Last weekend I attended the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. Held in the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, this was the first large comics-related event I have ever attended. I understand now why my good friend, cartoonist Sally Cantirino, describes SPX as being, “somewhere between a family reunion and a comics fest”. Almost immediately upon entering the hall I ran into cartoonist James McShane. I first met McShane at a weeklong intensive taught by Ron Rege Jr. at the Sequential Arts Workshop. McShane has a four-page comic in the inaugural issue of Manual, a journal published by the RISD museum. Bumping into people like this became the norm for the weekend. The experience was exhilarating and at times overwhelming. I met amazing people, spent too much money, and drank a lot of coffee. I mean, a LOT of coffee. In fact, I almost blacked out from how much coffee I drank on Saturday. But it was worth it, as was drinking stealth ciders to avoid paying for the overpriced alcohol at the hotel bar.
I saw a lot of incredible work and had a chance to talk to some of the creators. Everyone was really kind and generous with his or her time. I am still on a high from getting to talk to one of my favorite of all-time authors, Gene Yang. American Born Chinese was the first comics work that I ever wrote an academic paper on, so it was extremely meaningful to get my copy signed at SPX. Yang signed books over at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund table and participated in a panel on comics for younger readers with Raina Telgemeier.
And meeting cartoonists whose work I had only seen previously online, such as Sam Alden and Box Brown, was truly thrilling. I also now have a greater appreciation of web comics; make sure you get to know the work of Phinkwell, a Philadephia based cartoonist collective. Tommy Rudmore and Steve Teare were two of the first people I spoke to at SPX. It would be beyond the scope of this article to recount all of the incredible comics I had the pleasure of viewing. Still, some stuck out as exceptional works that I thought I would share in a list. Please note that for the purposes of this list I decided not to include any anthologies though there were many fine examples at SPX. In no particular order here are some of the comics, minicomics, and graphic novels that I loved:
The Worm Troll
I spoke to a lot of cartoonists whose work I had admired from afar. One of these artists was Sam Alden. This year, Alden was nominated for three Ignatz awards and ended up taking home a brick for Promising New Talent with Hawaii 1997.
Alden’s The Worm Troll is a tremendously good, beautifully printed minicomic. This inventive dark forest fairy tale reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke as well as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
Everything from The Sequential Arts Workshop
I was really lucky to have made a few good friends through the Sequential Arts Workshop (SAW). Located in Gainesville, Florida, SAW is a cartooning and comic arts school founded by Tom Hart. Seeing them at SPX was not only a nice little reunion, it was a great opportunity to see all of the new awesome work they have created.
While at SPX I picked up the second part of Turnpike Divides by Sally Cantirino as well as work by Adrian Pijoan and Eric Taylor. It was really fun to see all of these cartoonists again to see how they are advancing creatively. Pijoan has just begun MFA studies at the University of New Mexico and describes himself as a “cartoon ecologist”. Cantirino and Taylor are continuing their studies at SAW for a second year. Taylor also has started his own small risograph printing operation. Be sure to check out a comprehensive look at their work written by Rob Clough over at The Comics Journal.
March: Book One
March, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, recounts Lewis’s life and his role as an important civil rights activist. This graphic novel has already received considerable attention, as it is the first one ever written by a member of Congress. It was quite moving to see all of the people waiting in line on Saturday for Lewis to sign their copies of March. CB’s own Nick Hanover already did a bang up job reviewing an advance copy of March so I suggest checking that out if you want more details.
Box Brown debuted these vibrant minicomics at SPX. I first became a fan of Brown’s work through his Instagram. The creator of Retrofit Comics, Brown has a mastery of controlled, stylized linework that really works in Softcore. I also really appreciated the little detail of using purple staples to match the ink. Against the yellow paper it really worked well. Softcore is available to purchase here. I am really excited to read the next in this series, check out Brown’s website for more information.
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life won the Ignatz award for the Outstanding Graphic Novel. Of all the works I purchased this is the one I am most excited to read.
Lust’s graphic novel is a memoir of her travels through Italy in 1984. I haven’t gotten a chance to finish this yet – it’s an expansive work of over 450 pages. This is a work that a lot of people will be talking about, at SPX copies of the book sold out completely on the first day.
Boxers & Saints
Boxers & Saints is Gene Yang’s newest work. Comics Bulletin’s own Andrew Tan wrote a very moving review and it certainly lives up to that. It’s an ambitious work that I highly suggest everyone go out and buy immediately.
This list is by no means comprehensive. There is simply too much to see at a place as magical as SPX. I did not even include any of the wonderful anthologies available; a particular favorite was The Big Feminist But. I have a lot more to write about as soon as I can read everything. Special thanks to Jen at Fantagraphics for being super nice to me. Stay tuned for a complete review of Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life.