Keith Silva: I was long past exhaustion, but not so much as to impair my skill of lifting a rocks glass to my own mouth. The well gin had fused with melted ice chips and a desiccated lime wedge in my glass. I stood on the terrace of the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center (what an awful name for … anything). As it was ’round midnight, I found myself amongst revelers from the nerd prom and other drinkers like myself. And for the first time in months I could see, really see, just a moment …
For me, stories about cons call back to telephone conversations I would have with my friend Chuckie Houndstooth the 2nd (not his real name) on Christmas mornings during our Middle and High School years. Chuckie would call with one question: ”How many Joes didya’ get?” I would happily relate my additions, having done well, myself, in the Joe-getting. Chuckie, however, Chuckie was next level. With my short (but robust) account behind us Chuckie would dive into his haul and leave nothing out. Chuckie’s mom was an inveterate gift buyer and when it came to her son, she left no Cobra Terror Drome with Firebat or ‘Zelda II’ ungiven. When I hang out with Chuckie now, we use this phrase as shorthand—a way to ask about work or our families instead of as a cue to state bald avarice.
”How many Joes didya’ get?”
That’s what I think when I see ‘haul pics’ or read an article about a comic convention. Each is fine in its own way and I am happy for the sharer, truly, I am. Honest. But these ‘Terror Dromes’ of a different color are the antecedents to ‘the moments,’ not the moments themselves. I want more. Shows and cons are about people, saying thank you (and sometimes gushing over) your favorite artists, discovering new creators and talking with followers and friends you only know at great distances. People over product, always.
SPX or Small Press Exposition (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) is the epitome of the phrase ”there’s a comic for everyone.” The tribe that gathers at SPX proves Comics is as diverse a medium as any. All SPX is is Comics: words and images working together to tell stories about every kind of person and place, animal and mineral and everything imaginable, truly. At SPX the medium is the message. It’s not the size of SPX that overwhelms an attendee, it’s the amount of work and craft on display. The talent of these creators is evident on each page and shows in every panel or 8 ½ X 11 sheet or paper or Bristol Board or vellum, yes, vellum; personal statements, half cleverness and all chutzpah.
Here’s what I know. Yes, Katie Skelly is as kind and debonair, smart and graceful, funny and fashionable in person as she is in her comics. Michel Fiffe is one of the most thoughtful human beings on Earth, the polar opposite of the team of scumbags and hardened killers he writes and draws in COPRA. Know too Frederick Peeters is a stylistic chameleon, a treasure, who can draw in any style, but whatever he draws it always bears the mark of the man, the artist, himself. Ron Wimberly is a straight-up-no-bullshit-samurai-assassin-truth-teller as suave as Skelly. He too manifests a Peeters-like imprimatur. Wimberly speaks so plain and with so much passion he epitomizes the poetry of the phrase ”to thine own self be true.” At the panel on ‘Black Art Matters,’ he said something I will never forget: ”Don’t believe the hype of everyone else’s hustle.” Amen. Wimberly was signing at the Out of Step Arts table where, I can confirm, Neil Bramlette, the impresario of OOSA’s collective, dresses as chic as Lemontov in The Red Shoes and possess all the magnetism Anton Walbrook brought to that role. Bramlette is as brilliant as the artists he champions.
SPX is a conversational con, a moveable feast almost to the detriment of commerce, God forbid. Carey Peitsch (sounds like the fruit) wants to curate which of her delightful comics about witches, dragons and magical cats are best for which specific age more than she wants to give you the hard sell. ‘Meghasissues‘ a/k/a Mary ‘Meg’ Golding is a cartoonist and survivor (aren’t we all). Her comic ‘Cat Therapy’ has, after only a few hours, become a treasured book in our home. I can see my daughter’s reaching for it well into the high school years and beyond. And then there is Ed Siemienkowicz. I didn’t buy any of Ed’s comics, they’re good, but my post-apocalyptic hangover has yet to subside, sorry Ed. Instead, we talked about Star Wars and fandom and the perils therein for a good ten or fifteen minutes. It was an honest and earnest conversation and well worth the most precious commodity of all, time.
So, yeah, you can see a lot from the terrace of the North Marriott Hotel & CC. And sure, I went to SPX for the comics (the Joes) and to meet creators, but I would not have gone without the urging (bullying?) of my friends, Chase Magnett and Daniel Elkin. This was my first time meeting Chase in person. Give yourself a mitzvah, meet Chase, you’ll be smarter for the experience.
