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September 13, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Warren Bernard

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*****

Warren Bernard is the executive director of the Small Press Expo, getting underway this weekend just outside of Washington, DC. Bernard is a former assistant executive director and longtime Expo fixture in the midst of I believe a three-year run in that top position. You couldn't ask for a more buzzed-about small press show than year's version, which features Jaime Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Gilbert Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Michael DeForge, Nick Abadzis and Françoise Mouly in addition to an eclectic mix of young and old exhibitors, artists and alt-comics fixtures. You could probably put a pretty good show together from artists and industry people that are just going to be wandering around table-less.

In his time on the SPX board and in the Executive Director slot, Bernard has deepened the Expo's institutional elements: a library program, a collection with the Library of Congress, the routine taping and archiving of panels, even a later-at-night, primetime slot for the Ignatz Awards with a rotating cartoonist host.

I was grateful Bernard made the time to talk to me, a couple of weeks out from the main event. I look forward to his show. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: You asked for this interview to be done two weeks in advance rather than the week of, Warren, which indicates to me you must get really busy. [Bernard laughs]

WARREN BERNARD: What happens the week of the show is that I have guests starting to come in on the Wednesday. What I've done here for what I call the top drawer guests is a series of things that go on before an SPX. I bring people down to the Library of Congress: there's a special show. They come over to my house to see my collection. There's a good friend of mine that has one of the finest private collections of illustration in the United States, so I bring a tour over there also. When Ware and Clowes and the others come, they're not going to participate in all of that, but they're going to some of that. There's not just the show, there's this other thing I put out there for the guests, something special for coming to the DC area.

SPURGEON: How much of a time commitment overall is the show for you? How many hours in a week -- I assume that the time commitment changes with the calendar -- but how much time are you putting in, say, now?

BERNARD: Right now it's I'd say, 30-40 hours a week.

SPURGEON: Oh, my goodness.

BERNARD: This year in particular. One, we're expecting huge crowds. We don't know how big. We do know that, for instance, we had long lines waiting to get in last year. We've only been taking cash up until now. This year I'm bringing in iPads with credit card swipers. I've got to set up stuff with merchant services.. There's all this infrastructure stuff that's being done this year that I'm not going to have to duplicate in future years.

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SPURGEON: Are there crowd concerns? Is there a capacity to the hall?

BERNARD: We're going to find out this year. I know we can't handle 10,000. We expanded the floor. Even before last year's show I cut a deal with the hotel to expand the floor by 50 percent, and we're only putting in 20 percent more tables.

SPURGEON: So it's spaced differently.

BERNARD: Yeah. Since you've never been: it's actually a very elegant space, all carpeted floors. A huge ballroom. This year it's going to be 17,000 and change square feet. The exhibition area. It's a really beautiful space.

imageSPURGEON: Since you weren't taking credit cards I don't know that you'd have attendee information being collected until maybe this year, but do you have any idea where your crowd is coming from? Is it local? Regional? Comics fans? Young people?

BERNARD: Let me address that in two totally different ways. Most of the people are coming in from the Baltimore-DC-Richmond Virginia area. We know that based on talking to people. This year it's a little different, because we have seen a 30 percent increase in our room bloc in terms of reserved nights at the hotel. In fact, I got an e-mail from a guy in Spain. [laughs] "Hey, we're coming in, blah blah blah, hugs and kisses, us. Is there something we can do about X" -- I forgot what it was he wanted to ask me about. I answered him. I know this year we're getting a lot more. My memory is that Clowes and Ware haven't been at the same convention/festival together in the 21st Century. You add the Hernandez Brothers and Adrian Tomine on top of that, and those five people have never been in the same place. Then you put Francoise Mouly on top of that, fucking art editor of The New Yorker, and everything changes. [Spurgeon laughs] Michael DeForge is coming, and John Porcellino; all of these other people are coming also.

SPURGEON: What has this year's press interest been like? I believe you run the press end of things.

BERNARD: I have for several years.

SPURGEON: How much press activity gets done on site? Like I know one reporter that's arranged to talk to a few of the cartoonists together; I have two interviews I'm doing for later on and arranging for a bunch more. Do you facilitate that kind of activity?

