by Brady Russell
S.P.A.C.E. is the Midwest’s answer to the Small Press Expo, founded twelve years ago by Bob Corby, as a show that comics creators without a huge following could afford to go to. I’ve known about it for a long time and always wanted to go. After attending SPX myself for the first time in 1999, I came home and started Googling creators I had met, and I think it was searching for Suzanne Baumann that I found out about S.P.A.C.E. for the first time. The photos made the show look much smaller, much simpler than SPX, which even ten years ago, at the original location, was a pretty crowded scene.
S.P.A.C.E has been around almost as long as SPX, though, and while comparisons are inevitable, some of the comparisons are pretty favorable, too. First of all, S.P.A.C.E. has grown nicely since those first photos I found. In fact, when Bob Corby, the show’s founder and manager, released the floor map this year I thought: that looks like it’s about the same size as my first SPX.
The nice thing about SPX over the years is that it has been a great way to watch the underground comics world grow up. As the Beat put it after the Small Press Expo moved to the new location:
The buzz on the floor was all book deal after book deal, and new lines of graphic novels both from comics publishers and New York Houses. Whereas in past years, people would have been talking about launching their own series, everyone is now working on a graphic novel, a painstaking, lengthy process that can see you out of commission for years.
However, I saw that show a little differently, because I’d been out of the alternative comics loop for several years before SPX 2006. So the 2006 show was my first show back from my alt-comics desert and the first thing I thought when I got in the room was: where are the mini-comics?
If you miss the mini-comics, you’ll still find them at S.P.A.C.E. Everything about this event reminded me of my initial brush with punk comic book glory in 1999.
You’ll find the hand stapled xeroxed shorts and you’ll watch creators collating their own books on the spot, you just won’t find nearly so many fans (at least not this year). Corby estimates that about 650 people were at the show, between comps, guests of exhibitors and regular attendees, though reckoning just how many of them were pure attendees is hard to say. From my spot on the show floor, it seemed like about 60% of the people I talked to were either exhibitors or there with an exhibitor. And there were a lot of exhibitors.
There’s a lot of reasons to come to a show like SPACE. For me, this would be my first go at exhibiting my work. For years I’ve been spottily sending out three page photocopies off to friends and family and the odd creator I’ve met, but it was only last year that I got serious about committing to a comics project. In February, I launched my web-comic about a living TV that pals around with a famous folk singer and a famous economist. It’s called EAT THE BABIES. The best friends for new comic artists are other comic artists, so I went to S.P.A.C.E. to interact with other creators, and I was not disappointed. I grew up in a tiny town in Kansas and didn’t know anyone else who took sequential art seriously. In fact, I didn’t even know the term sequential art yet. I would have loved to have come to a show like this one when I was a kid.
And you are going to stay focused on comics at this show, because at the Ramada Inn in Columbus, you’re not going to have anything else to do but talk comics. And do jams.
This was the show for jams.
It started Friday Night at Packrat Comics, a really nicely designed store tucked along an easy to miss side street. Down in the basement, they had huge pieces of foam board out on the table, sharpies everywhere, pizza, candy and American beers aplenty. Since I was coming all the way from Philadelphia, I got there a bit late, but I had no intention of missing the pre-party.
I did manage to add a couple of sketches of my characters to the big jam and contribute my best approximation of a drawing of Thor for a young girl who was wandering around down there with her dad. I also met my first few creators, like Todd Beistel and Doug Hufford, the guys behind Yuri: Gypsy Hunter (a graphic novel about a guy who carries two kinds of axes on his back – hint, one plays music). Rafer Roberts of Plastic Farm introduced himself to me at the party. We had known of each other via Twitter for a while, but this was the first time I met him and his very purple hair. Turns out, Rafer is one of the driving forces behind the D.C. Conspiracy, a comics crew in our nation’s Capitol. I asked them what they were conspring to do, and mainly it is to drink and accidentally draw some comics together on occassion.
