Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Generational Shift: SPX 2009

Rob reports on this year's Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD.

I've been attending SPX since 1997, the last year that it was a one-day show. As always, the types exhibitors present made it possible for attendees to have completely different kinds of shows, depending on their interests. In its old location, the show was small enough for me to feel like I'd exhausted every possibility in terms of seeing old favorites and carving out time for new discoveries. The show has changed in ways that no longer make that possible, something I discovered last year and really had driven home to me this year after I left. Here's a list of observations about the ways SPX has evolved in its fifteen year history and other observations related to this year's event:

* The sustained presence of web cartoonists. Kate Beaton stunned all sorts of people with her rock-star reception last year, and it was more of the same for many fans who came to see their favorite webcartoonists and who had little interest in other exhibitors. By the same token, many fans who came to see their favorite print cartoonists were baffled by the lines the webcartoonists had at their tables. The Comic Strips: Online and In Print panel was absolutely packed with fans in a way that few other panels could boast.

* The absence of well-known cartoonists from New York and the west coast. There was no table from Artists With Problems, no one from Meathaus, a tiny turnout from the Sparkplug gang, few cartoonists from the Portland or Bay Area scenes, and so on. This represented a generation of cartoonists mostly older than thirty that weren't at the show. I'm not sure how much of this was local shows drawing those cartoonists in (Portland has Stumptown, and there's going to be a new alt-comix show in Brooklyn), the national economic crisis, or simply folks getting older and not having the time to make it to the show. Along the same lines, there simply weren't too many artists older than 30 at the show, including any number of long-time stalwarts at the show. There were exceptions: Josh Neufeld (completing his rise from self-published artist to receiving national & mainstream praise for his recent Pantheon book), James Kochalka, Jeffrey Brown, Kevin Huizenga, and Dan Zettwoch, to name a prominent few.

* The influence of formal comics education. Schools like SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design), MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design), SVA (School of Visual Arts) and especially CCS (Center for Cartoon Studies) are producing wave after wave of young, enthusiastic cartoonists. CCS-related cartoonists had a dozen or more tables, with nearly three dozen students or alums in attendance. In talking to a number of CCS folks, I was struck not only by how many alums stick around White River Junction after graduation, but by how totally sold out to comics they are. A culture has been created that not only provides support and encouragement but also demands a strong work ethic and a commitment to constantly growing.

I spoke to Zak Sally, who is currently a teacher at MCAD, about how he felt going from being a DIY cartoonist to an educator. He noted that he felt conflicted about this at first, but that quickly faded when he saw the impact that he had in helping young cartoonists solve storytelling problems and their enthusiasm. To me, this feels less like going to school to learn cartooning and more about old-fashioned apprenticeship. There's a tradition of younger artists learning the nuts and bolts of the art from experienced masters, and it's a tradition that seems to be coming alive now. The best way to go about this is still a matter of some debate, so I will be curious to see how Jesse Reklaw and a number of Portland cartoonists approach this problem with their educational program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC).

* The wane of traditional genre comics. A decade ago, the show was roughly 50% genre comics of some sort (many of them superhero comics), 50% alt-comics. Now it's more like 15% genre comics, 85% alt-comics--and most of the genre comics are either fantasy or horror (there were lots of zombie-related comics around). Minicomics dominated this show, and there seemed to be a sensible balance between mini as art object and mini as storytelling device. That said, the distinction between genre and non-genre comics has not only become less important, but it's started to blur. The New Action panel dealt with artists who drew genre comics of a kind, like Kaz Strzepek's THE MOURNING STAR. This is a post-apocalyptic story that's published by Bodega, one of the most refined of all publishing concerns.

* The strength of the programming. In the older days of the show, much of the programming was strictly perfunctory, with the exception of events related to ICAF (International Cartoon Art Festival, which brought in any number of interesting guests). Since Bill Kartalopolous took over the programming four years ago, nearly every panel is worth seeing. Bill dutifully made sure events started and ended on time and that panelists & moderators were in the right place at the right time. That also speaks to the organization of the show. Simply put, this is the best-run show I've ever attended, and it's only gotten better since it moved to North Bethesda.

