key holdings of original comics art at the LOC. I was able to meet with the librarians to hash out a game plan prior to most of the guests arriving, which was especially useful since they had a printout of what they had collected in 2011. I also told them ahead of time what I was planning to collect. They proved to be a dedicated and sharp group to work with, and I felt privileged to be associated with them. The guests rolled in, a lineup that included the special guests mentioned above along with Dean Haspiel, Nick Abadzis, Charles Burns (in town just to hang out at the show), the Fantagraphics crew of Eric Reynolds, Jen Vaughn and Jacq Cohen, programming director Bill Kartalopolous, Alvin Buenaventura, Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik and several others whom I did not know. It was a treat to stare at originals by Crocket Johnson, Otto Soglow, Milt Gross, George Herriman, and Gluyas Williams. Abadzis and I spent a long time looking at the remarkable, big single panel cartoons of the latter, whose clear-line style mixed with insane but cartoony detail made these originals a feast for the eyes. Observing an original of Soglow's, Jaime Hernandez saw a smudge amdist the otherwise perfect and elegant line and said "That's what I like to see.  He's human!" I told him, "Jaime, people don't think you're human!" Bernard then took us to the air-conditioned vault and showed us nearly three dozen unseen Will Eisner WWII posters that he wrote and drew. Featuring the character "Joe Dope", these were guides on what not to do as a soldier. They came straight from the front to the LOC--not because Eisner was a big name (he wasn't, at the time) but because the Army wanted to preserve war-related art and posters. As a result, the posters were in absolutely pristine condition. Eisner really worked in a bigfoot style in these posters, something that one historian said would spill over to his post-war work.
Dean Haspiel and Warren Bernard.

Following that event, I went upstairs to see Dean Haspiel's reading and presentation regarding his donation of his minicomics collection to the LOC. With a small but engaged audience, he read "Beef With Tomato" and his recent "The Last Romantic Antihero", encouraging the crowd to make sound effects. He and Bernard then did a back-and-forth regarding the collection he donated (over 600 minicomics, dating back to 1997 or so), several of which were on display.

Before I get to some bullet-point thoughts about SPX itself, here's my list of comics that I chose for the Library of Congress. The only rules is that the artist must have attended the show at least once and that the book didn't already appear in the general collection.

Lose #1-4, by Michael DeForge. This was perhaps my most important get, because #1 and #2 are out of print, and DeForge has said that he has no intention of ever republishing them. Fortunately, the wonderful Annie Koyama scraped up a couple of the last copies for the LOC. #4 debuted at SPX.

Blindspot #1-2, by Joseph Remnant. One of the best cartoonists under thirty made his first appearance at SPX, and these comics are a document as to his development as a highly skilled artist.

Stitching Together & Ed Choy Draws James Joyce, by Annie Mok. Mok is another bright young star making her SPX debut.

Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. The fact that the Library of Congress did not possess a copy of the greatest library police-procedural of all time needed to be immediately rectified. I believe Shiga's one and only appearance at the show came in 2002, which happened to be Sparkplug's SPX debut as well.

Sundays, volumes 2, 4 and 5, edited by Chuck Forsman, Alex Kim, Sean Ford and Joseph Lambert. Forsman was unfortunately out of volumes 1 and 3, but it was important that the anthology that is the standard-bearer for excellence and innovation from the Center for Cartoon Studies be represented in the LOC's holdings.

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories, by Julia Wertz. This is Wertz's best book to date, and I was happy to write a blurb on the back of it. Each of the three long narratives tackles a different topic (her employment history, her lupus diagnosis, and her loving relationship with libraries), all of which are treated with her trademark goofy and acidic wit while treating surrounding issues (like her alcoholism) with a sort of matter-of-factness that neither diminishes their seriousness nor plays them for sympathy. I hope she and Koyama have a long and fruitful publishing relationship.

Pornhounds #1-2, by Sharon Lintz and various artists. Ignore the salacious title: this is a sensitive and frequently hilarious memoir about working as an editor for a porn publication and a later battle with breast cancer. Lintz is a real talent.

1999, by Noah Van Sciver. Everything's coming up Noah these days, with an Ignatz nomination for The Death of Elijah Lovejoy and the release of his Abraham Lincoln book The Hypo from Fantagraphics. I didn't want the LOC to overlook this excellent mini originally published by Retrofit Comics.

Cross Country, by MK Reed. This is my favorite of all of Reed's minicomics work, collected in a single volume as it details the ups and downs of driving across America with a boss you despise. Reed is another fine writer who's been making quality minicomics for years.

Three #2-3, edited by Rob Kirby. This is one of my favorite anthology series edited by a veteran of the queer comics scene with a tremendous eye for talent. The third issue, featuring Ed Luce and Carrie McNinch, is worthy of Ignatz consideration next year.

Yearbooks, by Nicholas Breutzman. One of the most talented and promising young artists debuts with a knockout punch of a comic.

Good Minnesotan #4, edited by Raighne Hogan & Justin Skarhus. This beautiful and provocative art object is precisely the sort of thing the LOC needs to have in its collection.

