The only thing that was “small” about this year’s Small Press Expo was the name of the event. A record number of exhibitors and what looked like the largest crowd yet descended on the the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, Md. for a two day comics shopping spree.
According to showrunner Warren Bernard, 280 tables featured some 600 individual exhibitors—tables are usually shared by a number of cartoonists—leading to a huge selection of gorgeous books to buy. The main feeling of attendees was anxiety over whether they’d get to see everything.
Tables at SPX always sell out early but a computer snafu earlier in the year when registration opened left many without a spot. Bernard made the decision to enlarge the show floor to open it to more exhibitors than ever before. The floor was increased by a third to 2,300 square feet. The decision definitely left many delighted fans but remained a big question as the show progressed: would the competition for dollars lower sales all around?
The answer wasn’t clear as SPX closed on Sunday. While sell-outs were recorded everywhere—Jeff Smith’s brand new RASL collection had vanished early on Saturday—the general feeling among exhibitors was that sales were solid but “not spectacular,” as more than one publisher put it. The explosion in big ticket high production collections—many funded by Kickstarter—also meant that you could blow several hundred dollars by walking a few feet. Bernard said he’d be looking at the results of the annual exhibitors poll closely to gauge satisfaction and “whether they made as much money as they had before.”
While the size and enthusiasm of the event was the main topic of conversation, there were also books to be celebrated. Adhouse Books was on hand with Delusional, a new hardcover release that collects the past work of Farel Dalrymple, including series like Pop Gun War and Omega the Unknown. At the NBM table, publisher Terry Nantier was hosting signings by Amsterdam-based cartoonist Margreet de Heer (creator of the 2012 work of graphic nonfiction, Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics) who is kicking off a U.S. tour to promote her new book Science: A Discovery in Comics, which does for science what her previous book did with philosophy. PictureBox was promoting books by Frank Santaro (Pompeii), Anya Davidson (School Spirits) and Yuichi Yokayama (World Map Room) in addition to signings by Gary Panter. Drawn & Quarterly hosted signings by Rutu Modan (The Property) and Brian Ralph (Reggie-12) and Anders Nilsen (Rage of Poseidon) among others. And this is just to mention a few of the better known publishers and artists on hand at SPX.
Probably the most notable event was the appearance by Rep. John Lewis to talk about March Volume One, the first in a trilogy of graphic novels retelling his life story and the history of the civil rights movement. Lewis appeared with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell on a panel where they discussed the book and the history. At least one person there said it was “the most moving panel I’ve ever been to” and Lewis and company received a lengthy standing ovation at the end. Aydin also noted that the next volume would be even darker and filled with more troubling historical events.
By chance, that panel was followed by cartoonist Peter Bagge presenting a slideshow on birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, the subject of his new book Woman Rebel, published by Drawn & Quarterly. Bagge intends the book as something of an antidote to Sanger’s current reputation as a proponent of eugenics, noting that the eugenics movement meant something different in Sanger’s time and that her main focus was allowing women to have access to safe and legal birth control. Taken together, the two panels presented an in-depth look at American history one wouldn’t normally expect at a comics event.
The Ignatz Awards, SPX's annual awards for excellence in independent comics, were held Saturday night, hosted by New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, who, in a refreshing break from typical comic book award events, had only female creators as presenters. The big winner was experimental cartoonist Michael DeForge, who won for Outstanding Artist, Outstanding Anthology or Collection, and Outstanding Series. Austrian cartoonist Ulli Lust won Outstanding Graphic novel for Today Is The Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, the harrowing story of her youthful trip to Italy with a crazy friend. During her acceptance speech, Lust touched on one of the underlying feelings of the show when she noted that it was one of the last books that the late Kim Thompson has translated. Thompson, the co-publisher at Fantagraphics and one of comics best editors and translators, died earlier in the year of lung cancer, and his loss was keenly felt and commented on as the show went on.
A star may have been born at SPX with the winner of Most Promising New Talent, Portland’s Sam Alden. Alden’s comics—mostly known from Tumblr and some mini comics—have quickly gained a following for their strong art and haunting themes and earned him a spot in this year’s Best American Comics anthology. Uncivilized Books will bring out the first collection of Alden’s work early in 2014, a flip book pairing his “Hawaii 1997” with a new story.
Alden was far from the only young cartoonist to get attention, however—the larger space meant many first time exhibitors and veterans of the show were constantly amazed at all the new faces. “It feels like this is the start of a new SPX,” observed Secret Acres publisher Leon Avelino, summing up a weekend that was bubbling with both exciting and uncertainty over where all that excitement is going.
[Additional reporting by Calvin Reid]