Now in its ninth year, the Alternative Press Expo proves that one fan's "alternative" is another fan's mainstream. Held February 1—2 in San Francisco, APE was a colorful mingling of Bay Area punks and activists, underground comics legends and established stars of independent comics.

This year's APE was held at the Concourse, a new venue located in a drab area that was once home to many of San Francisco's dot-com startups. Attendance was 3,400, up 300 from last year, and there was a slight increase in the number of exhibitors. Along with the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., and the MoCCA show in New York, which also feature indie comics publishing, APE offers independent comics publishers a chance to sell their works directly to their public, and this show proved another sales success.

Most of these publishers now plan their release schedule around conventions to maximize sales, and the strategy seems to be working. Top Shelf did well with Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace by Jason Hall and Matt Kindt, a pulp adventure that slyly satirizes 1950s anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham, and Oliver, by Jennifer Daydreamer, a Jungian fantasy set in the world of Encephalon. Fantagraphics was showing off the recent Hysteria in Remission, a collection of early underground comics work by famed comics artist/painter Robert Williams, and Rebel Visions by Patrick Rosenkranz, a scholarly history of the underground comics movement.

The underground comics movement of the 1960s and its history provided a highlight of the show, as some of the pioneers were on hand to lend historical perspective. Williams, S. Clay Wilson (whose filthy comics—there's no other way to describe them—can still raise eyebrows), Howard Cruse and Spain Rodriguez participated in a panel with Rosenkranz to a packed audience. Clearly, today's tyros weren't the first to break away from the superhero mold that has had a stranglehold on the medium for the past 40 years. Williams praised the new talent in his remarks. While his generation had more of an outlaw presence, he said, today's alternative cartoonists have established themselves both economically and artistically.

Political activism had more of a presence than usual at a comics show. Jennie One by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan (AiT/Planetlar) sold briskly, with its timely tale of one woman rebelling against a restrictive government. At the Alternative Comics table, real life activist/illustrator Fly was previewing her upcoming book, which combines portraits of various fringe cultural figures with profiles based on their own words. David Rees, whose Get Your War On has become a rallying point for antiwar sentiment, was also on hand with his publisher, Soft Skull. While many of the books sold at APE are fantasy of one kind or another, the audience seems ready for work about the real world as well.

But perhaps the most excitement at APE was for the many new book projects previewed for later in the year. Top Shelf was showing Blankets by Craig Thompson, who won acclaim with his debut book, the charming Goodbye Chunky Rice. Thompson is back with a 528-page graphic novel about relationships that looks to be one of the most important books of the year.

The consensus among APE attendees was that the ninth show was another success. The days of wondering whether alternative comics have an audience are past; the question now is just how big the audience can get.