Thursday, January 1, 2009

SPX 2002

(This article was originally published in Savant and is now being archived at this site. Note that SPX did not in fact merge with the Baltimore Comic-Con, and stayed in the same location for three more years.)

A Brief History of SPX

SPX has become a yearly opportunity for the alternative comics world to celebrate itself and take stock of its current status. This Small Press Expo, held just outside of DC in Bethesda, MD, has developed into a must-attend event for much of the alt-comics world. Since last year's SPX was cancelled due to the events of the 9/11 tragedy, this year's show was anticipated eagerly by all. There were a number of concerns hangingover this show, though in the end most of its veterans dubbed it the "Best SPX ever"--which has happened on a yearly basis. While SPX has its problems, it continues to amaze everyone involved by the way it changes and evolves each year. This year, the theme I noticed was newness. There was more new material debuting for the show than ever before; there were more new faces at the tables than ever before; there were more fans there than ever before. This show was the last in the Bethesda location; it will be moving to Baltimore next year and join forces with the Baltimore Comicon in a fashion that is not yet entirely clear and is cause for some concern for many of the attendees. As such, this show took on an air of finality in some respects, providing an opportunity for reflection on the show's history.

SPX premiered in 1994, a few months after the first show of this sort: California's Alternative Press Expo, or APE. APE began as an initiative of local publisher Slave Labor Graphics and has been a mainstay for the west coast's extensive comics community. Moving to San Francisco and allying itself with the San Diego Comicon-International seems to given it new strength. SPX began as an outgrowth of Dave Sim's "Spirits of Independence" tour, at a time when the comics boom was just starting to wane but there was still money to be made. The first four shows were single-day affairs, and the earliest were held in single rooms. Making the festival a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund gave everyone involved a cause to rally around.

1997 would prove to be a turning point not only for the show, but for alt-comics in general. The chilling speech by Mike Diana that described his absurd conviction for obscenity and what happened afterwards made everyone understand how important the cause was. A zine-making fan named Chris Staros teamed up with designer and anthology publisher Brett Warnock to create Top Shelf Publications. 1997 saw the debut of new imprint Highwater Books. While the mainstream comics market and longtime alt-publishers Kitchen Sink & Black Eye Books were heading into the financial toilet, more and more young creators were taking the plunge into creating comics that they wanted to see, with little regard to the financial end of things.The comics industry always gets in trouble when its ambitions stray beyond making as many good comics as possible and finding ways to get them into as many different hands as possible. When the industry is more concerned with movies, toys and merchandising, comics themselves suffer. Even when alt & indie creators are more wrapped up in their movie deals instead of their comics output, comics suffer.

With the sales and reputation of comics at a nearly all-time low in the late 90's, a number of great comics were created out of the spotlight of mainstream coverage. SPX was the place where these books were discovered and celebrated, while young talent was nurtured and encouraged. Now that comics are enjoying their generational rediscovery by the mainstream, it is important that the industry takes advantage of this not by flooding bookstores with crap (which occurred in the late 80's after MAUS) but by slowly and carefully putting out a diverse array of books that appeal to a number of different readers. I worry that everyone is so excited about the success of the Spider-Man film and how to cash in on that that we may be in for a repeat of creators trying to figure out how to sell their properties as quickly as possible, though the release of the GHOST WORLD film in conjunction with the brilliant EIGHTBALL #22 does give me some hope in the alt-comics world.

1997 also saw two more important firsts at SPX: the Ignatz awards, a jury-nominated but attendee-voted set of prizes; and the conjunction of SPX and ICAF, the International Cartoon Art Festival, an academic conference focused on comics. The latter would prove to be especially important because of its international scope, bringing cartoonists from all over the world to SPX. More than anything, this cross-pollination of talent in one small,intimate setting would prove to be one of the show's most important effects. Scott McCloud refers to the show as a "gathering of the tribes", putting the creators into the spotlight (since no retailers are allowed to have tables) and allowing them to network. In 2002, one creator sealed the deal for his next graphic novel by getting agreements for both a penciller and for a special color section by an overseas artist attending the show for the first time. In another room, Tom Hart announced the creation of the online comics site with a dozen artists for the site right there with him.

More than just being a site for networking, the show is simply an inspiration for those who attend. Upon finding fans interested in their work and fellow creators who share their same hopes and frustrations, many artists report a renewed enthusiasm in returning to their drawing boards after the show.Of course, word of all this enthusiasm for an intimate but intense setting spreads quickly, and everyone wants to be involved. Thus, the show was moved from Silver Spring to Bethesda in 1998 and extended to three days, with the third day being a series of workshops for the creators known as the Small Press Summit. The 1997 show was a one-day affair with Diana's speech and a Jeff Smith chalk-talk the night before. Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman have both attended the show show, with Miller being overwhelmed by the variety of work that was out there. 2000 saw the festival at its zenith, given that that was arguably comics' best year ever and that the show was attended and blessed by Will Eisner, in some ways the grandfather of alt-comics.

As the years went on, SPX shed more and more of the trappings of a San Diego type show both in terms of both tthe exhibitors and the fans. That was exemplified in 2000 by the keynote speakers on the first day being Bill Griffith & Kim Deitch, as opposed to the Neil Gaimans and Frank Millers of earlier cons. In essence, SPX is the ideal, in many respects, of what comics should be all about: a diverse crowd (though not nearly as diverse as MOCCA) experiencing a staggeringly diverse and accomplished array of comics. The early years of SPX were weighted towards indie takes on fantasy, sci-fi, horror and super heroes. Some were actually quite clever and distinctive, with books by Bill Knapp and David Yurkovich coming to mind. Others were as bad or worse than material coming from the usual publishers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, autobio books were still dominating the alt end of the spectrum, with some being as embarrassingly bad in their own way as the fantasy books.

