The biggest Small Press Expo ever was hailed as one of the most profitable as well, with sales of indie and literary comics smashing records across the board. Held this past weekend in North Bethesda, Md., the 2012 edition of SPX was billed as a never before seen meeting of six of literary comics’ greatest figures: Chris Ware, whose new Building Stories is an astonishing collection of 14 individual books and pamphlets; Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, celebrating 30 years of unforgettable work on Love and Rockets; Françoise Mouly, past editor of the influential RAW Magazine and current editor of the TOON Books line for younger readers; Daniel Clowes, revered for books from Ghost World to Wilson; and Adrian Tomine whose new New York Drawings collects his New Yorker covers and other heartfelt observations of urban life.
While these six were the headliners, younger creators also proved their growing followings were ready to support their work. Michael DeForge, a prolific experimentalist, sold out of numerous books from several publishers; Noah Van Sciver's acclaimed The Hypo, about a young Abraham Lincoln, was gone by show's end; as was Jeff Lemire's Underwater Welder and Gabrielle Bell’s The Voyeurs. Indeed a walk around the room on late Sunday discovered nothing but empty tables and happy publishers standing next to piles of money.
Fantagraphics reported that by Saturday afternoon they had already surpassed sales for any previous SPX. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund sold $11,000 worth of books on Saturday alone, a figure more likely to be found at the San Diego Comic-Con. The ATM machine on the floor, which was stocked with what was expected to be enough money to last the weekend, was emptied by mid afternoon Saturday. People came to spend money.
Although final attendance figures weren’t available, SPX executive director Warren Bernard reported that it was indeed the biggest show ever. In anticipation of huge crowds for the all-star guests, the show floor was increased by about a third, while aisles were widened significantly. Programming was moved to a much bigger room, but it was still SRO for talks by Clowes and Ware.
The upbeat mood was summed up on a panel rather incongruously called "Publishing During the Apocalypse" which was moderated by this writer. Leon Avelino (Secret Acres), Box Brown (Retrofit Comics), Anne Koyama (Koyama Press), and John Porcellino (King-Cat) all had nothing but glowing things to say about the state of the market, as shown by increased sales in bookstores, a thriving indie show circuit, growing library awareness and a small group of committed comic shop owners. Avelino noted that getting his books on Amazon via a distribution deal with Baker & Taylor has been key in seeing sales of Secret Acres ' line of experimental, humor and literary comics grow. Troop 142, Mike Dawson's honest portrayal of a Boy Scout troop on the edge of adolescence remains one of their strongest sellers.
Koyama noted that she had not been able to get onto Amazon yet, but was exploring different options. She credited the indie show circuit, including TCAF and a new show in Chicago, with giving an outlet to reach fans.
Brown's own Retrofit Comics is a unusual line of standalone "pamphlet" comics—a format which several publishers and retailers say is reperiencing a resurgence—has been doing well and he plans to add six authors next year. Brown was also the center of a spirited panel discussion about Kickstarter, which has been the center of controversy. Brown has funded both Retrofit and a new manga-themed anthology via Kickstarter and sees it as just another tool for getting books out there. Avelino had no quarrel with Brown's message but noted that it was the publisher's duty to actually find a way to pay to publish and promote books. “That’s what publishers do!” he told the crowd.
Porcellino, who not only publishes his own poetic, meditative mini-comics but distributes indie comics through Spit and a Half, his distribution company, noted that the changes he's seen in his two decades publishing have all led to a happy place. "I'm more confident about comics than I've ever been before," he said.
When not eagerly snapping up books, attendees were going to one of the best panel line-ups in recent memory. Spotlight panels on the top guests were packed and full of insightful moments. Ware talked about making Building Stories, and his approach to storytelling, noting, “It is an authors duty to create characters that you fall in love with.” On the “Life After Alternative Comics” panel, The Hernandez Brothers discussed their early days, the influence of punk and fanzines, and Clowes and Tomine related how their own efforts had been influenced by Love and Rockets, and how the internet made their early days of poring over Fact Sheet Five, and mailing out self-addressed stamped envelopes to receives fanzines obsolete.
Saturday night’s highlight was the Ignatz Award, where the Hernandez Brothers continued a year of plaudits by winning three awards: Outstanding Artist for Jaime; Outstanding Series (Love and Rockets: New Stories); and Outstanding Story (Jaime’s “Wait for Me”). Kate Beaton was the winner in absentia for Outstanding Graphic Novel (Hark! A Vagrant) and mini-comics artist Lale Westwind won for Best New Talent.
While the success of the new books from Ware, The Hernandezes and Tomine were no surprise, what did seem to impress observers was the massive interest in books from so many publishers, small and large. NBM had strong sales for Stan Mack’s Taxes, The Tea Party, and those Revolting Rebels; Adhouse blew through the third issue of Ethan Rilly’s acclaimed Pope Hats; and copies of rising star Luke Pearson’s magical children’s tale Hilda and the Midnight Giant from NoBrow were a hot commodity.
SPX was enhanced by the proximity of another event, the annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists was being held nearby in Washington, DC and there was quite a bit of spillover. On Sunday, political cartoonists Marr Bors, Jen Sorenson and David Axe were all seen walking the SPX floor. All are at the forefront of using the internet and multi media to expand editorial cartooning beyond the rapidly dwindling outlets of print newspapers.
Retailer Benn Ray of Atomic Books in Baltimore reported that sales in his store have been going strong even in the bad economy. The quirky store has an extensive comics section but also sells gifts books, magazines and even records. He noted that while classic graphic novels have a strong following, his customers are clamoring for books from DeForge and more up and coming cartoonists. “We’re up every week,” he told PW. “I think this could even be a sign that there’s a recovery going on.”
While comics have been “too small to fail,” they’ve long been a bright spot in a publishing world struggling with store closures and changing distribution models. This year’s SPX proved that is still holding true….and comics are showing signs of a new resurgence behind the many exciting new voices. Mouly, who also works as the cover editor for The New Yorker, put the dichotomy in perspective. “In the publishing world, it’s all gloom, but here things are going great.”