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September 22, 2015


A Few Quick Notes About Small Press Expo (SPX) 2015

* this is going to be all over the place. I apologize in advance.

* I don't write as many show recaps as I did for a couple of years ago. A pair of reasons. One is that I wrote about shows in thorough fashion for a while as a way of understanding the more dramatic role they were playing in comics culture. It didn't really work, but that was the intent. The other reason is that I have a show of my own so everything I write about other successful shows is going to be spiteful and biased.

* my trip to SPX this year was constrained by commitments to CXC, so I got to go Saturday morning until Monday morning. If you're suffering a bit of burnout but still have to attend a show, doing a different time frame gives a whole different rhythm to your weekend, can limit your exposure to the factors causing your temporary distaste, can make the weekend cheaper, and hardly ever feels like a shorter show in memory. I recommend it.

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* I no longer have extensive travel notes because I live in a town that exists in civilization now. Getting up at 2 AM for a trip to ECCC is no longer a part of my life, thank God. I'm sure one of you weirdos is disappointed not to hear about the hash browns I had in Willcox, Arizona, but I'm equally certain you'll all survive. With SPX, it's always worth a mention that the transition from Reagan to show and show to Reagan is really easy. That's a smaller airport to begin with, so less hassle all around, and the Metro is like 40 yards outside the front door. It costs $6.90 from airport to White Flint station, and the transfer's easy.

* later in the show I described being left on the White Flint metro station platform as the train continued on and suddenly surround by a crowd of young, gaunt, oddly dressed people. My people, a generation removed! The person to whom I spoke noted that unlike people our age there seemed more of an unwillingness from today's version of comics geek to participate in mainstream culture -- in other words, this was a more curated identity than a default one that I and other assumed in the 1980s and into the 1990s. I'm not sure I totally agree with that, but it was interesting to mull over.

* the first comics person I saw was Bill Kartalopoulos. I hope I remembered to link to the announcement that he's doing a general history of comics for Princeton University Press, but whether I did or not, we talked briefly about that and his shifting away from programming the show. I look forward to Bill's book.

image* I went directly the floor show. Picked up my badge. I found out when you're older and heavy and your back's messed up and you're sweating and you didn't sleep the night before, you don't project an image of confidence and health.

* part of my reason to go to the show at all this year with my own show impending was to clear my mind and get a break in and see a show to become inspired what a fun show can mean for people. So I set my brain on low last weekend. My notes are a bit of a mush because I wasn't processing information that way. I'll see what I can remember now, here, typing.

* it looked like pretty good attendance to me, with the crazy period being the first half of Saturday. Second half of Saturday was either actually slow or just felt that way after the first half; Sunday was steady all day.

* my impression is that a lot of people did pretty well very well. I heard of/from two individual vendors doing $5K plus; I heard of/from two other vendors doing $2K when SPX was generally a $1K show for them. I heard about a lot of sales in the 25, 40, 65 range. I heard about a lot of sellouts, although my Completely Unfair And Poorly Researched Theory of this particular show is that some vendors aim for sellouts in order to have the cathartic experience of selling out at SPX -- the idea being it's better to sell 25 books and take home zero and be able to have that high-five moment than sell 40 books and take home 10. That would fall in line with the tremendous value placed on the social experience of SPX, and match up with some of what I'm told by individual vendors, but I can't really defend it.

* Kate Beaton had longer lines that I'd ever seen at SPX, lines that were capped immediately by D+Q staff. Julia Pohl-Miranda noted that Beaton has some of the most polite fans in comics, and when two lines formed the fans policed themselves into going from one line to another. D+Q also sold out of the new Adrian Tomine book, which did not have the on-hand support of its author but did sport a fine bookplate.

* the other two lines I saw that were long enough I asked someone in them who they were waiting for were a Scott McCloud/CBLDF line and a Noelle Stevenson line.

* in the same way that few books broke into triple digits there were few surprise big books of the show to my eye but a lot of personal favorites for different people. My own favorite weird book of the show was a 1989 anthology linked to a Toronto art show, a comic that Chris Butcher found in the basement of the Beguiling and brought to sell for $5 a pop: Kromalaffing. I'm DYING for SPX to develop into a place to pick up highly curated alt-comics back issues, but I think the forward-focus will keep that from ever happening, Frank Santoro's longboxes be damned.

* speaking of Frank, he was moving through the first week of I think a projected eight-week public fundraising phase for his school/dojo in Pittsburgh. It sounds like it's going pretty well so far.

* one book that more than five people mentioned to me having bought was Jennifer Hayden's The Story Of My Tits. But in general, the picks were all over the place, and that's healthy, too. This may be where the show missed amiable small-press review master Rob Clough the most, his ability to sort through 30 books of note and spotlight five or six. I'm no Rob Clough.

