Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reflections on SPX 2017

I've been writing SPX reports for a good fifteen years now. I've been involved in the show in a number of capacities: as a writer making sense of it, as a presenter of an Ignatz award, as a moderator of numerous panels, and as the first guest-curator for the Library of Congress' sweep of the show for new material. This year marked the first time I've actually stepped behind the curtain, as it were, and joined the staff in the capacity of co-programming director.

As such, this report will be more personal and less about the nuts and bolts of the show itself. What I will say about that is the staff, to a person was outstanding to work with. I've long had a warm relationship with Executive Director Warren Bernard, and he was delightful to work with. There were over ninety volunteers at the show this year, and we had wave after wave of helpful individuals who worked the doors of the rooms for panels, keeping lines in tidy order. They were there to instantly fix A/V issues. They were there to head off problems before they escalated. Most of all, co-programming director Dan Mejia was an outstanding partner to work with. Together, we nailed down an ambitious programming track and got it to run smoothly. All of the feedback we've received so far has been immensely positive.

I was very happy with all of the moderators this year, but let me single out a few. J.A. Micheline was a first-timer whom I trusted to pitch something interesting, and she did not disappoint. Her "Architecture Of A Page", featuring SPX star Tillie Walden, Sloane Leong, Chris Kindred, and Iasmin Omar Ata, was a smash hit. It was standing room only and drew raves for the way the artists dissected their work and Micheline directed the panel. Another first-timer, L.Nichols moderated "Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism", a panel I conceived of and chose the guests for. This was another SRO event, and everyone dug deep. Yet another first-time moderator, Whit Taylor, did a great job with "World Building From Reality", even subbing in a new guest when one had to drop out at the last second.

I moderated two panels. First was the 10th Anniversary of Koyama Press panel, with Annie Koyama herself, Ben Sears, Eleanor Davis, Hannah K. Lee, Dustin Harbin, and Patrick Kyle. I skipped over the stuff most people knew about and went straight to asking Annie about the nuts and bolts of publishing: her criteria for choosing her books, how it's changed over the years, and the astoundingly non-bottom-line oriented nature of how she runs her business. My favorite segment of the panel was when I asked the artists what their favorite Koyama book was, and Sophia Foster-Dimino's brand-new Sex Fantasy was tabbed by two of the artists. That eventually led to a hilarious back-and-forth between Harbin, Lee and Davis. If you're running programming and you have the opportunity to include any or all of that trio, you should jump on it. Notably, after the panel, Annie told me that Sex Fantasy immediately sold out.

I concluded the show with a panel I designed called "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness", featuring Keiler Roberts, Tyler Cohen, Luke Howard and Summer Pierre. That's a group whose work I know so well that I essentially wrote the questions five minutes before the panel began. Each brought a different perspective: Roberts as someone with bipolar disorder, Howard as someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother and eventually inherited the same mental illness, Cohen as someone raising her daughter as far away from toxic patriarchal attitudes as possible yet dealing with her own upbringing and the influence of the greater culture; and Pierre as someone dealing with the aftereffects of PTSD and a childhood of neglect. They were all so funny and forthright and willing to engage with each other and any topic. This was perhaps the most satisfying panel I've ever moderated.

A few words about the Ignatz awards. Typically, the response to programming and the way the Ignatz votes turn out tends to be a good way to take the pulse of the show. As I've written so many times, there's always been a rather stark divide between audiences at the show, roughly breaking down into an art comics vs genre comics split that manifested in print vs webcomics for quite some time. However, the last five years have seen that split slowly dissipate in many respects. A show that started off more diverse than most was still decidedly white, straight and male for many years. The gender divide was the first barrier to fall, but the show has steadily become younger, more diverse, more female and queerer every single year. The Ignatz awards are a tail-end indicator rather than a leading indicator, as it reflects the time it takes for a particular demographic to become part of the show's culture. Another way to think about the show is to look at the anthologies that debut there. More than ever, the artists making up the anthologies blur every kind of divide, be it on the art comics side or the genre side of things. Increasingly, there are more artists who straddle that divide as well. Young artists increasingly simply see all of comics as something they want to experiment with and don't feel the need to choose between memoir, genre comics, comics as poetry, etc. Many are doing it all, and mixing and matching in very interesting ways.

The wins by Bianca Xunise (Promising New Talent), Taneka Stotts (Outstanding Anthology) and the team of Yuko Ota & Ananth Hirsh (Outstanding Collection) point to this generational shift rather dramatically. It wasn't just the wins, but the impassioned acceptance speeches. Stotts' speech was all about visibility for creators of color, and how they will continue to tell their stories no matter what. Hirsh told a great story about being a kid and coming to SPX to meet Jeff Smith, who spent a lot of time with him and gave him a lot of attention. Only later did it occur to Hirsh that he was the only brown kid there. Ota and Hirsh hit on the theme of being people of color in a subculture (and honestly, a country) where they have often been invisible. Same with Stotts. Xunise's story was about her experience with police brutality and reflected on how she doesn't just want such stories to be done by people of color. However, it was Ben Passmore (the only man to win on the night, incidentally) who truly brought the house down with his speech. He made reference to George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, as another brown man from New Orleans who drew comics about police brutality and brick throwing. He joked that he could have used the brick earlier in the day, when he was part of the Juggalo parade that was protesting a Trump rally. And at the end, he said, "In conclusion, fuck the police, free all prisoners, and fuck Trump!" as he walked off to thunderous applause.

As exhilarating and exhausting as the show itself is (and I never quite am able to make it to every table and see everyone that I want, no matter how much I prepare), it's the interactions after the show late at night on the patio that provide the most lasting memories. There was certainly a sense of metaphorically huddling for warmth at this show, given the horror show the nation has become, but there's also something else going on. The young artists who are coming to the show seem exceptionally focused on their craft, a testament to a new wave of cartoonists going to art school/cartoon school. It's also a testament to a generation that has had greater access to the entire history of comics than any generation that came before them, thanks to wide-ranging reprints and the internet. They've been simmering in a sea of influences for years, and you can see the result of that in the person of artists like Tillie Walden and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. If you don't know the latter name from my minicomics reviews, you will know it soon in other places. If the history of alternative comics can be divided into undergrounds (1965-1980), alternatives (1981-1993), and DIY/Xeric (1994-2005), I get the sense that we're about to close one chapter of comics and open up another. I can't wait to see what it looks like.

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