The mood at this year's Alternative Press Expo, held at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center on February 17 and 18, was one of hopeful but patient expectation. The "alternative press" that APE covers is specifically the comics underground, the small companies and self-publishers that are at the bottom of the food chain and use the expo to help to devise their aesthetic and business strategies. In a lot of cases, that means they're trying to figure out how they can cross over to other entertainment media—where the money is.

Comics Crossover

For proof of how important the crossover dream is to this community, consider the featured guests of APE's programming events this year: Terry Moore, Judd Winick and Michael Chabon. Moore is the only one of the three who's actually a full-time "alternative press" cartoonist; his Strangers in Paradise is now in its eighth year, and HBO optioned it a few years ago. Holt published Winick's graphic novel Pedro and Me, and he's now writing Green Lantern for DC Comics and the new Blink and the X-Iles series for Marvel Comics, but he's best known as part of the San Francisco cast of MTV's The Real World. And Chabon isn't a cartoonist at all: he's a novelist who wrote the recent and critically acclaimed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is set in the early years of the comics industry. APE is an event where crossing over into literary fiction makes you a celebrity.

In any case, the panels (sedate, pleasant, not terribly well-attended) were far from the focus of APE—the crush was in the exhibit hall and its 150 or so booths. Some represented relatively high-tech concerns, like underground comics publisher Fantagraphics Books, psyched about Terry Zwigoff's forthcoming film adaptation of Dan Clowes's Ghost World. Others were ultra-low-end, like Goblinko, publisher of adorable photocopied-and-stapled minicomics like Pipu, whose ambitions toward other media extend about as far as the free stickers they were handing out. And a few booths were occupied by free agents such as Scott McCloud (author of DC/HarperCollins's Reinventing Comics), who's now at least as much a lecturer on visual-interface theory as he is a cartoonist, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, whose Saturday-night benefit party was the reason a lot of attendees staggered in late Sunday morning.

The Elfquest Model

The atmosphere of APE has less to do with cutting deals than it does with shoring up the underground comics community and seeing in what direction the consensus is heading. For the last 10 years or so, the chief business model for small-press and self-published comics has been the one pioneered by WaRP Graphics'Elfquest and Aardvark-Vanaheim's Cerebus titles: publish a black-and-white comic regularly to build a buzz, then slap your back issues together into paperbacks, keep them in print and generate income as a backlist item. That's great if you're willing to stick with one project for many years and are capable of producing new issues regularly, but not all cartoonists fit that description.

Some do, of course. Batton Lash, of the long-running legal horror-comedy series Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre, described how he designed Sonovawitch!, a collection aimed at the book market, very differently from the collections his Exhibit A Press generally publishes for the comics trade. His long-term thinking has worked out nicely: Wolff & Byrd has been optioned for a movie by Universal.

The new paradigm, though, is to produce beautiful, arty books that aren't necessarily serialized first or are serialized only as miniseries without a long-term series in mind. Top Shelf Productions and Drawn & Quarterly's booths were mobbed, and both publishers demonstrated that original, nongenre graphic novels, if they look elegant enough, don't need a saddle-stitched periodical series to support them. Top Shelf, in particular, is riding high on the success of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, a fictional meditation on the Jack the Ripper legend (whose film adaptation, directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, is due out later this year). A lot of the buzz at APE concerned the company's next major project with Moore, the X-rated, decade-in-the-works Lost Girls, which will probably appear next year. Meanwhile, a few booths away, artists were flogging half a dozen issues of their self-published sci-fi or fantasy or horror or superhero-with-a-twist comics, and their visitors took a quick glance and strolled on.

Naturally, there were a few newish books that everybody was talking about: Louis-Red Letter Day, a disarming Orwellian allegory self-published by the Scottish duo Metaphrog; Craig Thompson's collection of early work Doot Doot Garden, printed up by Top Shelf as a handsome Expo-only teaser; Lea Hernandez's tweaked manga pastiche Rumble Girls; Jordan Crane's meticulous Col-Dee, from his Red Ink imprint, presented as three silk-screened pamphlets inside a tiny slipcover. (Crane and a couple of representatives of the like-minded Highwater Books gave a brief but enlightening seminar on printing and reproduction techniques.)

The real buzz of APE, though, was collegial—publishers and cartoonists showing each other what they can do, knowing that the respect of their peers necessarily comes before the big commercial break.