Thursday, September 15, 2011

15 Observations From SPX 2011

A few thoughts regarding SPX 2011, the eleventh I have attended since 1997.

1. Like many, SPX was the first show of its kind that I ever attended, years ago. As such, I not only have a great deal of affection for it as a friendly and inclusive show, it's also easy for me to see certain patterns repeat, year after year.

2. For example, it's been de rigeur since 2003 or so to claim that the show "just isn't the same". Part of that is a natural cycling through of artists, as it's the energy of the show's youngest participants that frequently creates the show's particular strains of mythology as "cartoonist sleepaway camp".

3. The show's biggest change was the move from the Holiday Inn to the Marriott in 2006, which put every exhibitor in one one room and increased the overall number of exhibitors. That made many of the show's trends that much more obvious to all, in addition to a key sea change in comics: the rise in popularity of webcomics.

4. As I have noted several times before, by 2006 it was possible for fans in entirely different camps of comics to come to SPX and have completely different experiences of the show. Kate Beaton is of course the model for this kind of experience; she drew mobs to her table at past SPX's with either no works or print or a self-published collection of cartoons, a phenomenon that mystified those not in the webcomics world. Her long lines at her Drawn & Quarterly table this year were a symbolic mixing of the two camps, especially as more alt-cartoonists are taking to the web these days.

5. The real divide at SPX has always been that of indie mainstream vs alt-comics. SPX has also always been especially supportive of local artists, whatever their particular artistic inclination. As long as there's been an SPX, there have been cartoonists self-publishing their own fairly ordinary superhero/fantasy/horror/zombie/other genre comics, distinguishable from Marvel or DC only by a lesser level of professionalism and (occasionally) a personal stamp of originality. SPX is also a con where one can see an extreme level of entry-level amateurism, as its all-comers nature has always enabled its participants to attempt to get better in public. It isn't, and never has been, a show with a consistent definition of or desire to categorize great comics art. It's always let the crowd decide what they want, though there's no question that the more inclusive and slightly middlebrow nature of the show has always been a reflection of the steering committee's tastes.

6. Given that the show is a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization that defends retailers and artists alike, I think that inclusiveness has always been an appropriate stance. There has always been ample room for art comics at SPX, as well as room to nurture minicomics makers who later exploded onto the larger scene, like Kevin Huizenga or Paul Hornschemeier. There have been years where that scene seems to shine a bit more brightly than most, but there were plenty of interesting art comics to be found at this year's show.

7. What is certainly true of this year's show is that it was exceptionally well-run. With an incredible run of national publicity leading up to the show, the staff and its volunteers weathered the single biggest day of attendance ever at SPX. Even at 1pm and 2pm, there was a long line of people just waiting to get tickets and get into the show. By that point, the aisles were already packed with people. What's remarkable is the way that one-time volunteers eventually step into leadership roles when executive members decide to step down. A word of thanks needs to be passed onto Karon Flage, the long-time executive director who stepped down after last year but continues to be a strong presence at the show. (The fact that she found my missing sketchbook is icing on the cake!) Greg McElhatton, Eden Miller and Caroline Small were other key personnel this year who performed tasks great and small. Of course, Bill Kartalopoulos did his typical great job putting together a programming track that emphasized art comics but still had plenty for a slightly more mainstream audience to find something of interest.

8. That said, the figure of Warren Bernard as the show's new executive director loomed large over the show. The retired busisnessman has spearheaded any number of initiatives that have enhanced SPX's legacy as a cultural institution, and has done so with remarkable vigor and clarity of purpose. SPX has always had the chance to be a comics festival more than just a simple swap meet, and getting the Library of Congress to preserve the show's art, Ignatz Award Nominees and a select group of minicomics (wisely curated by a small committee) is a fantastic first step. The program that donates graphic novels to local libraries is another smart move that will both help grow audiences as well as grow good will. These are legacy moves whose true impact may not be fully understood for a generation.

9. Bernard is a blunt, no-bullshit, clear-thinking leader. Upon surveying aisles that inhibited free movement for its patrons, Bernard quickly announced that the show would take over another ballroom and add 50% more floor space. He quickly noted that this would only mean adding something like 10-12 more tables (which will be no problem considering that their waiting list had over fifty people on it) for exhibitors, a few more tables for SPX itself and a lot more room for those walking the floor. He said that the committee would carefully study the new space to determine what the best floor plan set-up would be. Bernard also dropped the bomb that he got both Chris Ware and Dan Clowes to commit to next year's show, a whopper of an announcement given that neither had ever attended the show. I'm not sure either artist has been at the same show of any kind in quite some time. Bernard is a man with connections who isn't afraid to use them; his story about how he cinched the Library of Congress deal involved five years of volunteering at the institution as well as access to high-powered lawyers who helped maneuver through high-levels of bureaucracy was a dizzying one.

10. It certainly doesn't hurt that Bernard is a comics historian with real credentials, having just published a book about advertising art with Fantagraphics. He has as deep an understanding and appreciation for comics as art as anyone who has ever connected with SPX. Simply being able to give key guests of the show tours of the Library of Congress has to be a powerful inducement to attend. While it's clear that Bernard has refined tastes and will clearly promote the art-comics aspect of the show by getting the best guests and programming possible, I think he's not blind to the fact that the entry-level, community nature of the show is one of SPX's unique traits. Even the least professional of exhibitors is all about comics qua comics--not t-shirts, art objects or anything else.

11. That certainly played out in terms of the crowd. It skewed quite young, with dozens of teenagers and young 20somethings either eager to check out the scene or else trade their minicomics. The show is generally well-attended, but the show's own initiatives as well as a series of articles & interviews by Michael Cavna all had to play a part in generating interest. By the end of the show, many exhibitors had either sold out of their comics or were down to their dregs. This is during a soft economy, to boot.

12. Another interesting thing about the crowd, and this actually is a generational change: it was not only young, it was also at least half female. While this was always true of MOCCA, SPX used to be heavily skewed toward male fans. It certainly helps that something like 40% or more of the exhibitors were women and that much of the programming featured women and topics of interest to women. All of this was quite an organic process (it's the way the show has evolved), but I also get the sense that this is an important value for the show's organizers.

13. Regarding commerce, I spoke to a number of happy cartoonists who essentially swore off MOCCA and its $400+ tables. Given SPX's more reasonable $300 per table (a number I don't see rising), large table size, many amenities, friendly atmosphere, free-flowing booze on Ignatz night and (above all else) a crowd that was eager to spend money, I'm guessing most of the exhibitors will make an effort to return next year. Even given the expense of the hotel and travel, it seemed like many exhibitors were making money.

14. My own panel, "Stories of Cultural Identity", featuring Sarah Glidden, GB Tran, Marguerite Dabaie and Jessica Abel, was quite successful. The artists answered questions regarding identity in their works, how their comics are perceived in the community, the idea of insider vs outsider status and how their being American affected all aspects of their work. I look forward to seeing much of the rest of the programming on video.

15. As I noted elsewhere, the death of Dylan Williams cast a pall on the show on Sunday. People were in the mood to talk and reflect, and it was a day that reflected the community found at the show far more than simple commerce or revelry did.

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