The Complete Talamaroo, by Alabaster. This is a hilarious, gorgeous and unsettling comic by a newcomer who imbues it with art-object qualities but an underground sensibility.

There were other books that I considered, but I ran out of forms and ran out of time. I'm proud of the eclectic nature of this selection of books that represents a variety of styles, approaches and backgrounds.

On to the show itself. Bernard is a smart guy who knew that SPX needed some tweaks, and he did not hesitate to implement them.  #1: Add 50% more floor space but only 20% more exhibitor space. Result: nice wide aisles that never faced bottlenecks and allowed for folks to stop and talk. #2: Accept credit cards at the front door and add two ATMs to the floor itself. Result: much more cash in the hands of the attendees, who seemed eager to spend it on the bounty set out before them. #3: Move programming to bigger rooms and upgrade the tech in each room to allow moderators to show more art. Result: well-attended, smoothly-run panels with intriguing content, all of which were recorded. The same thing was done for the Ignatz awards, as most everyone who wanted to attend was able to in a room that was still packed. The only snag I encountered the whole weekend was getting the wrong badge at registration, which proved to be not much of a big deal.
L to R: Glyn Dillon, Sam Arthur, me, Nick Abadzis, Luke Perason, Ellen Lindner. 
Photo by Stephen Betts.

I had the first panel on the first day of the show: "British Comics: Does It Translate?" I moderated a panel that included fantastic young cartoonist Luke Pearson, Strumpet co-editor Ellen Lindner, NoBrow copublisher Sam Arthur, Nick Abadzis and Glyn Dillon. The latter two debuted books at the show (the collected Hugo Tate and The Nao of Brown, respectively) and represented the older guard of UK alt-comics professionals. After getting past the requisite discussion of what the British comic scene is like at the moment, I was able to focus in a bit more closely on each artist. Lindner nicely represented the self-publishing and grassroots arm of UK comics. Pearson talked about how being able to walk into a bookstore and discover works by Chris Ware and such was his inspiration as an artist; years of penetration into that market has borne some great fruit. Abadzis discussed the three current projects he's working on while Dillon talked about what drew him back to comics after years working in the film industry. Finally, Arthur eloquently discussed the origins of NoBrow and their status as not merely a British publisher, but an international one. That was the real takeaway from this panel, that these cartoonists are part of a worldwide comics community that is drawn ever closer thanks to the internet and a series of cooperative publishing ventures.

Time for some bullet points:

* As has been reported elsewhere, most exhibitors reported record sales. Fantagraphics had their best show ever by 5pm on Saturday. Anecdotally, the most successful artists were those that had previously appeared at the show and brought new work. The exceptions were Koyama Press and NoBrow, but both whetted US audiences at prior SPXs thanks to Chris Pitzer and AdHouse distributing their comics. The fact that NoBrow sold out of so many books despite their relatively high price point is a testament to their astounding production values. The other UK table (SelfMadeHero, with special guests Nick Abadzis and Ellen Lindner) also did quite well. Many artists debuting books were able to sell them all, including Lilli Carre', Chris Wright, Noah Van Sciver, Ed Piskor and others. Koyama had debuts from DeForge and Wertz along with a gaggle of other cartoonists.

* In general, audiences seemed quite amenable to plunking down $10 to $20 for a nice, thick compilation of work or a book of new material. Steve Seck and Morgan Pielli (both regulars at the show) were rewarded for their diligence by flying through sales of their collections.

* Too much material out there to pick a book of the show, though certainly Chris Ware's Building Stories debuting at SPX loomed large over the show. I think this SPX may have been the Year of the Anthology. SP7 (the Garo tribute issue) looks fantastic. JT Yost's Digestate boasts an impressive list of creators. The new issue of Puppyteeth looks promising. Anthologies like Irene and Wings For Wheels (both organized by CCS alums) look great. NoBrow 7 debuted at the show and #6 was nominated for an Ignatz. The Harris Smith-edited Jeans was excellent.The first volume of the new issue of Monster debuted at the show, as did the Georgia-centered anthology Bezoar.

* One publisher I unjustly overlooked in my preview was Tom Kaczynski and his Uncivilized Books. He was debuting Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs at the show (with Gabrielle, who also made her first appearance here in 2002). Watch his website carefully over the next few months, because he will have some interesting announcements to make.

* Chuck Forsman's Oily Comics table was a big hit. With multiple new titles and several debuts, he seemed to be moving comics pretty quickly. He said that one customer told him, "One of everything."

* There were simply a head-spinning number of debuts at the show: Frank Santoro (Pompei is so incredibly beautiful and simple), Renee French, Aidan Koch, Adrian Tomine and many more. Beyond the programming, beyond the socializing, beyond the bells and whistles, this was a great SPX because the artists made sure to bring their A games to the table. Comics' incredibly deep bench was on display at SPX 2012, and that inspiration and preparation was rewarded by the rising tide of Clowes, Ware, Tomine and Los Bros lifting all boats.

