By Hannah Means-Shannon

Things were buzzing at the Small Press Expo even before it officially began. A crowded hotel lobby, constant chatter, and a general sense of anticipation partly due to this year’s much-hyped stellar guests, erupted in substantial lines to get onto the floor once doors opened Saturday morning. Along with the outstanding list of guests this year, including Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, there were a wide range of new releases in self-publication and from presses like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf. Well-orchestrated panels featuring star guests also contributed to high attendance, and plenty of fans who waited in the briskly moving but substantial lines to get their copies of LOVE AND ROCKETS signed by the Hernandez brothers also attended packed conference rooms downstairs to hear what their favorite comics creators had to say.

SPX has always boasted some international connections, but the presence of British-origin presses like Nobrow and Selfmade Hero this year, in particular, resulted in some much-needed discussion about the indie market in the US and UK. The panel “British Comics: Does it Translate” kicked off the SPX line-up with Nick Abadzis (LAIKA, HUGO TATE), Sam Arthur (Nobrow), Glyn Dillon (THE NAO OF BROWN), Ellen Lindner (UNDERTOW), and Luke Pearson (EVERYTHING WE MISS), and was moderated by Rob Clough. The three topics that received the most attention during the panel were recent works including Abadzis’ HUGO TATE from Blankslate, Pearson’s HILDA books from Nobrow, and Dillon’s THE NAO OF BROWN from Nobrow. Abadzis explained that HUGO TATE, a long-running strip, parallels his own migratory patterns in life from the UK to the US while he continues to create works both for the UK, US, and French market. Dillon’s return to comics after pursuing storyboarding for filmmaking has resulted in an OCD character with an unusual obsessional pattern that “traps” her “in a loop” as she attempts to engage with life. Pearson’s HILDA books, including the newly released HILDA AND THE MIDNIGHT GIANT, attempt to “break down the cartoon form” according to Pearson, and are heavily influenced by manga styles. The array of indie output from British presses seems to suggest that the British market is currently poised between European expansion and American demand, finding new practical ways of increasing distribution for works that are often cutting edge in terms of concept and design.

In “Publishing During the Apocalypse”, our own Heidi MacDonald of The Beat and Publisher’s Weekly led a discussion with Leon Avelino (SECRET ACRES), Box Brown (Retrofit Comics), Anne Koyama (Koyama Press), and John Porcellino (KING-CAT COMICS) about the enormous pressures indie publishers are navigating right now.  When posed with the question “What are the biggest obstacles that you’ve faced as publishers”, Avelino cited the shift to book market distribution for graphic novels, and Brown and Koyama agreed that carefully planning distribution and dealing with shops occupies a lot of their time as the market shifts from sales by subscription to the publisher to sales from shop stock. All felt that an increase in small regional indie comics shows have helped them expand readership in recent years.

MacDonald broached the subject of Kickstarter with varying responses. Brown felt that any method of defraying printing costs, which are often prohibitive, is a good thing while Koyama finds herself pushing worthy creators toward Kickstarter campaigns when she simply can’t accommodate all the good work that comes her way as a publisher. Avelino prefers a “mate for life” approach when signing artists to his company, focusing on their output rather than individual works, which ensures greater stability for their careers. The wider benefits of Kickstarter, Brown pointed out, are that it can be used by anyone for anything that they may find “out of their reach” otherwise, however, he feels that the current boom in Kickstarter campaigns may need wiser strategies from creators in the future to ensure success. With indie comics production on the rise, Porcellino reminded the audience that the “inside counts” also, and all the “pretty books” people are putting out right now due to technological advancement for self-publishing can cause creators and fans to lose sight of the strong storytelling essential to indie comics. All of the publisher-panelists had promising news about their future moves in the industry, suggesting that the apocalypse can be weathered and continuity with the strong indie comics of previous years maintained as well as built upon.

When Daniel Clowes sat down with Alvin Buenaventura, the editor of the retrospective THE ART OF DANIEL CLOWES: MODERN CARTOONIST, and scholar Ken Parille, it was standing room only in the largest conference room at SPX. Clowes, who appeared energetic and amused by such a large crowd commented that working on the retrospective book with Buenaventura was a welcome thing because he’s “lonely and working all the time” so it was “fun to have someone to hang out with”. This was met with guffaws of laughter from fans, who no doubt believe that Clowes is sustained by knowledge of his own artistic greatness rather than human company. Little details provided by Buenaventura and Clowes about the research process set the scene for comedy, including Buenaventura rifling through Clowes’ closets constantly and “measuring his art” while Clowes wondered what dirty laundry the writer might dig up that he had forgotten about.

Buenaventura narrated slides from the accompanying exhibit of Clowes’ work, currently in Oakland and its impressive design components, from photo references for Clowes’ 8 BALL series to panel breakdowns on a wide range of works. Clowes commented that since he never sees his own art from more than “8 feet away” due to the confines of his home, he sees the detail and minutiae that he feels are imperfect and “sloppy”, whereas viewing them on display in Oakland was quite an eye-opener. In fact, he joked (or maybe he wasn’t joking) that his work at that distance appears to have been produced by a “psychopathic malfunctioning robot”.

Clowes gave some insight into his characters, prompted by “diametrically opposed views” from fans over WILSON, clarifying “I’ve never done a character I fully hate. I find a way to love them by the end of the story”. The Q and A period of the panel produced wide-ranging commentary from Clowes, including measuring his life in “nine inches of space on a bookshelf” through the books he’s created, his ongoing use of the writing table he acquired at age 15, and promises regarding his next, secret project currently at 100 pages. “If I described it, you would think I was insane,” he warned, “Maybe you’ll never see it”. He sounded almost relieved by this possibility, but this time, at least, the audience hoped he was joking.

Panels finished up for the day in plenty of time for some more perusing of books on the expo floor, and this year extra time was intentionally built in to the evening to allow for off-site meals before the Ignatz Award Ceremony. Long before closing time on Saturday, there were rumors that the day had produced record sales for indie comics, making the evening even more of a cause for celebration.

Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart.She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.