This year’s Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD has come and gone. This year, Comics Bulletin sent a solid contingent of smart critics to hobnob, observe, and gather. The following is a series of reflections from the CB crew on their experience.
Daniel Elkin: At a certain point, life becomes a series of considered decisions based on priorities and stamina. What could possibly possess a middle-aged man to catch a red eye across the country after having just spent the week camping in the mountains with 80 or so high school students?
When I tell people it was to attend a comic book convention, I tend to get the wide-eye, step-back dance move that folks make when faced with madness.
But if you’ve ever been to Small Press Expo, you’d probably give me a hug instead.
SPX is a gathering of tribes, a safe space for the outliers, a cavernous and sonorous embrace of what was, what is, and what will be. It is the anti-con insofar as it oozes truth in the way that water drips from a sediment-encrusted valve seal in the kitchen faucet. It possesses more genuine hope in its embryonic certainty than a velvet roped night club on a Friday night, and, rest assured my friends, you’re all getting laid by the artistry and the excitement it contains. “People over product” is the reverberating mantra that engulfs your brain in the midst of your end-of-summer, mid-September weekend at the North Bethesda Marriott, and, by Sunday evening, you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and suffused with a deep and abiding contentment, awash in the knowledge that Comics Can Be Spectacular.
Because they can be.
Comics can be spectacular when they are an expression of the self, the real person behind all the masks we layer over our faces, one after another, in our desperate bid to make it through the day-to-day. Comics can be spectacular when they are the end result of a dream that has been harbored secretly for years and has finally mustered the courage to open that door. Comics can be spectacular when they clearly say, as Eleanor Davis noted in her 2015 Ignatz acceptance speech, “This is me” and are those that “have our whole selves inside.”
Comics can be spectacular when they are expressions of people over product. It is these comics that you find at SPX. And it is the people that made these comics that are there to share them with you. And it’s the people who are open to and cherish that honesty that wander down aisle after aisle wearing their badges.
And if you look closely, they are all smiling.
That is why you come down from the mountain and fly across the country. That is why you gather together at SPX and celebrate. Because in doing so, you too become spectacular.
Alison Baker: Small Press isn’t my usual space in comics. I first came to SPX at the urging of Sam Marx, who, at the time, was one of my local comics buddies and a colleague at another site. That was 2013. SPX is now a permanent part of my annual con circuit because it’s the place that makes me remember why I love comics in the first place. Comics are weird and personal, they can be dark, they can be silly, they can be about your cat, or wizard vampires, or your mom’s breast cancer, or Vincent Van Gogh. The sheer variety in that small ballroom at SPX puts every other con I’ve attended to shame (Thought Bubble might come close).
My initial hesitation about SPX was that I wasn’t “in the know” – would these people think I’m not cool enough for their books? Will I be able to talk to them? Turns out the folks who exhibit at SPX are way more likely to actually look you in the face and have a conversation than 80 percent of the folks you see at a “normal” comic con. There’s a sense of community and a sincere desire to welcome new faces and show them around.
Story about niceness: While I was at Michel Fiffe’s (COPRA) booth, somehow, during the course of our chatting, my badge vanished. Clean off my lanyard. We searched the floor, the immediate area, and found nothing. I was worried about walking around without a badge; without hesitation, Michel told me not to worry, reached into his bag, and handed me his Exhibitor badge so I wouldn’t get hassled. Thanks, Michel. That was super cool of you.
Ray Sonne: Elkin said it with more beauty than I could ever muster, quite frankly, but I will try to evoke something from underneath my new mountain of indie books. Yes, mountain.
You might feel FOMO for not attending other cons. Aw, all my friends are hanging out without me at San Diego Comic Con. Wah, my favorite cartoonist is making their first public appearance in 5 years at New York Comic Con. But even with that disappointment and ostracization, you still feel that relief, don’t you? The relief of, my bed feels very nice and I made the right choice to not put up with that gridlock of loud, rude, crowded, angry garbage.
For the most part, comics convention organizers initially intend their cons to function as a haven for fans. But once the cons become too large or start to focus on the wrong things — like how SDCC has reached fame for its Hollywood and television presence, not comics — they lose their fun. SPX, on the other hand, maintains everything about the ideal comics convention. That FOMO you felt this weekend is the realest FOMO you have ever felt, my friends, because SPX is the realest con.
If you read or work in direct market comics, you may find yourself absorbed by the corruption of the industry caused by its small scale and barely-hanging-in-there capitalism. And sure, SPX is still about capitalism in some ways. Its organizers are proud that their goal is to help cartoonists make more money, and Exhibitor Coordinator Sam Marx (you’re the best, Sam!) bragged to me about how much money attendees withdrew from the ATMs last year. But getting to the core of it, SPX is about comics as a medium. It’s about art, human imagination, and the limitlessness of what you can make with your bare hands. And it’s about making positive, human connections via comics and the passions expressed within them.
