In a year that has seen issues of diversity and inclusion rock the comics industry, this year’s Small Press Expo—held September 19-20 in at the North Bethesda Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland—provided a big cathartic win: all nine Ignatz Awards were won by female cartoonists, an unprecedented sweep that heralds the diversification of the medium and recognizes outstanding works that have stretched the boundaries of literary comics.

The big winner was Sophia Foster-Dimono, a former Google doodle artist whose Sex Fantasy mini comics offer disquieting glimpses of human interactions gone awry with art that blends cartoon influences with Chris Ware. Foster Dimino won for Most Promising New Talent, Best Mini Comic and Best Series—all five issues of Sex Fantasy can be read for free online here.

Sophie Goldstein’s The Oven (AdHouse), a dystopian SF story about a couple who go rogue to have a baby (previewed here), won Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Comic. The other winners—Emily Carroll (Outstanding Artist), Jillian Tamaki (Outstanding Story, “Sex Coven,” Youth in Decline), Eleanor Davis (Outstanding Anthology or Collection, How to be Happy, Fantagraphics) and Lille Carré (Outstanding Webcomics, The Bloody Footprint, The New York Times) are all recognized talents whose work has received widespread acclaim, and taken together they present an evolution of comics storytelling into directions that rank with the finest literary fiction being produced.

And it’s work that is finding an ever widening audience. SPX executive director Warren Bernard noted that this appeared to be the most diverse SPX yet for exhibitors and attendees, both along gender and racial lines. A panel called “Does Black Art Matter”—the first ever African-American focused panel in the show’s 21 year history—created “a tempest on Tumblr when it was announced,” he told PW. At the panel, moderator Keith Knight (The Keef Chronicles, ThinK) noted that the panel’s title had been chosen to get people into the room.

The ploy succeeded, and the show’s biggest hall was packed with a diverse crowd to hear Knight and panelists Whitney Taylor, Darryl Ayo, C. Spike Trotman and Ronald Wimberley discuss racial issues in the comics industry. The group detailed the expected variety of unfortunate episodes—from only being called in during Black History Month to editors that believe black comics artists only appeal to black readers. But the panel ended on a note of survival and the love of making comics, as the older artists—Knight and Trotman (honored in PW’s recent Star Watch contest)—implored their fellow black and indie cartoonists to “persevere and just keep showing up.”

This year’s show featured established creators from the last decade, including cartoonists Micheal DeForge and Matt Bors, and returning veterans such as Bill Griffith and New Zealand-based Dylan Horrocks (Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen), who made his first SPX appearance since 1997.

The programming kicked off with a summit meeting of Kate Beaton (Step Aside, Pops) and Noelle Stevenson (Nimona)—recently named to the National Book Awards longlist—who compared notes on drawing knights and on fighting preconceived notions about what kinds of comics women could make in front of an avid SRO crowd.

Elsewhere it was business as usual for larger publishers such as Fantagraphics, which debuted Liz Suburbia’s Sacred Heart, a much anticipated coming-of-age graphic novel, and Bill Griffith’s Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist!! Carla Speed McNeil and Alex di Campi’s young adult survivalist graphic novel No Mercy is from Image and D&Q showed off Adrian Tomine’s forthcoming Killing and Dying. Top Shelf had advance copies of cartoonist and cancer survivor Jennifer Hayden’s big new graphic memoir, The Story of My Tits, which looks back at her struggle to overcome breast cancer.

While attendance wasn’t announced, it appeared to be on par with previous years, and most publishers reported strong sales.

Some new ventures blending comics with literacy and libraries also exhibited. The Durham Comics Project is sponsored by the Durham County Library and encourages people to express moments from their lives by drawing comics. An anthology of the project’s earliest comics was on sale.

Matt Silady of the California College of the Arts was showing off MFA in Comics, an anthology of work by the first graduating class of CCA’s comics course. It’s just the beginning of what he hopes will be a larger comics-focused arts festival in the Bay Area built around a series of lectures called “Comics in the City,” which is in its second year.