Twenty years after it was founded, West Coast indie comics show the Alternative Press Expo (APE) finds itself at a crossroads. Dan Vado, publisher of Slave Labor Graphics and the founder of APE, is back at the helm of the show after 19 years with plans to move APE from San Francisco back to San Jose where it began. The 2015 Alternative Press Expo will be held at the San Jose Convention Center October 3-4, 2015.
What’s next for APE as the show faces management and location changes as well as competition from a growing number of indie comics shows? Even as plans are made to move APE back to San Jose, members of the San Francisco comics community are looking into organizing a new comics show to replace APE as well as WonderCon, which left the city for Anaheim in 2012. Vado shared some of his plans for the 2015 show with PW Comics World, and some of his thoughts about the current landscape for indie comics publishing and comics events in North America.
APE Founded 20 Years Ago
In 1994, Dan Vado, publisher of the indie comics house Slave Labor Graphics, a.k.a. SLG Publishing, organized the first Alternative Press Expo in San Jose, California. At that time in North America, there was only the Small Press Expo (SPX), located in Bethesda, Maryland and maybe a handful of 'zine shows showcasing independent and small press comics and comics creators.
Within a year or two its founding, direction of the show was passed on to Comic-Con International, the non-profit organization that runs the huge (and hugely successful) San Diego Comic-Con. By 2000, APE had moved from San Jose to San Francisco. In 2008, it switched from being a late winter/early spring event to an autumn event. And now, in 2014, Comic-Con International announced that it was handing the show back to Vado.
"They offered it back to me," Vado said explaining his return to overseeing the show. "I felt like maybe I had some unfinished business with it, so I'll be running it from now on." As part of taking on APE, Vado said he is planning on taking the show back to its roots and make it “a more intimate show.”
"If the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco (the location for APE from 2003-2013) was still available, I'd probably still do it there," he said. "I think it's a nice venue and a good location for this type of event. But the Bay Area is venue-poor right now, as far as having places where you can have a smaller, lower-key event and still have it be affordable for exhibitors and attendees."
"I didn't feel that Fort Mason Center, Festival Pavilion, (2014's APE venue) was an adequate replacement. It was cool to look outside and see the Golden Gate Bridge, but there's always stuff going on in San Francisco in October, which means that there's always a lot of traffic to get anywhere," Vado said. "Also, the Fort Mason Center doesn't have any heat or air conditioning, and there's no place to load and unload easily. If it rains, it's terrible. Fort Mason as a venue is kind of a pain, on an operational level. The South Hall of the San Jose Convention Center is a lot easier."
Do You Know The Way to San Jose?
Vado's plans to move APE from San Francisco to San Jose was met with some dismay from San Francisco comics creators and fans. Since losing Wondercon, a much larger pop culture convention held at the Moscone Center before it moved to Anaheim in 2012, San Francisco has been without a major comics event on the calendar. While San Jose is relatively close to San Francisco, getting to this Silicon Valley city, while not impossible, means an hour or more drive or train ride.
A small group of comics community members held a "Town Hall” meeting about two weeks after this year’s APE to discuss developing a new San Francisco comics festival. Led by Matt Silady, the chair of the MFA Comics program at California College of the Arts, the meeting attracted a mix of comics creators, retailers, librarians, and fans who were eager to discuss the possibility of a new show to fill in the gap left by Wondercon and now APE's departure from the San Francisco comics scene.
As Silady explained it, the idea for a new San Francisco-centric comics show came while he was at the CCA table at APE. "A large number of my colleagues, cartoonists, publishers, retailers came by, and everyone talked about how sad they were that San Francisco would be without a comics-centric convention," he recalled. "So instead of saying 'Let's make a new convention,' I thought this was a good opportunity to have a kind of democratic process where we could hear from everyone and see what they're looking for. San Francisco is a unique city and it probably needs a unique event to complement it."
While still very much in the very early stages of discussion, the nascent SF Comics Festival definitely touched a nerve with Vado, who expressed concerns that this event would clash with APE.
"I was annoyed when I heard about this meeting. There's an attitude in San Francisco, that anytime you need to go south of SFO Airport, you need a passport and Ebola shots!" laughed Vado. "Sometimes, there's an arrogance that comes from living or working in San Francisco—there are more people who live outside of San Francisco than in it. It's annoying that people in San Francisco feel like they never have to leave it."
He added, "I would have preferred that someone said, 'Hey, APE is being run by a guy with 30 years of experience in the comics business. Why aren't we helping to make his show a success?' The way it came about felt like 'APE is gone to us, we need to do something about it.'"
"San Francisco is a great town, but it's a tough place to do business. APE is a small, unique event, but it's also a niche event," Vado explained. "APE is not a not-profit show. It's me and my company losing money if it loses money."
A Comics Festival in Silicon Valley
Undeterred, Vado is moving forward with his plans to make APE 2015 a uniquely San Jose show. APE's new home, the San Jose Convention Center South Hall is adjacent to galleries, restaurants, and music venues, including The Art Boutiki, a gallery/comics shop/live-music venue owned and operated by Vado. With this in mind, Vado is hoping to make APE a bigger part of the San Jose art, music and culture scene.
"It's been a goal of mine to make APE into a multi-venue event, with additional events, and programming in the nearby SoFa district in downtown San Jose, within a few blocks from the show. If we get participation from the nearby galleries, I think it'll be an exciting opportunity to give this show a more European flavor," said Vado.
Besides having numerous places to eat, shop, and socialize, Downtown San Jose is also home to San Jose State University, a large public library, and is easily accessible by the South Bay light rail system. "What makes Downtown San Jose unique is its immediacy and intimacy," raved Vado. APE 2015 will be held on the weekend after First Friday, the monthly event that attracts art lovers to downtown San Jose. “I think people will be surprised at how big the art scene is in San Jose,” he said.
Given that San Jose is smack in the heart of Silicon Valley, Vado's long-term vision for APE includes trying to incorporate technology into the mix. "You've got huge companies like Adobe and Google in the South Bay. Anyone who creates comics uses products from those companies on a daily basis. So getting these types of technology companies involved with APE, to give the show that kind of vibe, that's my longer term goal."
Vado is also planning on making some small, but significant changes to make exhibiting at APE appealing, like offering larger table/booth spaces, and offering APE exhibitors the opportunity to exhibit at monthly "pop-up shop" events at his gallery, on the second Saturday of every month. He’s also mindful that he must re-establish APE in a new era of fast growing indie comics shows such as MoCCA in New York, CAKE in Chicago and Comic Art Los Angeles (CALA), which debuts in December. He also has no intention of turning APE into a “curated” show like T-CAF or Comics Arts Brooklyn (CAB) in New York, “I’m not built like that, I like the big tent approach. I want everyone to be included.”
He acknowledged another change to APE in recent years: the growing number of exhibitors who sell more prints and hand-crafted items than comics. “A few years ago, I thought this was kind of sucky. I really wanted APE to be all about comics. But now, it's really about expression--maybe the "E" in APE is about expression,” he said. “I can't say it's a good or bad thing, but we'll definitely have it continue as the show evolves."
"I think people who come to APE now have a different expectation than people who came to APE 20 years ago,” he said. “They're not necessarily looking for comics. But that's also true of all conventions."