[Comic via Tumblr by Gabriel Calderon]
That is not a joke. It is definitely not a joke. With the SPX floor increased by a third to encompass the whole exhibition space it meant there were 280 tables, and with 2-4 people per table it meant that there were some 600 registered cartoonists at the show. And at some point they were probably all in the Marriott bar. With SPX taking up the whole floor it also meant there was no junior beauty pageant next door getting the AC cranked to 11 or awkward wedding/Ignatz encounters as there had sometimes been. Actually those were all long ago; SPX has been the main things at the facility for a few years now.
My business-y SPX report is up at Publishers Weekly. This will be touchy feely observations. And SPX is all about the hugs.
I joked during the show that SPX had become the San Diego of small press shows—it was big and teeming and instead of running into the same person every five minutes there were lots of folks you glimpsed and never saw again or never glimpsed at all. (I never met Philippa Rice? Whaaaaaaaaaa!) And like Comic-Con the show has morphed into several different shows under one roof, while still retaining the “Camp Comics” vibe of unity and one tribe. And it’s hard for those of us in the “business end” of comics to understand quite the excitement and inspiration that SPX provides to young cartoonists. With so many tables, there were many first time exhibitors, and even more who dream of exhibiting after seeing the dream realized in their mini comics making friends. To experience this mood, one has only to check the Tumblr posts tagged SPX—for those of you still struggling to get over Sunday’s Breaking Bad, this will provide all the mood lifting you need. So let’s dig in, shall we?
Melanie Gillman posted this cartoon. Hugs.
A tumblr named awkwanaut blogged
everything else was NOT a miss tho bc spx was basically like a giant party full of people that either i 1) am already friends with or 2) want to be friends
i couldnt go 5 steps without seeing someone i wanted to catch up with or seeing some awesome comic or awesome creator and everything was so so great and i made new friends and
on saturday we went to The Best Bar Ever and then i bled for the twin chocolate gods (milk and dark) and the end of the night find me double-fisting shwine (soda shaq + red wine) so basically what im trying to say is
spx was like a terrordream that i never want to wake up from
if i die bury me in comics
Sally Cantarino, who repped SAW at the show wrote I went to SPX and all i got were a bunch of stupid crushes (and a lot of comics)
Ignatz nominee Whit Taylor (above) has a fantastic post called 13 Things I Learned at SPX 2013 that has everything you need to know, from not eating chili dogs behind the booth so not looking depressed while trying to sell. And more:
10. Embrace Your Awkwardness, But Not Too Much
Given our nerd-dom and the solitary nature of our calling, many cartoonists can be socially awkward, myself included. Shooting the shit and networking can be both nerve racking and exhausting, but you just gotta do it. Realize that for the most part, many are in the same position and it’s OK.
Another great round-up post is from Christopher M. Jones who captured all the parties, all the pizza and all the love:
SPX is a convention where nobody is going to follow you around trying to take upskirt shots with their phone and where nobody is going to grill you about how many John Porcellino comics you know. It’s a very safe, imminently welcoming environment and if you’re sick of the sexism and elitism at mainstream comics conventions I highly recommend voting with your dollars and supporting a con that not only doesn’t feature but doesn’t abide such behavior. It was honestly pretty inspiring and made me feel like this is the scene I belong in.
Someone who Tumblrs as Purple Ruby Red (damn these kids don’t make it easy to find their real names) had some sound observations about the varying levels of confidence on display:
There was an obvious difference between artists who were worried about their art and those who were proud of having a table! The proud ones had more carefree drawings and enjoyed talking about their art. Those who were excited about showing off their art made me feel good as a customer. I tend not to buy from people on my first round, unless I already love their art. These people didn’t take it hard when I looked at their art, talked with them and then left with their business card. I wanted to return to these tables because of their attitude and confidence. A mistake that some tables made was taking the first round “rejection” really hard. While looking through their art, all I could feel from them was “omg, please buy my art, please tell me it doesn’t suck, please buy from me because I’m not making my money back!!!!” I felt chained to their table, but not in a good way. I had to force myself to walk away or say something encouraging even though I didn’t want to buy anything. This is sale killing. On my consecutive rounds past their tables, they were almost always without customers. The whole table experience can be really jarring for creative types and most of us do not know how to sell our work or promote it. But, from my short table-holder experience, no matter how shy you are, you can appear confident.