The most intriguing things to read were frequently the minicomics. Highwater ushered in an era of comic as art object, with hand-binding, silk screening and other personal touches made looking at the comic as important an experience as reading it. It was a perfect example of using low print runs and hand-making comics to one's advantage.The cancellation of 2001's SPX did quite a bit of damage to both the show and alt-comics in general. Necessity being the mother of invention, a number of smaller alt-comics shows popped up in the wake of its cancellation, including a Small Press room at the first Baltimore Comic-Con, MOCCA in New York, FLUKE in Athens and a few smaller get-togethers that emphasized the tightness of the alt-comics community. Before this year's SPX took place, it was announced that the show would be moving and would become part of the Baltimore Comic-Con. The reasons were threefold: SPX no longer had room to accommodate every creator that wanted to participate; the number of fans attending had finally reached critical mass; and the committee running the show could not afford to go to an alternate site in the DC area. Balti-Con proved to be a fairly friendly event for the alt-community last year, especially since the director of the con offered free tables for small press artists. While that show had many of the less-welcome trappings common to most comics conventions, it was distinguished by its emphasis on comics qua comics. The guests of honor were Jim Steranko and George Perez, not Jawa #3 and Sleestack #12. While there was a big, sweaty dealer's room, they were selling (for the most part) comics, not videos or toys.

The organizers of SPX will continue to organize it in the future, and they have made assurances that the show will continue to raise money for the CBLDF, will have a completely separate small press hall and will continue to have its own programming. Unfortunately, ICAF has decided to split off from SPX, which is a huge loss in terms of programming and its academic & international influences. SPX this year did have its own extensive programming track that was a roaring success, so this certainly bodes well for the future. Still, some creators I talked to were skeptical. One of the greatest charms of SPX was having a show where the alt-comics creators got all of the spotlight. Many creators report that their SPX sales were as high as their San Diego sales, which is remarkable when you consider how many thousands flood San Diego each year. Will fans at a split show be as willing to spend the same kind of money? Small press shows are also all about the creative process and the future, while mainstream shows tend to focus on nostalgia. The organizer of Balti-Con respects and likes alt-comics, so there is reason for optimism. It's clear that the new SPX will not the best of all possible worlds, but it may well preserve many of its best elements and introduce new positives.

Around The Rooms At SPX 2002

Speaking of the new, SPX 2002 was sold out nearly a year in advance (thanks in part to the cancellation of the 2001 show and the tremendous interest that the 2000 show generated), one reason why a new venue is so needed. What was interesting was just how many of the "old guard" of exhibitors did not show up. Dave Sim hasn't attended since 1997. Linda Medley, Jeff Smith, Donna Barr, Dave Cooper, David Lapham, Rick Veitch, Colleen Doran and Seth were also not there. In their absence, there were dozens of new cartoonists, many of whom were in high school when the first SPX was held. Furthermore, many of these cartoonists are banding together to form their own small press organizations.

Three examples of this phenomenon: Meathaus, Failure, and Sparkplug Comics. Meathaus started as a way for some graduates of the School of Visual Arts in New York to stay in touch. Most of them had backgrounds in either illustration or animation, so comics were a new world for many in the group. This shows in their early anthologies, but as they've developed and picked up new members, they've turned into one of the most interesting and aggressively experimental aggregations of talent out there. Foremost among them are Farel Dalrymple, whose POP GUN WAR was picked up by new publisher Absence of Ink Press and who also appears in the latest Dark Horse anthology, HAPPY ENDINGS. (Dark Horse editor Diana Schutz was a prominent presence once again at SPX, and editors from both Marvel and DC were also in attendance.) Tomer Hanuka and his brother Assaf's BIPOLAR series was just picked up by Alternative, while Dash Shaw (discussed here) also made a splash at the show.

The Failure group consists of some graduates of the Savannah College of Art & Design. The most prolific member is Drew Weing, also mentioned in my SPX preview. Also present were Rose Crowe, who does a charming mixture of both romance-related minicomics and fantasy comics; and Antar Ellis, who specializes in autobio and gag strips. The Sparkplug group may have had the most exciting books at the show. Led by publisher Dylan Williams (who also creates the experimental point-of-view comic REPORTER), it's publishing work from Ben Catmull (PAPER THEATRE) and genius Jason Shiga. Had I known that Shiga was going to be in attendance ahead of time, I would have included him as one of my twelve artists to seek out. Shiga's degree in mathematics shows in the way he designs comics that involve the reader and whose structure is remarkably precise. His experiments in narrative are engaging and fun, especially his choose-your-own adventure type book MEANWHILE and his half-story/half abacus epic HELLO, WORLD. Shiga is the single most original comics creator I've seen in years, and I'm eager to see how he continues to evolve.

