I’ve written extensively about the MOCCA festival for this website, but the event that truly changed the course of how I think about comics was the Small Press Expo, or SPX. It opened my eyes to the world of mini-comics and was a significant inspiration in my decision to write about comics. Many a deal has been made at this con; Top Shelf Productions was essentially born out of SPX. It is not uncommon for young artists to grow up with the show, from attendees to tabling to becoming significant forces in the alt-comics world. From 1998 to 2005 (with the exception of 2001, when the show was cancelled in the wake of 9/11), SPX took place at a Holiday Inn in Bethesda, Maryland. The hotel was small and became increasingly run-down over the years, but its placement in an area jam-packed with restaurants, bars and shops made it an ideal location for the show. Everything was ideal except the venue itself.
The fact is, SPX really outgrew its old space several years ago. Demand for tables always outstripped supply. The multi-room setup was unwieldy and many artists felt like they were exiled in smaller rooms. A very small group of dedicated volunteers runs the show and it was getting increasingly difficult to meet the needs of SPX as it grew in popularity. SPX almost became a part of the Baltimore Comics Con back in 2002, an announcement that was not exactly met with cheers by most in the small press scene. While the Baltimore Con is a comics-oriented event for the most part, many felt that its mainstream nature would endanger SPX’s unique identity.
The nature of that identity has shifted somewhat as alt-comics themselves have evolved in the past decade. When I first started attending SPX, the industry as a whole was in bad shape. There was talk of the total collapse of mainstream comics and thus direct-market stores. Digital comics were in their earliest, crudest form. The concept of a bookstore market was laughable, as the promise shown by MAUS had dissipated for an art form not quite ready for that level of exposure and mass distribution. Despite that, SPX was an oasis of sorts, as the artists found an audience and vice-versa. Because no one was worried about making money, it was a sort of elaborate but devoted hobby for all involved. The sheer love of comics was palpable, especially in the hand-made and hand-xeroxed mini comics that were such a revelation to me.
Venues, Tribes, And A New Room
Scott McCloud refers to SPX as a “gathering of the tribes” and this is an accurate description. Despite the fact that it’s all about comics, there are always groups of creators that are fairly easy to identify and categorize. There are those artists whose work is difficult to distinguish from mainstream comics. These tend to fall into the camps of horror, fantasy or (less often) super-heroes. While the names of these creators at SPX have changed over the years, their presence has been a constant. Of course, this con is largely focused on art comics, either from larger publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or a bevy of mini-comics creators whose works are often designed to function as much as art objects as they are narratives. Then there’s what’s often called “new mainstream” comics–general interest fiction, slice of life, etc. Top Shelf’s output largely tends to be of this sort, with companies like Oni producing even frothier types of stories. The newest group to join the proceedings is that of the ever-proliferating web comics artists. They really are a breed apart from the others, even if they share similar interests. I’ve noted before that a lot of up-and-coming artists tend to flock together for support geographically, but the web comics folks run in parallel groups that don’t often cross over.
What this means is that the experience for the show can be radically different for both fans and creators, depending on their interests and their circles. With a bigger room and more creators tabling than ever, I found it impossible to see everything and everyone I had come to see, much less have time (and space) for other discoveries. That was especially true since I was only able to attend Saturday’s show.
The one positive of the old SPX venue was that the cartoonists staying there basically took over the joint at night, and the result was a rowdy bit of camaraderie. The Marriott felt a lot more like where the grown-ups were hanging out, and everyone needed to be on their best behavior. Of course, the contrast in the other events taking place (a bar mitzvah that some SPX folks crashed, a Japanese wedding) had a way of making the proceedings all the more strange. Nostalgia aside, there were a number of ways in which the new venue was an improvement. The amenities were better, there was more space to breathe, and best of all, every artist was displaying in the same room. After many years of artists being segregated into different rooms, with many feeling exiled in the smaller ones, there was at last equality for all.
Or was there? Some of the artists stuck in the far corners grumbled a bit about their placement. Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics, was one of the publishers in a corner, and he thought that they were placed there because their audience would come looking for them. This made a degree of sense, as Oni was in the opposite corner and both seemed to do well. The general sense at the show was that Friday was extremely slow but that starting at noon on Saturday, there was shoulder-to-shoulder traffic and folks were in a mood to buy.
Some were a bit overwhelmed by the size and appearance of the room (the colors were garish to the point of trippiness), and some actually missed the more modular venue at the Holiday Inn, but overall most everyone seemed please with the change. Co-executive director Karon Flage was optimistic on Saturday morning about the change, and the throng of comics fans in attendance certainly bore her out. One of the reasons why the SPX steering committee was considering a move to Baltimore several years ago was a lack of other suitable venues. Finding someplace new was imperative, given that the Holiday Inn was undergoing renovations. This particular Marriott didn’t even exist when the steering committee was looking for a new site several years back, and it’s a nice compromise. While its location (in North Bethesda) is nowhere near as hip as the old neighborhood and some wished the new digs could simply be plopped down in Bethesda proper, it was certainly the best solution available.
