The question hanging in the air at this year's Alternative Press Expo (held at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, February 9—10): What are the next big graphic novels going to be? There were remarkably few major new graphic novels being rolled out at this year's show, although plenty seemed to be in the works for the rest of the calendar year.

APE is an annual convention of small comics publishers and self-publishers. In the past, the show had previewed a couple of graphic novel triumphs whose sales were driven by movies released in the previous year. There were successful films based on Daniel Clowes's Ghost World (Fantagraphics) and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell (Eddie Campbell Comics; dist. by Top Shelf).

Small-press comics can turn into long-term book sales, and the discussions on publishing focused on how to produce large book projects. The expo's special guest, Jeff Smith, has been writing, drawing and publishing Bone (Cartoon Books) for 10 years, and he's got a small merchandising empire around it, including seven trade paperback collections that are a backlist dynamo. Most of the attendees' publications still number in the single digits, though, and the few who've gotten beyond that point seemed closer than the newcomers to some kind of breakthrough. Top Shelf debuted Pete Sickman-Garner's Hey, Mister: The Fall Collection and Glenn Dakin's Abe: Wrong for All the Right Reasons, and Carla Speed McNeil's self-published fantasy series Finder. There's a lot of anticipation for Xeric Award winner Rachel Hartman's paper- back collection of her Amy Unbounded series.

APE 2002 saw plenty of discussion of online comics: whether or not they're the future of the medium, and how they can possibly make money. Mostly, though, the expo was dedicated to pushing the boundaries of print comics.

Seth's ultra-luxe hardcover sketchbook Vernacular Drawings (Drawn & Quarterly) was the prestige item of the show, closely followed by Sandman cover artist Dave McKean's $45 hardcover Pictures That Tick (Allen Spiegel Fine Arts). And more than a few dedicated cartoonists are concentrating their efforts on full-length graphic novels, which don't yield the immediate rewards of serialization. Leela Corman had previews of her book Subway Series in both French and English. Ariel Schrag (whose autobiographical Potential, drawn when she was a teenager, is a cult favorite from Slave Labor) is working on her first new graphic novel in several years, due out this fall.

With small-press comics' paradigm shifting from pamphlets to books, lots of cartoonists have decided to work toward long-term projects, which, paradoxically, means there's a temporary drought of independent graphic novels this year. Possibly as a result, the overall vibe of this year's show concerned the blurring of the line between comics and fine art. Even venerable underground comics distributor Last Gasp was promoting books of kitsch paintings and posters at least as much as graphic novels proper.

Can commercial success come from all this art for art's sake? Maybe—it worked for Clowes and Moore and Campbell (after they'd been developing their work for decades). But the consensus at this year's expo was that the most significant graphic novel sales come slowly, as cartoonists expand their backlists and build their reputations.