Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Some Ramblings on SPX 2014

This is year four of the Warren Bernard era of SPX, and the show remains as strong as ever. I've been discussing the show with some long-time veterans, and it's interesting to see how the show has evolved over twenty years. There are several distinct generations of exhibitors and attendees that have slowly changed the show's character in some ways, even as the fundamental tension of a (mostly) non-juried show has remained the same. Let's break that down a little in terms of various generations:

1. The Underground and First-Wave Alt-Cartoonists. They've never been a part of the show's social culture, but their presence always looms when they are special guests or pop in to get a table. I know that this year's theme, Alt-Weekly Cartoonists of the 1980s, was a personal pet project of his, but I'd say 80% of the attendees didn't care about the older cartoonists. The Drew Friedman panel I moderated, for example, had an audience turnout of maybe two dozen. This is not a critique; indeed, I think it was important to have this kind of focus on that kind of cartooning. It's just that SPX is a show where it's possible for several different people to have several different kind of experiences, and the ones skewing toward older cartoonists was highly specialized.

2. The Xeric Generation. This is a generation of cartoonists who started their careers anywhere from 1990 through 1999, which was roughly the bulk of the former comics grant's prime years. This is the generation that built SPX, especially in terms of its culture, and is now anywhere between 35 and 50 years old. Think Tom Hart, Megan Kelso, Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Tom Devlin's Highwater Books, James Kochalka, etc. Members of this generation have sometimes faded away from the show after they were no longer its lifeblood, only to return in more recent years. Also in this group were the wave of more mainstream cartoonists who happened to be small pressers, creating a split for both exhibitors and attendees alike. This split has been repeated along similar lines but by different means in later years.

3. The Kramer's Generation. This is a small group of slightly younger cartoonists who started attending the show roughly between 2000 and 2005. This was when the current renaissance of alt-comics was just beginning to flower and mainstream book publishers started tossing around book deals in an effort to cash in. I'm thinking Julia Wertz, Mike Dawson, Liz Baillie, etc.

4. The CCS Generation. Marking the move of the show from Bethesda to North Bethesda in its current location, a new generation of young cartoonists, led in increasing numbers each year by the Center for Cartoon Studies, established a new culture at SPX. This was the first time the show became jarringly younger, which was fitting given SPX passing the ten year mark. Many people grew up going to the show and were now ready to make their mark. This also gave birth to a new split in the show: alternative cartoonists vs webcartoonists. Many of the latter did the sort of more mainstream comics that used to be embraced by a whole different crowd at SPX; Kate Beaton is a great example. For the first time, it started to become difficult to actually cover the entire show. The influence of the Kramer's Generation waned here, even as some of them stuck it out and became significant presences. Chuck Forsman, Joseph Lambert and many others from comics programs that started to become serious about publishing are represented here.

5. The Tumblr Generation. Covering roughly the past five years, this represents an entire generation of cartoonists who publish online prior to working in print. This also applies to their fans, many of whom are teens. This is the most diverse of all generations, in terms of gender, race and sexual orientation. Sam Alden and Michael DeForge are good examples. While this generation is also the most diverse in terms of subject matter, they seem to have less crossover with prior generations than any other age group. The new influx of micropublishers are an exception to this rule.

So my old truism about two different kinds of fans having entirely different kinds of shows at SPX has now split even further. To be sure, there's plenty of crossover in generations from both the more mainstream and alternative sides of the fence, but there are plenty of Sam Alden fans who seemed to have no interest in Fantagraphics' offerings, and vice-versa.

With all of these groups present at the show, and the subsequent and sensible expansion of the show as a result, it's no longer remotely possible to see everything one wants if someone had a broad range of interests. I'm not sure if it would be cost effective, but SPX needs a third day. The show didn't quite have the huge critical mass of two years ago (with Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers), but it didn't really need it, either. Most of the creators I talked to did well. Some did record numbers, some did slightly less well than in recent years, and many were relatively pleased but not overwhelmed. A few reported dismal sales. This is pretty much the new steady-state at the show. It's not going to get any bigger in terms of its physical space, nor will there be more cartoonists exhibiting. However, in a show where 700 cartoonists are competing for the money of fewer than 5,000 attendees, the reality is that even though SPX's congoers come armed with cash, there's only so much money to go around.

