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News: super*MARKET 2003: Alternative Comics' Next Big Show?
posted November 30, 2003
 

A snapshot from the Patrick Rosenkranz panel on underground comic books in a side room of UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom, during the 2003 super*MARKET comics show: The author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975, gives an acerbic and compelling presentation, linking the story of the undergrounds to his own journey to get his history published. Twenty-five people slouch comfortably throughout the room's first dozen rows of chairs, the majority students, several taking notes. First one couple and then a second walk out, normal panel attrition, through a door close enough to where the author was speaking both he and the audience members have to take notice. From the main room, an Oingo Boingo song drifts into the room so loud it competes for the panel audience's attention through doors that can't be closed to protect against the noise. Rosenkranz pops another Rand Holmes image onto the nearby screen, clicking past a menu that includes an opening video that could not be played due to on-site equipment failure, a circumstance that had delayed the panel's start by several minutes. An ambitious, intelligent piece of programming beset by a series of standard convention do-not-dos was a perfect encapsulation of super*MARKET, with its first-rate array of small-con exhibitors, helpful yet overworked staff and modest audiences. Welcome to Los Angeles' Indy Comics Show, the formative years.

Billed as "The Independent Comic Arts Festival," super*MARKET completed a potentially transitional year with its November 7-9 show. Rallying the local arts comic community into exhibiting (Jordan Crane, John Pham, Souther Salazar, Paul Sloboda, and several dozen others) in addition to luring a sizable number of artists from along the west coast (such as Lloyd Dangle and Jason Shiga) and target-specific vendors (Meltdown Comics, Le Dernier Cri), this year's super*MARKET stirred up generally positive feelings from those in attendance. Organizers offered an ambitious amount of activity for an art-comics focused show. In addition to two full days of exhibition and sales -- attendees paid $2 and those bearing UCLA identification were admitted for free -- a free movie and a reception for the "Alternative to What? Comic Art of the Free Weeklies" show on loan from San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum kicked off the event on Friday evening.

All reports indicate that the super*MARKET exhibition hall was only moderately attended. Although exact attendance figures were not available to the Journal at press time, on-site visual evidence suggested that at no time during the hall's busiest day was every exhibitor busy entertaining potential customers, let alone crowds more than one or two persons deep. Executive Director Jessica Gao reported that the show failed to break even. Whereas this would be a major concern for most comics shows, super*Market in its present incarnation has the unique ability to run in the red as a college-sponsored event. "It took a loss, but it was planned," Gao explained. "super*MARKET is sponsored/funded by UCLA Campus Events Commission, a student-run, non-profit organization. In order to have all the programs, publicity, and extras, we spent more than we knew we would bring in." Program coordinator Pam Noles drummed up more specific figures in terms of those visiting the various on-site presentations and lectures. She indicated that the Patrick Rosenkranz panel, moderated by one-time Journal contributor Dr. Charles Hatfield, was one of the weekend's most popular. "One hundred forty-six and a half persons attended Saturday programming and 116 persons attended Sunday programming. Individually, four programs pulled in 25 to 30 people, while five got two-point-five to five people. Most programming had between six to ten attendees. The programming I expected to snag a crowd over 25 did: [painter and underground comix legend Robert] Williams, [strip cartoonists] [Lalo] Alcaraz/[Lloyd] Dangle/ [Carol] Lay, [pop culture magazine] Giant Robot, Hatfield/Rosenkranz. However, there were several programming events I thought should have had more than five people show up, but they didn't."

Noles repeatedly expressed her appreciation to all cartoonists participating in the panels, and firmly believes that attendance at programming will improve as the show grows in future years. "I think programming attendance was light because this was the first time the event had such a feature," she told the Journal. She deflected potential criticism that an arts-comics focus limited crowds. "I don't think the fact that s*M features a mini-comics/DIY [do it yourself] ethic is responsible for low programming attendance. Plenty of shows with a similar vibe also feature a strong and well attended programming track; s*M will eventually achieve the same." Noles mentioned kids' programming, with light but generally satisfied audiences this year, as a likely area of growth. Noles told the Journal that she will pursue one of four general plans for fleshing out programming at future events when the 2003 holiday season concludes and after discussing the matter with the other organizers.

The 2004 show that will host Noles' programming is assumed to be a similarly named effort in the Los Angeles area during the same autumn lull in the comics convention schedule. But relatively little is known beyond the general stated desires of organizers to continue. As described by Jessica Gao, unavoidable circumstances will almost certainly dictate fundamental changes in the way the show is organized and funded -- namely, Gao is ready to leave school. "The future of super*MARKET is up in the air right now. super*MARKET is possible because of UCLA Campus Events. It's how we have the facility, the staff, and the funding. However, I don't know if the UCLA partnership will continue in future years because I am graduating this year and therefore, will no longer be a member of the Campus Events staff. It doesn't seem very likely that anyone from Campus Events will want to take over organizing super*MARKET. If it is to be done privately from now on, that will be a whole new bag of issues. Suffice it to say it's all up in the air."