When Elkin’s around, I’m twelve again, ready for adventure and quick to ride along on whatever current we find ourselves in. Nobody says how hard it is to make friends like those you have when you’re twelve once you turn thirty or forty. What got me to ‘see’ what SPX is about is what Elkin and I discussed on that terrace: moments, those single panels when the cosmic artist(s) divide up the page and slow down the best moments of our lives into a single panel of pure joy, that simultaneous feeling of being within and without. In. Fleeting, yes, but transcendent nonetheless. In this way, Comics are like life and SPX is Comics.
Daniel Elkin: SPX is comics, Silva, and by golly it is a beautiful, beautiful place.
Remember what else we were talking about on that terrace? You were talking about Peter Gomes‘ understanding of the concept of Thin Places, where the barrier between the temporal and the eternal is reedy and small. SPX inhabits such a Thin Place. It is liminal and ready. A point of departure where anything is possible and all of it is wonderful.
Here in California we call those Thin Places vortices – places of passage to sacred areas on Earth (as well as other parts of the universe). These are points of possibility, always on the verge, hamlets of happenings. And it happened, which means it can happen, which allows for the possibility for it to happen again. It is magical, suffused with joy and transcendence. We all felt it, really. We were dancing to its beat all weekend.
People over product, indeed.
Not to say that the product itself doesn’t warrant wonder. Right after the Ignatz awards, SPX Exhibitors Coordinator Sam Marx said to me something to the effect of how walking around the floor on Saturday made him wonder how anyone could possibly still be talking about the lack of diversity in the medium. He said something like, “If you are complaining about representation in comics, you’re reading the wrong books.” I couldn’t agree with him more. It makes me wonder why anyone still even bothers reading books from Marvel or DC looking for characters and situations that reflect our modern world. Those are books that have been telling the same story over and over again for over half a century. The world has changed significantly in that time, yet that song remains the same. At SPX, though, you grab hold of the zeitgeist, the now. There you have creativity unfettered, voices singing the song of ourselves, pure and loud and strong. Ensconced in that conference hall there in Bethesda were all the stories still to be told about everyone and all of us and people you have only yet to meet.
I’m going to steal Cruise Director Chase Magnett’s line before he has a chance to use it in this piece, “SPX fucks.” It is meant to be the highest of compliments and is apt and energetic and substantial. SPX is fecundity, ripe with the possible, the seed, Urge and urge and urge, Always the procreant urge of the world.
But yes, people over product still.
SPX is also the opportunity to engage in community. To gather the tribe and join in the dance. We come from all parts of the world to shed our Twitter avatars and grasp each other in fraternal hugs. We cast off our Facebook home pages and buy each other drinks. We open our Tumblrs and look each other in the eye. We are all old friends who have never met before – comics are the campfire around which we huddle and tell each other the truths of our lives. Shared experiences are better when you can slap those with you on the back or dance frantically holding hands.
Everyone is accessible. Your heroes are before you. From a casual chat with Noah Van Sciver to a boundless conversation with Theo Ellsworth to finally shaking the hand of Jamie Vadya. Wow. Chatting about creativity with Stuart and Kathryn Immonen. Watching Jason Little sketch in a book. Telling Sean Ford how much you admire what he is doing right now. You’ve been immersed in their worlds for so long that it is nigh surreal to intersect with them in your own.
Sure, you come out of the experience weighed down with a tonnage of books, but what you really carry with you as head back home are the memories of moments, the prize of people, the comfort of community, and the joy grasped firmly for having taken part of the madness of it all.
When my friends and family and students asked me what I did this weekend, I told them I had an adventure, a spectacular adventure, one that revived and ensured. So now, here, home once again, I raise a glass to the SPX-perience and take a long and satisfying drink from it in celebration.
Hope to see you all there again next year.
Chase Magnett: My thoughts about SPX have to be framed within the past year of my life. Like any experience it requires context to be understood, and SPX is a truly unique experience. As comics have become a larger part of my life, professionally and recreationally, I’ve been confronted by a increasingly recurring feeling about comics. It’s like the opening pages of Walt Simonson’s Thor #337, a low, heated “DOOM!” echoing from the edges of space and foreshadowing an unavoidable darkness…
DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!
I’ve spent most of the past year consumed by the mainstream of comics. Writing for a mainstream, click-heavy comics site has kept my eye on the barrage of superhero movies, the endlessly profitable recycling at Marvel and DC, and the never-ending cycles of hype for familiar ideas from all of the publishers jockeying for percentage points in Diamond’s monthly numbers. Amidst the increasing tedium of all this, there was also a recognition of the many flaws within the industry, from both a wide range of entrenched, sociopathic employees and an increasingly decrepit business model. Slowly, day after day, I could hear the sound creeping in…
DOOM! DOOM! DOOM!
