Better Known as SPX, the Small Press Expo 2019, held at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, celebrated its 25th year with a stellar line-up of guests that included legendary creators Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell and Jaime Hernandez, modern masters such as Raina Telgemeier, Eleanor Davis, and Emily Carroll, and such rising new stars as Rosemary Valero-O’Connell and Ebony Flowers.
And for the second year in a row, controversy loomed over the show. This year’s controversy again revolved around sponsorship of the show. A few days before SPX opened more than 50 cartoonists – including indie stars Michael DeForge and Eleanor Davis – signed a petition called Cartoonists Against Amazon, protesting Comixology, Amazon’s digital comics platform, and its sponsorship of a number of indie comics events around the country. The petition cites Amazon’s labor practices and hosting software used by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The controversy over Comixology actually started last year, but earlier this year SPX dropped Comixology and switched to Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform used by scores of SPX creators to fund the publication of their books.
Despite the switch in sponsorship, a Slate report that Kickstarter had fired two employees who were among the leaders of an attempt to form a union, threatened to disrupt Kickstarter's first year supporting SPX. These incidents highlight the pressures on indie comics festivals when seeking sponsors. SPX director Warren Barnard told PW that he was listening to the SPX community and exhibitors about these issues, while trying to balance their concerns with the rising costs of mounting the show.
In spite of these incidents the show itself was as robust as ever. At the Fantagraphics table, Kate Lacour’s new book Vivisectionary was a quick sell out, according to Jacq Cohen, Fantagraphics’ director of publicity and promotions, along with books from the many European cartoonists who were guests at the show, including José Quintanar and Rikke Villadson.
At the D&Q table hot new titles included Eleanor Davis’s new graphic novel, The Hard Tomorrow, Kevin Huizenga’s The River at Night, and Ebony Flower’s collection of short stories Hot Comb. Frank Santoro’s graphic memoir Pittsburgh sold out at the New York Review Comics table, as did Hannah Templer’s LGBTQ space adventure Cosmoknights at the Topshelf/IDW table.
Unsurprisingly, signings by Chris Ware and Raina Telgemeier at the CBLDF table drew long lines. Ware also appeared in an onstage conversation with Eddie Campbell, forming a bit of an odd couple. However, Ware, a self-deprecating formalist, and the easy going, garrulous Campbell, proved to have more in common than thought, as they discussed comics pacing, page layout, and shared a similar fascination with memory and how it is portrayed on page.
Ware noted that loss informs his work: “I start to draw a place after I leave it, so I can hang onto it.” Campbell is redrawing sections of his acclaimed black and white graphic novel From Hell (created with Alan Moore) adding color to what will be new full-color edition of the book. He joked that “I see whole sections where I’ve drawn the arms too long because I drew the heads too small.”
Acclaimed cartoonist Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets) appeared in conversation with artist Katie Skelly, talking about his recent works Tonta and Is This How You See Me. Skelly said her next book, Maids, will be about the Papin sisters, French maids who committed a grisly murder in the 1930s. It’s due from Fantagraphics in 2020.
The Ignatz Awards, presented each year to the best graphic novels, indie comics and mini-comics, were handed out on Saturday night. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second) by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell won for both Outstanding Story and Outstanding Graphic Novel and artist Valero-O’Connell won the award for Outstanding Artist. In their speeches, presenters and winners alike made much reference to SPX as a nurturing and accepting community where queer creators and their work have found acceptance.
Two trans gender narratives were also among the Ignatz winners: We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology (Stacked Press) won Outstanding Anthology and Trans Girls on the Town (Diskette Press) by Emma Jayne won Outstanding Mini. Cartoonist Ebony Flowers—a former student of acclaimed/beloved cartoonist Lynda Barry—won the Promising New Talent award for Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly), her collection of stories that explore the cultural significance of black women’s hair.
Presenter and past Ignatz winner Ben Passmore (BTTM FDRS) created a stir at last year's Ignatz ceremony when he criticized underground comics master Robert Crumb and his work from the stage. This year, he threatened to dis another famed cartoonist, but said instead: “I met Chris Ware and he was nice!” This seemed to sum up an event that, despite some squabbles, celebrates the community of creating and reading comics like few others.
Corrections: In an earlier version of this story two artists names were misspelled.