* I dubbed Jaime Hernandez the King of SPX after he took home three extremely well-deserved Ignatz awards. After getting shafted by the other major comics awards shows, it was great to see him relishing this moment. Presenting Promising New Talent with Gilbert, he admonished the crowd to never, ever quit making comics. When he won Outstanding Artist, he simply said "See what happens when you never quit?" I spoke to him briefly about the new issue of Love and Rockets and how much I enjoyed Tonta, whom I dubbed "Bizarro Maggie". He said that we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.

* The only other panel I attended was Drawing The Perverse, which was more or less the Comics-As-Poetry or anti-narrative panel. Narrated by Bill Kartalopoulos, it featured Renee French, Warren Craghead, Aidan Koch and Keith Mayerson. Craghead's evolution as a cartoonist was especially fascinating and quite useful considering that I'll soon be doing a profile on him. French is a great storyteller and did a great job taking us through her process of flipping between hating narrative and embracing it. Mayerson has bounced between the comics world and art world for quite some time, while Koch's "erasure" technique is fascinating.  I only wish this panel could have gone on for another hour.

* There was no critics' panel this year, but I did enjoy spending extended time with Marc Sobel (we go back to the days of's first incarnation) as well as talking to Joe "Jog" McCulloch (who did not recognize me without my hat on), Sean Collins, Ken Parille and Chris Mautner. I also got to meet Tom Spurgeon for the first time, which was a pleasure given how much support he's given me over the years and how generally inspiring I find him to be.

* I regret not being able to make it to the tables of the following: Sally Carson, Cara Bean,  Jimmy Giegerich, Becky Hawkins, Celine Loup, Christann Maccauley, David Mack, Cody Pickrodt, and Jen Tong. I regret not being able to say hello to Eleanor Davis, Lauren Barnett, Alec Longstreth and Dina Kelberman. I just ran out of time. So it goes. Conversely, I was happy to discover the work of Olivia Horvath and Cathy Johnson.

* The show will have a hard year's guest list, though if I know Bernard he will certainly try. If this year's theme was alt-comics stars of the 90s, look perhaps for more of an 80s theme next year. As for tweaking the show, they'll obviously need more ATMs on the floor. I'd still love them to bring more of an art festival flair in the form of a room dedicated solely to displaying original art (which could be sold at the end of the show). Beyond that, everyone seemed to get what they wanted at this year's SPX, as Bernard and his team helped create an environment that was both warm and intense.

* One takeaway from the show is that people made a lot of money thanks to individual resources being pooled by the comics community along with grassroots activism. The last time there was a lot of optimism about comics was about five or six years ago, when book publishers were falling over themselves to publish comics. As always, depending on a corporate structure to bail out an artform is a devil's bargain at best. What this SPX proved is that platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo really work because cartoonists are motivated to get their projects done. Consider SP7 or Burning Building Comics--both of these elaborate, ambitious comics were crowdfunded and the results were spectacular, creating something that fans wanted. (Jeff Zwirek told me he sold out of them at the show.) At one point, Annie Koyama was leading distribution man supreme Tony Shenton around the room in an effort to get him acquainted with a variety of artists who might become future clients. The alliances between micropublishers like AdHouse, Koyama, Secret Acres, Retrofit, Sparkplug, Tugboat, NoBrow, La Mano, Uncivilized Books, 2D Cloud, etc. are a big reason why they're all experiencing enough success to keep going. They're going out and helping each other cultivate new readers, often one at a time. In much the same way, the staff at SPX not only did a wide publicity blitz, they engaged social media (Michael David Thomas in particular) in order to encourage curious fans to come to the show.  Again, one potential reader at a time. It's not easy and is in fact annoying to have to do something outside of sitting down and creating art, but motivated publishers are willing to do the work.

* Speaking of motivation, the generation of cartoonists under 30 seems to be featuring a number of artists who are essentially sold out to comics. They may have other jobs, but it seems like the majority of their free time is spent trying to get better. The result is that a lot of cartoonists are getting better, and getting better quickly. Part of this may be due to art schools helping to instill a real work ethic into cartoonists (CCS is a great example) and show them that they will get better if they relentlessly draw, write and think. Beyond that, there are more young artists who are totally in love with the medium and want to be great. I saw a photo of Michael DeForge and Luke Pearson together, two artists under 25 years old. Those two have already proven to be excellent cartoonists, and they're just getting warmed up; I look forward to revisiting that photo in ten or twenty years. More than anything, this generation seems to understand that comics aren't a get-rich-quick scheme, that they might never make money doing it, and that their audiences might be relatively small. They're doing it anyway, and for the right reasons, and they're willing to work to make it happen. This isn't pie-in-the-sky optimism regarding comics: it's just the facts. SPX 2012 was a reward for a hell of a lot of hard work.

* Finally, the best-titled book of the whole show was (obviously) Lisa Hanawalt's Sell Your Boobs, who will one day become rich and famous.


  1. Sounds fantastic!

    As it happens I asked SPX and Nick Abazdis (via Twitter) if a recording of the British Comics panel would become available - I didn't realise you were hosting this. Look forward to hearing it.

  2. I have accidentally become an expert on British comics (people send me comics, I review them--poof! expert!), so I was happily asked to moderate it. Fun time, too.