This is a nice segue into the panels I attended or participated in during the weekend. First up was Debut Cartoonists, a panel I moderated. I showed up right at the 12:30 start time, running a bit later than I would have preferred, but all four participants had arrived. The panel was devoted to four cartoonists debuting new work at the show, a sort of replacement for the always-nebulous Best Debut Ignatz award which had been done away with. The group included Ken Dahl (aka Gabby Schulz), debuting MONSTERS; Zak Sally, debuting a collection of older material called LIKE A DOG; Eleanor Davis, debuting the kid-aimed THE SECRET SCIENCE ALLIANCE (AND THE COPYCAT CROOK); and Hans Rickheit (THE SQUIRREL MACHINE). After a slow start, the artists started to bounce ideas off each other, resulting in a panel that felt a bit like a cathartic therapy session at times. Sally talked about the struggles he had in going back to old material and trying to reconnect to the feelings he had about comics at the time. He and Dahl (a natural storyteller) commiserated on fighting feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing as an artist and allowing themselves to say that it was OK to seek feedback and get people to read their work. Davis was the panel's catalyst, engaging her friend Dahl on several occasions and creating debate around the feelings an artist gets when a project has been completed. Rickheit talked about his creative process and working from dream imagery, and noted that he particularly enjoyed hearing new interpretations of the book's ending from readers. I've rarely seen a panel where the artists really engaged each other so thoroughly and on so many levels.

I participated in this year's Critics' Roundtable once again, with Gary Groth, Douglas Wolk, Chris Mautner, Joe "Jog" McCulloch, Sean T. Collins and Tucker Stone. Moderator Bill Kartalopolous asked us questions less about specific works and more about a variety of experiences related to writing and critique. Johanna Draper Carlson had a nice summary of the event on her blog. For my part, I wished the event was about three times longer, so as to get longer answers from everyone. What I liked best about the panel this year was the looser feel of the event, with more give and take between panelists. We were just starting to get warmed up on the subject of negative criticism when we ran out of time. I could feel half of the panelists bristle when I noted my disdain of snark in criticism, and I would have enjoyed some back and forth on that topic. Collins has audio of the panel.

The attendance at panels and spotlights varied widely. For reasons I don't quite understand, the critics' panel was packed. On the other hand, the spotlights on legendary artists Carol Tyler & John Porcellino were sparsely attended. Porcellino's longtime friend and current publisher Zak Sally loosely moderated his panel, which began with a slideshow presentation of his brand new King-Cat collection from Drawn & Quarterly, MAP OF MY HEART. The material from this book is rather downbeat, given that it covered a period of time when he had to deal with sickness, divorce and loneliness. I asked him about his work in relation to poetry and its rhythms, because the actual comics only cryptically alluded to the real-life events that inspired them. He replied that he indeed took a cue from poetry in the way he pared away anecdote and tried to get at the feelings behind them. This work covered a fairly long span of time, and one could see the way his minimalist style became even sparer, yet more confident. The same is true of his use of language, which has a remarkable precision. Porcellino noted that while this material dealt with depression, he was also hungover and was hoping for some fun questions. Someone asked him about his beloved Chicago Bears and a fan told him that he used to use one of his book collections as a defacto bank.

Tyler, as one might expect, was a warm and charming raconteur. Douglas Wolk moderated her panel, wherein she discussed her brilliant comic YOU'LL NEVER KNOW. She spoke at length about the new audience she's acquired in the publication of this book about her father's World War II experiences. That includes places like American Legion meetings, VFW gatherings, etc. Her book is about trauma and how a generation was trained to subsume it, and how it came out in other ways. At one meeting, she talked about laying out the art on a number of tables for the veterans to walk around and peruse, and she noted how many of them were reaching for their handkerchiefs and gruffly blowing their noses so as to not reveal their tears. Tyler spoke of trying to bridge the generation gap and telling these men it was time for them them to tell their stories. To that end, she said that she invited a large group of veterans to the class she teaches at the University of Cincinnati on comics. She paired up students with veterans and assigned the students the task of interviewing them and adapting their stories to comics. That's an inspired move, and she noted it was her way of breaking the students out of their navel-gazing comics by telling someone else's story--of something that was important.

