The Small Press Expo, held yearly in North Bethesda, Maryland, is a place to go to find new things: new books to read, new cartoonists to follow, and maybe new talent for animation and new publishers to distribute as well. And everyone seems to have found something to like at this year’s show.
All of this took place at the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center from September 13-14, and if the above sounds like a lot of activity, throw in an after-hours awards ceremony, a mock wedding between a cartoonist and “Comics,” and an indie cartoonist prom complete with balloons and a photo booth and you have one of the social highlights of the comics year.
Attendance was up about 7-8% this year, according to Executive Director Warren Bernard, and there were a record number of exhibitors as well. The show attracted about 4,000 fans last year. More photographs from SPX can be found here.
With so many up-and-coming cartoonists, many fresh from art school, set up and showing off, SPX is once again a prime spot to scout talent. About ten years ago as the graphic novel was just getting established, it was often editors from major publishing houses signing young cartoonists for books that didn’t always find sales success.
Now it’s animation scouts who prowl the aisles, looking for creators who can work on shows such as Adventure Time, Regular Show, and many more that are infused with the look and spirit of independent comics. Nick Sumida, whose hilarious collection Snackies from Broken Frontier was a sell-out, was scouted last year at the show by a rep from Nickelodeon and now lives in LA where he works on storyboards for Bad Seeds. He’s not alone: cartoonists from the acclaimed Michael Deforge to Hellen Jo make a living working on storyboards and character designs for animation. This year reps from both Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were scouring the aisles once again.
The other buzz was about book distributor Consortium signing an increasing number of indie comics publishers. The Minnesota based company already handles many indie book publishers and graphic novel houses, including Uncivilized Books, Koyama Press, and NoBrow—and Toon Books just signed with them. More signings will soon be announced. Signing with Consortium has made a crucial difference for Koyama, said publisher Annie Koyama on a panel. Most indie comics publishers sell 3/4s of their books through the bookstore channel, as opposed to comics shops, and graphic novels do especially well in independent bookstores.
A Graphic Novel Shopping Center
For readers, SPX is practically a shopping center—and not just for alternative comics. Amy Chu, publisher and principle writer for Girls Night Out, an anthology of short comics stories, set up for the first time and had her most lucrative show of the year. “I was really impressed by how many people come here focused on picking up books to read,” Chu told PWCW. “They weren’t interested in our poster, they just picked up a stack of books.”
Other publishers had similar success stories—as usual debut books with the author present, such as Lynda Barry’s Syllabus or John Porcelino’s The Hospital Suite, disappeared on Saturday, but sometimes you didn’t even need an author. UK-based SelfMadeHero, was another first time sales and marketing director Sam Humphrey said they drastically underestimated the demand for their line of high quality graphic novels—even without a creator to sign them, they flew off the table.
Even an actual book wasn’t necessary at times. NBM had no creators present and even worse problem—a shipment of Beauty by Hubert and Kerascoet, one of the most anticipated books of the show, didn’t arrive in time, according to publisher Terry Nantier. The book had a huge buzz growing off the success earlier in the year of Beautiful Darkness, by the same art team. But Nantier made lemonade out of lemons by taking pre-orders for the book and even this was a huge success, with nearly 50 pre-orders from readers.
At the Fantagraphics table, publisher Gary Groth was showing off the first titles from Fantagraphics Underground Press—FU Press, get it? —a new “micro publishing” unit that will release unusual titles that are unlikely to attract enough sales to justify conventional bookstore distribution. “It’s a way to by pass the limitations of mass market publishing,” Groth said, explaining that FU Press print runs will be from 100 to 500 copies.
FUP books will be available through shows like SPX, and fans and retailers can order titles directly from Fantagraphics. Groth added that if a title attracts sales Fantagraphics can go back for a larger print run and perhaps broader distribution. The first titles are Jason Karn’s Fukitor, a 144-page collection of satirical, albeit wildly inflammatory, comics that manage to poke, lampoon and exult every racial, sexual and violent xenophobic impulse in the American psyche; and Jonah Kinigstein‘s The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the “Art” World, a handsome collection of mindbogglingly detailed satirical illustrations satirizing the art world and its procession of 20th century visual trends.
