Even though it’s two weeks in the rearview mirror, a lot of worthy writing has been done about this year’s Small Press Expo. I’m sure devotees have read all the following, but given all the talk about what sells at conventions and the evolving comics market, this was an important show to think about.
§ Rob Clough has a fantastic overview that notes what I did—even among the sell-outs and excitement there were several tables where people sat idly twiddling with a pen with that “Adopt me!” look in their eyes. He also lays out the Five Generations of Indie Comics:
1. The Underground and First-Wave Alt-Cartoonists.
2. The Xeric Generation.
3. The Kramer’s Generation.
4. The CCS Generation.
5. The Tumblr Generation.
Clough points out that each generation has fans and readers, but it’s a Venn diagram, with fans of one group being more or less oblivious to other generations. He notes that most of the attendees weren’t very interested in some of the older cartoonists of the first generation, but against this somewhat dispiriting phenomenon, I’d note that there’s never been a better time for seeing the work of these matured talents in print and finding an audience.
§ Robot 6 offered a dual perspective from Brigid Alverson, a first timer and seasoned veteran Chris Mautner. their report is, as you’d expect, a good mix of new and old. Mautner also noticed the under-sellers:
I saw more shopper-less tables than ever this year. You get that with every con — folks staring at you with pleading eyes while you walk by — but it seemed at times like there were three empty tables to one packed with fans. That suggests to me that either a) attendance wasn’t as strong this year (the rain could have kept some people away); b) people didn’t have as much money to spread around; c) shoppers were looking to spend at very specific places and not interested in trying new things. This could all be completely erroneous assumptions on my part, but I do worry that SPX has plateaued.
I’m not sure a plateau is the reason, but rather the C phenomenon that Clough discussed. Several folks I spoke with noted that while this year’s show had fewer “mega guests” there was no lack of excitement for younger cartoonists, none of whom have major Diamond distribution. This may be the biggest duh of all times, but web-sampling works for comics, and any cartoonists who isn’t using it for his or her advantage is foolish.
§ TCJ.com also had a pair of reports, one by Whit Taylor who has become my favorite comics reporter for her clear headed, multi-leveled journalism. Seriously, she should be covering comics for The Atlantic or Vice or something.
Frank Santoro mentioned this growing diversity too. Furthermore, he explained that in the past the majority of people buying comics were cartoonists themselves, but that now many attendees were just readers and fans, which he finds healthy.
I immediately knew what he meant when he said this. I have talked to many industry people who feel that the indie comics community will not be sustainable if it remains so insular. There is a tendency for cartoonists to buy from and support other cartoonists with little interaction with the greater outside world. This points to the necessity of the indie comics world needing to reach outwards if it is to have a more functional economic base.
The other TCJ report is from Joe “Jog” McCulloch, with SPX ’14 – Ten Comics, Eight Hours, Three Panels, One Day who kind of represents the more insular view—in the art/commerce dichotomy he comes down firmly on the side of art. McCulloch’s report is self-admittedly self-indulgent while spotlighting some great if obscure comics. (that’s a moody, mysterious panel from The Ingenious Don Quixote (L’ingénieux Don Quichotte) by Rémy Pierlot above that stands in for the thrill of the unknown and unexpected.)
There was a prom after the Ignatz awards, you know. I didn’t go; I didn’t plan to. I didn’t come here to fucking dance. Indeed, I had groused about the Team Comics of it all to Chris before we’d gotten there, and he’d cautioned me that cartooning is an isolated and difficult task, and that there was value in community-building – to let people working in a still-marginalized, labor-intensive field that they needn’t be locked in a room forever. That there are horizons, and that yes, you do have to keep your eyes open — another cartoonist told me later on that what the scene really needs is people willing to say “I like this person, but I don’t like their work” — but at the same time it does good to understand that other people understand. To face that. To feel that.
I walked out of the auditorium, alone, at panel’s end, and watched the people spill out together. Brian Nicholson motioned to me. “I want to talk to you about Mad Bull 34!” he shouted.
“Maybe,” I thought, “I can just review a lot of comics, and then nobody will notice my shitty reporting and nonstop solipsism. Yeah. YEAH!”
Back to Whit Taylor again, who addressed much of the same subject while referring me to Festival Season, a promising newish comics site whose front page baffled me a bit until I realized that the panels were links.