BERNARD: I don't know if you're aware of this, but at the same time as SPX this year is the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Matt Wuerker, who's the head of the AAEC, will admit they stole my idea. In 2008 as part of SPX, even though I wasn't running it at the time, Karon and Jeff were like "Hey, that's a good idea." I brought in all of these independent political cartoonists. Dan Perkins came down, and Keith Knight and Jen Sorensen and Tom The Dancing Bug/Ruben Bolling/Ken Fisher. These people came in, and of course it was the election year. So the AAEC was like, "Oh, that's not a bad idea." We had talked about co-locating the two. To make a long store short, the Washington Post is going to do an article on The Invasion Of The Cartoonists, in this Sunday's style section, about all these people that are going to be in DC.

Matt and I have been in close communication about this. We have a different population of people, but we're going to promote their stuff through our social media. In particular they have a nice event on Friday evening. We don't have anything on Friday evening for the attendees. We're going to try and drive them to attend some of the AAEC stuff for sure.

SPURGEON: How did you end up in your current position? I should probably know this, but I thought I'd Larry King it and come at it proudly ignorant. [Bernard laughs] I know that you were involved with the board, but I don't know how you assumed the executive director position. And then suddenly there you were.

BERNARD: Karon Flage came to the end of her three-year thing. Members of the board approached me about coming in to help go ahead -- not so much change direction as to give a more strategic view as to what's going on. You don't know my background. I was in the corporate world. Twenty-five years in telecommunications. I have a really different background than most people that run comics convention. Baltimore Comic-Con has the equivalent of me in Marc Nathan. They also wanted a businessman to come in and re-do some things, look at stuff. So they came and got me and I said, "Sure, I'll do this." Even before I ascended to my lofty perch [Spurgeon laughs] I had approached Karon and Jeff [Alexander] about this Library of Congress collection we now have. It took a year. From the time I started to the time I was able to sign everything and kick it off, it was literally a year. That was in progress before I became Executive Director.

imageSPURGEON: How much of that becomes important... what at the show feeds into that? Or is it just drawing publicity to those efforts?

BERNARD: Let's talk about the two separate things. The Library of Congress things. As a matter of fact, curators from the Library of Congress go through the exhibition hall asking for donation. This year, and I haven't announced it yet, but you can go ahead an announces this. I wanted to go through one year and see the process. At the end of last year, I went to the show and I thought, "You know something? We could use some different eyes in terms of populating the collection." Myself and the people at the Library of Congress, I'm in my fifties. I don't look at things the same way that people much younger than me do. So I poked around.

Rob Clough is going to be a guest curator this year. I love his work. He and I talked at SPX last year. He has a really fabulous view of the mini-comics world. And so I called him up and I asked him. "Hey, Rob..." and of course his head exploded. It's helping to preserve what it is that all of these people are doing. So I go around, a couple of people from SPX go around. Then we've got curators from both the Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress and the serials division, which contains the comic book collection, actually go around and ask for things. And then Rob is going to do that. Because we're going to be so busy, I don't know how much time I'll get on the floor. We'll see how it goes with Rob. Maybe next year I'll have two people. Maybe one day you'll come in and do it.

SPURGEON: Hey, something to look forward to.

BERNARD: The way we collect is that we don't wait for someone to gather a collection. We go out and we're trying to assemble it right there and then. Which by the way was revolutionary to the Library of Congress. They don't have any other relationship like this.

SPURGEON: That seems like something that makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't have someone have done something like that before?

BERNARD: I've been a long-time volunteer at the Library of Congress cataloguing their editorial cartoon collection. I got to know the people down there really well. I got to know their collections really well. It was clear that their collection basically stopped in the 1990s. And that they didn't have -- they had very little from the independent comics field. Actually most institutions have very little from the independent comics field. It was like wait a minute: these people have a need and these people have a supply... how can I structure this? It took a while, but it was clear sitting in my perch that there was something we could do that would benefit everybody.

SPURGEON: You took Dean Haspiel's handmade comics collection, as I recall. Is that something you're also going to do more of?

BERNARD: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

SPURGEON: You and I talked earlier about Dan Clowes and Chris Ware causing everything to fall into place at the top of your guest list. But you know, you have a full ballroom, Warren. How involved are you are in shaping who's at the show more generally? It's first come, first served, right?

BERNARD: With the exception of Fanta, Top Shelf, D+Q and one or two others it's first-come, first-served. We do not do any curating.