SPX is held in four rooms. One of them is a huge ballroom which usually has the best crowd flow. Across from it are three smaller rooms that are interconnected. One of them was fairly large and constantly congested, while the other two rooms held no more than 10-15 tables each. In years past, these smaller rooms would be ignored by the fans who gravitated towards the larger spaces. This year, SPX tried something a bit different: they put at least one well-known small press company in each room, effectively "anchoring" it so as to draw people in. In the smallest room, it was Highwater Books. In the next smallest, it was Top Shelf and their huge & impressive setup. In the next smallest, Fantagraphics anchored one corner of the room while Drawn & Quarterly held the other. In the largest room, Alternative boasted the most tables and had a well-organized variety of artists signing and sketching at any given time. In another corner of the room, Slave Labor had their own tables. The idea worked reasonably well, though once again the crush of fans around Fantagraphics made things difficult for the tables directly across from them.

Top Shelf's room had all sorts of interesting people in it. Eddie Campbell and Rich Koslowski were signing books, while other Top Shelfers like Alex Robinson, Tony Consiglio, Steve Lafler and Scott Mills had their own satellite tables. Lafler was selling some gorgeous acrylic paintings based on his BUGHOUSE characters. Oni and Cyberosia also had their own smaller tables that drew a lot of attention. A few members of the Monkeysuit collective had their own attractive set-up, across from buzz creators Rob G and Rick Spears, who produce the appealing slacker slice-of-life comic TEENAGERS FROM MARS. With books like THREE FINGERS and CREATURE TECH, Top Shelf is increasingly dipping into the mainstream, though signing superior minicomics artists Kurt Wolfgang and Jennifer Daydreamer is certainly a positive sign that they're keeping up their "indie cred."

Highwater had Brian Ralph, Megan Kelso, Dave Kiersh, Greg Cook and several others at their table, which was notable for the lovely prints hanging up behind it. Next to their table was the USS Catastrophe crew, headed up by Ted May, Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga. Zettwoch's silkscreened, double-foldout comic IRONCLAD, about the Civil War ships Monitor and Merrimac, was another book that had everyone buzzing. The infamous "Dirty" Danny Hellman was also in the room, selling copies of LEGAL ACTION COMICS. Next to him was the remarkable Michael Kupperman, who may be the funniest cartoonist on earth. His SNAKE & BACON'S CARTOON CABARET was one of the best books of 2000 and had I known he was coming to SPX ahead of time, he would have been another addition to my "Artists To Watch Out For" article.

The room with Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics was laid out in an interesting fashion. The row with D&Q had the ICAF booth and French-Canadian publisher F-52 on one side and Belgian publisher Bries across from them, creating a sort of Euro-alley. James Sturm, R.Sikoryak, Joe Matt and David Collier were all signing at the D&Q booth, which was debuting Collier's new HAMILTON SKETCHBOOK. On the other side of the room was Fantagraphics' popular booth that featured a row of their artists signing and sketching. This included Ariel Bordeaux, Rick Altergott, Bob Fingerman (whose MINIMUM WAGE will be finished and collected as BEG THE QUESTION this fall), a newly-shaven Ivan Brunetti, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Jason & Charles Burns. Right across from them were Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and down the aisle was Phoebe Gloeckner, sharing a booth with noted minicomics maker Lark Pien. No aisle was more crowded at SPX than this one, making it difficult to check out a number of the interesting-looking minicomics across the way.

The largest ballroom was divided into two main sections. The smaller of the two was devoted to a variety of minicomics and books with a more mainstream sensibility; artists like Carla Speed McNeil, Jay Hosler, Evan Dorkin (and Slave Labor Graphics), Steve Conley, Batton Lash and Marc Hempel could be found here, along with minicomics giants like Matt Feazell and Sean Bieri. The bigger share of the room was dominated by the mighty Alternative Comics display, which at various points had 19 different artists signing at their tables. Publisher Jeff Mason also had an enormous array of new books out, including the impressive ROSETTA anthology, a collection of Gabrielle Bell's work, Leela Corman's SUBWAY SERIES, the new issue of BIPOLAR, the new issue of TRIPLE DARE, the first issue of Matt Madden's A FINE MESS, and tons more. Alternative is snapping up interesting talent left and right, and I hope to write about them in greater depth soon.

Across from Alternative was the aforementioned Sparkplug group, who were next to the creators of the beautiful and bizarre Hi-Horse anthology series. Also in that area were rising minicomics star Ellen Lindner; Chris Pitzer, Rob Ullman, and others associated with Ad House Books; NBM; and the gang from Meathaus. This corner of the room alone would have made for an interesting con, much less a small selection from an already overwhelming experience.

While the quality of Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, Highwater and Drawn & Quarterly is unquestioned, this area really brought home the theme of "the shock of the new." Most of the artists here are quite young, many of them under 30. Many have just reached the point where they are ready to produce fully realized comics while others are in a state of wild experimentation. For those that lament that alt-comics haven't produced anyone of note since Sacco, this group has the potential to create works that are not just good, but remarkable.

There are generally four levels of quality to the books one sees at SPX. At the lowest level tend to be those artists either just starting out or who simply possess no talent nor wit whatsoever. These books are beyond crude in terms of storytelling, art and production values and are worse than the worst mainstream books. There were certainly a few of these at the show, but a much lower percentage than in previous years. I certainly don't mind their presence, both because I admire the egalitarian nature of SPX and also because being exposed to better artists can only inspire them to get better. Then there's the indy genre books, which tend to be quite similar to either mainstream superhero comics or Vertigo/Crossgen-type fantasy. Most of them look quite nice and are usually self-published, pleasant reads. To be certain, the best of them are better than a number of alt-comics and deserve to be true mainstream books in terms of sales, thoughmost of them remain labors of love.