Viola had recently written an article for Festival Season on Corinne Mucha’s exploration of mindfulness in her work. This article had pointed me to a guided meditation app, Stop, Breathe, & Think, that Mucha had illustrated. What stood out to me about this article was its utility for people outside of the comics world. Viola agreed, explaining that he did not think it was enough anymore to just write about comics in a way that was only accessible for people in the industry. It was more of the insularity. And what of comics criticism and reviewing? We talked about our conflicted feelings about reviewing, especially in a community where many of the artists being reviewed happened to be friends or acquaintances. “How do we go beyond recommended reading and make crit more rigorous and honest?” I asked. Viola and I agreed we were too tired to articulately deal with this issue at the moment.
When recovered from their fatigue I’d love to see this dialog begin again. The balance in duality of art and commerce, community and self, Apollo and Dionysius will always be a talking point; in tension is energy.
§ Finally, for a look at the comics of the show, James Romberger has a lightning round of reviews.
SPX resembles the MOCCA Festival and Comic Arts Brooklyn in that like them, it is bereft of the fetishistic superheroes that taint the American mainstream comics industry and also of the Hollywood movies, wrestlers and porn stars that tend to drown out comics at mainstream ComicCons. SPX and other alternative/literary comics gatherings are comprised of people who do comics apparently for the sheer love of the artform rather than to advance obviously mercantile impulses. A significant percentage of the audience at these shows is comprised of the vendors, who patronize each other and form mutual support networks. A good part of the product of these shows are minicomics, quite small xeroxed or offset pamphlets much like the ones I made at the WTC, but often printed on a copier called a risograph which allows for multiple colors. Occasionally, these budding talents will print a comic book “floppy” in full color on slick paper just like the slick output of DC, Marvel or Image, but the effect of alt/lit concept in mainstream drag can be disconcerting. As well, many publishers seem to do well with small prints, limited edition silkscreen booklets and also, many surprisingly young artists have completed graphic novels in a variety of styles, genres and formats.
§ I doubt many long-time readers will be surprised to know that in the dialog over “greater accessibility” vs. “purity of the artist slaving in isolation” I’m all for community building. While each and every artist or creator ultimately works for her or himself (ME INCLUDED) after a while you figure out if anyone else is going to like it. And look, I know playing to the masses is a crooked game. Thomas Kinkade died a millionaire and Melville and Van Gogh died in obscurity. If only they’d had Tumblrs…
Earlier this week I attended one of the last Super Indie Week events, a slideshow presentation by Michael DeForge, Patrick Kyle and Simon Hanselmann, three pretty well-formed artists who had been supported and nourished by the current mix of print and web (and Annie Koyama in the case of the first two.) DeForge went over a bunch of abandoned projects and I’m pretty sure he horrified many in the SRO room by revealing that he feels nothing about destroying his art, deleting the files and never looking back. DeForge recently deleted his Tumblr, King Trash, from the internet, and a ton of comics and work went away. (He admitted that Ryan Sands has become a sort of file drawer for him, surreptitiously saving comics.) For an artist as prolific as DeForge, reusing ideas may seem like a crutch and regret is a long way off (he’s 27) but the severity of his ability to throw things away stunned a room full of packrats to silence.
Kyle showed a bunch of comics and described how the limits of his Risograph—a broken plate that prevents tight registration—has affected his art style. In recent works, no images can overlap so the colors don’t bleed. He admitted that the process dovetailed with his own artistic inclinations, but also said he was looking to become “more accessible” by creating longer stories and serializing them on the web.
Hanselmann, wry and self-deprecating, talked about his own journey and family problems while showing the works of several very promising Australian cartoonists. The scene in Australia is tough on them, as there is little support structure, and although there was a recent anthology of their work, they aren’t household names even in households where Comic Arts Brooklyn is the highlight of the year. Breaking through requires the network of sharing and exposure that propelled Hanselmann himself to a level of fame.
(Sidenote: my mother, an art activist who was in town for the People’s Climate March and had earlier in the week escaped arrest down on Wall Street by avoiding the “high risk” groups in the protest, also went to the slideshow. She thought Hanselmann was very funny, was intrigued by Kyle’s Risograph printing techniques, and didn’t really feel one way or another about DeForge, despite admiring his design sense. )
While none of these three cartoonists are anywhere near becoming an Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware in terms of mainstream recognition, they’re popular enough to go on a long nationwide tour, and while all three said they “threw their slideshow together,” all have enough of the showman about them to make it a success. Creativity is always a lonely, garrett-infused process; its in the chaotic, unpredictable Jenga-game of social interaction that the new angles emerge. Apollo and Dionysus are both secure for today.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.