Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Ramblings On SPX 2018

* All involved noted that this was a particularly emotional SPX for many. As I'm now a member of the executive committee as part of the Programming Troika (along with Danithan Mejia and Anna Pedersen), my perspective on the show has changed. It's no longer possible for me to objectively evaluate the show as I once did, and there's behind-the-scenes stuff that's not for public consumption.

* That said, I still spent most of the show doing what I do: looking for comics for review. I now have a giant bag of comics ready to go for my annual Thirty-One Days of CCS feature that will launch on December 1st. Plenty of time for more entries, however.

* I've been moderating panels at SPX for well over a decade now. I owe a debt to Bill Kartalopoulos for asking me to moderate panels when he was running programming. He did a great job for a number of years in assembling thought-provoking panels that were more than just perfunctory space-fillers, and in being part of the group in charge of programming this year, I often thought of his example. I also thought of the Heidi MacDonald statement, "In order to be inclusive, you have to include people."

* The only directive given with regard to programming is to offer every special guest a spot on a panel. With thirty special guests this year, that made for an interesting challenge, but we were able to find appropriate panels for everyone. The two panels I moderated both played on themes I've been interested in for years.

* "Family, Memory and Trauma" was remarkable for the way in which each panelist gave so much of themselves. Consisting of David Small, Carol Tyler and Rina Ayuyang, When I saw that both Tyler and Small were on this panel, along with my friend J.P. Trostle, this was an easy panel to assemble. Trostle unfortunately had to bow out because of the hurricane, but the panel was intense and intimate. I like to put a wild card on every panel that approaches the theme in a different way, and Ayuyang was that person here. Her new book, Blame This On The Boogie, is not about trauma, but it is about memory and the ways in which music and dance served to connect her to her world as she grew up as an outsider (her family was from the Philippines) in Pittsburgh.

Tyler brought a box of tissues to the panel, and each panelist had a moment where it was needed. Tyler's absolutely no-bullshit approach to her family and emotions brought an astounding level of honesty to the panel, even as she was still mourning the death of her parents and sister. Small's account of his journey to reclaim memories of his horrific childhood was matter-of-fact by this point, but he got choked up in recalling the memories of his therapist (and surrogate father), whom he noted "taught me how to be a man". All three used completely different approaches and methods in creating their comics; Ayuyang with musical-bright colors; Small in fastidious, sketchy line with grey wash done at his kitchen table "with a cocktail", and Tyler trying to create a theory of everything with regard to love in her life. This was a panel full of people ready to talk, which makes my job as a moderator 100% easier.

* "Writing Bipolar" was an easy concept to put together that exceeded even my expectations. Ellen Forney's work with Marbles and Rock Steady have made her into a mental health advocate, and she's someone who's not unfamiliar with the rhythms of performance. Keiler Roberts' wry observations about motherhood, mental illness and daily happenings have marked her as one of the freshest and funniest of memoir cartoonists. Oakland's Larwence Lindell was my wild card, as his raw take on being unmedicated and without access to therapy stood in sharp relief to Roberts and Forney. Again, this was a very giving panel. Forney was front and center with her message, but also stopped midway through answering a question to tell Lindell how important his comics were because he was a rarity in the world of comics and its African-American community. (When she asked if she had to answer the question, I replied, "No, I'm just here to fill time!") That got a nice conversation started between the three artists.

Roberts, who was a star on the "Motherhood, Memoir and Mental Illness" panel last year, contributed her dry and hilarious observations while also going along with Lindell in that there are a number of ways of coping, as she rattled off her dream strip mall of therapy which included a place to get a massage, a place to pet puppies, a library, etc. Lindell noted that his comic "I Can't Afford Therapy, So I Made This" initially has a funny effect until he notes, "No, really. I couldn't afford therapy, so I made this (comic)". He talked about how the mania aspect of bipolar is especially difficult for him, so making comics and playing music is what helps him. He also talked about the notion of community, and how being open about being bipolar on the one hand got people from his church community saying things like "Let's pray it away", and he had to gently say, "It doesn't work that way." However, he said that events like this panel are therapeutic for him, noting people in the room nodding their head about things he said. In that moment, there was a tremendous energy running through the room, as both he and people in the crowd clearly felt seen and understood. Indeed, a number of people talked to me afterwards about how much it meant to them because of their own experience or the experience of a relative. Mental health is a topic I plan to return to in different forms every year at SPX.

* Pairing the right moderator with the right subject is part of the fun of doing programming. There are some moderators I know I can depend on to do virtually any kind of panel, mainstays like Michael Cavna, Warren Bernard, Marc Sobel, Isaac Cates, Chris Mautner, Heidi MacDonald, etc. At the same time, it's exciting to get new voices in as moderators, like Carta Monir (on Queer Romance), Hazel Newlevant (on Trans Memoir), J.A. Micheline (on Building The Jungle Gym; she has a special talent for putting together a panel), Francesca Lyn (Feminist Futurism & Fantasy), Robyn Chapman (Adventures In Publishing), and Rachel R. Miller (who absolutely killed in terms of preparation and performance for her spotlight panel with Julie Doucet). There were also successful live podcasts from the Comics Alternative group (with Derek Royal) and the Process Party duo of Zack Soto and Mike Dawson.

* Special thanks go out to my programming partners, Danithan Mejia and Anna Pedersen. Their organizational skill and personability in running each of the programming rooms was key in keeping things smooth and on track. I look forward to crafting the panels for next year's show, the 25th anniversary of SPX. Their working with SPX's indispensable volunteers was another big key to making extremely complex operations run with no problems. That's especially true with regard to the centerpiece of programming, the Universes Of Rebecca Sugar, moderated by her old friend Ryan Sands. There was a wristband system put into place for this panel to cut down on wait times and lines, along with a secondary wristband for an overflow room where the panel was streamed live. Kudos to the SPX video crew for already getting this panel on SPX's youtube channel.

* I would simply urge everyone to watch the Ignatz awards when they come up on the SPX youtube channel. Carol Tyler has a background in comedy, and she put that to use with her boozy truck stop character that she introduced. That set up a light tone for much of the evening, but she also got serious at a number of points. The entire room had to try to follow Ben Passmore presenting Outstanding Artist to Richie Pope; Passmore is brutally honest and incredibly funny. I was partial to Matthew Thurber's unhinged Nikita Kruschev impersonation as well as Josh Cotter's clever scenario involving a service for shy cartoonists during speaking engagements. I got tabbed to present Outstanding Online Comic after Meredith Gran had to bow out, and improvised a bit of nonsense onstage regarding starting out working online as a writer and seeing the rise of online comics. I will admit to being overjoyed in getting to hand the brick to Carta Monir, one of the rising stars in comics.

The acceptance speeches were wonderfully heartfelt, from Monir to Pope to Eleanor Davis' tremulous but rousing call to activism. And obviously, I can't speak much to this for obvious reasons, but the support for #defendthe11 is something I can barely put into words, and the moment we were recognized is something I will never forget. As I told many people, I'm not a joiner and never have been. However, I've been lucky in my life to find my people at several key junctures, and the family of comics has been especially remarkable. That's especially true in my capacity as a critic, where the vast majority of artists want real feedback.

* Special thanks to Zack Soto, Jules Bakes, Dre Grigoropol, Robin Enrico, Tom Spurgeon, Gil Roth, Keiler Roberts, Josh Bayer, M.S. Harkness and others for extended, memorable conversations.

No comments:

Post a Comment