L.A. Times Book Prize-winning cartoonist Carla Speed McNeil had advance copies of Finder: Third World (Dark Horse), a new installment of her acclaimed “aboriginal sci-fi” series. The new volume is in full color and chronicles new adventures and misadventures of Jaeger, the series’ nomadic, shaman-like figure. Nobrow’s Tucker Stone showed off Dustin Harbin’s Behold! the Dinosaurs, a foldout accordion publication called a leporello. It's an exquisite full-color illustration of 100 dinosaurs drawn to scale on both sides that stretches about 4 meters. And also (In a Sense) Lost and Found by Roma Muradov (who also did an SPX poster), a beautiful and moody hardcover graphic novel that comically meditates on the loss of, and search to recover, innocence.
At the Hang Dai table Josh Neufeld showed off an as yet unpublished 30 page nonfiction account of NSA surveillance and data collection commissioned by the Al Jazeera network; Uncivilized Books had copies of Gabrielle Bell’s The Truth is Fragmentary, a new collection of her enhanced experiential reflections on life, her struggles and comics; and An Iranian Metamorphosis by Mana Neyestani, the story of Neyestani’s Kafkaesque journey through the Iranian prison system. And in addition to Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, Drawn & Quarterly debuted Earthling by Aisha Franz, a graphic novel drawn obsessively in a methodical grid in pencil in a smudged child-like style and focused on the “unhappy” but vividly detailed inner lives of a mother and her two daughters.
Alt-Weeklies, Micro Presses and the SPX Prom
This year’s programming focused on the alt-weekly cartoonists from Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice to Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) who is still producing weekly comics for print and the web. On a panel that kicked off the show, Feiffer and Perkins were joined by Lynda Barry, Charles Burns and Ben Katchor. They reminisced over the rise and fall of the format, which gave rise to some of the most memorable comics of the 90s, only to see Craigslist kill off the newspapers that hosted the comics. James Sturm, who helped found Seattle’s The Stranger, which still runs comics, hosted the panel and hoped it would kick off a history of comics that “was different from comic strips and superhero comics, a history that hasn’t been codified or looked at.”
It’s a history that mostly came to an end when Craigslist came along to put the classifieds that fueled local alternative papers to an end. Barry recalled that her strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, was replaced by a Sudoku puzzle. Perkins noted that after the crash of 2008, alternative papers quickly dropped the comics, even though “you could save as much money by getting rid of coffee in the break room.” However he said there are a few bright spots now, such as The Nib, a comics section on Medium, which is edited by Matt Bors. In addition, in March 2015, SPX and the Society of Illustrators will team up for an exhibit of the best of the alt-weekly cartoonists.
Robyn Chapman, a comics publisher, educator and cartoonist herself, presented the results of a survey of 40 of what she call “micro presses”—small presses usually run by a single person. Her survey—which she published in The Tiny Report Yearbook 2013—revealed that most small presses sell at conventions and their own websites as much as comics shops. “I’m trying to understand and chronicle what I believe is a movement in comics,” said Chapman by way of explaining her interest in the form, which she sees as similar to the zine movement of the 90s. In addition, micro presses such as Chuck Forsman’s Oily Comix and Box Brown’s Retrofit have essentially taken over putting out alternative periodical comics from publishers. However, publishing and selling dozens of small publications can have a big burnout factor, said Forsman, who confessed he’s putting Oily on hiatus for a while. “Oily got a little out of control. It sort of took over my life, but I still want to be a cartoonist first.”
All of the publishers on the panel rely on very small distributors such as sales rep Tony Shenton, and distributor Spit and a Half to get their books out. But for Keenan Marshall Keller of Drippy Bone Books, even this system is still tough. “My costs are high, so someone taking a cut of a cut still cuts into the profits, as small as they may be.”
Annie Koyama agreed, “The math to make this work is insane. You have to sell a book so many times, everyone is taking a cut and you have to make your money back and pay your artists.” Going with Consortium has made a huge difference, she added.
Despite occasional business obstacles, the weekend was mostly full of celebrating the creativity and fellowship of small press comics. The Ignatz Awards were presented on Saturday night (see the winners here) and then a giant crowd of cartoonists, creators and readers flooded the halls of the Marriott for several after events. Simon Hanselmann, who traveled all the way from Australia and often appears in public as a cross dresser, donned a lovely wedding gown to “marry comics” in a hilarious ceremony that included a passionate kiss from his publisher, Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth. Downstairs, SpromX, a dance party kicked off and got sweaty all night. While the wedding was a once off, the prom was a big hit and will be back in 2015, said Bernard.
Speaking of 2015, planning is already underway, with the theme Cartoonists of the 21st Century. Michael DeForge, Matt Bors, Lilli Carré, and Luke Pearson are the first guests announced. Despite some calls for the show to move to a larger venue it’s locked into the Marriott for the next few years—and given the success, bonding and sheer comics love on display, few would argue.