That said, Rafer had piles of the 2nd Issue of their free paper, Magic Bullet, and it was one of the best grabs on the freebie table.
Packrat was about 20 miles from the hotel, though, and I lost track of time as I headed back. I overshot quite a bit and while I had every intention of going to the hotel bar to see who I could meet, by the time I got back I thought it best that I crash and sleep well and wake up ready for my first day ever facing comics fans from behind the table.
S.P.A.C.E. is a two day show. It opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday and I was down there early setting up my very first table and making a stand up cut out of my character, TV. I think people thought it was pretty funny to see me on my stomach working an exacto knife, but anything to get people’s attention, right?
In fact, there were no super big and intimidating names at S.P.A.C.E. to compete with. As my table neighbor Shawn Harbin said, “When you go to big shows like San Diego or New York, the hotel bar is a who’s who, but at this show it’s: who’s that?” Not that it was a place of total unknowns. Matt Feazell of Cynicalman fame was there, as was King Cat’s John Porcellino and Kirby’s own reincarnation, Tom Scioli, whose Myth of 8-Opus may have been how I learned what a Xeric Award was.
Those were the folks with the most recognizeable names to me, but Corby was also really excited to get some guys he knew through the mini-comics scene in the 80s to come out, Colin Upton and Steve Willis. Upton was a lot of fun at both the Friday night and the Saturday night Jams and Willis did a talk during the Saturday programming.
The traffic was steady but slow the first day. I cruised around a bit and got to know some folks. I was probably most impressed by the shear number of people from Pittsburgh who came out to the show. After all, it’s the nearest city of any size, but they came in force and also with a real sense of unity. Here’s one Pittsburgh posse of loosely affiliated artists, most of whom seemed not quite out of college but fully vested in the artist life.
McCloskey, on the far right, blew me away by telling me about a writers’ co-op he founded and McDonough blew everyone away on Sunday with his Ron Jeremy t-shit.
Mostly, though, I stuck to my table on the first day. Aaron James Ford told me that his main goal for the show was to learn how to be a better salesman. Before he told me that, he told me that if I was looking for comics with plot and character then I shouldn’t buy his comics, because he did comics about violence. And it’s the only spiel about a comic that I really remember from the weekend, so it was working for him.
In fact, Ford told me that he sold a good number of books, about what he expected, but that didn’t seem to be the sense of most creators I spoke to at the show. In general, sales seemed to be disappointing and most people felt like traffic was down from previous years.
For myself, I learned that you have to do some selling. I never liked it at shows when folks would talk to me as I walked by, but standing behind the table showed me that if I didn’t say hello to folks as they passed then they wouldn’t come over.
That said, for as much as hanging out seemed to be a priority for S.P.A.C.E. exhibitors, I was surprised about the lack of consensus around what to do Saturday night. For my part, I assumed that everyone would just naturally matriculate to the hotel bar, Bowties, and try to grab as many tables as they could before the other guests from the Ohio Beef Expo muscled us out. Really, though, the early arrivals at the bar were mainly the members of D.C. Consipiracy and a few other folks they knew from previous cons. Not many other creators ever made it to the place. Maybe the cowboys scared them?
I wandered into the hallway and met a few of the the more distinguished draughtsmen doing a Jam that Feazell had kicked off on a Cow Theme. After drawing a farmer boy giving birth to a cow in imitation of the Feazell stick-figure style, the guys in the lounge told me about Room 174. Room 174 was the Jam room (and the Miller High Life room).
Over to the right is a photo from the jam room, and that’s founder of the feast Bob Corby with Eric Adams working behind him. Apparently, this was an encore performance from the last year. The guy that organized both came with plenty of cold beer and sporting the most righteous tattoo I have ever seen. When they cracked open the Gideon Bible and started doing a jam in its pages while debating whether or not to leave it there or carry it on from show to show, I realized that this is what I’d been missing when I went home from other conventions after the exhibition tables closed.
