This year’s Small Press Expo, an annual festival of indie and self-published comics and graphic novels held Sept. 16-17 in Bethesda, Maryland, seemed influenced more than ever by the current political climate and the comics community's reaction to it.
The shift was evident not only in the number of books referencing the Trump administration–the most notable from Shannon Wheeler (Sh*t My President Says) and R. Sikoryak (The Unquotable Trump)–but in a number of passionate speeches about race in America at Saturday night’s Ignatz Awards ceremony.
Although an official count has not been released, attendance seemed about the same as usual—roughly between 4,000 and 5,000 over the weekend. Most publishers told PW sales were good.
Highlighting this year’s show were two special guest artists: Tillie Walden, author of Spinning (First Second), a graphic memoir about her life as an elite figure skater and coming out as gay; and Emil Ferris, author of the surprise hit graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Fantagraphics), which features a precociously thoughtful, fictional 10 year-old girl who is also gay and loves the world of monster fanzines, in a story set in late 1960s Chicago just as Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated.
This year’s show also presented a 10th anniversary celebration panel for publisher Annie Koyama and Koyama Press. But in the wake of Trump’s election (and the resistance to it) there were more than few panels focused on cartooning and the influence of issues of race, diversity and the LGBTQ community and gender identity. CXC executive director Tom Spurgeon moderated a panel on “The Free Press” featuring cartoonists Keith Knight, Ben Passmore, and Ann Telnaes; while a panel entitled “Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism,” featured artists Jeremy Sorese, Kevin Cazp and Rio Audry Taylor.
The embrace of diversity carried over to this year’s Ignatz Awards, the SPX festival awards for the best work of the past year. Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters won Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Artist. The Award for Outstanding Anthology went to Elements: Fire An Anthology by Creators of Color, edited by Taneka Stotts; and Passmore’s Your Black Friend won the prize for Outstanding standalone comic.
Speeches from presenters and winners reflected both the close-knit community that SPX fosters and the realities of racial injustice in the U.S. Most Promising Newcomer winner Bianca Xunise was not there to accept, but sent a statement that concluded: “Hopefully today is just the beginning of hearing more black and brown voices in comics. We have so many stories to tell. And not just sad or scary ones but ones about love and ordinary stories about life.”
Another blockbuster panel saw acclaimed artists Jillian Tamaki (Boundless) and Eleanor Davis (You And A Bike And The Road) in conversation about their multi-layered works. Tamaki praised the comics medium for its ability to play with “a whole level of communication that is independent of what is written down.” Davis said that many people had misunderstood her much admired “Libby’s Dad” comic but “If everyone understands my work it may be too obvious.”
On the exhibition floor, Fantagraphics publicity director Jacq Cohen said the publisher’s biggest sellers were Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters, along with Sophie Goldstein’s House of Women and D.J. Bryant’s collection of scabrously surreal short stories, Unreal City. Fantagraphics was also offering a new edition of Charles Forsman’s disturbing 2013 graphic novel, The End of the Fucking World, which is being developed into a Netflix series, and his latest work, I Am Not Okay With This, another troubling portrait of a desperately odd suburban kid.
Koyama Press featured, among other works, Sex Fantasy, a book length collection of cartoon narratives by Sophie Foster-Dimino that won an Ignatz in 2015 as a mini-comic. Top Shelf was featuring Nate Powell’s Omnibox, a boxed collection of his pre-March graphic novels which include Swallow Me Whole, Empire, and You Don’t Say.
Top Shelf was also offering advance copies of Bottled, a new graphic novel by Australian cartoonist Chris Gooch. Also from Top Shelf: Gumballs, a periodical series by Erin Nations, that details his gender transitioning with oddball humor and understated emotion that will be released as a book collection in 2018.
SPX also marked a few transitions: Secret Acres co-publisher Barry Matthews is leaving the company and he took a farewell tour around the show. And Retrofit publisher Box Brown is going on hiatus from the small press publisher to focus on his own comics work, such as his upcoming biography of Andy Kauffman. Big Planet’s Jared Smith will take over in his absence.