Speaking of human connections, you will have to look hard to find another con where the attendees have so much fun that they can carry it out onto the balcony when the event’s fog machine sets off the hotel fire alarms. There certainly won’t be another con where you and your friends might wear the same shirt two days in a row (as Comics Bulletin Small Press Editor Daniel Elkin and I did, on purpose and then accidentally) and keep pulling each other back onto the show floor to buy more books after you had repeatedly declared yourselves done (as CB Interviews Editor Joe Schmidt and I did). Maybe you will have your first date with one of the exhibiting artists at another con, but sorry, they won’t be as pretty as mine. All in one weekend? Yes, you can get all that — or experiences similarly deep in heart and fulfilling in soul — in one weekend at SPX.
Give into the FOMO of this year. Come hang and discover all the amazing things you didn’t know comics could do next year. Small Press Expo is meant for everyone.
Christian Hoffer: For two days, the Bethesda North Marriott becomes a central hub for comics, as creators, professionals, and fans descend on the site to experience SPX in all of its overwhelming glory. From the second you enter the lobby, you’re smothered with smiles and hugs, meeting friends for the first time, and trying not to gape as some famous cartoonist casually strolls into the bar to grab a drink.
Even the most jaded comics fan can’t help but smile as they walk down the aisles of SPX and see hundreds of comics creators selling their comics and making connections with their readers. There is a comic for everyone at SPX, from the hardcore superhero fan to the person struggling to find their identity in the world. There’s fun comics, happy comics, sad comics, strange comics, sci-fi comics, fantasy comics, and comics that are meant to be experienced instead of read. This is a comics convention in its purest sense, a celebration of the medium and the people who make it.
I could probably go for another thousand words about all the wonderful people I met and conversations I had, but Elkin told me to keep it short in sweet. Instead, I’ll just say that for the first time in a long, long time, I felt like I was part of the comics community. It can be very easy to feel isolated and out of place in comics (especially when most of your interactions with the industry and community is online), but SPX acts as a gentle nod and a pat on the head, a great reminder that everyone belongs, even a weirdo like me.
Joseph Schmidt: Whether or not you might enjoy Small Press Expo will eventually come down to your own personal con preference. The others have laid out the reasons why this relatively small area becomes a nexus of creativity and community. They’ve relayed anecdotes, revealed the most cherished of their hauls. If you’re not convinced, what will four more paragraphs do?
SPX lacks the cosplay and, frankly, the corporate presentation of the average Comic-Cons and Comicons. Some might find that frightening or even appealing. Don’t confuse the message, these are not Bad Things. They’re simply a different, subtler flavor. You could see people dressing up in fun costumes, just like you’ll see booths from pubs like First Second or Fantagraphics. Nary a Harley Quinn, Deadpool, or Image booth in sight.
And while all of that might seem low key, whatever amount of chill you possess will immediately slip into the void when the elevator doors shut leaving you sharing air with the Comics Legend who just so happens to be staying on your floor of the hotel. The feeling doesn’t get old.
But here, at the end of all things, what you really want to know is a question no one has answered. “Do they have good porno comics?” Of course they do.
PS. If you go, try not to talk about bullshit like Batman too much.
J. A. Micheline: Shut up, Joe. Batman’s great.
And actually, I think that’s a little bit of the point when it comes to enjoying SPX. One of the things I was pretty nervous about going to a show called Small Press Expo is that…I don’t really read many small press comics. I’m either direct market (and especially superhero) trash or manga, without much else in between. So, suffice it to say: I felt out of my depth–in a good way, though. If you’re “superhero trash” there’s still lots of stuff for you to come check out.
This is the thing about SPX. Comics are wide so even if art house comics that don’t make any sense aren’t for you–that’s fine because there’s still lots of stuff that is for you.
We create these theoretical comic barriers. This is for ease of our brains. We need schemas to sort the world without getting overwhelmed and to know what is what and who is who. But there comes a point where these schemas stop being helpful and start limiting our ways of thinking. These are the kinds of things that can happen when you roll in the idea with ‘small press comics’ being a certain way. (Or superhero comics, for that matter. Or manga.)
There are no rules; you gotta go look.
For my part, I came away with quite a few comics (not as much as Ray, but) and all of them really meant something, I think, and spoke to something that is important to me as a person and an enjoyer of comics.
It’s all out there, kids.
Go get it.
The world’s yours.