Despite the economic uncertainties gripping the world, the mood at last weekend Small Press Expo was resoundingly upbeat. Switching for the first time to a weekend (Saturday and Sunday) format after years of a Friday to Saturday schedule, exhibitors reported, in many cases, record sales, which wasn't surprising given the quality and diversity of the books available. If attendees were worried about their stock portfolios, they weren't showing it.
Saturday was the busiest day, with over 1000 attendance, more than half signed up for the whole weekend. A modest line had even formed before the show opened, and by noon, the aisles were jammed with an eclectic crowd that was in a buying mood. Several exhibitors—Exhibit A's Batton Lash among them—said this year's Saturday was their biggest day at an SPX ever. Secret Acre's Leon Avelino was blown away by the sales at this year's show. "We couldn't believe how much of everything was selling," he said.
Sunday was much slower, but allowed exhibitors and artists precious "schmooze and shop" time, adding to the reputation for sociability the show has long held.
No overwhelming "buzz book" emerged as in past years, when everyone was seen carting around a giant copy of Brian Chippendale's Nijna under their arms—in fact, the biggest book at the show was literally present only as buzz, the mammoth anthology Kramer's Ergot #7, which was the subject of its own spotlight panel. Measuring an imposing 21x16 inches, and priced at an equally imposing $125, a make ready of the printed pages drew oos and aahs from all who glimpsed it. Featuring the indie comics all-stars from Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez to Kevin Huizenga and Shary Boyle, it's more art object than book. Publisher Alvin Buenaventura admitted to being apprehensive about the price point but said that nearly everyone who had seen the pages understood the economics behind the price.
But books that were present at the show also garnered attention. At Fantagraphics, Lilli Carre's The Lagoon, about a family's troubles with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, was a near sell-out, and she took home an Ignatz Award in the Outstanding Story category for her mini "The Thing About Madeleine." Dash Shaw's The Bottomless Belly-Button continues to move, and according to Fantagrahpics marketing director, Eric Reynolds, the first printing of 7000 has already sold out and a second printing of 15,000 is on its way to stores, an unusually large second printing for the publisher.
At PictureBox, advance copies for two unusual manga were immediate sell-outs: Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama, the abstract follow-up to New Engineering, and Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby by Takashi Nemoto, a notoriously hardcore satire. Copies of Volume 2 of C.F.'s indie fantasy epic Powr Mastrs also vanished quickly.
According to Top Shelf's marketing coordinator Leigh Walton, their biggest hit was Nate Powell's story about a young woman facing mental illness, Swallow Me Whole, which also won the Ignatz for Best Debut comic. Robert Goodin's The Man Who Loved Breasts also generated much interest.
While larger publishers reported brisk sales, some of the biggest cartooning stars were mini-comics self-publishers. Kate Beaton, who distributes her gently satirical historical comics via Live Journal, was greeted like a rock star, with a steady line for sketches for her just published mini. Chuck Forsman, a student at the Center for Cartoon studies in Vermont, won two Ignatzes and seemed to be a favorite of the crowd for his poetic fantasy Snake Oil minis.
Programming included spotlights on Scott Pilgrim's Bryan Lee O'Malley and European "clear line" master Joost Swarte.
SPX also hosted an auction for the non-profit first amendment rights group Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, where the top selling item was the Owly-Caster, a stratrocaster electric guitar hand-painted by Owly creator Andy Runton with characters from his children’s graphic novel series. The guitar sold to a local Owly fan for $1,800, while an SPX sketchbook featuring art by Mike Mignola, Charles Burns, and Los Bros Hernandez sold for $950.
During the Bryan Lee O'Malley panel, O'Malley spoke briefly about the upcoming Scott Pilgrim book. He said he tried to use the chapters structure more to his advantage and that the book will be about 200 pages, which he called "insane." The project took eight months to script, and he rewrote it three times.
He also said the new book makes just as big of an artistic leap as the previous book. And, speaking of the success of Bear Creek Apartments, he said he expects to do more Web comics in the future. "To me, it's a no-brainer," he said. Lastly, he said a post-Scott Pilgrim project is "very deeply in the works," but he didn't say more.
Fittingly, seven creators from the upcoming Kramers Ergot #7 crowded the stage of their panel on Saturday, joined by Alvin Buenaventura, who is publishing the book. Each artist gave a quick talk about his page or pages in the book and spoke of the challenges of filling a 16-by-21-inch page.
"Pressure's on, dude! Make a super cool giant comic page," said CF, joking about Buenaventura putting pressure on the artists.
In Sunday's best-attended panel, Joost Swarte and Paul Karasik held a lengthy examination of Swarte's work in comics, architecture and design. That included a detailed look at the theater Swarte designed for his hometown in the Netherlands, and prompted Swarte to encourage cartoonists to work outside of comics.
"You don't have to limit yourself to comics," he said. "You can do all these things. Why draw adventures when you can live adventures?"
Fantagraphics is currently putting together a collection of Swarte's work.
The Ignatz Awards, which were hosted again by one of this article's co-writers, were held mid-expo on Saturday night. Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki took home Outstanding Graphic Novel for Skim from Groundwood Press; Chris Onstad’s Achewood Web comic won Outstanding Online Comic for the second year, an award that was once again accepted on his behalf by a man in a gorilla suit.