Small Press Expo was an interesting event to look at from the outside this year. One the one hand, it’s the premier comics and graphic arts festival in the United States (Sorry CXC), it rewards some of the best comics creators around and is generally active in reinforcing the medium of comics. This year however was mired in a few controversies surrounding its position on two fronts, it’s support and fundraiser to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), even as CBLDF was skating around the legal matter surrounding the Cory Pickrodt defamation lawsuit against 11 cartoonists and the sponsorship of Comixology Originals, a company owned by Amazon. Additionally an award speech by Ben Passmore started an online argument that is still ongoing.
Let’s begin by looking at the Ignatz Awards winners. The winners of each category are highlighted in orange at the top and the rest of the nominees are below. The Ignatz awards, named after the character in the classic comic strip Krazy Kat by George Herriman, is the festival prize of the Small Press Expo. As per the mandate of the awards, the Ignatz Awards: “recognize outstanding achievement in comics and cartooning. The Ignatz recognizes exceptional work that challenges popular notions of what comics can achieve, both as an art form and as a means of personal expression“. This year’s jury consisted Leila Abdelrazaq, Kevin Czap, Mita Mahato, Carolyn Nowak, and Taneka Stotts who decided on the nominees and festival attendees voted for the winners.
Here are the categories below
- Richie Pope – The Box We Sit On
- Yvan Alagbé – Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures
- Ivy Atoms – Pinky & Pepper Forever
- Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It
- Sophie Standing – Anxiety is Really Strange
- Sex Fantasy – Sophia Foster-Dimino
- Beirut Won’t Cry – Mazen Kerbaj
- Blackbird Days – Manuele Fior
- Language Barrier – Hannah K. Lee
- Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition – Julia Kaye
- Comics for Choice – ed. by Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor and Ø.K. Fox
- La Raza Anthology: Unidos y Fuertes – ed. by Kat Fajardo & Pablo Castro
- Ink Brick #8 – ed. by Alexander Rothmans, Paul K. Tunis, and Alexey Sokolin
- Bottoms Up, Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom – ed. by J.T. Yost
- Lovers Only – ed. by Mickey Zacchilli
Outstanding Graphic Novel
- Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
- Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom – Marcelo D’Salete
- Uncomfortably Happily – Yeon-sik Hong
- The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
- Anti-Gone – Connor Willumsen
- Frontier – Youth in Decline
- Ley Lines – Czap Books
- Nori – Rumi Hara
- Bug Boys – Laura Knetzger
- Gumballs – Erin Nations
- Say It With Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food – Shing Yin Khor
- Dog Nurse – Margot Ferrick
- Greenhouse – Debbie Fong
- Common Blessings & Common Curses – Maritsa Patrinos
- Mothball 88 – Kevin Reilly
- Hot to Be Alive – Tara Booth
- Recollection – Alyssa Berg
- Hot Summer Nights – Freddy Carrasco
- Whatsa Paintoonist – Jerry Moriarty
- Baopu – Yao Xiao
Outstanding Online Comic
- Lara Croft Was My Family – Carta Monir
- Woman World – Aminder Dhaliwal
- The Wolves Outside – Jesse England
- A Fire Story – Brian Files
- A Part of Me is Still Unknown – Meg O’Shea
Promising New Talent
- Yasmin Omar Ata – Mis(h)adra
- Tara Booth – How to Be Alive
- Xia Gordon – The Fashion of 2004, Harvest
- Rumi Hara – Nori and The Rabbits of the Moon
- Tommi Parrish – The Lie and How We Told It
- How the Best Hunter in the Village Met Her Death – Molly Ostertag
- Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures – Yvan Alabge
- Why Art? – Eleanor Davis
- Rhode Island Me – Michael DeForge
- The Lie and How We Told It – Tommi Parrish
I have unfortunately not read all the comics that were nominated, but those that I did read were indeed outstanding. In particular, Tommi Parrish’s The Lie and How We Told It as well as Lara Croft Was my Family by Carta Monir stood out as really strong work. Congratulation to all the winners on behalf of the Comics Beat team.
