Thursday, September 26, 2013

SPX 2013: A Natural Progression

Some thoughts on the latest iteration of SPX, which happens to be the 13th I've attended since 1997 (skipping 2005, 2007 and 2010 and of course the cancelled 2001 show).

* I think one reason why this year's show was so startling to long-time attendees and exhibitors was that we were suddenly confronted with the future of the show. There are almost no scenarios where the show as presently constructed could get any bigger. For a mid-sized show, there simply aren't any better venues in the DC area. Going to a convention center could bring many additional costs, like using union labor, for example. There aren't going to be 20,000 people coming to SPX any time in the near future. Indeed, now that the show has completely taken over all available event space in the ballroom, there were times when the crowds even felt a bit thin, even if the actual number of people attending was greater than last year. The snafus regarding registration forced the hand of the executive committee so as to avoid a total public relations meltdown that invalidated their first-come, first serve policy by shutting out some of the top cartoonists and small press publishers. It was a bold move to simply solve the problem by adding more tables.

* The big fear on behalf of all exhibitors was spreading the dollars of the attendees too thin by having too many choices. I talked to a number of different cartoonists about this. There were a few trends I noticed:

1. If you had a book on the SPX debut list, you probably made money on it. The same was true for some folks who were guided by the likes of Rob McMonigal, Tom Spurgeon and myself. With more options than ever, people wanted some kind of guide to what was good or new. I can think of a dozen artists who brought between 30-50 copies of their new comic, and many sold out of them on Saturday. Many creators who were on Tony Breed's list of queer cartoonists had plenty of people come look for them.

2. If you were new to SPX, you probably did pretty well. Several newcomers I talked to, especially some who have put out a number of comics over the years, reported solid sales.

3. If you were selling prints, you probably made some money. The crowds were hungry for eye-catching art at affordable prices.

4. If you didn't have a lot of new comics and were a familiar face, you probably didn't move a lot of backstock. While the crowd is slowly expanding, it does tend to be the same kind of people, year after year.

5. Various publishers reported good sales, but nothing approaching the table-clearing of last year.

6. International cartoonists reported mixed sales. NoBrow seemed to do well once again. Italian publisher Delibile had one of the best books of the show in Mother, and they reported that they did pretty well. Philippa Rice sold out of her own comics by Sunday.

7. Having a big-ticket, high-prestige item usually paid off, like Jeff Smith and his collected RASL.

* This may have been the most diverse comics show I've ever attended. SPX finally caught up to more cosmopolitan shows, and the gender breakdown for both attendees and exhibitors is close to 50-50. That was sagely reflected in terms of the programming and special guest selection. (More on that in a bit.) It was more racially diverse than I've seen at any small press show, with the number of African-American attendees and exhibitors, while still small, looking like it was three or four times as great than in any other year. The same was true of Asian creators and attendees. There was probably a greater concentration of queer fans and creators at this show than in any other year. Part of this is a generational thing and an internet thing; the tumblr meetup on Sunday, for example, was dominated by people under 25 years old. The younger crowd also seemed to have extremely catholic tastes, judging by post-show "swag posts". All of these trends speak well of the show and its future, especially as SPX hopes to continue to slowly build its fanbase.

* Every year, I make a spreadsheet of who will be at the show, and I first note the artists I'm familiar with. Then I visit the websites of everyone else to seem if their work would be of interest to me and annotate a map with which I navigate the room. This year, there were a staggering 250-300 artists I wanted to see out of 600-700 exhibiting. This meant that I started Saturday morning at the southeast corner of the room and slowly made my way up. By the end of the day, I had not made it all the way across the room, despite attending no panels and taking only a 15 minute break for lunch. Looking back at the guest list for the 2000 show, there weren't more than 50 artists whose work I was directly interested in. The main sacrifice for me here is taking the time to get sketches. My sole exception was to get a sketch of Lisa Leavenworth from the great Peter Bagge.

* For me, this is very much a working experience. I'm in the room to survey the scene, talk to cartoonists about the show and pick up review copies. There was truly a staggering amount of good material to be found. Of course, the social aspect of the show is another highlight. My wife is an aspiring cartoonist and attended the workshop headed by Josh Bayer and Alec Longstreth. She passed on that Bayer was brimming with incredibly useful drawing tips that made sense and were easy to implement. Longstreth's discipline in getting cartoonists to draw quickly in drills was something she wished she could have in everyday life: "OK, now two minutes for the dishes. Go! Stop! Now 2 minutes on sweeping. Go!"