SPURGEON: Is that a worry at all? Can you talk about that, because curating shows is at least an idea that's out there now.

BERNARD: It's an idea that's out there, but we... we don't want to be aestheticians. We also feel that if there's a group of people that are defining aesthetics, that means there are other aesthetics that aren't getting in there. For instance, Dan Nadel [at BCGF]: they curate. But they have a problem in that they only have 60-70 tables; they have a very small space. Okay? We don't have that.

SPURGEON: Is there preference given to people that have shown in the past?

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BERNARD: No, not really. Almost all of the people that have shown in the past get their stuff in early. We send out an e-mail blast to the exhibitors. This year I did go after two publishers to get them to come to SPX. That's Koyama Press and Nobrow. I specifically went after them because of the length and breadth of what they had to offer the SPX community. They'd never been here before. So if we see publishers that are doing kick-ass work, we'll do that. We'll go, "Hey, next year, would you please come? Hugs and Kisses, Us." Is that an aesthetic thing? In one sense it is, and in one sense it isn't? If you look at both Nobrow and Koyama, their aesthetics are all over the place.

SPURGEON: You're getting a lot of bang for your buck if you do it like that. For two invites you're getting a significant impact on your show.

BERNARD: They're also international, so we try to help them with their cost structures. There are things we try to do when we go after the international people, to make it more financially viable to make the shlep over here.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an example?

BERNARD: For instance, we'll do something like go ahead and pay for their hotel rooms. But no free tables. We were sold out -- we put them up as of January 1, we were sold out by January 15. We were oversubscribed by 60 or 70 percent.

SPURGEON: What does that mean?

BERNARD: We had a very long wait list.

SPURGEON: How much of your wait list comes off the list by the show?

BERNARD: Not... not that much. [laughter] Not that much. We released half of the wait list three or four months ago. We get cancellations. We've probably had over the last six days half a dozen tables get cancelled for some reason or another. If you're on the wait list, there's not a good chance, but there's a chance. Stuff happens to people, you know.

imageSPURGEON: You have a very ambitious programming track. You work with Bill [Kartalopoulos] on that. I wondered how that developed in terms of something you wanted to see, how aggressive you wanted to be with the programming. The history of that show has seen programming all over the place, and has encompassed a bunch of diffrerent approaches.

BERNARD: Since I've been around, I'll be honest with you, I'm like, "Bill, whatever you want to do is fine with me." The only exception this year was I went and got Mark Newgarden. By the power vested in me by me, I sometimes insert myself into the process. Not a lot. But the Mark Newgarden show was important to me for a number of reasons. One is that I knew that Chris Ware would love to see these films. Even before that, I wanted to see the films.

SPURGEON: You mention Chris, you mention Dan, you mentioned to me some of the things you're going to do with them. Do the guests shape the show at all? Do they ever make overt suggestions?

BERNARD: I can't think we've ever had anything like that. No, not really. Almost all of them are willing to bop along with us. Bill... once we get commitment from the guests, I turn them over to Bill and he does his magic. Like I said, sometimes I insert myself into the process, maybe impact a panel or two somewhere. The Mark Newgarden thing was my insertion into the process this year.

SPURGEON: It sounds like you're judicious in general in terms of where you steer things. It sounds like that's a part of how you manage.

BERNARD: Look, one, we're all volunteers. Two, even though I admire the man in a lot of ways, I don't want to be seen as the Leon Trotsky of the independent world. [Spurgeon laughs] And then three, what we have found -- myself, Bill, Mike Thomas, Kevin Panetta, the core group -- whenever something comes up we basically socialize it among all of us, and we've always come up with the right answer. So the only top down from me comes from the business side and the strategic relationships like the Library of Congress and the Graphic Novel gift program we have with the libraries.

SPURGEON: What is the state of the business side? How effective a fundraiser are you? You're aligned with the CBLDF, am I right?

BERNARD: We put some into our endowment. We have this graphic novel gift program -- by the way, we were pleasantly flattered when the Eisner foundation earlier this year announced they were going to go ahead and give away graphic novels to libraries.

SPURGEON: It's the sincerest form of flattery.

BERNARD: I saw that, and I was like, "Ohhh, okay." Ours, I think ours is a little different. What we do is we allow their collections managers to select the books. We don't go to them and say, "Here are $5000 worth of books." We go, "Here's a budget." We give them five different publishers that came to SPX and we give them a budget and tell them to pick whatever they want. We buy the books and we deliver the books; we put in a little bookplate saying it's from SPX.