One thing I noticed was extensive publicity for the show this year. There was a feature in the Washington Post and a TV ad, and both paid off. The fact that the guest of honor was the great Jules Feiffer had to help bring in non-comics readers who were familiar with his extensive career.
** I ran into Gina Gagliano of First Second Books. Look for lots more Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim in 2007. Sfar will team up again with Emmanuel Guibert, this time with Sfar writing and Guibert doing the art.
** The monstrous bounty from Fantagraphics continues unabated. They debuted Matthias Lehmann’s HWY 115, a couple of new Ignatz books (look for a long profile on them soon), Ben Catmull’s MONSTER PARADE, among other things. Kim Thompson spoke excitedly about the upcoming Popeye collection looking especially gorgeous, with cream-colored pages and an intricate cover.
** Paul Hornschemeier noted that THE THREE PARADOXES, his long-awaited new book, was finally done. It’ll be out in 2007, and its release should allow longer chapters of “Life With Mister Dangerous” in MOME. Whatever he does next, it likely won’t be as drawn-out a process as THE THREE PARADOXES.
** Dylan Williams of Sparkplug Comic Books had an ashcan of WINDY CORNER magazine from Austin English that looked beautiful. Look for an interview with Austin here soon.
** Gabrielle Bell, whose LUCKY debuted and sold out at Drawn & Quarterly’s table, was passing out copies of her fantastic new mini, MY AFFLICTION. It’s a return to her magical realist style of her earlier days.
** At the door, copies of Kevin Huizenga’s HOW TO START THINKING ABOUT LEARNING TO DRAW COMICS were given away for free. This is the clever brochure that he designed for the Center for Cartoon Studies, who had a booth at the show as well, featuring comics from their current students.
** The always-delightful Josh Neufeld was manning the Alternative Comics booth, which debuted his THE VAGABONDS #2. I reviewed the “#1.5″ issue of this book for MOCCA last year, and while the new issue reprints much of that material, the whole package looks gorgeous and there’s plenty of new stories in there as well. Alternative was also debuting the new issue of the Meathaus anthology (#8, “Head Games”) and Dash Shaw’s THE MOTHER’S MOUTH. It was a bit odd not to see Jeff Mason there, the company’s publisher. At its height, he had a huge table for Alternative and a slew of new releases, but he’s scaled back a bit in recent years.
** I caught up with Megan Kelso, whose THE SQUIRREL MOTHER was one of my favorite books of the year. Her young daughter was at the show, taking a few turns around the room with her husband. Megan is actually done with the pencils for her most ambitious project yet, ARTICHOKE TALES. They were actually finished last year, but she took some time off to promote her new book and just be a mom. The completed product should hopefully be released sometime next year.
SPX’s programming has not always been a strength of the show. When it used to be held in conjunction with ICAF (International Comics Arts Festival), that latter event not only added an academic dimension to the proceedings, it also led to some spectacular guests and fascinating panels. With the two events now separate, last year’s programming was “strictly perfunctory”, as one observer labeled it. There have been many years where the programming felt like an afterthought, put together at the last minute. There was always a guest of honor of note (frequently someone a bit more mainstream, like Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman), but the daily programming was often quite thin.
For 2006, the task of running the programming track was given to Bill Kartalopoulos, editor of Indy magazine. There was a nice mix of more traditional single-author spotlights with more focused roundtable discussion, with every artist involved worthy of the scrutiny. Putting together Friday was easy, considering that it was a no-brainer to feature Jules Feiffer and Tony Millionaire, two of comics’ best raconteurs. What took more skill was designing Saturday’s programming track.
I can honestly say that I wanted to attend each and every panel on Saturday. Of the ten panels, I was only able to attend two in their entirety. I missed Craig Yoe’s multimedia ARF lecture, the Maryland stop on Scott McCloud’s 50-Nation Tour for MAKING COMICS, his newest book on theory, and the focus on Brian Chippendale. His NINJA was the biggest buzz book of the con, collecting many pages of his complicated and intricate crazy adventure stories. I missed a workshop from Robyn Chapman of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a panel on political cartooning featuring the ever-controversial Ted Rall and the always-hilarious Tim Kreider, and panels on the comics canon and writing one’s first graphic novel. I did catch a bit of a panel on how to draw thinking with three favorites (Gabrielle Bell, Anders Nilsen and Kevin Huizenga), but was too exhausted to take notes. Attending just one day of the show made it hard for me to explore the big room and take in every panel I wanted to see.