* did I mention my back? I saw a lot of programming. The programming this year shifted away from Bill Kartalopoulos' ambitious approach and to my eye was a big broader- and younger-focused. A lot of the panels were quite well-attended. I thought Chris Mautner did a fine job with an engaged Bill Griffith (and it was nice to see Chris' full family; Chris even banged on the door to the room next to his to get them quiet down -- they weren't SPX attendees). I spoke to Griffith later, who was complimentary. Griffith's answers were considered, patient and revealing. He's in full book push mode with Invisible Ink, and enjoyed solid lines when he did signing. Jacq Cohen said they were greatly pleased with how the book did there. That book was discussed by my peers more than any other; there's a definite curiosity there.

* Griffith mentioned that he was teaching, and that one thing he noticed that a lot of the younger cartoonist -- some of whom are extremely talented -- don't have much of a sense or maybe even use for a lot of comics history. I find that fascinating, and I think it reflects something bigger than a pushback against great works orthodoxy because I'm not seeing people settling on a lot of idiosyncratic older comics, either despite our access to so much more material now. At any rate, I hope you'll consider supporting Griffith at the tour stops he makes and perhaps consider reading his book. One thing that comics does better than maybe any other art form is provide a place for older cartoonists of note to try new things, and this is definitely a new thing for Griffith, even as much as page to page it's sort of like a return to the underground era of comics making.

* progamming! The Phoebe Gloeckner panel was another good one, ably run by Dan Kois. Gloeckner's willing to engage almost any topic up on stage, so that's always a lot of fun. Very funny panel, too. Dylan Horrocks and Bill Kartalopoulos had a fine conversation. Horrocks seemed a bit jet-lagged, but talked in lovely fashion about the different ways Hicksville has been read by different creative communities and how much pressure he put on himself with those three issues of Atlas to make a work that matched Hicksville in ambition and impact. It was amazing to have Dylan around all weekend. He hadn't been since 1998 -- nearly everyone who attended both shows was at Horrocks' panel -- and it was fun to catch up with him at periodic moments to get his thoughts on what he was seeing and what he thought of it. I was glad to see him enmeshed in conversation Sunday night with Scott McCloud; I want talks like that to happen, whenever and wherever they can.

* I thought the programming was well-received from the people to whom I spoke. I think as the show changes it will be good for them to have new blood developing programming that best matches what's important to people on the floor. I would have loved to have seen something maybe explicitly on one of the themes of the show, cartooning that's emerged after 2000, but I assume that was a part of lot of the panels I chose not to attend.

* about the end of Saturday I got a real sense of things shifting once again at SPX, as the first generation of CCS-era comics school graduates moves into that 28-32 period where people transition from regular to occasional or even intermittent show guests -- with a few exceptions. Life happens, and the time and opportunity to spend so many weekends deep in the wild territories of Comics Land is a privilege that slips away from a lot of people. I heard a lot of talk about people "taking care of themselves" during the weekend in various ways: more sleep, better food, working out. Laugh if you want to, but people taking care of themselves is another sign that some will soon leave, because not doing so many shows is the ultimate healthy move. That will be an interesting generational change, for sure.

* there was a lot of the usual talk about the nature of SPX and how that's best served. I'm crippled by nostalgia, even as an abstract. I used to attend all of the "San Diego Memories" type panels at Comic-Con, even though my first show there was 25 years in just because I find how comics has developed in a cultural way deeply fascinating. I think it's okay to fight for the value of certain expressions you value, ways of making comics and ways of looking at art. I think for instance cartoonists under 35 don't make as strong a distinction between working on your own material and working on corporate material you love as the first SPXers did. So I think it's good to find fellow-travelers and argue for ways of making comics, and the relative artistic power of what you think are good comics. You're fighting a sucker's game if you ever think the SPX you experienced at 25 years old is ever coming back, and it's deeply problematic to discount meaningful experiences had by others just because they're not your own. Trust me, just embrace that bit of regret. It fades and before it does it makes you realize what a blessing thoe time were. You eventually get to the point where you wouldn't climb into a time machine for $10M dollars and are happy to find new experiences to enjoy.

* the floor was a bit cold on Sunday; some folks layered up.

* the social scene was interesting, at least as I experienced it. I saw a lot of the usual enthusiastic embrace of being able to party hard in a controlled environment. I've yet to hear of an accident that crossed legal lines, but I did hear of a couple where people overstepped social boundaries and had to be invited or even shoved back into the light. There were a couple of incidents late in the weekend that seemed to reflect considerable stress in everyday living more than the spirit of the show. I'd never been asked to walk anyone to an elevator before.

* I didn't attend prom, but pretty much the whole first floor from the lobby on and extending outside is a sprawling afterparty on Saturday evening.

* I did get some shitty Tex-Mex, and we're all better people for that. I'm even better than that, having ordered and paid for a burrito with ground beef and having eaten a burrito with steak. My friend Gil Roth ate my hamburger burrito yet did not protest until later that evening. I was tired enough to think while eating my burrito, "Man, this is a weird definition of 'ground beef' but okay."

* in general I ate well, with fantastic company, but missed all my chances to eat on someone else's credit card, so we'll call that weekend a wash. More people than I ever heard about chose to eat at the hotel than venture out. Don't know if that means anything.