Now let’s go back to the controversies at hand. The first being the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s refusal to engage in the defense of 11 cartoonists being sued for defamation by comic artist Cody Pickrodt. Pickrodt is requesting damages of $2.5 million for allegations of rape, sexual harassment, making anti-Semitic remarks, and withholding royalty payments . The defendants in his suit include both his accusers and others who condemned Pickrodt online in support of his accusers.
I would suggest reading Laura Stump over at Women Write About Comics has done a good and succinct round-up of the situation with Alec Berry providing a broader look at the lawsuit itself (Start here for the context and follow it up here for the latest development). The controversy stemmed essentially around the CBLDF. whom most would think would be involved in this kind of situation, given the legal implications of the defamation suit, and their decision to withhold any involvement in the case. This led to many cartoonists questioning the relevance of the CBLDF if it cannot be involved in a legal case involving comics creators. Where does SPX fit into this discussion? The festival also doubles as a fundraiser of sorts for the CBLDF. Many cartoonists questioned why the Small Press Expo should fund an organization supposed to defend freedom of speech, even as they step back from a very specific case involving cartoonists in a freedom of speech lawsuit. This puts SPX in a difficult position and put pressure on the organization to find some avenue to help while still respecting their own charter.
It seems that the story concluded on a happy note a few days before the festival as SPX announced that it would give the money it usually raises for the CBLDF to the defense of the 11 creators involved, roughly $20,000. A GoFundMe page was established and is currently at over half of it’s initial ask. They’ve made it clear that this is an exceptional circumstance and we shouldn’t expect this kind of things to happen in the future. Still, this proved to be an interesting resolution for SPX.
The second controversy, is, well, not so much a controversy as an ongoing argument about the place of Comixology at SPX. They’ve been sponsoring the event for many years, but the showcase of their new Print-on-Demand service has been alarming for some in the comics community. RJ Casey over at The Comics Journal refers to it as a plague, particularly referencing the publication and free distribution of Bedside Press’ new anthology Hit Reblog. TCJ’s piece was later edited to remove some of the harsher language used in it.
The conversation surrounding Amazon’s offering a publishing service reminded me of a similar situation already existing in Canada. Quebecor, an extremely powerful media entity is controlling radio stations, newspaper, TV stations and print magazine as well as printing companies and a whopping 18 publishers. Quebecor is the closest thing French-Canada has to a media monopoly. They publish so many books a year, it’s dizzying. While they do publish trash and drivel, or ideologically driven nonsense (Quebecor is a right-leaning company and often uses its multiple platform to push a variety of content), they also publish experimental, poetry, or wonderful fiction books I’m bringing them up because Quebecor is, by all accounts, an evil media conglomerate. They want to achieve a monopoly on the Quebec media landscape, much like Amazon wishes to do. This doesn’t stop them from printing, distributing and publishing books that are interesting and for which authors are well paid. One of Quebecor’s publishers is publishing the novels of Kim Thuy, a French Canadian-Vietnamese author whose debut novel RU won the Governor General literary award in 2010. They’ve been backing her work and helped her find a new and expanded audience. This doesn’t mean that they are any less evil, or any less interested on extinguishing smaller publishers, but it does allow writers and artists to have better payment for their work, a wider exposure for their book, etc.
My understanding was that Amazon’s POD will hurt smaller publishers, and it still might. How that would differ from how they are currently hurting smaller publishers, I’m not quite sure. Casey’s piece displays a hypothetical doomsday scenario, offers a lot of questions and concerns, but falls short in explaining concretely how Amazon printing and distributing books is more damaging than what it already does. But there are a couple of things that the discussion has clarified. If Amazon wanted IP farms, they would get them. Amazon wants to be the only distributor of books, comixology originals provide a means to create exclusive content to sell to a wider audience. Getting smaller publisher’s on board is a way to bring customers who normally probably wouldn’t buy their books from Amazon otherwise. Amazon would also like to control the publication and printing of books. By providing a platform where customers can get any books anytime, there is an added incentive for publishers to go with their services, since in addition to providing a one-stop shop, there’s also the added incentive of not having to worry about overhead.