* For my part, I was happy to see so many comics people and get a chance to chat: Marc Sobel, Tom Spurgeon, Annie Koyama, Simon Moreton, Sean Azzopardi and Jon McNaught (all from England), Dash Shaw, Ed Piskor, Jacq Cohen, Gary Groth, Heidi MacDonald (to whom I recommended Anna Bongiovanni's book Out of Hollow Water), Jen Vaughn, Michael Kupperman. I was warmly greeted by Jesse Reklaw, whom I hadn't seen in quite some time. It was a great pleasure to meet the talented Daryl Seitchik, Julia Gfrorer, Jason Levian, Lizz Lunney, Philippa Rice, Luis Echavarria and so many more. Then there were the hordes of CCS cartoonists, new and old to me. There are so many of them now that they're scattered across the room. I had an interesting conversation with each and every cartoonist I encountered, which is one reason why it took such a long time to get around the room. I made a couple of suggestions for Joe "Jog" McCulloch, who was carrying out his mission collecting comics for the Library of Congress this year. He was trying to collect as many international comics as possible.

* After last year's once-in-a-generation show, SPX was wise not to try to follow that act with a small number of special guests. Instead, they went crazy-big, inviting over a dozen creators from around the world. This show emphasized alt-comics' depth above all else. The committee was also aware of the flack they got last year from having a relative scarcity of special guests who were women. This year, there was no such problem, as Ulli Lust, Lisa Hanawalt, Liza Donnelly, Rutu Modan and many others were special guests. While last year's guest list was an oddity in terms of its guest list (there's usually more balance), the committee was still wise to move as it did.

* Perhaps my favorite moment of the show was when Carol Tyler stopped for a second with my wife and me to show us original pages of the comic strip she does for Cincinnati Magazine. They are staggeringly beautiful and inventive. Carol was one of many veteran cartoonists looking for a way to make a real living from their comics. This was a theme for many folks I talked to who were over thirty and/or had published through the likes of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. While there's still a certain amount of prestige to be gained in working with them. there's still not much money.

* I've noted in recent years that it's possible for entirely different kinds of comics fans to have totally different experiences of the show. There was even a bit of tension among the tribes last year when a number of prominent webcomics creators were chosen to present the Ignatz awards, baffling (and annoying) cartoonists from the art-comics side of the spectrum. Increasing the size of the room seemed to dissipate that tension a bit; Topatoco was nestled in the back of the room, and the tables seemed to work themselves out nicely in terms of what cartoonists were paired with others.

* I imagine some artists who got an SPX table hoping to cash in on last year's sales were disappointed. I am pretty certain that the success of last year's show led to "Tablegeddon", and I'm guessing that this will work itself out next year for those cartoonists who lost a lot of money and didn't find the social interactions worth their time as a form of compensation. While the committee will take a look at the feedback they receive from cartoonists, I'm guessing that the new room is here to stay.

* Liza Donnelly hosted the Ignatz Awards, which as usual crammed a couple of hundred people into the room. There were more women nominated for awards than ever before, including all five Outstanding Graphic Novel nominees. Apropos of this, Donnelly selected women to present each award, a group that included Jen Vaughn, Carol Tyler, Rutu Modan, Kate Leth, Raina Telgemeier, Becky (& Frank), Ulli Lust, Mikhaela Reed, and Lucy Knisley. This was easily my favorite Ignatz awards ceremony ever. It had its usual brisk pace, and each present was quite funny. After Ulli Lust won for Outstanding Graphic Novel, Rutu Modan (who had just lost) was up to present the final award and cracked wise about it. "Perhaps you should look into this for the future", she said. Lust was stunned that in a short period of time, her work was finally translated into english, was nominated for an award and then got the award. She also joined in with the show's presenters in paying tribute to Kim Thompson; his amiable presence was missed at this show. Chip Mosher of Comixology had the last word and was quite aware that "I'm the guy keeping you from the chocolate fountain and booze". Mosher is a long-time fan in addition to being an exec at Comixology, and he told everyone in the room to avail themselves of their service. I saw him interacting with Simon Moreton and Warren Craghead, whose comics-as-poetry are about as far away from mainstream as you can get, and he said that they could definitely find an audience there. It's a very intriguing idea to say the least. Then Mosher produced an armful of drink tickets and said "Come find me to get them!"

* Michael DeForge humbly accepted three bricks (for Outstanding Series, Collection and the coveted Outstanding Artist). He joined the exclusive career Four Brick Club, a distinction shared only by five other cartoonists: Chris Ware (6), Dan Clowes (6), Jaime Hernandez (5), Kevin Huizenga (5) and James Kochalka (4). Jillian Tamaki and Chuck Forsman joined the Three Brick Club, also occupied by Anders Nilsen, Carla Speed McNeil and Eddie Campbell. (Twenty-two other cartoonists have won two Ignatz Awards).