I’m sure there will be many more of these types of posts in the days to come, but it’s obvious this is a smart, caring group of artists. They are also young—some mentioned parents concerned about them being away from home. Like young folks, they like to eat waffles, play board games and drink too much on Saturday night away from home. They remind me of the crowd one finds at an anime show—devoted and enthused, with a strong maker ethic. These millennials are just fine.
It was a diverse crowd with diverse heroes. Many were thrilled to meet Jeff Smith, but others became tongue tied when meeting Danielle Corsetto (Girls with Slingshots) or KC Green (Gunshow) or Roman Muradov or people who you have really never heard of. While everyone ponders sales and table placement, it is still important to read the above posts and understand the sheer joy of being part of a community that SPX gave so many people.
While tumblr was a collage of love and excitement, moving to an older platform—old school bloggin’— you found more ambivalent or nuanced takes like this from Derek Badman (Mad Ink Beard), who was at his first SPX. Badman felt the love but also confessed, “Realized like 95% of the tables held no interest to me. Maybe 98%.” (Still he came home with two dozen comics.)
The older crowd is also more worried about finding and keeping an audience as this report from Robyn Chapman showed:
Sales weren’t great though. My con sales haven’t been for the last two or three years. This experience may be limited to me, but I doubt it. There are a lot of new publishers out there, but I’m not sure our audience has grown with us. With all this competition, it’s no longer easy to sell 30-40 books at a con, even when debuting a new title.
Competition. While, as mentioned in my PW piece, many individual artists had sell-outs, and the big publishers moved many copies of their special books—Ed Piskor’s HIP HOP FAMILY TREE was gone by Saturday morning, Ulli Lust’s book by Sunday morning—a mood of anxiety hung over many actual formal publishers, as in people who have overhead and need to make money. Sales were pegged as “solid” which in show speak means, “not that great.” I’m not sure how much of this was competition from (frankly) “developing” work from beginning cartoonists, and how much from $75 deluxe bound kickstarter rewards offered by web cartoonists with millions of hits a month. While the flourishing tradition of taking a picture of all the comics you got at a particular show reveals that the “wide net” purchaser who goes there to find new things that are cool in any genre is alive and well, it would be foolish to think that the “CAF crowd” isn’t divided into several sub-cultures of their own. I pegged five or six different groups at the show:
• Godhead. You know, Fanta, D&Q, Top Shelf, Seth, Jeff Smith. Mainstream culture at this point.
• Artist Alley Comics. This is a rapidly diminishing sub-strata of CAF (comic arts festival) culture consisting of more “genre” oriented books that you would just as often find in the artist alley at Baltimore or Boston or anywhere.
• Art Comix. Springing from the twin hydra teeth of Fort Thunder and the Xerics, these are the experimental and literary publishers, encompassing many of the micropress crowd and many of the 90s indie stars like Chapman above. PictureBox, NoBrow and so on.
• Web comics nation. Castle TopatoCo at the rear of the room was the epicenter of this with people like Kate Leth, Aaron Diaz and Jeph Jacques.
• Cute core nation. Spinning out of the Adventure Time mafia, a world of bunnies, kitties, t-shirts and cute things.
There’s probably more, but these are broad strokes, folks. I guess this is some of what I was feeling with my call for contextualization. Social media’s constant thrum of “if you like this, you’ll like that” makes discoverability easy but overwhelming at times. Being old and in need of a neon yellow brick road to take me places, I approve of things like Rob Clough’s guide to SPX, and when I ran into him and he told me to look for Anna Bongiovanni, I did just that. Maybe I should have just spent more time studying that Debuts page.
Despite the dilution, or over bigness, or whatever you want to call it, the two ATMs near the show still burned through $40,000 and probably much more on Square. If the era of the “book of he show” is long gone, the era of the priceless personal mini comic is probably here to stay.
Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend full of laughter and smart conversation and hanging out until 4 am. And comics. And Comics! Some more observations:
• Other CAFs. There was much talk about other indie focused shows. TCAF is still the gold standard but SPX is a strong second. People often looked around wondered if MoCCA could be so wonderful but I regret to say that show will always be about bidness in many ways. At SPX kids leave home for the first time, and stay in a very nice, cheap hotel room and spend most of the weekend drinking with their internet pen pals. At MoCCA you have to either share a horribly expensive, tiny rundown hotel room with 7 other people, crash on the couch in the living room of a horribly expensive, tiny rundown apartment or just drive home to Jersey every night. Plus, no cheap drinks. (PLease note, everyone on the MoCCA board is smart and capable and I have every belief the show is going to move forward in very exciting ways.)
There was also much discussion in my circle of why west coast shows—APE and Stumptown—haven’t caught CAF fever as much. I’ve often noted that one of the reasons SPX has flourished is because it’s in the heart of an area full of wonks with disposable income (hm, maybe sequestration was behind the slow sales). That doesn’t apply to Portlandia and while San Francisco is full of rich techies, it seems to be the one town in the US that is just immune to comic-con love (See the problems with Wonder Con.) Still the CAF circuit of Autoptic, CAKE, MICE, Short Run and so on seems well established by now.
• Friday was taken up with a journey to the Library of Congress to look at art and my subsequent talk. I’ll have a longer post on all that, but I must mention how awesome it was to meet (again) the LOC’s Georgia Higley, Martha Kennedy and Megan Halsband—they are incredibly knowledgable about comics and great people to have on our side.
• LIkewise, I was so honored to meet Liza Donnelly, another scary smart lady. I mentioned her hosting the Ignatzes and bringing up all female presenters and it was so refreshing after so many comics award shows with so little female representations. (At the Harveys Ramona Fradon was the ONLY female presenter.) It was a genuine thrill for me to see some of my heroes giving and getting awards, and I’m sure many others there felt the same way.
• By now it goes without saying that SPX has a huge contingent of cartoonists who are women but there is also a huge queer contingent and a lot more cartoonists of color. Inclusion means growth.
• Socializing was a madhouse as always. The hotel clamped down on the standing outside at the Ignatz after party with drinks thing, which was a little sad, and the chilly nights—unprepared for by half the attendees—were a bit unexpected, making for crowded halls. The enduring appeal of free pizza to indie cartoonists was proven again at Friday’s exhibitor reception, and the snacks went lickety split after the Ignatzes, as well. The co-location of a liquor store a round the corner from the hotel means room parties can reign unfettered until security comes. And of course, the sheer magnitude of people to talk to was overwhelming—Matt Bors here, Marc Sobel there, Carol Tyler everywhere. I greatly enjoyed catching up with Peter Bagge, Joan Reilly, Jesse Reklaw, Darryl Ayo, Michael Kupperman, the Secret Acres Gang, the Comixology Gang, MK Reed and a hundred people I’m forgetting. It was great.
• That said there was a generation gap in may of the conversations. SPX vets talked about their kids and moving. Newer folk talked about Beeritas.
• I missed Kim Thompson and so did everyone else.
• On Saturday night I took a car ride back to Bethesda, where the original SPX was held all those years ago. No one I went to dinner with had ever been to the old one, so I had no one with whom to share my pangs of nostalgia for the Tastee Diner and Faryab. Bethesda has gotten very built up though, and the Holiday Inn is now a Marriott. You can’t go home again, but Faryab is still tasty.
• I saw only two professional editors from comic book companies at the show: Shannon Watters from Boom! and Mark Chiarello from DC. Now you know why they are universally considered two of the best editors in comics.
• That was kind of a joke, but I hope more mainstream comics editors are tapping into the energy and innovation of the CAF crowd. Cross polination breeds hardy hybrids.
• Of course there were many editors from the book world like Abrams, Scholastic, First Second and so on.
• More comics everywhere all the time.
A few photos galleries before I go. The SPX FB set.
A set from B. Guthrie.
Someone came dressed as Storm and that was awesome.
This picture from the official SPX Tumblr sums it all up.
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.