The first panel I attended was “Ways of Drawing”, featuring Frank Santoro, Megan Kelso, Ben Catmull, Onsmith and John Hankiewicz. There was some spirited debate on the act of making marks on paper, its relationship to narrative (if any) and one’s control over the process as an artist. On the latter topic, the outspoken Santoro (currently collaborating on a series with Ben Jones for Picturebox, the most art-for-art’s-sake of all comics companies) noted that when working on someone else’s script, he felt an enormous loss of control, that he was trying to chisel something out of stone.
Kelso referred to herself as a “cartoonist who can’t draw”, that she would have images that she simply couldn’t translate on paper to her satisfaction. When moderator Austin English suggested that she had refined her style, Kelso replied that it was more a matter of lowering her own expectations, that she had given up trying to draw that comic with characters suspended over the Grand Canyon. Gag cartoon artist Onsmith (a former student of Ivan Brunetti’s) talked about the “math equation” process of writing a gag, that one had to measure certain elements as to whether they made a gag funnier: backgrounds, single lines, solid blacks, etc.
Hankiewicz’s comments added a lot of insight into his work, which can sometimes be opaque to those searching for a conventional narrative. He noted that early in his career, he often felt that he didn’t have a lot of control over his draftsmanship, but his mistakes led to “happy surprises”. The process forced him to improvise and keeps drawing and narrative fresh. Kelso chimed and said that there’s a difference between happy accidents and an artist consciously trying to pull of a style but failing–a reader can spot the difference and loses trust in the latter artist. Hankiewicz went on to say that a true “drawer” has humility and recognizes their mistakes. Catmull agreed and thought that it was important that an artist shouldn’t be trapped by a style, that they should experiment as much as possible. Going in as many different directions and not being afraid to screw up a style are both important things to do for any artist.
The artists debated narrative vs mark-making at length. Santoro thought that too many comics were conservative and boring in that the images were slaves to the narrative and over-rendered. He noted that Diamond recently rejected one of his comics and actually told him how he should have drawn it. Others pointed out the the KRAMER’S ERGOT phenomenon is making a lot of people give alternative styles of making comics greater credence.
Kelso came down more on the narrative side of the equation, but noted that something she gave a lot of thought to was finding ways of making narratives more visually stimulating. She reasoned that if she was bored drawing a particular sequence (even if the narrative demanded it), then the reader might be bored looking at it. As a result, she’s tried to find other visual solutions to work out particular sequences. She’s also used a method of visualizing her stories more extensively before actually sitting down to draw, which has led to less aggravation in terms of corrections on the page, a lessening of her “fear of drawing”.
Hankiewicz spoke about his approach in making comics. For him, creating a story is a matter of feel. The decision to use certain lines, tones or crosshatching depends on what emotions they invoke. In much the same way abstract expressionist paintings depicted emotions without recognizable iconographic reference points, Hankiewicz’s comics depict a sort of emotional narrative. In this way, they are not unlike poetry. Hankiewicz noted that in some of his comics, the use of mundane, repetitive imagery (like a chair) was the equivalent of a rhyming device. It was up to the reader to immerse themselves in his imagery, to yield to the emotions that the panels generate.
As interesting as that panel was, the spotlight on Ivan Brunetti was downright inspiring. Brunetti is one of my five favorite cartoonists, and I’ve admired his transformation from misanthropic and outrageous gag-master to a more nuanced, less frantic style. In this career retrospective, he touched on his past work, the new issue of SCHIZO and what changed his drawing style, his career teaching comics, being the editor of a significant new anthology fro Yale University Press, and the relationship between depression, art and spirituality.
Brunetti understandably is uncomfortable with the first three issues of SCHIZO, which will soon be collected under the title MISERY LOVES COMEDY. He described these heavily rendered comics as his “tortured autobiographical work” made by a “depressed, angry person”. These comics, made in the 90′s, were drawn during a period of manic-depression. The “spikes of mania” led to these comics, followed frequently by years of depression-fueled inactivity. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this was HAW!, a book filled with “horrible, horrible cartoons”. The cover image was Brunetti walking past a burning building, and the fact that it was released the day after 9/11 was just a ridiculous bit of horrific synchronicity. After SCHIZO #3, he found he was hating drawing, hating himself and didn’t want to produce “another issue of bile”.
