This past weekend marked the 17th anniversary of Comic Con International’s Alternative Press Expo, held October 1-2 at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. The show was originally conceived and organized by Slave Labor Graphic’s Dan Vado out of a desire to showcase independent creators and publishers; and even with several competing events in San Francisco to contend with, like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Castro Street Fair, the show is still going strong. Although most exhibitors (publishers and individual creators alike) said sales were ranged from “low” to “steady but never really crazy,” attendance appeared solid and sometimes downright brisk on both Saturday and Sunday.
In some ways, the Bay Area, the heart of Silicon Valley and headquarters to some of the world’s premiere internet and technology companies, is an unlikely venue for a successful, long running small press show. However, the dominance of the tech industry and the democratization of the desktop and internet publishing tools it’s ushered in, has had an undeniably positive influence on a show that remains one of the best festivals around for seeing the latest in print creativity and innovation.
Independent comics publisher Ryan Sands epitomizes this unexpected paradox. By day Sands works for tech behemoth Google on the company’s ibooks initiative, but when not working with publishers and authors to digitize their printed books so they will be compatible with various e-reader devices, he spends his spare time working out of an office in San Francisco’s Mission District self publishing his heavily buzzed about anthology, Thickness. While several pre-APE parties, including a well-attended art show curated by Francois Vigneault of Family Style at Mission Comics and Art, raged on within walking distance, Sands was busy copying and stapling the second issue of Thickness with the help of some cartoonist friends and his mimeograph copier. Mimeograph copiers—once used for basement fanzine printed in the 60s—are basically high volume screen printing copy machines.
Another striking example of creators taking publishing tools into their own hands and paving their own way in a comics publishing environment with increasingly limited options for indie comics creators to publish their comics through the traditional means of independent publishers or newspaper syndication, was the immense popularity of any and all panels and signings for festival guest, Kate Beaton. Beaton, who made a name for herself with her immensely popular Hark! A Vagrant! webcomic, is now enjoying similar success with Drawn and Quarterly’s printed collection of her work. The book has been selling out every show since it debuted at Comic-Con International with copies still flying off the shelves at a rapid rate at APE.
Other festival guests included Daniel Clowes, Craig Thompson, Shannon Wheeler, Matthew Thurber and Adrian Tomine. Thompson, Thurber and Wheeler joined Beaton and others for a panel entitled “Drawing Inspiration: The Secret of Comics Creativity”, an exploratory discussion of where cartoonists derive their inspiration. The discussion reinforced the DIY creator driven aspect of the show during a turbulent time that’s upending all the tried and true models of publishing, as well as other forms of media. Thurber said he got into making comics because it “seemed like an economical way to tell an epic story” when compared to other mediums like film. Fellow panelist Tom Neely quipped that he self publishes his books, so that “no one can reject me,” then went on to describe how he opted for self-publishing his Ignatz Award winning book, The Blot, after he himself rejected a publisher who requested changes he felt would diverge too strongly from his vision for the book.
Another creator exhibiting at APE exemplifying the trend towards opting for the greater control that self publishing can provide in Shaenon Garrity. whose Kickstarter campaign to print an omnibus copy of her webcomic Narbonic recently netted an impressive $27,226—the initial pledge request was only $10,000. While Garrity is obviously overjoyed with her successful fundraising efforts, she said her APE sales were low. Also worth noting, is that Garrity didn’t consider approaching publishers for the Narbonic Omnibus book. She realized she would actually make more money self-publishing and working with veteran small press and mini comics distributor Tony Shenton to distribute the book, explaining that some of the more conventional distributors she could’ve worked with would “take too much of a cut.”
Indie publishers with a presence at the con included mainstays like Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, and D&Q along with increasingly familiar faces at small press shows like Boom! and IDW. Most publishers PW spoke with saw fairly steady sales but indicated the show was pretty slow overall. Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics described this year’s APE as “a good, if not stellar show,” saying that while debut books like Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges #4 and Shannon Wheeler’s Oil and Water sold out, the clear draw of APE, particularly this year, is the “patronage of individual creators more (than) publishers.”
One needed look no further than the endless lines at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund table for festival guest Craig Thompson for confirmation of Reynolds’ theory. Thompson’s new Habibi was featured exclusively at the CBLDF table, and all copies (which were available for a $40.00 donation to CBLDF) sold out on the first day. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein said this year’s show was, “our best APE in years. People have been very generous to CBLDF, “adding that, “APE remains a great showcase for a wide and robust range of comics expression.”
Another example of this wide range of comics expression on display at the show—as well as a draw for fans to connect directly with the creators they admire in an intimate setting—was the heavy traffic at tables featuring cartoonists working on the Cartoon Network shows Adventure Time, Regular Show and The Problem Solverz. Cartoonists John Pham, Jesse Moynihan, Toby Jones, Hellen Jo, Calvin Wong and Andy Ristaino were mobbed by fans seeking sketches of their favorite characters from the popular Monday night shows – fans who also seemed happy to pick up copies of the cartoonist cum animators latest print offerings as well.
However, in spite of his current high profile TV gig, Ristaino, a character designer for Adventure Time, seemed happy just to be trading comics with fellow exhibitors and sharing a table with his longtime friend and occasional band mate, San Francisco filmmaker and artist, Liz Walsh, who was there promoting self publishing mini-comics venture, Paws Press. At the end of the day, in times of great uncertainty about the viability of the more commercial aspects of print comics publishing, making and sharing good comics and good times with good friends seemed like reason enough for APE to be a success.