The Small Press Expo has now completed its 13th show, revealing once again that the independent comic is still alive and kicking. This year’s show was among the best I have attended, with big guests aplenty: Jeff Smith, Bill Griffith, Gilbert Hernandez, Matt Wagner, and Kim Deitch, just to name a few. Also, I was introduced to some major league talents I was unfamiliar with, such as Rutu Modan and Joshua Cotter. Yes, the Marriott Bethesda North was bursting with comic creativity this weekend, and it’s my sworn duty to present some of that magic to you. I came to the show this weekend with $400 and a mission: To buy as representative a sampling as I could of the show’s best comics. So, as I did last year, I’m pointing out SPX highlights from A to Z, only this year I’m including my personal review of each item. I will have much more detailed reviews for some of these books later. Right now, I want to give you a sampling of the show as well as an approximation of the excitement and wonder of this fast and furious convention. And now, it is my pleasure to present SPX A to Z.
A – Aya by Marguerite Abouet & Clement Oubrerie:
This was an entertaining slice of African life that we rarely see in our American fiction, one filled with positive energy versus the militias and famine we’re used to viewing. The colorful world of the Ivory Coast circa 1978 is brought to vivid life thanks to the lively writing of Abouet and the cartoon-like artwork of Oubrerie (who writes children’s books for a living). In an almost Western fashion, Aya, with her friends Adjoua and Bintou, experience teenage romance, family conflicts, and goofy hi-jinks that would put a CW show to shame. The warmth of the entire package is well worth the price of admission, as is Abouet’s energy in detailing this peaceful period in the Ivory Coast’s history. Great first graphic novel by this team!
B – Big Questions #10 by Anders Nilsen:
This 41-page tale looks simple enough, but it is a complex blend of elements set within infuriating vagueness and a basically blank stage. It’s an easy enough plot at first glance: Two men are marooned near a fighter plane crash, one looking like some escaped mental patient, the other obviously the pilot of the plane. Crows watch as tensions build among the group of birds, mainly over a pile of doughnuts and loyalty to the group. Violence erupts. Yet, like much of Nilsen’s work, this description of Big Questions #10 does no justice, missing his fine panel constructions, the moments of quiet tension, and his ability to challenge readers using the simplest of lines and settings.
C – Chance in Hell by Gilbert Hernandez:
You can never go wrong with Gilbert Hernandez’s unique style of graphic storytelling, and Chance in Hell is no exception. Empress’s story is one that will captivate you from page one, especially if you are a fan of Love and Rockets or Palomar. However, if you’re like me, the soap opera elements of Hernandez’s work will weigh on you, creating a love/hate relationship with his style. Still, you can’t deny his mastery of comic storytelling, nor the vivid characters that adorn each and every page. A true artist in every way.
D – Daybreak Vol. 2 by Brian Ralph:
Wow! This was a unique comic that I stumbled upon at the Bodega booth. I picked up Volumes 1 & 2 of Daybreak, assuming that I would probably miss out on plot points if I didn’t have the first volume. Well, don’t fret if you only find the second volume. This is an excellent story that you can pick up pretty easily once you get started since, really, the point of view is the attraction to this series. The entire story is told in the second person, meaning you are the protagonist. Okay, so maybe the one-armed guy is the hero, but you play a major role in the proceedings, even experiencing the cliffhanger ending. It’s a survival horror tale (I think) that you are intimately involved in. Brian Ralph paces the comic extremely well, making for an exciting tale that you can’t find from the Big Two. I can’t wait for Volume Three!
E – Essex County Vol. 2: by Jeff Lemire:
I didn’t read the first volume of Essex County, but I don’t think it’s necessary to enjoy this fine 200+ page graphic novel by Jeff Lemire. It’s a Faulknerian work that recalls Lemire’s hometown of Essex County, Ontario through the eyes of Lou Lebeuf, a former professional hockey player who is living out his final days on a farm. It’s kinda like Raging Bull on ice, as the trials and tribulations of sport collide with the realities of everyday life. It’s a remarkable story told with rough pencil lines and stark facial emotions that will haunt you for days afterward. And, of course, no modern hockey story can ever be complete without a Bobby Orr reference or two. Check out that game winning goal!
F – Fletcher Hanks: I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, Edited by Paul Karasik:
I can’t think of anyone who would say that Fletcher Hanks was the greatest Golden Age artist ever, but there are many fans of his in the small press arena. No wonder, since he presented such a unique vision to science-fiction comics that has rarely been equaled since. His figure anatomy left a lot to be desired, as did his forced dialogue, but what you can’t argue with are his panel constructions, which are almost hallucinatory in their ability to mesmerize the reader. Some panels have hardly any kind of background at all, or are filled with chaotic creatures, but they never fail to thrill you with their visual power. This is a unique Golden Age collection that deserves to be on any comic book enthusiasts bookshelf.