Where it gets sticky is in the next two categories: very good alt-books and essentials. There have been a number of very good books to come along in the last few years, solid, well-crafted tales with appealling characters and multiple levels of story to explore. But in the end, only a tiny number have set themselves apart as something new, bold and significant in the medium (SAFE AREA GORAZDE and JIMMY CORRIGAN come to mind, along with perhaps HICKSVILLE and a few others). The other works are simply good books that appeal to a lot of people--in any other industry, these would be the true, quality mainstream books. In the world of comics, where readers have been starved for so long for a succession of quality non-genre material, when a good book comes along it sometimes is overpraised. The key is praising a good book for being good without either overinflating its importance or panning it for not being great. Finding that middle ground will be important in the coming years as the overall bar of quality rises. The other sticky point is that the difference between art and entertainment is a difficult one to assess. Which books fall into what category is a subject that I will grapple with in another article--including an attempt at coming up with some kind of criteria. That said, comics as a medium can certainly afford to have many more "merely" good books--it's not like the bookshelf has been brimming with them throughout its existence.

Panels & Programming

One of the key concerns for SPX's organizers was crowd flow. Perhaps taking some lessons from the heavily-attended but smoothly-flowing MOCCA festival, they made some changes that alleviated what would have been a weekend-long traffic jam. Along with tinkering with room set-ups, they made sure to have programming going on in several different rooms at once, especially on Saturday. The programming was diverse, ranging from Art Spiegelman to Frank Cho on the sophistication scale. Many of the panels I attended were jam-packed, which had to help the cause in the exhibitor's rooms at least somewhat. There was literally not enough time to attend all of the panels I was interested in, given the way they were scheduled. This was quite intentional, especially in the 11-4 slots on Saturday afternoon when foot traffic at the show was at its heaviest. There were programs going on in four different rooms at once, along with CBLDF signings at the con itself. Among the artists I didn't get to see: Phoebe Gloeckner, Jessica Abel, Brian Talbot, Peter Kuper, Eddie Campbell, Ted Rall, and Francoise Mouly. Truly, an embarrassment of riches.

The first panel I did attend was a spotlight on Norwegian artist Jason, moderated by his American translator and publisher, Kim Thompson (of Fantagraphics fame). Jason drew quite a bit of attention with the publication of his book HEY WAIT..., which I discussed in the SPX preview. While his english was quite good, it was clear that he was a bit nervous in front of the group. He talked a bit about HEY WAIT..., revealing that most of the first part of the book was autobiographical. Jason said that most of his cartooning is improvisational, never writing scripts ahead of time, even if he has a general idea of where the story's going. He likes the flexibility that this gives him, so that he can shift pages around if need be, like a director shooting a film out of sequence and editing it later. Like many cartoonists, he was inspired by Chester Brown's autobiographical I NEVER LIKED YOU, which led him to the first part of HEY WAIT... The pivotal scene in the middle was fictional, but some of the second half was also from real life experience, like an unpleasant stint as a factory worker. Other influences included Jaime Hernandez, Lewis Trondheim, Italian artist Fabio, Herge, Charles Schulz and Tex Avery cartoons.

Jason was queried most often on two aspects of his works: why he has done so many silent comics and why he chooses to use anthropormorphic characters. While Jason acknowledged that removing dialogue takes away an important aspect of comics, he felt that silent comics are both easier to improvise and can make the reader feel like part of the story since they're more open to interpretation. While Jason thought the ending of HEY WAIT... was clear enough, he has been interested in seeing the number of different interpretations that have formed due to the surreal way he told the story. He noted that he uses anthropormorphic characters for similar reasons in that iconic characters allow the reader to project themselves more easily into the story. It also allows for a greater narrative fluidity, making his frequent narrative jumps less jarring and his magical realist elements more easily understandable.His next project is something completely different: an adaptation of a 1909 Norwegian mystery novel that will be called IRON WAGON, and it will be done in his anthropormorphic style, an effect that he already finds interesting. It should be released in the US in 2003. After that will be an adaptation of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, told as a love triangle between the Bride, the Monster and the creator. He's structuring it in 3 page increments, such that the first page will be silent, the second page will have dialogue, and the third page will be silent.

Asked about what he thought of the US, he gushed about New York and expressed a desire to live there at some point. He found San Diego too hot and seemed a bit overwhelmed by the con there, preferring the less commercial SPX. His American audience is lucky that San Diego was so close to SPX on the calendar, because otherwise they never would have had an opportunity to talk to this up-and-coming artist. The toughest ticket all weekend was the Art Spiegelman talk on Friday night. Admission was ten bucks, all proceeds going to the CBLDF--and the place was packed. More and more, Spiegelman resembles the "Gummo Bubbleman" parody-caricature that Dan Clowes memorably created in PUSSEY!, and his legendary chain-smoking is the stone truth. They even had to put him in the hotel bar for a signing the next day (an ingenious solution, especially when you consider the crowd he drew). Spiegelman's talk was wide-ranging and engaging; it was clear that he was happy to be in a crowd where he didn't have to give his standard "Comics 101" lecture (or as he put it, comics lectures for the "ineducable").