To that end, he wanted to find a way to rediscover the joy that drawing used to give him as a child. He remembered that the simple act of making marks on paper used to make him happy, especially drawing cartoon mice. So he did a strip featuring mice, which helped him break through a bit. Then a strip done about the retirement of Charles Schulz, done in a simplified, “purified” style proved to be a turning point for him as an artist. The strip, titled “Whither Shermy?”, was no less intricate than his earlier work but the stripped-down style made both creating and reading it a very different experience. This cartoon would prove to be the template for his next 31 strips, both visually and thematically. The intricacy of his new style was evidenced by a fascinating look at every stage of creating “Presenting Val Lewton”, from the earliest doodles and dialogue to the initial thumbs and breakdowns, to a color chart to its final product.
In particular, Brunetti started to become obsessed with hermits, and artists/writers who would become recluses. Brunetti was obviously interested in them as reflections of himself–partly as a different kind of autobiography, and perhaps partly as a sort of cautionary tale. The other important strip for Brunetti at this time came about as a result of his interest in Buddhism. He did a wordless strip not originally intended for publishing that illustrated certain Buddhist doctrines. It was not meant to be funny, clever or entertaining, and this intentionality was liberating for him. One way that he felt trapped as an artist was that he was trying to entertain too much sometimes. His interest in Buddhism (though he dismisses himself as a “spiritual dilettante”) led him to understand that the relationship between his spiritual state and his art was a direct one. Quite literally, it’s not just drawing, it’s how one sees reality, and the two have an effect on each other. The simplification and purification of his style had a direct correlation to what was happening in his own life.
Brunetti’s career teaching how to make comics came about unexpectedly, but he has found the experience to be highly rewarding. A number of the discoveries he made while refining his style were put to use in the classroom. He starts each student off at the most basic level: doodling. Brunetti believes that we derive an emotional reaction from making marks on paper, that this experience is rooted in something instinctive that we translate into line drawings. So he starts his students at that point and then goes to progressively more complex forms of comics, from single panels to 4-panels to longer stories. The method will be published in the new issue of COMIC ART, so Brunetti wryly noted that while anyone could now learn from him in the article, they won’t have the benefit of his “soul-crushing critiques”.
Finally, Brunetti discussed AN ANTHOLOGY OF GRAPHIC FICTION, CARTOONS AND TRUE STORIES. Selected to edit it by Yale U Press, it’s a “literary anthology” in the style of MCSWEENEY’S #13, “made to be read, not looked at”. As such, he thought some of his choices were fairly conventional, without a lot of formal experimentation. While Houghton-Mifflin came out with their own BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006, this book was in the works long before that volume was published. He noted that he had to add the “cartoons and true stories” tagline because some of the contributors objected, saying that they didn’t write fiction. Brunetti understood their point and isn’t comfortable with the entire “graphic novel” label that non-superhero/alternative comics have been saddled with by the mainstream press, but understands why it’s used. All told, this was a remarkable, candid discussion of one man’s journey as an artist, with a number of hilarious moments.
The Ignatz Awards and Some Final Words
This was the 10th anniversary of the Ignatz awards, the brick given to artists in various small press categories. While a jury selects the candidates, the attendees determine the winners. As a result, the award essentially becomes a popularity contest and tends to skew towards “new mainstream” books as a result. The awards ceremony was emceed by Heidi “The Beat” MacDonald, who ran a brisk and amusing show. The room was way too small for the event (held in what looked like a tiered med-school lecture hall) and as a result, the room was overflowing. I don’t think the organizers had any idea that the show would be this crowded for some reason, even though the free food and plentiful drink tickets made this the con’s big gathering. I won’t go over the results, which can be found here and speak for themselves.
How to ultimately judge SPX 2006? Newness was certainly the way to describe the proceedings–not only the new site, but also an astonishing number of first-timers. By the same token, many long-time participants weren’t there, for one reason or another. The show’s heart is the main floor, and while some are put off by the sight of hundreds of cartoonists all desperate to sell their comics as the main attraction, it’s heaven to me. That said, the new space has dozens more rooms that could be used to make the event more of an art festival. I’d love to see a room or two used strictly to display art–no commerce involved. The success of the programming track showed that it could be expanded even further. In particular, I’d like to see more hands-on and how-to events, like the sort that Robyn Chapman facilitated. Of course, the organizers had to be a bit conservative this year, not knowing how the new site would work or what kind of crowds it would draw. The fact that the show was such a success should hopefully embolden the steering committee and help the show evolve even further.
In the end, SPX turned out much the same way it always does. There is an exhilaration from being around the like-minded and a disappointment that it isn’t an individual’s Ideal Show. Each different “tribe” would always prefer the show to be more like their particular camp, but the reality is that the experience of the show is always a localized event. SPX will never quite be an arts-show, or a “new mainstream” show, or a gag-book show. Instead, we must settle for glorious chaos, appealing imperfection and an enormously satisfying muddle.