The Small Press Expo, which was held in Bethesda, Md., September 15-16, has traditionally been a sort of Indie-comics family reunion. And this year the show displayed the bickering, as well as the emotional moments, typical of a family gathering.
This year’s SPX included a familiar lineup of acclaimed guest artists, among them 89-year-old Jules Feiffer (The Ghost Script), and Roz Chast (Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?). Newcomers were also in the mix, with the likes of rising star Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend). Although the organizers have not released an official attendance figure, the show generally attracts between 4,000 and 5,000 fans.
But this year’s SPX was held in the wake of a $2.5 million defamation suit filed by cartoonist/publisher Cody Pickcrodt against 11 prominent members of the indie comics community, which was followed by the establishment of a $20,000 legal fund for the defendants, cosponsored by SPX and CBLDF. Pickcrodt's suit claims he has been falsely accused by the defendants of rape, sexual assault, anti-semitic remarks, and not paying artist royalties. In addition, on the eve of the show, digital comics vendor Comixology, a sponsor of SPX for six years, found itself under sharp criticism from some of the indie community citing the business practices of Amazon, its parent company.
The defamation suit spurred an uproar from the indie comics community in support of the defendants. Drawing an emotional response during opening remarks at the Ignatz Awards for excellence in indie comics, SPX executive director Warren Bernard introduced six of the 11 defendants in the defamation suit and also read off the names of some of the donors to a newly established GoFundMe legal defense fund. Bernard also said he is also offering to match donations to the legal defense fund with his own money.
For the first time the sponsorship of the show by Comixology, Amazon’s digital comics platform, raised some hackles. Comixology has sponsored the show for six years, and this year was offering free copies of Hit Reblog (Bedside Press), a collection about viral webcomics that is being distributed digitally and in print through its publishing/distribution platform Comixology Originals—which added a print-on-demand service this year. Writing in The Comics Journal, on the eve of the opening of SPX, Fantagraphics editor RJ Casey described Amazon as a “reprehensible company,” denounced its labor practices and accused the online retailer of planning to muscle in and “take over small-press publishing.” In another controversial passage, Casey called for SPX attendees to throw Hit Reblog in the trash.
And in an interview with PW, Bernard, said “it’s not news” that Comixology has been an SPX sponsor. “We were with Comixology before Amazon acquired them.” A number of indie artists defended the SPX partnership with Comixology/Amazon, among them Iron Circus publisher Spike Trotman.
Bernard also announced that SPX will mark its 25th anniversary in 2019 by cosponsoring a year-long indie comics retrospective exhibition at the Library of Congress that will open the week before SPX.
Also at SPX were March artist Nate Powell who was showing off his new graphic novel, Come Again, and Check, Please! creator Ngozi Ukazu. The longest line of fans, however, was for signings by Rebecca Sugar, creator of the Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe, with a new graphic novel The Answer (Cartoon Network Books).
Among buzz-titles showcased at this year’s show were Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs. The Patriarchy by Liv Stromquist, a lively, feminist meta-examination of the female organ (Fantagraphics); Jason Lute’s Berlin, an epic historical graphic novel focused on Weimar Germany (Drawn and Quarterly); a revised reprint edition of Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock’s Silent Invasion (NBM); and Chlorine Gardens by Keiler Roberts, an irresistibly odd graphic memoir (Koyama Press).
Uncivilized Books publisher Tom Kaczynski (a cartoonist as well) was showing off One Dirty Tree by Noah van Sciver, a memoir set in the rundown New Jersey house where he grew up along side his 7 siblings; and Cartoon Dialectics #3, the latest in a series of reflective mini-comics by Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark.
The Ignatz Awards ceremony seesawed between low comedy and high drama, as host Carol Tyler assumed the character of an aging ditz, at one point leading the audience in a sing-along of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Several award winners gave heartfelt speeches about the support they have received from the comics community. Iasmin Omar Ata, winner of the most promising new talent award for, Mis(h)adra, the story of Arab-American college student struggling with epilepsy, talked about struggling with daily seizures and making it through with help from fellow creators. Carta Monir (winner for outstanding online comics for the webcomic Lara Croft was My Family) spoke movingly of coming to SPX for the first time, suffering from depression and not yet out as transgender, and finding strength there.
It was Eleanor Davis, accepting the Ignatz for Best Graphic Novel for her book Why Art?, who turned that sense of community into a call to action. She called on the audience to get involved with the midterm elections and work to help get out the vote. “Let’s try to build a world out there that’s as good as the world that I see here, that we’ve built in this community. Let’s make it bigger.”