Although it's been a year of uncertainty for most of the publishing business, one thing has shown surprising growth: Baltimore area comics shows. A few weeks ago, the Baltimore Comic-Con had its biggest year ever, and this past weekend the Small Press Expo in North Bethesda, Md. had its own record-breaking year. Attendance was up about 10-15% from last year, according to executive director Warren Bernard, and sales ranged from "really good" to "great" according to various publishers.
This year's SPX, as its known, was buoyed by a stellar guest line-up, featuring graphic superstars Chester Brown and Craig Thompson, as well as respected editorial cartoonists Ann Telnaes and Roz Chast and admired indie veterans Jim Woodring and Diane Noomin. Brown was just winding up his tour for his controversial Paying for It, a typically iconoclastic nonfiction account of his experiences with prostitutes, while Thompson debuted his long-awaited hardcover graphic novel, Habibi, with 100 limited edition copies available as a fundraising effort only at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Both drew lines, as did Kate Beaton, a perennial favorite whose collection has just come out from Drawn & Quarterly.
For a few days theshow itself was in doubt: the North Bethesda Marriott where it is held suffered damage in the 5.8 magnitude earthquake, which rattled the region on August 23rd. Although the hotel suffered damage to the lobby and restaurant, they managed to get everything in shape to welcome indie and small press publishers from around the country.
Sales at exhibitors tables were strong both for the usual suspects like established indie publishers such as Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, but also individual cartoonists like Bill Roundy (Bar Scrawl) and boutique publisher Secret Acres, who each reported their best shows ever. By late Saturday afternoon, NBM publisher Terry Nantier, sitting along side cartoonist Brooke A. Allen signing her graphic novel, A Home for Mr. Easter, said he was sold out of almost every title. A great line-up of new material was partially responsible, but the region itself is also a factor—the economy around metro DC has remained relatively stable even in the recession, and a lot of people with good jobs seem to save up their money for the whole year just to spend at SPX.
Even high ticket items moved. The CBLDF's Charles Brownstein reports they sold 50 copies of the $100 edition of Habibi, and raised $12,500 overall, a strong number that's better than longer shows in bigger cities, he reports.
The uptick in attendance was in line with previous years, said Bernard. "The last three years it's gone up about 10-15%." However, this time, the growth was big enough to prompt a move to a bigger room next year – the show floor will be about 50% bigger, he told PW Comics World. "This is so we can have more exhibitors, but also to widen the aisles, and avoid booths at right angles and make sure everyone is comfortable." The extra room will be welcome – on Saturday aisles were jammed, and a drop in attendees for next year's show is unlikely, as the announced guests already include Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.
While indie comics seemed to be going strong, one element of the last decade was absent: for a while news of book deals for cartoonists was a regular topic for the show floor. But that trend has passed. A panel called "Navigating the Contemporary Publishing Landscape" included a handful of cartoonists who were published at big houses only to return to their small press roots. Mike Dawson's graphic memoir Freddie and Me came out in 2008 from Bloomsbury USA, but his new book, Troop 142 is from Secret Acres. "I liked feeling like I was a big deal for a while, but the production of the book with Secret Acres I like better," he said on the panel. Big publishers didn't seem to know what to do with comics, said Julia Wertz, "But they tried to throw comics at the wall to see what would stick, and comics don’t stick because people don’t buy comics."
The panelists advised cartoonists to stick with getting exposure on the web and at shows, and keep doing good work.
Despite this realistic view, some mainstream publishers are still in the game, Near the room where the panel took place, First Second's Gina Gagliano was working on a marketing plan for New York Comic-Con for three Holtzbrink imprints, First Second, Hill & Wang and Tor.com. She reported strong sales at the show for Americus, a new gn about banned books by M.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill that First Second just published.
Other comics publishers are also getting into the game. Boom! Studios exhibited for the first time. Although best known for a line of media-tie-ins and action comics, they've had success with two more indie cartoonists, Roger Langridge and Shannon Wheeler. "We're also a humor publisher now," said marketing and sales director Chip Mosher, who added that they have several more publishing deals along these lines in the works.
Libraries figured prominently in this year show as well. SPX debuted a new graphic novel gift program that will donate a collection of graphic novels to a public or academic library system in the Washington D.C. metro area each year. The first gift of about 230 titles will go to the Montgomery County Public Library and its 22 branches. In addition SPX has also inaugurated an unprecedented partnership with the Library of Congress that will create the Small Press Expo Collection at the Library of Congress, a collection that will include graphic novels from SPX exhibitors, all of the Ignatz Award winners and nominees, mini-comics as well as such “festival ephemera” as posters, badges, programs and other materials generated by a host of cartoonists each year, materials often lost to history after the show closes.
The materials to be included in the collection will be chosen by a joint committee of representatives of LC and SPX. Warren Bernard told PW Comics World that even the SPX website will be digitally archived each year and will live on the LC servers complete with original ads and banners from each period. The SPX collection will be spread across about four LC departments, Bernard said, but “you will be able to call up all of the SPX collection online.” And in a conversation with Bernard and LC reference librarian Megan C. Halsband the show, Bernard emphasized that the new partnership “could be a model for how libraries and festivals can work together.”
Although the mood at SPX is always upbeat, a somber note fell on Saturday when it was learned that Dylan Williams, publisher of Sparkplug Comics, had succumbed to a long battle with cancer. A much-loved figure who worked tirelessly to encourage new voices, Williams was remembered with tears even as a benefit auction for his medical bills continued on.
Despite the mostly good news, the overall publishing picture remains clouded. On Friday night a pre-SPX party was thrown at Atomic Books, Baltimore's quirky bookstore which sells comics, books, novelties and records. Owner Benn Ray said sales remain stable but elsewhere things aren't always going so well. "Atomic Books is still going, but other Atomics aren't," he said, referring to the recent bankruptcy of Arizona's Atomic Comics chain.