This year we're doing it with the Pratt Library, in Baltimore city. They have a lot of disadvantaged people and lower-income people utilize their library services. Last year we did it in Montgomery County for two reasons. One, that's where SPX has been since forever. Two, I wanted to start with someone with whom I had some degree of familiarity. The first year of anything you just want to work the bugs out.

SPURGEON: Was there a bug? Was there something you needed to work out?

BERNARD: Not really. We just wanted to take it out for a spin once. When you introduce processes, you don't try to do the hardest one first. You don't want to put yourself in a position where it's a disaster on the back end. So we started easy.

SPURGEON: So money goes to the endowment, money goes to this graphic novel program, and then money goes to the Fund?

BERNARD: The CBLDF, yeah.

SPURGEON: Can you characterize it -- is it a good fundraiser for them?

BERNARD: Oh, yeah. We upped our donation last year. Without revealing anything, we have a certain advantage in that we're all volunteers. Our cost structures are different. In terms of being able to fund the CBLDF, and the graphic novel program and the endowment? Not a problem.

SPURGEON: The endowment is there as a general catch-all?

BERNARD: I'm just into this for a second year, and hopefully I'll be here for at least another one. There are some things that we want to take a look at, without getting into details, how we can help out the independent comics community. One of the things that we did is that all of our ad dollars that were going into print ads, like for the Washington Post and CityPaper, we redirected them starting last year into Smoke Signals and Magic Bullet, the tabloids that are being printed. Is that a giveaway? The answer is no. Is there quid pro quo? The answer is yes. Are we funneling it back into our community. The answer is absolutely.

SPURGEON: So those kinds of partnerships is something you're looking towards.

BERNARD: We want to keep a step ahead of everybody now that we've seen people copying us [laughs] -- which is a good thing, mind you. That Eisner thing, I was like, "Hell, yeah." There's plenty of room for people like that. I'm just glad we were able to show the way.

SPURGEON: Is it different running a show now that there are so many shows. Different than it might have been if you had had the reins ten years ago.

BERNARD: There are a bunch of differences. One difference is that the publishers don't have the dollars they used to have to be able to ship people.

SPURGEON: Is that because of the number of shows, or is everyone broke now?

BERNARD: Both, absolutely. You've got APE, you've got TCAF, you've got MoCCA, you've got us, there's a show in Columbus, there's Stumptown out in Portland. You pick seven or eight shows. You have to really pick and choose. On the flipside of that, name a publsher that hasn't been impacted by this economic environment. Between the two of them -- that's probably the biggest difference. The publisher will go, "I don't know, person X we just put over here..." That is genuinely different.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned your social media platform, your Tumblr is pretty great... it would seem that comics would be out ahead of those things, but there's a conservative element to comics in that people are sometimes slow in picking up on things. Has that particular outreach been successful for you?

BERNARD: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, we've gone from zero people on Tumblr to over 25,000. I don't know of any other indie platform out there with that kind of reach.

SPURGEON: Your is a part of comics that finds its voice there.

BERNARD: Tumblr is perfect for that because it's visual with limited text, and it's rapid. To show you the impact it's had for us, when I posted the Chris Ware poster we were getting a like a minute for a few hours. That blew me away. It's a phenomenal thing.

SPURGEON: Do you see that reflected in attendance? Or do you see it reflected in other areas? Is it maybe just part of the general churn?

BERNARD: Attendance has been growing. We were a very small show, and we're getting bigger. Last year saw us gained 30 percent in attendance.

SPURGEON: You talked about handling the credit cards... what about the lines?

BERNARD: I used to work in large-scale customer service centers handling millions of phone calls. What we're doing -- last year we had one registration table with two cash register. This year's we're going to have two tables with a cash register and an iPad. The exhbitor registration table will handle overflow and will also be equipped with a cash register and an iPad. So we should be able to get people in a lot faster than in previous years. Assuming the IP infrastructure works. [laughter] That's my problem.

SPURGEON: Panel crowding issues?

BERNARD: We went ahead and moved out of our smallest room. We had crowding problems last year. The room we were holding them only seats 120 with maybe another 100 after that. The room we have this year seats 300. Don't know how many more can stand in there. Last year it was a very big problem. We had to close the doors, so many people wanted in that couldn't get one.