* got to talk briefly to the Immonens, who are continuing their reverse-aging process. Matt Bors had the first copies of the book collecting cartoons from The Nib. I kept running into Ryan Cecil Smith, who I enjoy very much. I like the way his work seems to improve by becoming better versions of itself with every iteration.

image* saw Josh Cotter, who had an excellent show. That's a great thing because his new book drops in I think February, so if he was going to have a fallow period, this would be it. A lot of people to whom I spoke oohed and aahed over his original pages. Warren Craghead is settling into his new gig; he's another veteran of the late 1990s that happened to be on hand, and I'm happy he's been attending the show in recent years. He's a very intriguing, prolific comics maker. Talked to Tom Kacyzinski about finding time to make comics of his own. Got a copy of a mini from Mickey Z -- whose book last year was pretty much the book of that SPX. Got calming advice about CXC from a very helpful Warren Bernard and Chris Butcher. Made vague plans with Phoebe Gloeckner to look into doing creators retreats at various place in the Midwest starting on her turf in Ann Arbor. Ran into 1990s TCJ writer John Kelly. Saw Cole Closser briefly; I'm dying to interview that guy. Had a nice, short chat with Whit Taylor, but did not find her to look at her comics. Sorry, Whit.

* I was glad to hear they let Chip Mosher speaking during the Ignatzes rather than right at the end when everyone's brain had disconnected from anything up on stage. Lot of great winners in the Ignatz slate -- that being sweep for female creators. Given the ratio of formidable under-32 female creators to males is something like 19 to 1, this shouldn't surprise anyone, but it is definitely a milestone worth noting and celebrating. I am of the firm belief that empowering female creators in their own individual acts of creations is a far more powerful engine of change than the proper management of entertain properties, and SPX does a fine job of helping facilitate this.

* it was nice to see Sean T. Collins and Julia Gfrorer in the first stage of their engagement, both seemingly very happy. I was told there could be a couple more engagements and maybe one or two announcements going the other way this Fall. At just about any measure of remove, life moves in cycles. Two comics folks are pregnant and not ready to announce it more publicly than face to face.

* the SPX volunteers who helped carry boxes to the car I was in Monday all-day were super great, and thanks to them.

* caught up with Julia Pohl-Miranda right after the show, and talked about the shift at D+Q in terms of employees like herself and Tracy Hurren being allowed to take on more responsibility.

* had a nice chat or three with Jacq Cohen, who had no chance of matching her last SPX. I didn't know this, but she got an in-house promotion. I am all about in-house promotions.

* talked to multiple people going through career changes in their day jobs -- a couple gigs ending, one beginning. I hope everyone stays safe and active and finds some way to fund themselves. I didn't hear a lot through the secret alarm pipeline about anyone doing super-poorly in a way they needed help: maybe one or two, which is very light. So that's good. I heard about two new people publishing comics, both of whom would be potentially really good at it.

* Gil Roth got to do a two-hour chat with Scott McCloud for his great Virtual Memories podcast. Scott was a fan going in, and was very happy with the result. That should be good. Roth also told me that while at the show he arranged to Keith Knight at some future date. I think Keith Knight has a jaw-dropping interview in him at some future date -- just a hunch. I saw Keith a bunch of times over the weekend. Hadn't known he was in Chapel Hill now.

* I recruited three people for a forthcoming secret project. Secret comics projects should always be launched in a bar near SPX.

* the lingering afterparty ended at 4 AM Monday morning, with near-fights, table games and long discussions of race and sex along the way. People made out. People took walks. I found out which cartoonist chose to have imaginary sex with Richard Nixon. I found out which cartoonist and con organizer tours Washington, DC sans irony. If you walked in after the afterparty was over you ran into another little party of people still drawing at the lobby glowing table, led by Brandon Graham. Let's draw, let's draw, let's draw.

* I left the hotel the next day surround by con-goers saying goodbye and hugging each other. I didn't know a soul. You know what? No reason I should.

* six-hour drive to get home; as frequently noted in a previous era for this site's show reports, I used to drive more than half that to get to the airport. Viva La Columbus.

* so good show.

* there's still room for older people at SPX, although this year's crew of over-40s seemed to carry a bit more personal baggage to the place than might be advised. Myself included! I'm not sure that SPX is a place to find personal meaning in your 40s the way it might be in your 20s -- for one thing, your peers that continue to go to the show are more arbitrarily selected by time and circumstance than universally present because of devotion and enthusiasm. But it's a fine art comics show and can be a real fun time. If you're young enough, it could probably change your life.

* the most interesting attendee of the show was far older than 40.

* so hats off to SPX on their continuing run of quality shows. I remain most impressed by the SPX attendees, the audience, and how committed they are to individual works of expression and how much they're deeply into their favorites. That's a group that knows to come to this show and knows to be prepared to buy things from their favorite cartoonists. I got a lot of stories from people all weekend but the general shape I heard about the most was an artist's astonishment at being told something they made was personally meaningful to this real-life human being standing in front of them. It doesn't get much better than that.
 
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