G – Gunslingers, Girls, & Gangs…:
This compilation of various Western-themed comics is rootin’, tootin’ good ole’ fun! As with any collaboration of stories, some of the tales work (Garza and Stone’s “Adventures of Don Cacahuate”) and others fall flat (“Dead Man” by Matt Young, which is also the longest story in the volume). Plus, you’ll enjoy the quirkiness of Colleen Frakes’s “Fortune Teller” and Steve Bissette’s tribute to Jack Jackson in “Tenderfoot.” Still, there are a decent amount of stinkers here. However, regardless of your critical acumen, “Dead Man’s Hand” will entertain just about every comic reader in the corral.
H – Laurence Hyde:
His woodcut graphic novel Southern Cross is presented in a fine facsimile edition by Drawn & Quarterly. This is a work of art originally published in 1951, featuring a tale completely told with 118 wordless woodcuts. It is a bold, powerful statement on war, life, and the effects of atomic bomb testing on South Pacific residents. These panels should be in an art museum somewhere!
I – Igor: Fixed by Frankensteins by Chris Reilly:
Chris Reilly and Chris Grine create a lurid visual world that is full of sight gags and keen storytelling techniques. The dialogue is sparse, but the story is propelled by the wonderful energy that pours out of each and every panel. A comic that would probably be improved by the addition of color, Igor possesses clean black and white art that is easy to follow and appreciate. Plus, the names of some of the characters are a blast, such as Passenger 57 and John Tesh. You gotta love comic creators who just want to have some unadulterated fun with the medium.
J – Junk in the Toaster by August J. Pollak:
This is the first of the online creators I bought a collection from, and this is definitely the most politically inflammatory of the bunch. But, hey, it’s all just in a day’s work for August Pollak, a cynical comic heavyweight who takes the Bush administration to task, among other things. An active blogger, Pollak produces a colorful cast of characters for “Some Guy with a Website,” his online comic strip. Taco Man and Crazy Man are just a couple of the folks you’ll be introduced to in this collection, which is essential for anyone looking for some poignant jabs at the halls of power in this county. Warning! You will develop cynicism after reading this!
K – Knuckles the Malevolent Nun: She Might Get Rather Crude by Cornelius Stone and Roger Langridge:
The front cover of this issue should tell you everything you need to know about Knuckles the Malevolent Nun. The nun…she…well, she…you’ll just have to take a look at it. I can’t describe it here! Anyway, Stone and Langridge create a foul-mouthed, amoral servant of God who’s guaranteed to make you crack a smile (unless, of course, you have some fundamentalist Christian beliefs). Clever humor and slapstick gags take turns throughout this issue, yielding a similar effect as Langridge’s Fred the Clown.
L – Lower Regions by Alex Robinson:
I know most of you know Alex Robinson’s work from his two major graphic novels, Box Office Poison and Tricked. Well, Lower Regions is not the Alex Robinson you’re used to, which makes this slim(!) volume all the more entertaining. It is a send-up of Dungeons & Dragons (think Adult Swim’s Korgoth) with no dialogue until the very last panel of the book. You’ll fly through this little volume, but you’ll want to look through it again to catch the various gags that Robinson throws at the reader with the urgency of a major league pitcher. You’ll be wowed by the artwork, even though the story doesn’t match up to Robinson’s other works. But he is definitely having some fun here. Hey, a lot of these creators at SPX are having fun! How about that!
M – Moomin: Book Two by Tove Jansson:
This is a collection of Tove Jansson’s comic strip that ran in the London Evening News during the 1950s, and are they visually clever! Moomin is a strange world that reminds me of “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” in regards to style. The simple emotions displayed on the wildly cartoonish characters are wildly expressive and affecting, carrying a mood that compares favorably with great comic strips such as Peanuts. Child-like innocence and intellectual sophistication combine to provide a witty comic that will warm your heart.
N – New Tales of Old Palomar #3 by Gilbert Hernandez:
More Gilbert Hernandez? Yes, since he appeared at the show, Fantagraphics also brought his newest installment in the Palomar saga, which won’t be released until next month. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks like the classic magical realism that fans of the Hernandez Brothers have come to love and expect.
O – Colonel Sweeto (Okay, that’s a stretch…), as in The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories by Nicholas Gurewitch:
With the possible exception of David Malki’s Wondermark, this is my favorite online comic strip right now. Why? It does what Adult Swim tries to do with their shows: create absurd situations that end on a laugh-out-loud hilarious note. Even though I visit The Perry Bible Fellowship website religiously (no pun intended) every week, I still bought this collection because of the “lost strips” that I hadn’t seen before. If you haven’t seen any of Gurewitch’s work before, please visit http://www.pbfcomics.com right now. I’ll wait.