SPURGEON: How are the Ignatz hosts chosen? That seems like a pretty eclectic group?

BERNARD: This year it's up to Eden Miller. Last year it was Eden. Dustin Harbin was great. I love that totally up to Eden. If that's your area, unless I see something going wrong, I'm not going to impose my aesthetic on you.

SPURGEON: What is it that you get out of the show? What is your favorite things? Where do we see you? Is it in the top guests? Is it in the newer people?

BERNARD: Yes to all of that. The problem I have is that being ED I don't see many of the panels. [laughs] I'm hoping to fix that this year by delegating some things out I shouldn't have been doing in the first place. I've got a couple of different things going on. I love to collect for my collection. For instance, going through my mini-comics, four years discovering Lilli Carré. I love that. Then getting the books autographed buy whoever the big guys are. Just wandering the floor and seeing who fits my aesthetic eye. Everyone's got theirs. I have a really wide range. It is indeed all of the above.

imageSPURGEON: Do you have a favorite, someone that you like that might surprise us? From Lilli to your top guests, that's a pretty broad range.

BERNARD: My collection is wide-ranging: turn of the 20th Century political cartoonists to Lilli and forward. You catch me at something of a disadvantage because I'm really not focused there right now. I know there's going to be someone where I'm like, "Holy shit, I've never seen that person before." I know that for this year, I'm excited to see Michael DeForge. He's never been to SPX. I'm looking forward to that. My first exposure to him, being somewhat late on that, was being sent a copy of Nobrow #6 by Alex and Sam. Last June I was in London and visited their storefornt. Introduced msyelf. They came to the Brooklyn Comics Fest, and I said, "Hey would you come to SPX?" Then they sent me Nobrow #6 and that was the first Michael DeForge I'd seen so I was very excited.

SPURGEON: Do the panels get recorded?

BERNARD: We record all of them. Last year we had technical problems with one or two of the panels, but I believe everything that was recorded has been put up on the Internet. We're bringing in someone to help us with that this year. We're springing for that.

One of the things that we do, is we'll have Chris Ware's poster. We're only getting 500 made and he's going to number 100 of them. I'm giving you somewhat of an exclusive on this.

SPURGEON: You are. I never get these, so I'm confused and baffled.

BERNARD: Chris was kind enough to design a poster for that. He has cachet in terms of that, and we'll use that as a fundraiser to do the things that we do with it. We're going to have a poster of the Jaime Hernandez badges. We've only released two so far. There are seven total. That's going to be nice because when he designed the badges he did it a totally different way than anyone's that designed the badges before. Everyone that's done the badges has done them one at a time. Jaime drew his characters in a line and then divided them up into badges. So the posters will have the badges on the bottom and the concept drawing on top. There's only going to be like 30 of these available, but Ware, Clowes, Tomine and the Hernandez Brothers were all gracioius enough to give us self-portraits. We're going to have all five of them sign a print. Good luck in getting all these people together in one place any time soon. It's very difficult to get those people together.

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SPURGEON: Do you have fun the week of the show? Do you have a ritual, or something in which you take particular pleasure? Sounds like your enjoy showing the collections.

BERNARD: Last year I brought Jim Woodring and Roz Chast and Diane Noomin down into the Library of Congress. We don't publicize this, but Jim Woodring, for instance, I'll never forget this for as long as I live. I said, "Jim, who do you want to see." He said, "I really love TS Sullivant." So I've been there a long time, and I went and got him some TS Sullivant. He had this transcendental moment with the TS Sullivant. He took his glasses off and looked at it closely and began to analyze what Sullivant was doing with his line work. Then I walk over and there's Roz Chast and Diane Noomin and Anne Telnaes all going through New Yorker cartoons with one of the curators. We get a thrill from them coming to the show. And I want to give them something. That's my biggest thing: returning something to the creators.

*****

* Small Press Expo

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* the Chris Ware poster
* one of Jaime's tickets
* yeah, I don't really remember what this is, but it has a little SPX on it
* that first NoBrow
* Bill Kartalopoulos
* from the mighty SPX tumblr
* Michael DeForge
* Jim Woodring and TS Sullivant
* a Michael DeForge poster (bottom)

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