I don't know the final numbers, but I was impressed by the attendance at the show. Even with panels pulling in a couple of hundred fans for an hour, traffic on Saturday was shoulder-to-shoulder. SPX Director Karon Flage told me that DC folk not only flock to this show, they do so looking to spend money. A lot of exhibitors told me that sales were doing quite nicely for them, which had to be heartening given the economic downturn. This is an event that people save up for, and everyone seemed to get something out of the experience. While it is unfortunate that the encounters fans have with artists here is primarily a commercial one, as artists are looking to make sales, I was struck by the number of lingering conversations and interactions I saw at the tables. I still dream of a juried art exhibit room for SPX, where fans can peruse original art (and make arrangements to buy it later if so desired). I'd also love to see the CCS workshop on both days of the show, given its popularity and opportunity for fans to experience comics in yet another different way. As a venue, the Marriott is functional, if a bit stiff and cold for such an event. On the other hand, the surreality of seeing a beauty pageant or gospel music event next door to SPX was amusing.

Flage noted that no changes were planned for SPX in terms of size, and that none would happen unless attendance continued to grow. At this point, I'm not sure that will happen anytime soon. There are simply too many regional comics festivals that have sprouted up to make SPX a can't-miss event on a national scale every year. The reality is that there are no can't-miss events anymore, because chances are that both fans and exhibitors will have any number of chances to attend a relatively nearby comics festival of some sort. Still, with guests like Gahan Wilson (whose spotlight session was quite well-attended), SPX is still the premier show of its kind--especially given the recent organizational problems that MOCCA has suffered. All told, the generational shift has been good for the show, keeping it fresh for both participants and exhibitors.


  1. What a great report. I don't think I've been able to get to SPX since around when you started to go, but I would dearly love to attend next year. We'll see!

  2. Yeah, thanks for the round up. I was stuck behind the table all show so it is really cool to read a take on the show that I trust.

  3. Thanks, gentlemen! The one thing I didn't get to do at the show was check out a lot of unknowns, but so it goes.

  4. Thanks for the report Rob! Insightful as always.

  5. I think that's a spot-on description of SPX. One problem with the Tyler and Porcellino panels was the timing. I don't like panel-hopping, and both were against things I wanted to sit in on.

    I also wish there was a bit more time before and after the panels for going into the vendor room, so that I don't have balance panel vs. picking things up. I'd love to do more than 2 or 3 panels a day.

  6. It puts a spring in my step to hear about the generation coming up. Comics as a narrative art form ain't going away, in fact it's surging ahead. I have not been to SPX since '03 and I'm keen to return... maybe next year.

  7. Trebro,

    You're right--as I noted, there are almost too many good panels (a happy dilemma, to be sure). Bill makes sure that there are always panels occurring that different sorts of people will want to attend. That said, many of the later panels were better attended than the early ones (like the Tyler panel). My sense is that people want to hit the floor early and then go to panels. Maybe some of the panels could start earlier, or go later on Sunday? Maybe one or two on Friday night?

    There are scores of young cartoonists who are excited to go to school for the art and have strong work ethics. It's impossible to keep track of them all. I'd love to see you at the show next year, new copies of EL VOCHO in hand! By the way, do you know about MINESHAFT? I think you'd be a perfect fit for that zine...

  8. Excellent review, Rob! I agree on several of the points, especially strength of programming. Just wish I had left my table a bit more to see them (but not much more).

  9. Thanks, Jen! Pleasure to meet you. The uterus mask was hilarious and I loved that print you had. And your sketch for me was great...I may well have to tell my daughter about the menstrual cup, if she doesn't run out of the room in embarrassment!