* My panel was titled "Queering the Maisntream?", and it featured Rob Kirby, L. Nichols, Charles "Zan" Christensen, Dylan Edwards and Laurel Lynn Leake. Kirby and I carefully assembled the panel to reflect as wide and diverse a range as possible of age, gender, gender identity, subject matter, publishing experience, and editorial experience. The energy in the room was palpable as there was standing room only. This was easily my best experience moderating a panel, as each and every one of the panelists was thoughtful, passionate and articulate. The idea behind the panel was to examine the ways in which queer culture was crossing over into mainstream culture in the comics world and why. Edwards' discussion of trans issues was on point, noting that while he originally intended his book Transposes for a gay male audience (for the purpose of education, essentially), he's been surprised and pleased to see it embraced by straight audiences as well. Christensen talked about his company Northwest Press being open to publishing all kinds of stories and not specifically naming it to reflect only queer issues, though obviously that is a focus. He talked about the recent anthology Anything That Loves, which is about the experience of bisexuals and others whose identity can't be captured by a simple gay/straight binary, as an example of breaking out of the parallel world that gay comics has occupied for forty years. Many noted that a big positive, recent trend was the way that uncompromising queer content is increasingly embraced by straight audiences, like Justin Hall's anthology No Straight Lines and Gengoroh Tagame.

Leake was there to give the perspective of a young cartoonist, but I was also interested in her experiences at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her identity as a queer person has never been an issue, either with her classmates (many of whom are queer-identified) or her teachers. She also noted that one reason why the barriers between gay and straight culture are breaking down is because even if a straight person doesn't actually know a gay person, they are probably fans of gay celebrities -- and in our internet culture, celebrities are sort of our friends. When asked if this was a permanent trend or just a temporary blip, they all leaned toward the former, because of the internet creating connections, providing information and generally giving an outlet and a voice. Nichols noted that while her comics have rarely explicitly touched on being queer (with the exception of her new series Flocks), she never felt any resistance in the alt-comics community. She also touched on breaking barriers between those of faith and queer culture, just as Leake touched on breaking down binary definitions related to sex, gender and sexuality. Kirby spoke of reaching out to alt-comics culture many years ago when he asked John Porcellino to distribute his comics through his network, a request Porcellino happily agreed to. Kirby's Tablegeddon anthology minicomic included a fine list of queer and straight cartoonists all discussing their experiences tabling at comics shows. Kirby didn't make a big deal out of this rare pairing of cartoonists, nor did he have to. Sometimes sexual identity was an issue in the stories here, and sometimes it wasn't, but the entire book was appealing to queer or straight audiences. I ran out of time before I ran out of questions. Hopefully, the SPX web site will have this streaming soon.

* I have three bags' worth of comics to sort through, but some interesting books included the new Monster anthology, the aforementioned Mother anthology, the Queerotica anthology published by some CCS students and grads, and the beautiful Dog City anthology, also published by CCS students.The latter is a box containing several minicomics, a short anthology, a magazine, a poster, patches and little drawings. What's great about it is not just that it's a design marvel, but that the material within is extremely strong.

* Circling back around, the one concern I have about this show and alt-comics in general is that the supply seems to be far greater than demand. There are more good young cartoonists now than ever. Sam Alden, a worthy winner of Promising New Talent, is exploding into a huge talent right now, thanks to his tremendous work ethic. His humility and talent remind me a lot of Michael DeForge, Dash Shaw and Luke Pearson: quiet guys who simply work all of the time, sloughing off old work like dead skin. But will Alden have a big enough audience to focus entirely on comics without taking another job or living in relative poverty? The young presence at this show gives one hope; on Sunday, both ATMs in the hall had been cleared of a total of $40,000. Many artists also had Squares as a way of accepting money; this is frankly going to be a requirement at all future shows. More cartoonists are allying themselves with micropublishers who pick up costs, promotion and other production-related tasks that can interfere with cartooning. A new revenue stream is that of the comic shop publishing comics; Kilgore Books publishes both Noah Van Sciver and Joseph Remnant, while Box Brown's Retrofit is being published by Big Planet Comics. These are all positive steps, as are the increasing number of small, regional comics shows. The increasing influence of Tumblr culture is another positive, drawing in readers who don't necessarily read webcomics per se.  Comixlogy may hold some answers, but I suspect it will just be another small revenue stream.There's no single solution to this problem; instead, a dozen or more small initiatives need to continue to be spawned to keep afloat the passion of comics.

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