The themes he kept coming back to were comics in relation to other forms of art and the effect of 9/11 on his artistic career. He worries about comics as simply a Hollywood feeder, while at the same time understanding the struggles that each artist must go through. He referred to doing comics as "not a career, but a calling." Spiegelman also expressed his discomfort with both the academy and criticism and their relation to comics, but understood their necessity. ("You want to sneer at the academy, but you need the academy if you want something to sneer at.") He admitted he was reluctant to come to SPX because he didn't know what the atmosphere would be like. He had a bad taste in his mouth from the savage review that Ng Suat Tong gave him in the pages of The Comics Journal and asked if TCJ's point of view reflected that of SPX in general (the crowd, not surprisingly, shouted out "no!"). Spiegelman noted that he had had as much difficulty dealing with positive criticism as negative, and that the former had an almost paralyzing effect at times--especially as he was trying to finish book two of MAUS.

In general, he said that the kind of criticism that he finds valuable is where the critic is genuinely engaged with the work, where they explore it on its own terms. He did reserve special scorn for the art world and those museums that put on exhibits of single panels of comic art. "Paintings are made for walls", not comics, and he felt that the form was ill-served by such a display. Time was passing quickly, so the moderator began a slide show that was a retrospective of Spiegelman's work in RAW, the New Yorker and other publications. He began by revealing that he had tried out for the New Yorker as a teenager. Seeing that he didn't understand the punchlines for any of the cartoons he read in them, he submitted a batch of cartoons that made no sense whatsoever! Spiegelman freely admitted that infamous magazine executive Tina Brown hired him strictly because he had won a Pulitzer, and he's convinced to this day that she never actually read MAUS. He went on to discuss a number of his controversial covers for the magazine, including some that were rejected. His greatest pride was getting various cartoonists journalistic gigs, like Ben Katchor doing a strip on a surfing competition (!). In the end he regarded the New Yorker as a necessary evil in his career, not differentiating too much between the magazine and his old employer, Topps (for whom he created the Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packs). They are all his "Medicis", his patrons with whom he has an uncomfortable but crucial relationship.

In discussing 9/11, he talked about going down to grab his daughter out of her school, which was smack in the middle of Ground Zero. As he, his wife and daughter were outrunning the debris cloud, he looked back at the missing towers and suddenly realized how much he loved the city. "For the first time, I understood why the Jews didn't leave Berlin after Krystallnacht." He noted that the event traumatized him into wanting to do comics again, and so a strip will be appearing in Germany and in The Forward (a Jewish newspaper in New York) called "In the Shadow of No Towers." His children came up a few times in the talk; he noted that they were almost of the age where MAUS was going to become a reading option for them. At this point, the only thing they knew their father had worked on is LITTLE LIT. One of his children asked him about MAUS when their friend mentioned it to them. "Is it a true story?" Spiegelman replied yes. "Is it sad?" Again, Spiegelman said yes. "Oh, well, forget about it!"

The last part of the talk focused on upcoming projects. Another LITTLE LIT volume will be coming out next fall, and this time he wanted a tighter focus. Thus, the subtitle, "It Was A Dark and Silly Night" will start every entry. Kaz will have an entry, and Neil Gaiman will team up with Gahan Wilson. He's planning a history of the artist Rudolph Toffler with Chris Ware, and then spent the rest of his time discussing his most ambitious and singular work: his comic book "opera". Called DRAWN TO DEATH, it's based on the comics code persecution of the 50's and the lives of cartoonists Jack Cole and Bob Wood, among other things. Spiegelman had no particular attraction to opera, other than the fact that it was a medium "even less lucrative than comics." His play is more musical than opera, and it will feature a multimedia presentation. He played a song called "Poison In The Nursery", a hilarious number sung by Frida Mensch (a Dr. Frederick Wertham stand-in) while a series of related images went by on Powerpoint. It will be interesting to see what his output is like, but it's good to hear him say that he's in love with doing comics again. It is unfortunate that he chose to abandon the medium for over a decade, with the exception of a few pieces here and there. The respect that he commands is still there and continues to grow as the years go by, and while he has a lot to live up to, it would be encouraging to see him try to meet the challenge that his own work presents.

Saturday brought a succession of panels. The first I attended was the announcement of It's an offshoot of the successful online comics site, aimed at the alternative comics crowd. It's being spearheaded by Tom Hart, noted creator of Hutch Owen and one of the vanguard of the early 90's alternative crop. He mentioned that a lot of the fare at was of little interest to the alt-comics crowd, and so he was asked to recruit a group of artists for a new site, one that would bring together some of the web's most interesting artists with some of the alt-scene's most innovative creators. Beginning, October 1, that's just what we'll see. The list of contributors is truly impressive and spans just about every genre. Hart will be working with Shaenon Garrity on a new Hutch Owen strip, and the artists he's recruited are known for their willingness to experiment with the form. From the alt-comics community comes Marcel Guldemond, Nick Bertozzi, Sam Henderson, Matt Feazell, Ben Catmull, and Ethan Persoff. From the world of webcomix comes John Pham, Derek Kirk, Joda Thayer, Lauren Weinstein, Tracy White, Drew Weing, and Jason Lex. The site will also be reprinting some of Howard Cruse's early work. Hart said he was looking for artists with a unique vision while trying to draw in different types of audiences.

A number of the print artists expressed a keen interest in working in color, and several saw this as a replacement for the comics "pamphlet"--they could get their work out on a regular basis and then collect it in graphic novels when they were ready. Most online comics have left me cold, partially due to format and partially due to their content, so this site could be one to watch if the web is to be taken seriously as a place where comics can really grow. (Of course, webcomix patron saint Scott McCloud was in attendance, cheering the group on.)