When SPX arrived that sound dominated my thoughts outside of work. I was writing less, reading less, and feeling fatigued. Even when I thought I was retreating that hellish hammering never entirely stopped. Yet due to being a recent D.C. transplant, I had been deemed Cruise Director Chase Magnett by my friends Keith Silva and Daniel Elkin. Even if it was a joke, it felt like my responsibility to meet them at the airport, provide advice for late night festivities, and discover some killer places to eat. No matter how I was feeling about comics, I was going. But then Silva and Elkin arrived, we started to talk about comics, and as we traveled towards our poorly named hotel in Bethesda…
The drumming stopped.
Elkin and Silva, along with the indomitable Jason Sacks and the uncompromising Paul McCoy, were part of one of my earliest comics projects and proudest moments in Daytripper: A Life Examined (you can totally use that link to buy it off of Amazon (or just read it here on Comics Bulletin for free)).They were guys who challenged and continue to challenge me to up my game and work harder. Being taken seriously by as accomplished a pair as this (their introduction to Eel Mansions, which I discovered at SPX, is superb) means a lot. Talking to them in person, all of the noise just went away. Suddenly the world felt very small, just being three guys who loved comics, sharing that metaphorical campfire together.
As the night continued and the weekend wore on, that campfire continued to grow. I expected to meet a lot of new people and transform many internet friendships into ones involving actual speech. The number of cartoonists, critics, and commentators ready to talk, drink, and dance (oh yes, there was dancing) at SPX was astounding though. Catching up with friends like Comics Therapy’s Andrea Shockling, Loser City’s David Fairbanks, and Comicosity’s Roderick Ruth was great. They’re guys I could spend an entire weekend talking comics with, but there was no time with so many new three-dimensional faces. And everyone of them was there for the same reason as me, a love of comics.
My fellow attendees helped to create a weekend experience that was nothing short of reinvigorating. From the moment I woke up on Saturday to the cheapest of McDonald’s breakfasts to the moment I made a mess of the dance floor, the day was filled with scintillating conversations, insightful observation, and jokes both clever and crude. The combined quality and quantity of interactions and shared experiences throughout the day transformed the campfire into a bonfire into Burning Man.
Just like Burning Man there was an obvious reason why everyone gathered together in this specific space and at this specific time (and it didn’t involve effigies, crappy music, or easy access to drugs). Rather than erecting a fire hazard, the folks who run SPX have assembled one of the most diverse and talented floors of any comics convention currently in existence. It is an arena packed with talent and stories. Anyone capable of walking across that hall and not finding at least a half dozen comics that appealed to them is most likely being led by a seeing eye dog.
Being on the SPX floor is an experience somewhat evenly divided between catharsis and discovery. Finding a favorite cartoonist like Michel Fiffe (COPRA), Eleanor Davis (How To Be Happy), or Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer) leads to some of the best interactions you can imagine. These are all works that have proudly earned places on library shelves, on end of year lists, and in classrooms. To meet the minds behind them and discover them to be humble, thoughtful, and kind human beings is oddly reassuring. Tableside conversations and sketching leads to special interactions that reveal the humanity behind the works we cherish. SPX even leads to great interactions off the floor, giving away a beer to someone you only later recognize as Kate Beaton and keeping an eagle eye out for the Ulises Farinas (the realest man in comics).
The other half lies in finding your eye being caught by something entirely new, beyond your experience. Silva nailed it with the phrase “there’s a comic for everyone”, but I would take it further and pluralize “comic.” I’ve read a lot of funny books in my lifetime, filling an entire room of my apartment with them, but here I found dozens of new creations to fall in love with. From the beautiful hardcovers of Frederick Peeters Aama to pocketable printings of Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy, I was able to build stacks of comics to further burden my nightstand and dresser. I not only discovered loads of new comics, but found that whatever was happening in the mainstream didn’t really matter to comics. Here were hundreds of people all crafting new works in whatever time they could find and with whatever funds they could muster. Whatever happened in the coming years, this group of people would continue to produce comics for all of us to discover, engage, and share.
This floor is what we had all come for. It is the beating heart of SPX, with fans circulating through row upon row of tables each of them filled with artists who have put their soul onto the page and offered to share it with those wandering by. The pulse and exchange occurring on the floor leaves both those creating and consuming these pamphlets a little better off.
SPX is over now. All of my friends have returned home, leaving me with a massive stack of comics and a credit card bill I’m scared to open. But when I laid down in bed last night, I rested in the darkness for a while and listened. It was silent; there was no drumming of “DOOM!”. So I went to sleep and dreamt of comics.