P – Papercutter #6:
Last year, this collection of stories grabbed my attention with its personality, quality, and substance. This year is no different, only I went looking for Papercutter versus finding it by accident. The three stories in this small comic are funny and realistic, revealing a warmth that hugs the reader with honesty (c’mon, you know you need a hug!). All three stories are worth reading, and for three dollars, you can’t possibly miss this exceptional installment of this wonderful anthology series.
Q – Joe Quinones (Super-Inappropriate):
Super-hero bathroom humor is fun for comic fans like me (and most of SBC’s writers), but it doesn’t necessarily make this a great comic. Still, there are some funny panels that are, well, inappropriate for some people.
R – Rutu Modan (Exit Wounds):
Her first graphic novel is a spectacular accomplishment worthy of this high rating. Influenced by Windsor McCay and her own experiences of Tel Aviv, Modan tells a story of heartbreaking loss, redemption, and the never-ending mystery of life. The level of humanity present in the characters of Koby and Numi is staggering. This is the way you should make a dramatic graphic novel, and Modan proves here that she is an artist we will be hearing about for years to come.
S – Skyscrapers of the Midwest #4 by Joshua Cotter:
Wow! Just…wow! I picked up Issues #2-4 of this series since I had never read it before. Let me tell you, Joshua Cotter throws everything but the kitchen sink into the 50+ pages of this comic. Like an insanely amped-up version of Calvin & Hobbes, Cotter creates a fantasy world that begins in the imagination of a little boy. Yet, this fantasy world is so vivid and haunting, as well as humorous (check out the super-hero comic book parody in the middle of the issue). Diamond distributed Issue #4 yesterday (Wednesday the 17th), so if your shop carries this comic, BUY IT! You won’t be disappointed!
T – T Edward Bak (Service Industry):
This was an oversized comic produced by Bodega that drew my attention due to the ingenuity of the cover. Channeling Jack Cole, a cat slinks from one corner of the cover to the other, passing from a normal street scene to a futuristic battle between a robot and some flying black creatures. Inside the covers, I got what I was expecting and more; an exploration of Bak’s inner demons as well as the images that haunt his imagination. Man, between this and Daybreak, Bodega really impressed me at this show!
U – Rob Ullman: Atom Bomb Bikini #5:
This is just a guy drawing some sexy women, which he is very skilled at. If you like cheesecake art, pick this mini-comic up.
V – Fred Van Lente (Action Philosophers):
This being the final issue was definitely a downer for me, as I was a huge fan of this series, which I discovered at last year’s show. Philosophical history has never been so funny! Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey are students of the Larry Gonick school of cartooning, creating informative yet hilarious accounts of history. In this issue, it’s a grab bag of famous philosophers, from Confucius to Francis Bacon. If you’ve never read Action Philosophers, pick up a collection through Amazon. You’ll love it and you’ll feel smarter!
W – Dispatches from Wondermark Manor Vol. One by David Malki:
This isn’t a comic book, so I’ll only briefly cover this, since it is an anecdotal book written by my favorite online cartoonist, David Malki, in the spirit of Wondermark. If you follow the website, http://www.wondermark.com, you’ll laugh until it hurts with the stories in this slim volume. Damn, even the pictures and captions are hilarious!
X – As in x-factor, or a book that blew me away with its power and ingenuity.
This year, it was Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow by Anders Nilsen. I think this is one of the few graphic novels that has brought me to tears. Nilsen gets really personal in this book, combining real letters, photographs, and shocking illustrated pages to tell a tale of love and tragedy that has to be real. I don’t know how he gathered the strength to put this book together, but I’m glad he did, because this is probably the best memorial to Cheryl Weaver’s life that he could put together. This was, without a doubt, the most emotionally moving graphic work I have seen in a long time.
Y – Yearbook Stories: 1976-1978 by Chris Staros:
These two stories are endearing observations from Chris Staros’s formative years in high school. “The Willful Death of a Stereotype” is Chris’s true life story of his run for high school president. Anyone who has run for school office can relate! The second story, “The Worst Gig I Ever Had,” details a scary night for Chris’s band that ends up on a somewhat positive note. These are good personal stories with good personal art. For four bucks, it’s worth a try.
Z – Zippy: Walk a Mile in My Muu-Muu by Bill Griffith:
I’m not going to give this a rating, because this is Zippy the Pinhead, a classic comic strip that has influenced so many comic artists over the past few decades. This collection is what you would expect from Bill Griffith and his most famous character. No, I wrote this entry because I had the chance to meet Mr. Griffith and thank him for the outstanding work he has consistently produced year in and year out. What a treat!
My winner for the show? It’s a close call between Skyscrapers of the Midwest, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, Exit Wounds, and Papercutter, but I think I’ll go with…Skyscrapers! Joshua Cotter wowed me with his unique vision and surprised me with his powerful compositional talents. I’ll be on the lookout for more work from him.
Well, that’s all for me! Like I said, I’ll have some longer review for some of these issues coming soon. In the meantime, if you have any comments on this list, feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com.