The humor panel featuring Evan Dorkin, Sam Henderson and Roger Langridge went as one would expect: total chaos and Dorkin snapping off one-liner after one-liner. It began with no moderator and Dorkin picking people out at random to ask them questions, and the conversation focused in on the bitterness of those cartoonists who were dumb enough to focus on humor in their comics career. Dorkin said that humor comics were ghettoized in a medium that was already ghettoized, and that went double for alternative comics humor. He went on at length about the problems with comics shops, comics fans, comics distributors, etc. He was also derisive when asked about web comics, saying that Scott McCloud looked thinner every time he saw him and wondered when web comics would actually pay anyone. Henderson was his usual deadpan self, making a crack on Dorkin when he left the room that one person took seriously. Native New Zealander Langridge seemed a bit overwhelmed at times but did manage to get in a few words here and there about his influences and how they differed from the US-based Dorkin and Henderson.

While all three actually had a number of the same influences (with MAD magazine being a prime one, especially the Kurtzman stuff), the three couldn't be more different in style. Dorkin uses a frenetic, pop- culture soaked, fill the panels to the gills with detail approach from the Will Elder school. Langridge uses clever panel design and an elegant,fluid line to get across both cheap puns and clever visual humor through his idiot character, Fred The Clown. Henderson uses a deliberately crude but expressive style that works both as a series of ass jokes and a simultaneous commentary about crude humor. In the work of all three, there is a both a fury and a sharp sense of intelligence that permeates every panel, to the point where even the jokes that fall flat are still interesting to read.

One of the most eagerly-awaited panels of the day featured Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez of LOVE & ROCKETS fame. They very rarely make it to the east coast these days, so they were mobbed pretty much the entire weekend and their panel was jam-packed. The panel was mostly just a career retrospective and slide show that went back and forth from Gilbert to Jaime, looking extensively at both their early work and more recent creations. An amusing aside came when Art Spiegelman burst into the room, looking for the lecture being given by his wife Francoise Mouly. After leaving loudly, one of Los Bros blurted out "Hey, we talk for free!"--an amusing but cutting reference to Spiegelman's $10 lecture the night before.

The last panel of the day was the annual New Voices In Comics panel, featuring David Lasky, Kevin Huizenga, John Kerschbaum, Greg Cook and Nick Bertozzi. It was a bit odd to see Lasky as a "new" voice, considering that he was a Xeric recipient back in 1993. In fact, with Kerschbaum (1996) and Bertozzi (1999) present, it was practically a Xeric reunion. All of the artists present have somewhat idiosyncratic styles and several of them are known for their aggressive formal experimentation. Yet Bertozzi andHuizenga see themselves as storytellers above everything else, with their innovations being happy accidents that occur when they ask themselves, "Hey what it be like if I tried that?" All of the artists talked about writing comics that they would enjoy and find interesting and didn't worry much about seeking out an audience. Bertozzi said that he has three people in particular whom he seeks out for their advice and critique, and considers them to be his true audience. All five mentioned that their biggest challenges were in finding ways to make money and making time to actually draw, since a couple of the artists also were raising families.

The other question they grappled with for awhile was the role of the editor. The consensus of the panel was that there are both good and bad editors, and a good editor can be valuable to the artist if they share similar sensibilities. Bertozzi, Huizenga and Cook were the youngest members of the panel, and one can see their work evolving over time. I discussed Huizenga in my SPX preview, and suffice it to say that his work is among the most thought- provoking I've come across in comics, challenging on an intellectual and aesthetic level while still retaining a human core. Cook is fascinated by the use and occasional subversion of imagery found in children's stories; his CATCH AS CATCH CAN is a cross between a fairy tale and a Tarantino film. Bertozzi has had the steepest curve of development, going from an inane TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN rip-off to sophisticated and nuanced works like his new RUBBER NECKER series and his entry in the NEW THING: IDENTITY anthology. Lasky has been all over the place in the last decade, with minis like BOOM BOOM and his satire URBAN HIPSTER, at once both an affectionate look and poke at the hipsters found in comics like Adrian Tomine's. Kerschbaum is another artist I described in my SPX preview, but he was a wild card in this bunch, seeing as how he focuses on humor comics. Still, he fits in because of his warped approach and solutions to interesting formal problems he presents for himself. I can say without reservation that the work of all five is worth seeking out.

The Ignatz Awards & One Man's Ballot

The last major event of Saturday night was the Ignatz Awards. The Ignatz is a festival prize determined by vote of the attendees of the show. The nominees are determined by a jury of five artists that changes every year. Each juror is allowed to nominate one person or work in each category. As a result, the nominee lists often take on a "how the hell did THAT get on there" look to them, depending on the whims of the artists selecting them.The nadir of the Ignatzes came in 1999, when juror Frank Cho nominated himself twice, and won both times. A rule was installed afterwards that disallowed jurors from nominating their own work. Happily, this year's group did an outstanding job in the nomination process, selecting work that at worst was pleasant and at best represented comics at their finest.

The ceremony was held in the large ballroom that earlier in the day held dozens of creators and hundreds of fans. Attendance here quickly became standing room only, which emcee Chris Staros noted gave those standing easier access to the bar. Staros was his typical upbeat self as he introduced the ceremony, noting that comics as an industry seemed to be on the rebound. He mentioned the increasing number of book deals that comics have been getting, the Hollywood deals that seem to be cropping up for everyone, and the scrutiny given comics on the internet. Staros stated with a wry grin that he knew more than anyone about how powerful the internet comics community could be, given his company's near-death experience earlier in the year. After his distributor (LPC) went bankrupt, taking a number of promised payments with them, Top Shelf was very close to extinction themselves. A plea by Staros for help from the internet comics community brought in an avalanche of orders that brought them back to solvency.