The mood on the floor seemed to indicate that future shows would enjoy support from the local and regional cartoonists who make up the bulk of potential exhibitors. Contacted by the Journal, many artists simply seemed grateful that someone is attempting to put together a yearly arts comics show in the United States' second largest city, while others ventured into good-natured quibbling over the details on how to make the show a better one if it continues. Different exhibitors had different reactions to the number of attendees. Many felt the Saturday crowd adequate if not extraordinary. Steven Weissman told the Journal that the first day was about "what I've come to regard as 'average' for these things." Several exhibitors reported that the crowd was on the small side but that those in attendance were in a buying mood. Batton Lash noted that those attending were much more likely to buy a trade paperback as a point of entry into an unknown comic book series such as his own. Jesse Reklaw did better financially than most of his peers, saying, "I'm not sure why, but this has been my most lucrative show two years in a row -- I attend about six to eight small to mid-sized indy comic shows a year -- so I'll definitely come back. Although the attendance is pretty slim, people seem more willing to take a chance on something; my sales pitches were seldom wasted at super*MARKET." Every attendee and exhibitor to whom the Journal spoke felt that Sunday's audience was much smaller, and that for most exhibitors business fell accordingly. Cartoonist Jesse Hamm said, "There weren't enough exhibitors to justify a two-and-a-half-day show. The venue is roughly the size of a high school gym, and you could visit all the tables in under twenty minutes. APE [San Francisco's Alternative Press Expo] warrants two days; super*MARKET could have done it all in one."

In addition to keeping the show to one day, cartoonists contacted by the Journal suggested that an oddly configured student building in the middle of the UCLA campus in a relatively hard to reach portion of the city might not be the most accessible place in Los Angeles to hold a comics show, thus keeping crowds down. Hamm mentioned that while he liked the neighborhood, making it to the show itself became something of a chore. "The venue is hard to find. After negotiating UCLA's bizarre network of streets to find the right building, you must then negotiate the weird building to find the show and the reception party."

Other suggestions made by attendees concerned the programming. While many felt the presentations in general were under publicized, Batton Lash suggested that the panels were perhaps poorly conceived for the specific type of show super*MARKET represents. "Programs should be limited to a creator spotlight, or maybe a panel featuring a headliner," the cartoonist told the Journal. "A slide show or lecture about comics is fine, but I think most people come to a show like this to see and buy comics. They want to learn what the fuss is all about." Another general idea expressed by more than one cartoonist was the usual hope that the convention would in future years market more aggressively to the non-comics-reading public. Specific suggestions included getting the word out earlier than the publicity window created by this year's organizers, keeping exhibitors who play music at a lower volume, and not serving alcohol at the reception so that the show can in all of its facets include underage cartoonists, younger readers and those who might forget their identification. In general, staff members were praised, and most artists seemed to feel comfortable with Lash's designation of the show as a "little con that could."

Jesse Reklaw expressed hope that local cartoonists like Sammy Harkham and Jordan Crane would become more involved with the show's planning and administration, in the hope that a rigorous artist's presence might help the show avoid some of the growth pains of similar conventions. Reklaw and many others praised the general level of talent on hand, and felt that the number of local cartoonists of note was a better reason to continue the show than the fact that Los Angeles is a massive media center. Several of the exhibitors also expressed hope that Los Angeles would retain this show because every city of significant size should have an arts comics-friendly comic book show. Area cartoonist John Pham: "Yeah, an LA show is definitely important. Aside from any talk about 'scenes' and 'movements', there actually are a lot of really exciting creators who just happen to live here. Plus, there are always a lot of stupid events held here (the Oscars, state elections, etc), so it's good to have something smart and earnest." Whether or not super*MARKET or its direct successor proves to be that show for the Los Angeles area remains a mystery, but no one contacted by the Journal expressed specific worries or strong concerns about the show's relative chances for success if it were to continue.

One of the exhibitors who traveled a long way and, as such, crucial to the show's future growth, David Lasky plans to return. "I left feeling inspired by the art I'd seen and the creators and fans I'd met. I made enough to pay for my table rental, but not much more than that. I would like to come back, yes." Los Angeles Steven Weissman noted that he will also return, but only because exhibiting involves a simple drive across town.

Seated between Johnny Ryan, who kept busy Saturday alternately trying to sell people original art and attempting to get them to buy pages torn from a supermarket tabloid he purchased that morning, and Sam Henderson, who offered an impressive display of originals and books, it was Steve Weissman who best summed up super*MARKET weekend through a succinct comparison to its west coast siblings: "Not as crowded as the APE; not as stupid as San Diego Comic-Con." The next few months will determine if that is a foundation on which to build a successful yearly event. If the show continues under private auspices, the transition may be overwhelming, but at least attendees and exhibitors would then avoid UCLA's obscure entry points and winding college pathways to kick around any longer. Said imminent alumna Gao, "I would love to see it at a more accessible location if it is held again in the future."