by Hannah Means-Shannon
On the 14th of September, in a satellite event leading up to the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, comics creator Dean Haspiel took the podium in the James Madison building of the Library of Congress to make a little history on the basis of a subject small in size but impressive in cultural impact: mini comics. Haspiel had previously announced his personal 600 item donation of the comics, self-published and often diminutive in size, to the LoC via Warren Bernard, Executive Director of the Small Press Expo, who helped to arrange and conduct the donation. Haspiel’s donation will be part of a sub-grouping within the newly established Small Press Expo collection at the LoC. The collection will contain, among other worthy selections, past and future Ignatz Award nominated works. Haspiel was particularly appropriate to take the stage and explain the role of indie comics to his audience because his work has appeared in both mainstream comics like Marvel and DC as well as creator-owned and small press publications. As such, his works are actually filed under more than one category at the LoC: mainstream comics and mini comics.
Haspiel’s own dualistic background in comics paralleled the double-classification of his work in the LoC, as he explained in his presentation. An early love of the FANTASTIC FOUR gave way to an equal obsession with Harvey Pekar’s AMERICA SPLENDOR as a teen reader, convincing him that “comics can be anything and everything”. It was, however, not until around 1997 that Haspiel became aware of mini comic culture by visiting the Small Press Expo, and was entranced by finding these “diamonds in the rough” to collect. These works, Haspiel explained, come from a tradition wherein the comics of Chris Ware or Dan Clowes are on par with super-hero comics drawn by Jack Kirby to Marvel fans.
Haspiel illustrated his discussion by performing a dramatic reading of two of his creator owned web comics, “Beef with Tomato” from STREET CODE, and “The Last Romantic Anti-hero”, his most recent installment in his BILLY DOGMA series. Large flat-screen monitors presented the comics to the audience in high resolution detail while the audience performed the sound effects to accompany Haspiel’s reading. “Beef with Tomato”, a love story starring Haspiel’s “favorite New York stories” brought New York’s idiosyncrasies to DC for a few minutes. The prose of the semi-autobiographical comic was suited to oral performance, striking a note somewhere between beat poetry and rap in its densely descriptive language and drama-punctuated narrative flow. Veering between memories of diving onto a gangster in a restaurant in Times Square to the “20th century nostalgia” of Coney Island, Haspiel evoked laughter and astonishment from the audience, seamlessly demonstrating the strengths of independent comics.
While “Beef with Tomato” was illustrated in black and white, a feature often associated with indie autobiographical comics, “The Last Romantic Anti-hero” was presented in pop tones of yellow, pink, and blue. Haspiel led viewers through a hypothetical apocalypse characterized by and increasing urban isolation that demanded true love in order to save the day. If “Beef with Tomatoes” reflected on what indie comics have done well and will continue to do, “The Last Romantic Anti-hero” challenged the themes and content of future indie comics to remain expansive, imaginative, and socially relevant. Haspiel conclusively made his point about the future of mini comics by displaying a printed copy of “The Last Romantic Anti-hero” which would be for sale at SPX, and then donating it to his sub collection at LoC.
After Haspiel’s reading, Bernard joined him in discussion; both admitted that having a mini comic collection housed at the LoC was “surreal” to them, remembering a time when comics were simply not considered cool at all. Haspiel recalled the indie comics scene of the 90’s as an era of producing works on 8×11 paper, xeroxing, and stapling a very “story-oriented” work. Now, Haspiel commented wryly, mini comics have become “way too sexy”, taking on an “art boutique form” to suit anyone’s fancy. He hopes that this “sexiness” won’t lure creators away from good storytelling and that the increasing presence of publishers looking for the next big mainstream hit at SPX and other shows won’t drive away the unique qualities of “self-motivated” comics creating.
Bernard pointed out the inherent Achilles-heel of mini-comics in their appealing but ephemeral construction and circulation, lamenting that many comics created in the past simply “don’t exist” anymore. He negotiated the SPX collection at the LoC to prevent that kind of tragic outcome for works of strong artistic merit. If creators donate their books, he informed the audience, they will be “immortal” for future generations of comics readers and researchers. Bernard laid out the future of collecting on behalf of the new SPX catalogue, one that will be “active” rather than “passive”. Not only will Ignatz Award nominated works be gathered for the collection, but delegates will observe the work available at SPX each year and make selections to include. Bernard narrated some of his recent discussions with mini creators about including their work in the SPX LoC collection, and commented that a typical reaction included both disbelief and awe that minis could receive such pointed recognition from what is seen as the definitive literary and cultural establishment. Curating librarians Georgia Higley and Megan Halsband hosted the event and stood by to answer questions about an illustrative display of Haspiel’s mainstream work as well as selected elements from the SPX collection. The display also included a sample storage box with slipcases demonstrating the conscientious methods designed by the LoC to preserve the new collection’s archives. Professional video coverage of the event will be available on the Library of Congress’ website in a few weeks.