Staros introduced 2002's recipient of the CBLDF Defender of Liberty Award, Frank Miller. Miller really seems to enjoy himself at these small press shows, even (as he admits) he doesn't understand everything he sees and thinks a lot of it isn't very good. There's no question that he's been a long-time stalwart for the CBLDF, however. Staros took the opportunity to announce that he had just been named to the Fund's board of directors, a position he had long coveted. He had even gone as far as to tell Dennis Kitchen five years ago that when he had earned it, he wanted to be a member of the board. It's certainly a good move for both parties--Staros cements his place as one of the biggest movers and shakers in comics, while the fund gains a tireless fundraiser and salesman. Staros has already laid out a number of incentive-laden offers to boost membership in the Fund.

On to the awards themselves: each nominee had their work projected onto a screen while their names were read. The first award was for Outstanding Comic, and the presenter was supposed to be Art Spiegelman. After Staros gave a long and glowing introduction, it became evident that Spiegelman hadn't yet arrived. An embarrassed Staros said, "I guess he's being a bit of a mouse" and read off the nominees himself. While comics like BIG QUESTIONS #4 and DOUBLE CROSS: MORE OR LESS were indeed quite good, everyone in the room knew that EIGHTBALL #22 was going to win. Win it did, and quite deservedly. This was by far the best comic Dan Clowes has ever written and it's one of the top five comics I've read in the last decade.

The next award was Outstanding Graphic Novel, presented by Bryan Talbot. There were a number of strong contenders here: HAW was not Ivan Brunetti at his best, but it was still hilarious; SUMMER OF LOVE had some coloring issues but it's Debbie Drechsler exquisitely detailing the ups and downs of teenagers; FALLOUT was an ambitious look at the Manhattan Project that suffered from inconsistent art; and NON #5 was a superb anthology, innovatively packaged. The winner was the deserving THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING by James Sturm. The third in a series of books about Americana and tragic events surrounding it, it tapped deep into Jewish legend and combined it with theNational Pasttime. My choice would have been NON #5, simply because of the number of outstanding contributions in it, but as a single work, GOLEM was a solid choice.

Presenting Outstanding Story was critic Ana Merino, who was quite active at the ICAF booth all weekend. The lineup here was again quite impressive. Two came from the aforementioned NON #5: "Retreat", by Megan Kelso; and "Where Hats Go", by Kurt Wolfgang. Both were discussed in my SPX preview. Also nominated were "Royal Sable" by Mira Friedmann, part of the Israeli Actus Tragicus group, "Wir Mussen Wissen, Wir Werden Wissen" by Ron Rege (in D&Q Volume 4) and TRENCHES, by Scott Mills. The inclusion of the last item seemed odd, since it was in itself a graphic novel. Why was it included in this category and not in Outstanding Graphic Novel? It did go on to win the award, and a visibly moved Mills embraced Staros, his publisher. TRENCHES was a good work and deserves praise, but I didn't see it in the same league as the other nominees. I had voted for "Where Hats Go" here, with "Retreat" a very close second.

Next came Eddie Campbell, presenting Outstanding Debut Comic. This is kind of an odd award, since the comics on the ballot are things that few people will have read since they must be books debuting within a week of SPX. As a result, fan-favorite authors might be rewarded (like Evan Dorkin in 2000) even if fans haven't actually read the book yet. The ballot was also a bit odd--even though it clearly said to vote for only one choice, the ballot was broken up into four discrete sections (one for each room). A number of folks who voted wound up voting four times because they didn't read the fine print and had their votes thrown out as a result. Another problem with the award, not that it was a fault of the SPX folks, is that some of the books on the ballot did not actually debut in time for the show. Drawn & Quarterly's PAUL GETS A SUMMER JOB, for example, will not actually debut until next spring. I voted for a debut that I actually had read at the time (Leela Corman's SUBWAY SERIES), but the winner, Joel Priddy's PULPATOON PILGRIMAGE, was a worthy one. It was one of SPX's "buzz books", by a newcomer artist (and company--Ad House Books) whose work looked like a cross between Craig Thompson and Megan Kelso. Priddy actually had became ill before the show and didn't even get to attend the ceremony! His publisher, Chris Pitzer, accepted for him.

Outstanding Series was next, a category that may become an anachronism in a few years as alt-comics continues its migration to the graphic novel format. Presenting it was Jaime Hernandez, over whom Staros gushed quite openly, even noting his fanboyish index to the world of LOVE & ROCKETS that he had published in an issue of the old Staros Report. The favorite for the award was Dave Cooper's ever-bizarre WEASEL, but the more popular and influential SKETCHBOOK DIARIES by James Kochalka was the winner. The other nominees were Chester Brown's historical series LOUIS RIEL, David Hahn's slice-of-life PRIVATE BEACH and Sam Henderson's wacky MAGIC WHISTLE. I actually went with MAGIC WHISTLE on my ballot, mostly because I thought Henderson deserved more recognition. Kochalka provided the best bit of comedy of the night. After thanking his cat and his wife, he noted that he felt stupid because at dinner, he had obtained a bite of Tom Hart's Pad Thai in exchange for the Ignatz Award, if he won it. When Kochalka returned to his table with the award, Hart grabbed it and ran gleefully down the aisle with it.