There was a general feeling on the floor that everyone was having a good time but they all would have been happier if they had been making more sales. There were people. In fact, as this photo from Matt Dembicki shows, there were occassional bursts when creators at tables all down a row had people to talk to. It never really got bustling or crowded — which, on the bright side, meant you never had much trouble having a high quality conversation with people you wanted to talk to.
The other thing that really brought it home was by how many little kids were there. Like, not attending, I mean exhibiting. Sure, most were with their parents who were manning (and I assume paying for) the table, but there were so many kids who were selling their own damn comics. This is what I’m talking about – this is the mainstreaming of comics in its own way, passing all the traits of this here Golden Age onto the next generation, so that they will always have known a world of diverse comics.
There were quite a few little kids at S.P.A.C.E., which was a new one on me. One little girl even had her own table and another went exhibitor to exhibitor, asking if they wanted to buy her mini-comic. I had never seen so many kids at a show before, and the gregarious ones were all girls. I don’t think any of the boys came up to talk to me, but I think they were looking for something a little more dynamic than a TV that likes to talk about the banking crisis. They may never know what what they are missing.
We did have kids but we didn’t have cosplay, except for at least two pirates wandering the floor. One pretty young, one of more advanced years. Any relation? I don’t know.
Because I was behind the table, I missed all the programming, but it’s all been taped by the Underground Video Network. I will be watching the web-comics panel on U-Stream later. I know the organizers were also really happy with how the Cartoon Carnival turned out and the winners of SPACE prizes that I met were really moved by the recognition from their peers.
For myself, I had to peace out at 2PM on Sunday because I had a very long drive ahead of me and I was going solo. It was my first show and I sold $30 worth of merchandise, mostly in screen prints. I gave away a lot of preview books and fliers and met a lot of great people. I didn’t get a sense from many artists that coming to SPACE had been great for their pocketbooks, but it was really good for their spirits. Comicsgirl, Eden Miller, put it this way:
Now while I’m not an exhibitor at these sorts of shows, I know plenty of creators so I do benefit and enjoy the hanging out aspect. But I think if you’re just a general attendee, SPACE probably isn’t big enough to fill up your entire weekend. Although I’ve heard mixed things about sales, I do know exhibitors who did well this year and usually do fairly well at this show. I have nothing to compare this year to since I’ve never gone before, but while it was never packed, there seemed to be consistent attendee traffic most of the time I was there.
So, if you come to SPACE next year, let’s all meet at Bowties around 9PM and do another jam like this, okay?
And if you’re sorry that you missed it, remember you can still download the PDF anthology for free (I heard that 20,000 people have it already). I didn’t buy much but I did trade and a lot of folks were just giving sample copies out, so I still have an armload that I’m getting ready to go through. Kevin Czapiewski was sitting across from me and his beautifully designed works kept calling out to me, reminding me of Anders Nilsen, but I never broke. You can imagine how happy to learn that his first big full color book, The New Pushups, is available for a free download, too.
Bob Corby didn’t start the show to make money and that didn’t really seem to be the reason people came, either. Most of the exhibitors at S.P.A.C.E. told me, one way or another, that the main reason they came to the show was for the other exhibitors. As Aaron James Ford put it, “I didn’t feel like i had to try hard to meet new people or make friends. Every one wanted to engage and talk. It was really, really freaking cool.”
Globally, there were still a lot of people there doing books, minis and floppies, but the sense that more and more people aim to break in with online comics was palpable. I met a lot of folks, like me, who were there to promote their webcomics more than to sell paper. Webcomics seem to be the new mini. Webcomics are much cheaper, but in many ways more demanding. Still, I gravitated to the webcomics set and the internet makes it much easier to keep track of new people you meet at events like these. I may not remember my new S.P.A.C.E friends forever, but they will always be in my feedreader.