What's interesting is that a lot of buyers are looking for value over quantity. A solid $20 collection of stories was as likely to go as a $2 mini. Several folks I talked to who are six or seven issues into their minicomics series found a few buyers wanting to buy the whole run. Prints sold extremely well. What all of this adds up to is that the new, bigger SPX (now in its second year) is for the most part economically sustainable. I think what we'll wind up seeing is that those who suffered from the dilution effect of there being so much competition will choose to drop out of the lottery and instead attend other events. Their place will be eagerly taken by yet another young cartoonist eager to show after attending the event. The programming and floor plan alleviated any significant logjams on the floor. Things were busy, but my movement was never impeded. Putting the big publishers with signings that would attract lines near the exits was a big help in this regard. Warren Bernard and his brain trust thought a lot of things through and have done as much as possible to create a comfortable environment for exhibitors and attendees alike.

That includes a lot of value-added stuff. The SPX Prom, a dance event, made sense given the "camp comics" vibe of the weekend and the overall youth of its participants. There was the hilarious Simon Hanselmann "wedding to comics" that followed the Ignatz Awards, complete with a five-piece brass band. Then there was the food and usual chocolate fountain. There's one suggestion so obvious for an afterparty event that I'm stunned that the organizers haven't implemented it yet: SPX karaoke. This used to be a tradition at the show about a decade ago, but it was always at a club away from the show. Setting up one of the meeting rooms with a machine seems like a slam dunk.

Regarding the Ignatz awards, Rob Kirby's QU33R winning best anthology is a milestone. Kirby was only the second queer-identified creator to win an Ignatz, and this book is an uncompromising look at queer comics of the present. To win a mainstream award says a lot both about the quality and appeal of the book as well as the kind of voters present at the show. As another breakthrough, Cathy Johnson became the third person self-identified as queer to win a brick and the second at this show. Jason Shiga and Sam Alden joined the multiple brick club with their second Ignatz wins. Only 35 artists have won more than once. Jillian Tamaki impressively joined the four brick club, tying her with Michael DeForge and James Kochalka. Only four cartoonists have won more than four. Many of the winners reflect the necessity of a strong internet presence. That's certainly true for Sam Bosma and Meredith Gran, but Jason Shiga's Demon has gained a lot of steam on the web, and Sophie Goldstein was smart enough to put her House of Women online for free the week prior to the awards.

One of the best things about the Bernard era is his commitment to an international presence at the show. This was a hallmark of the show in its early days, thanks in part to SPX's former alliance with ICAF, but it dropped off for a while after that. Once again, there were cartoonists from England, Australia and New Zealand, with Pikitia Press doing a great job of representing both of the latter countries. However, the presence of Fremok (a Franco-Belgian publisher) and Revista Larva (from Columbia) was the most exciting for me because this was the first appearance of both at SPX. Fremok's jam-packed little table had some astounding gems; I picked up the (heretofore unknown to me) fifth issue of the two-man anthology Eiland, as well as books featuring Dominique Goblet and Yvan Alagbe. I had an extended conversation with the folks at Revista Larva, who talked to me about how alternative comics are spreading across Latin America, ripe to be translated into English for some enterprising publisher.

Perhaps course-correcting for the show's focus on the work of cartoonists from thirty years ago, Bernard announced that next year's show will focus on 21st century cartooning. The line-up will include Michael DeForge, Luke Pearson, Matt Bors, and Lilli Carre'. That's a nice line-up of creators, to be sure, but it's not much different from the line-up from the last couple of years. I'll be curious to see how Bernard is able to spice this up a bit more. All indications point to few other changes: the lottery/juried mix will continue to be in effect, as will the increased number of tables. I imagine they'll keep the prom and hopefully expand on afterparty activities as I suggested above. The only other thing I can suggest is to add Fridays back to the show, keeping it open from something like 2pm to 8pm. The vast majority of the cartoonists are at the show already on Friday, and there could be another social event Friday night (perhaps the aforementioned karaoke that I suggested) or a big speaker. I know that this would be a big step in terms of cost for the show, but given the increased difficulty in navigating the room now (Bernard himself calculated that one is limited to three minutes per table if every table was to be visited!), it might be time.

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