Presenting the award for Outstanding Minicomic was former award winner Brian Ralph. Before he presented the award, he said (with tongue in cheek) that he was embarrassed telling his family that he had won an award for something called a minicomic and wanted everyone to come up with a better name, on the spot. After the suggestion of "graphic pamphlet" got roundly booed by the audience, the backup suggestion of "story rocket" carried the day. This year's field was an especially good one. Works like Tony Consiglio's quasi-autobio DOUBLE CROSS ASSORTMENT or Lark Pien's delightfully cute LONG TAIL KITTY: HEAVEN would have been easy winners in other years. John Kerschbaum's HOMECOMING was one of his most clever minicomics and Kevin Huizenga's GLORIANA: SUPERMONSTER 14 was one of the best comics of the year, period. It's the one I voted for, though Megan Kelso's ARTICHOKE TALES #1 was a fully deserving winner. This is the story that made me sit up and take notice of her talent. Kelso wryly noted that she was proud to be the first recipient of an award for a "storyrocket."

Jeff Mason, the publisher of Alternative Comics, presented the award for Outstanding Online Comic. The Ignatzes are definitely ahead of the curve in giving awards for this and minicomics, understanding where a lot of innovations are taking place right now. Mason also described the work of each of the nominees, a smart move given that a large portion of the audience was unfamiliar with them. Tom Hart was nominated for his HUTCH OWEN series, Jordan Crane for his KEEPING TWO at Highwater's site, Derek Kirk for his remarkable SMALL STORIES site, and Tracy White for her autobiographical site TRACED. The winner was formalist supreme Jason Little for his BEE, a beautiful adventure/mystery strip that is being collected and published by Doubleday Books. This was what I had voted for, though I like all five sites, especially Kirk's.

Promising New Talent also had a solid field, and it was presented by former co-editor of RAW and current New Yorker editor Francoise Mouly. The group was a diverse one, with avant garde artists like Sammy Harkham and Anders Nilsen, slice of life artists like Mike Dawson and Jeffrey Brown, horror artists like Rick Smith & Tania Menesse, and unclassifiable artists like Greg Cook. Cook was the winner, on the strength of his bizarre and hilarious CATCH AS CATCH CAN, a cross between fairy tales and Tarantino films. Cook was my choice here, though Brown's debut graphic novel CLUMSY was very impressive and both Harkham & Nilsen are producing some very interesting work.

That left only Outstanding Artist to be awarded, and this task was left to the great Gilbert Hernandez. Once again, the field was jammed with outstanding nominees, and it was really too close to call. The field was interesting because of the range of styles. In one corner, you had artists like Renee French and Thomas Ott, known for their exquisite textures and rendering. Both are also heavy on atmosphere, though French's SOAP LADY was a departure in terms of subject matter, being a book for children. Then you had an avant garde formalist like Paul Hornschemeier, whose named proved so daunting to Beto that he pronounced it "Paul Mxyzptlk"". John Kerschbaum works in a stripped-down, humorous style while Megan Kelso's cartooning relies on her delicate and expressive linework. I voted for Kelso here, on the strength of her Artichoke Tales stories and her impressive showings in the Comics Journal Winter and Summer SPECIAL anthologies, the DIRTY STORIES III anthology and the BOGUS DEAD anthology. Kelso was the winner and seemed very surprised to get the award. She said that something she had said at an earlier con, that that she hopes to still be creating comics when she's an old lady, is not only still true but that this award had validated that hope.

Highwater really cleaned up at the Ignatzes, picking up two wins for Kelso and one for Cook. Top Shelf took home two awards, for Kochalka and Mills. Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Ad House Books all brought home one award each, for Clowes, Sturm and Priddy, respectively. Once again, the jury deserves a lot of credit for the proceedings, and this year's was Alex Robinson, Suzanne Baumann, David Lasky and Nick Bertozzi. A fifth juror dropped out sometime during the process, making the fifth selection in each category hotly contested. All four jurors have their roots in minicomics, with Baumann still publishing exclusively in that format. Robinson's work is more mainstream-friendly than some of the others, though his own tastes run the gamut. All in all, the jury seemed very well-informed about the important comics of the past year.

Many have noted in other reports just how relaxed and downright invigorating the proceedings seemed to be, as opposed to more frenetic cons like San Diego. The creators were in friendly territory and got to relish seeing fellow artists, exchanging ideas and relaxing over a drink. As others have reported, the bar on Friday and Saturday nights in SPX's Holiday Inn location was quite a scene, with dozens of artists, fans and publishers mingling for hours. Bethesda is a great town for restaurants, and I was not surprised to find myself in a nearby Thai restaurant, surrounded by dozens of artists and publishers. A number of artists stuck around for the Small Press Summit and the annual artist-Diamond softball game and pig roast, always making for a relaxing end to an intense weekend. Perhaps my favorite image of the entire festival was right after the Ignatz Awards. The room was kept open with a bar and free food, and dozens of folks lingered for quite some time. That led to some interesting pairings: Art Spiegelman engaged in a long conversation with Eddie Campbell; Chris Staros being embraced by an enthusiastic Peter Kuper; an emotional Tom Devlin noting that these were the first awards that Highwater had picked up at the Ignatzes. Several decades worth of creators of all interests and abilities were relishing each others' company. Perhaps the comics community isn't a team or a family, but at the very least it's an orphanage-and on a night like this, it becomes clear that the only thing all these artists had in common was their struggle to create art, and that was enough.

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