Is it a bad thing? Is Amazon trying to swallow everything whole. Can it even do it in the doomsday scenario showcased by RJ Casey? I’m not persuaded. Having a new platform for printing and access to a wide network of distribution isn’t bad for smaller companies or for people not having access to the convenience of a show like SPX to buy small press comics If anyone can tell me where I can find Lale Westvind or Noel Freibert’s comics in Ottawa, I’ll be happy by also very surprised. Even Bedside Press would benefit from the exposure. Their books are great and if they retain control of their work, editorial, stylistic and printing requirements,, etc. there’s no reason to think that’s not a win for them. However, erring on the side of caution because we don’t yet know what would be the impact if smaller publishers begun adopting this POD on a large scale. There’s no denying that Amazon is an evil corporation, and their business practices and the way they treat their employees is reprehensible, but this is unlikely the end of small press publishing.
“Things are changing and it’s not on accident…We got some creeps, some apologists. We got some people who care about more money than people. And that shit is not gonna change on its own. We gotta keep being annoying about it. So S/O to y’all. I respect y’all.”
— 🍁ShanFiction @ MICE B68🍁 (@shannondrewthis) September 17, 2018
Following the Ignatz Awards, an opening speech by Ben Passmore, captured in the above tweet, led to a still unfolding discussion on Robert Crumb. Pasmsmore’s mention of Crumb during his opening speech led to booing from the crowd. The discussion around Crumb began on Twitter shortly after as Derf Backderf, creator of My Friend Dahmer and True Stories, released a series of tweet defending Crumb’s legacy and his work in general and mentioning “Millennials had issues with his work, but that it was weird to hear people booing his name”. He’s since deleted the tweets and apologized after reevaluating Crumb’s work, mentioning that it might be time to put Crumb’s work back in the attic, where it belongs. Many cartoonists explained at length the real harm Crumb’s racist imagery caused. Crumb’s work is still well-liked, but is losing historical importance with every passing year as the comics community becomes ever more diverse.
I’ve closed the book on Crumb a long-time ago and have no intention of reopening it. Crumb’s definitely had an influence in the world of comics, and it speaks to his legacy as a cartoonist and a Provocateur that we still have these discussions today. But there are plenty of problematic things in his work, whether is it’s use of racist imagery, misogynist behaviour and borderline sexual predator behaviour. It’s difficult, or nearly impossible to excuse or read past this. I see Crumb’s work as an artifact of what the indie comics scene used to be, a group of reactionary men rejecting society’s norm and confronting a sexually repressed society, creating unfiltered work because “it couldn’t be restrained or censored”. The result was self-centered, often sexist, racist and bigoted comics. As much as it rebels against societal norms, it’s also subject to some trappings of white and male supremacy. It’s inevitable to see it this way as we view it with a modern lens. It’s also not hard to see why anyone reading this would feel Obviously, discussions of Crumb and his work still needs to be had because his work is still influential. There was a time and a place, but seeing the sheer amount of artists and cartoonists coming out against his work warms my heart.
Crumb’s work also stands in sharp contrast to this year and past years Ignatz awards winners and nominees, whose work are thoughtful, nuanced, diverse in tone, style and are generally exciting to read. The medium is so much better now than it was before. The work of Eleanor Davis, Carta Monir, Xia Gordon and Connor Wllumsen is much more challenging and interesting than I could ever hope for. There’s a real variety of genre, topics, different approach to making comics, to pacing, to colour, etc. The medium only gets better with each passing year.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.