Indie cartoonists, web comickers and the fans who love them once again mingled in a weekend of camaraderie and appreciation at this weekend's Small Press Expo, held in North Bethesda, MD. This year's edition lived up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the year's mellowest and enjoyable comics fests, and a strong slate of recent comics kept sales at high levels.
This was only the second time that SPX has been held Saturday and Sunday at its current location, and both days were packed, with Saturday, predictably leading the way. Attendance was somewhere in the 1600 range, according to one unofficial estimate.
"It's just a solid show," said PictureBox's Dan Nadel, summing up the general vibe. Although his booth had no debuts, sales were strong, and a check of the #spx Twitter feed showed most fans happily complaining about how much money they'd spent on the array of offerings.
Guest of honor Gahan Wilson signed at the Fantagraphics booth—his upcoming three-volume collection of his Playboy cartoons was only available for pre-order but still drummed up plenty of enthusiasm — and appeared at a spotlight panel that roamed over his gently lugubrious oeuvre. Wilson recalled his first meeting at Playboy—''Here we're pro sin," an editor told him—and his early idea for a horror series: "What could be more terrifying than being a child?" Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth said that sales at this year's show "were our biggest SPX ever," behind such recent books as Carol Tyler's memoir of her father, You'll Never Know, and Hans Rickheit's eerie The Squirrel Machine. Pim and Francie, another debut by long absent Al Colombia also garnered much comment with it's mesmerizing but horrific content.
At Drawn and Quarterly, mini comics minimalist John Porcellino made his first appearance on the East Coast since 1997, and his new collection, Map of my Heartsold briskly, as did R. Sikoryak's comics//literature mash-up Masterpiece Comics.Aya: The Secrets Come Out, the third volume in the Aya saga, was a sell-out.
Top Shelf fielded their usual strong line-up of vets such as Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka and Jeff Lemire, while injecting the sole show-biz note at SPX— it was the opening weekend for The Surrogatesfilm, based on the Top Shelf comic, and publisher Chris Staros reported strong sales for the original GN and its sequel. (The movie opened at #2 with $15 million.)
Ted Rall led a table of books of NBM including his The Year of Loving Dangerously, and Shane White'sThings Undone. Rall spent much of the show warning folks to get a swine flu shot — he recently suffered through the illness and said it is no laughing matter: "Days of fever and aches and pains like you have never felt before."
While SPX is known mostly as a haven for art comics and self-publishers, web cartoonists are having an increased presence, as the lines between online and print continue to blur and evolve. The biggest draw was undoubtedly the constantly mobbed Kate Beaton, whose droll historical tableaux read as if Jane Austen had decided to do mini comics. The nearby Erika Moen, author of the gently observed DAR also drew a crowd. Mainstays R. Stevens (Diesel Sweeties) and David Malki (Wondermark) also did well and C. Spike Trotman sold out of the newest volume of her Templar, Arizona web comic.
Indeed, if there was any cultural shift at the show it was the increased emphasis on web comics. A few years ago it was mostly indie cartoonists who were getting signed to mainstream book deals. Now, it's web cartoonists who are signing up. Jon Rosenberg has two Goats collections from Del Rey and Meredith Gran's Octopus Pieis coming out next year from Random House.
While rumblings of the recent seismic shifts at Marvel and DC, and continued worries over Diamond's more restrictive ordering benchmarks were mentioned a few times, these were distant concerns at a festival that celebrated creativity and imaginative storytelling. While in some years there were standout buzz books, this time the love was spread out; some observers mentioned Josh Cotter's Driven by Lemons, a reproduction of one of his sketchbooks; othersThe Year of the Elephant, a riveting and painful memoir by Belgian cartoonist Willy Lintout recounting his son's suicide, newly available from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. On a lighter note, copies of the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror featuring indie mainstays like Kevin Huizenga and Jeffrey Brown sold briskly—Douglas Wolk dubbed itKrusty's Ergot.
While SPX is an important stop where selling books it concerned, it's also a key place for cartoonists to socialize. Many cartoonists on panels mentioned that slaving away over a drawing board is an isolating way to make a living, and people seemed to be making up for it at the show. Friday night's kick off party at Atomic Books in Baltimore featured a festive cake, a good crowd and the Nerdlinger Awards, presented by Liz Baillie, MK Reed and Robin Enrico—the award consisted of a beer bottle with a fancy label, and host Baillie warned winners "If you drink your trophy and leave the bottle out, the maid willthrow it away. People have learned that the hard way."
Saturday the Ignatz Awards took center stage, with Baillie hosting and introducing the presenters with haiku. (A complete list of winners can be found here.) Jordan Crane was the evening's multiple winner, with two for Uptight.After the awards, the crowd mingled in the lobby for the legendary chocolate fountain. A planned karaoke outing was scuttled when the venue had unexpectedly closed, but even that and a downpour couldn't dampen the spirits of those who came to celebrate good comics.
(Additional reporting by Calvin Reid.)