Indie cartoonists and publishers reunited with fans this past weekend at the Small Press Expo, or SPX—colloquially called “camp comics” amongst its tight-knit exhibitors—held on September 9 and 10 at the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, Md. It was the second in-person convention for the show since pandemic closures. Masks were required of all exhibitors and attendees, with high compliance observed.

Politics were forefront at an emotional Ignatz awards ceremony held Saturday night, which was livestreamed for the first time. Comics from both LGBTQ and creators of colors have been aggressively targeted in censorship and book banning, and speeches struck a note of solidarity and defiance.

“Gathering at the Small Press Expo to celebrate voices in comics seems simple, but it is a rebellion,” proclaimed Ngozi Ukazu, the cartoonist of the bestselling Check, Please in her opening keynote. “When you ban a book, it tells the reader that whatever this graphic novel represents in you, inspires in you—banning tells you, ‘you are wrong,’” continued Ukazu. “Rooms like these are where we make things right.”

Big award winners of the night reflected the rising tide of diverse voices.

Deb JJ Lee won the promising new talent award for In Limbo. Visibly shaken at the podium, Lee said that “comics is largely a solo practice, but community is really what makes us stronger.” After gathering themselves, Lee went on to advocate for rate transparency and for artists to “stand up to billion-dollar corporations.”

Robyn Smith took the stage twice, overcome with tears while accepting the award for Best Short Story for the chapter “Ride or Die” in Wash Day Diaries, co-created with Jamila Rowser. She returned, elated, to accept, on behalf of Daisy “Draizys” Ruiz, the award for Best Comic for Gordita: Built Like This, published by Rowser’s Black Josei Press.

Olivia Stephens won Outstanding Artist for her self-published web series Darlin’ and her Other Names. Friends of Stephens’ read a statement from the artist: “May we all endeavor to make our beautiful, angry, disgusting art that keeps the fascists up at night.”

It was no surprise when Ducks by Kate Beaton won Outstanding Graphic Novel. One of PW’s top 10 books of 2022, Beaton’s memoir of working in Northern Canada’s oil fields has swept comics awards and met with critical praise. SPX executive director Warren Bernard accepted on her behalf.

“There’s so much oppression heading into the direction of the different people who come to SPX,” Bernard told PW. When the community comes together, he said, in an “atmosphere of self-reinforcement, things are going to get emotional. This is an outlet of positive emotions [and] support.”

Celebs and Sales

SPX special guests included Eddie Campbell, Bill Griffith, Derf, Rob Kirby, MariNaomi, Breena Nuñez, and cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki.

The Tamakis, co-creators of Roaming (Drawn & Quarterly), drew a line down the hall for a shop-talk panel moderated by Bernard on the mechanics of writer-artist teams. The panel was rounded out by So Buttons series writer Jonathan Baylis and cartoonist Karl Christian Krumpholz.

“Being a good collaborator is being open to the alchemy that happens between a writer and artist,” said Jillian Tamaki. Baylis added that he’s open to “happy accidents” when an artist translates his scripts.

Citywide SPX programs leading up to the weekend included the world premiere of the film Married to Comics (on the marriage of indie cartoonists Carol Tyler and the late Justin Green), and Derf lecturing on his graphic nonfiction Kent State at the Library of Congress.

Bernard said that over 10,000 indie comics from SPX exhibitors now reside in the Library of Congress. “What’s really exciting is how often, on a fairly regular basis, SPX material is used for displays and presentations at the Library of Congress…some viewed by members of congress and their staff” as well as researchers and scholars.

“It’s fun to be together again—I love this community,” said first-time SPX exhibitor Liz Frances, publisher of Brooklyn-based Street Noise Books. “I’m blown away at the quality of work; it’s all at such a high level.” Unaccompanied by Tracy White and Look Again by Elizabeth A. Trembley were her top sellers.

While the aisles appeared less crowded than in pre-pandemic times, exhibitors PW spoke with were upbeat, both about the vibes and actual sell-through of their stock. SPX does not release attendance figures, though Bernard said exhibitors have told him SPX customers tend to “spend more per capita.”

Ephemera by Briana Loewinsohn, which received a starred review at PW, and Eden II by K. Wroten, another SPX special guest, were moving copies at Fantagraphics’ booth. Over at Uncivilized Books, publisher Tom Kaczynski reported strong sales for Pill Hill by Nicholas Breutzman.

Uncivilized took over a prime exhibit location long held by recently closed publisher Adhouse Books. “Feels like a changing of the guard,” said Kaczynski. He was eager to promote Uncivilized’s “rogue programming,” in a space he’d rented off the hotel restaurant and dubbed “The Mythology Room,” and featured Slovenian cartoonist Izar lunaček, whose Holy Fools and Funny Gods debuted at the show.

On a bittersweet note, the Nib founder and editor Matt Bors returned after many years to “send off” the Nib, the influential online political and nonfiction comics magazine, which just ended production after a decade’s run. The Nib gathered their entire international editorial team in Washington, including Eleri Harris, Mattie Lubchansky, Sarah Mirk, and Whit Taylor. “We’re leaving a good legacy,” said Taylor.

Just down the aisle, a first-time exhibitor, Los Angeles-based Johnny Parker II, showcased his independently published titles, such as A Black Man’s Guide to Getting Pulled Over. “It’s a really dope show,” said Parker. “Most conventions are a media circus, but here people genuinely do care about the comics and are coming up to ask about our stories, what inspires us.”