SPX, an annual festival for independent and self-published comics, opens this weekend, September 13-14 in North Bethesda, Maryland. The show, aka the Small Press Expo, is celebrating its 20th birthday this year—it was cancelled once in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks—with its usual lineup of stellar special guests, among them comics artists Lynda Barry, Jen Sorenson, Emily Carroll and Keith Knight. In addition SPX hosts nearly 700 exhibitors, and this year’s Ignatz Awards, annual prizes that honor the best small press comics and graphic novels of the year.
Renowned in the world of small press comics, SPX is considered one of the preeminent comics arts festivals (CAFs) in the country and attracts an all-star lineup of artists and publishers. The show is held at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel and Convention Center and attracted about 4,000 fans over the show’s two days last year, according to Warren Bernard, SPX executive director. This year, Bernard told PW, there will be 690 creator-exhibitors at 280 tables on the now-expanded main show floor, about 40 more creators than in 2013. Last year the show expanded, spreading out into the full hotel ballroom and added about 100 more tables for exhibitors. The demand for tables at SPX is so high, Bernard said, the show organizers chose to use a lottery to assign the tables to the new exhibitors, “to make it fair,” he said.
This year the show is highlighting cartoonists of the Alt-Weekly press, a group of syndicated alternative cartoonists, including Barry, Shannon Wheeler and Ben Katchor, that will be featured in a panel on Saturday. Also appearing are such Alt-Weekly veterans as Derf Backderf, Tom Tomorrow and James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies and a former cartoon editor at the Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly newspaper. New Yorker cartoonists, Bernard said, also make regular appearances at the show—this year New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff will discuss the evolution of the classic gag panel cartoon—since Francoise Mouly, who is also publisher of kids’ comics house Toon Books, became the New Yorker art director.
First-time SPX creator attendees include artists Brandon Graham, Emily Carroll and Drew Friedman. Jules Feiffer, the 85 year old great and former Village Voice cartoonist and kids book illustrator, is slated to appear to talk about his new graphic novel Kill My Mother (Liveright).
Thanks to a unique partnership with the Library of Congress, SPX has established the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress, an ongoing collection that includes the mini-comics, all Ignatz-nominated works, artwork and posters from each year’s show. “We’ve got more than 2,000 mini-comics in the LOC collection. Six curators from the Library of Congress will be walking the floor along with Benn Ray, the owner of the Atomic Books in Baltimore, helping the curate this year’s collection,” Bernard said. And cartoonist Box Brown will be the SPX lecturer at the LOC on Friday Sept. 12.
SPX hosts two days of programming that will include panels on Spanish language comics, a public interview with the Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, recipient of the Cartoonists Rights Network International award for courage in editorial cartooning. In addition, programming includes public interviews with cartoonists Mimi Pond (Over Easy), Raina Telgemier (Sisters), Lynda Barry (Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Profesor.); and with John Porcelllino, who will discuss his career, his new book, The Hospital Suite (D&Q), and screen Root Hog or Die, a new documentary film about his life by director Dan Stafford that will debut at SPX.
The Ignatz Awards, named after the character in cartoonist George Herriman’s classic comic strip Krazy Kat, are held on Saturday evening. The Ignatz nominations are chosen by a jury—this year it consists of Darryl Ayo, Austin English, Melissa Mendes, Thien Pham and Whit Taylor—and the winners are voted on by attendees at the show and presented with their prize at a ceremony Saturday evening.
This year's show has a couple of special post-Ignatz parties planned. SPX is planning a “wedding”—Australian cartoonist Simon Hanselmann is getting “married” to comics—and there’s a “prom,” Bernard said, with a DJ, “another way for attendees to enjoy themselves,” Bernard said.
Much-loved by the indie comics community, SPX is often cited by other indie comics festivals, like MoCCA in New York and TCAF in Toronto, as the model for a well-run platform for presenting great comics. Bernard was quick to return the compliments.
“We love those shows,” he said. “We’re all different and they can do some things we can’t do. We go to each one of them and they come to SPX,” Bernard said. “There’s no competition. We just try to put on the best comics shows we can for the indie comics scene.”