The mood among exhibitors and fans was giddy as SPX, a.k.a. the Small Press Expo, held September 17-18 at the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, Md., returned as an in-person event after two years as a virtual show during the pandemic.
SPX executive director Warren Bernard said he was happy with the range of returning exhibitors. “We had everything from Lucky Pocket Press to Kitchen Sink Press. Tons of exhibitor diversity in every direction,” he said. Rosarium publisher Bill Campbell said, “It’s great to be back, to see members of the community in person …It’s been way too long,” a sentiment expressed by other exhibitors.
SPX is a festival of independent comics and graphic novel artists and publishers. Exhibitors included established indies such as Fantagraphics, Nobrow, IDW/Top Shelf, Bee Hive Books, Uncivilized and Mad Cave Studios (long time exhibitor Drawn & Quarterly did not attend), who set up shop next to newcomers and such educational programs as Center for Cartoon Studies and SVA.
SPX required proof of vaccine or a recent negative PCR test for entry, as well as masks for all attendees over 12 years old (going so far as requesting any meal breaks be held outside). “The organizers have done more in terms of safety for the attendees and exhibitors than any other show,” said SecretAcres publisher Leon Avelino.
The Covid regulations weren’t without complications—exhibitors were limited to two representatives per table at a time, resulting in a rotating cast behind shared tables. Some exhibitors reported making detailed spreadsheets to split time among artists monitoring the tables. Neil Brideau of Radiator Comics saw a silver lining, mentioning this was the first show where he’d been able to roam and browse.
While SPX typically does not report attendance, floor traffic appeared comparable to pre-pandemic years. Traffic flows were steady on the opening day, but absent the intense crowding usually seen on Saturday. Vendors generally seemed happy, even while some expressed uncertainty about sales. “Everything is starting from scratch now, even after 15 years of doing this, there’s no real expectation [coming out of the pandemic],” Avelino said.
But, for books with buzz, people were buying. “Sales are going really well,” reported Robyn Smith, helping out at the Black Josei Press table, where she was also promoting her own graphic novel Wash Day Diaries, co-created with BJP founder Jamila Rowser and published by Chronicle this year. “People stop immediately when they recognize the cover. We’re also sold out of Arrive in My Hands, [queer erotica by Trinidad Escobar], which was nominated for an Ignatz award.”
There was a line of fans all day at the table of SPX special guest Maia Kobabe, whose 2019 graphic memoir Gender Queer has been a flashpoint in book censorship attempts by anti-LGBTQ factions nationally. Kobabe sold out of stock well before the end of Saturday. Fantagraphics also sold out of special guest Tommi Parrish’s Men I Trust and Simon Hanselmann’s Below Ambition, and reported keen pick-up for SPX special guest Megan Kelso’s long-anticipated short story collection Who Will Make the Pancakes.
This was SPX special guest Keith Knight’s “72nd show,” or so the long-attending cartoonist quipped—and the first in-person show since his comics were adapted into the streaming TV series Woke. “The great thing is to be back amongst the people, talking about Woke—I love screening it with an audience. Getting those laughs in public is like seeing the comic strip on someone’s refrigerator,” said Knight, who also showcased Good On Both Sides, a new collection of his satirical single-panel cartoons.
Documentary filmmaker James Spooner (Afropunk) was making his SPX debut tabling solo with his graphic memoir The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere (HarperOne).“It feels like a giant punk rock distribution table. In film everyone is aspiring towards Hollywood. Here maybe sprinkles of people are going to make it big, but most are just trying to make art."
International special guests included Dutch cartoonist Aimée de Jongh (Days of Sand) and Canadian Ho Che Anderson (King), who was interviewed onstage by his longtime publisher Gary Groth of Fantagraphics about his career and the experiences of Black cartoonists in indie and mainstream comics. At the Nobrow table, Dutch cartoonist Joris Bas Backer was signing Kisses for Jet and gushed about the welcoming crowd: “It’s my first time in the states for a comics convention [since Covid]. I love the space, all the people are super friendly.”
Despite returning to an in-person event, voting on the Ignatz Awards, which honor exceptional indie comics, was held again online, a practice begun by necessity in 2020. SPX programming coordinator Rob Clough reported close to 2,000 people voted this year on the jury-selected nominees. “Overall everyone is encouraging of the online voting,” said Ignatz coordinator Francesca Lyn. “People liked the accessibility and there are people who might like to be here in person that may be immunocompromised. This is what we could do to be fair."
Big winners of the night included R. Kikuo Johnson’s No One Else for best graphic novel and West African cartoonist Juni Ba, who won the award for promising new talent for his graphic novel Djeliya. The full list of Ignatz winners can be found here.
Correction: the name of the founder of Black Josei Press was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.