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THE SPIRIT OF INDIE COMICS as an avid fan struggles to keep a copy of KRAMERS ERGOT upright for reading purposes

You can read my “official” report on SPX at PW Comics Week, but there were some more rambly thoughts I wanted to share. I think Brian Heater (one of my traveling companions and roommates for the trip) nailed something very important in his writeup:

Remember the old location? It was great, so much closer to downtown. The restaurants were much better—and closer—than those around the North Bethesda Marriott Convention Center. Remember when the show was held on Friday and Saturday, so everyone could play softball and picnic on Sunday?

I don’t. I only began driving down to the Small Press Expo three years ago—not quite enough time, I think, to have developed a glimmering sense of nostalgia for those long gone good old days—you know, when the show actually meant something. Three years, however, is certainly long enough to have fallen in love with SPX, and it’s more than enough time to have designated the early autumn weekend as three of my favorite days of the year.

This is, ironically echoed in the report by ANOTHER one of my travellng companion, Josh Neufeld:

But there were so many ol’ pals missing: Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Alex Robinson, Tony Consiglio, David Lasky, Mike Dawson, Chris Radtke, Joan Reilly, Jason Little, Gabrielle Bell, Jon Lewis, and Karen Sneider, just off the top of my head. I guess what with book deals, kids, and of course the continuing allure of MoCCA, the drive down to D.C. is losing its appeal for those folks. (I have to confess I stayed away from SPX the last few years because I didn’t have anything new to hawk until this year.)

However, despite my sadness at missing so many folks, I have to admit that SPX is alive and well! The great funky/DIY/artsy tradition is still very much in evidence, and the comix tribe is rejuvenated with lots of new blood. That included my tablemates this year, fresh-faced 2009 Xeric winners J.T. Yost and Sophia Wiedeman. I was under strict luggage (and economic) constraints, so I only picked up a few things, but everywhere I looked there were young cartoonists offering tempting delights. I couldn’t resist some purchases, of course, and came away with Yost’s Old Man Winter, Wiederman’s The Deformity, Jeffrey Brown‘s Funny Misshapen Body, Liz Baillie‘s My Brain Hurts, Picture Box’s crazy oversize Real Deal #1, and a decrepit Robin T-shirt by fellow SPX returning veteran Tom Galambos.

Between these two opposite yet complimentary views we have some idea of the overall purpose of SPX: as befits the “SMALL” press, it’s a place for creators to emerge, grow, find an audience and, hopefully, evolve, just like the show.

In its 15 years SPX has evolved from the showcase for drawing board warriors like Dave SIm, Jeff Smith, Batton Lash, David Lapham and Colleen Doran, people committed to the comics periodical format and getting their books out on a very regular basis and building a parallel audience to the superhero mainstream. When SPX began, the ascendance of the graphic novel was just an ideal, not something that was expected to occur.

The generation Neufeld is missing is far more indy in its origins — they’re all more Clowes-Warian in their sensibilities and aspirations — and most of them flirted, at least at one point, with the periodical. (Other folks in this generation: Matt Madden and Jessica Abel, Dylan Horrocks, Sam Henderson, Tom Hart, Steven Weissman, Kochalka, Brown, et al.) Aside from getting older and starting families, this generation has become far more established in the publishing world — most of them have had book deals at one points, and — in varying degrees — achieved the dream of being a professional cartoonist. (Reminder: when these folks came to SPX, they used the internet for email and not much else back then.)

SPX (and MoCCA, but I haven’t been to APE or TCAF so I can’t say what the sitch is there) is now the province of the very young and aspirational, and their work is even more personal. As CCS, SVA, MCAD, SCAD, and other art schools turn out class after class of highly competent and well-informed art students, it’s become a bit more of a pageant, in some ways. Young cartoonists get their Xeric, put out a perfect book, spend a season or two as the deb of the year and then…some will go on, some will just become memories in the shoe box.

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And there’s nothing wrong with that. As Neufeld alludes to, recent SPXers take justifiable pride in their craft and their community. Several conversations I had suggested that being an indie cartoonist is the new version of being in an indie band — not a new metaphor, but one with serious implications. The comics are the CDs, shows like SPX and APE are the concerts. But it’s not exactly something you expect to make a living at right away. Cartoonists and musicians all have their day jobs along with their followings. I wish I’d had the opportunity to explore this comparison more with Zak Sally, someone with experience in both camps. He mentioned it a bit on the debut cartoonist panel (more on that anon) and he seems to be happier in the comics camp.

But as Heater suggests, hijinks and comraderie are a constant at SPX. After all, this was a show where women wore lumberjack beards and the main planned social event was a karaoke caravan.

Just to impress that last point a little, the Ignatz Awards are the only comics award I can think of where just about everyone sticks around. People get there early so they can get seats. Ponder that for a moment. It’s a real contrast to other awards (which *I* enjoy) where even nominees have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Part of that is, doubtless the famed brevity of the Ignatzes — with only 8 awards, it’s not a major time commitment. Part of it is due to the bountiful drink tickets afterwards and yes, the sweet rivers of molten chocolate. But primarily, attendees feel connected to the Ignatzes. They or their friends are nominated and people want to show support. It doesn’t hurt that the nominees are usually books that the community feels proud of. It’s a proud moment for all concerned.

Aside from the continued socializing, the other note that pinged my radar at SPX 09 was the ascendance of web cartoonists. Before I get too much into that, though, I would like to give Bill Kartolopoulos a shout out for the excellent job he’s been doing with the programming. The whole SPX crew — Karon Fage, Warren Bernard, Jeff Alexander, Greg McElhatton– knows how to run a smooth show, but Bill K. has managed to take a room full of smart, opinionated, interesting creators and get them up on panels talking. I honestly could have spent the whole show doing nothing but panels, but wanted to sample the comics on sale, so I missed a lot of stuff. I did manage to hit the first two panels on Saturday, Debut Cartoonists and Comic Strips: Online and In Print, a juxtaaposition that couldn’t have been more stark.

Debut Cartoonists consisted of Ken Dahl (Gabby Shwartz), Eleanor Davis, Hans Rickheit and Zak Sally, four creators of unique, strong visions and undeniable talent. As the first panel of the day, it wasn’t super well attended although the room was maybe 1/3 full, which isn’t bad. Moderated by Rob Clough, the panel quickly strayed into “The Cartoonists Struggle” territory. Even Davis, whose ebullient kids’ books have landed at major publishers — Toon Books, Bloomsbury — revealed that the long, hard slog of drawing Secret Science Alliance had taken a toll. All four had a lot to say about how hard it is going to a room and drawing all day, every day, day after day, Selective quotes I jotted down:

Dahl: “Cartoonists need to be self indulgent because you spend a lot of time with yourself, doing comics.”

Sally: “As a cartoonist you have to operate in a world where you just have to believe in what you’re doing.”

Davis: “I like spending time with organic farmers. Having a part time job is better than spending all my time on comics.”

At the end of the panel, I asked the four what they would define as success:

Dahl: “Health care.”
Davis: “Being happy.”
Rickheit: “Just putting my clothes on in the morning.” (He did add that drawing comics for a living would be something that would be a goal.”
Sally: “Doing what you love isn’t always the answer. Really weird things happen when what you love becomes your day job.”

It was a bit discouraging to hear four such talented people sounding so miserable about what they do. Dahl told me later that he felt they had played up the negatives a bit, but it did seem like a bitch session in some ways.

By contrast, the room filled up for the web cartoonists panel, and R. Stevens, Kate Beaton, Erika Moen and Julia Wertz instantly started giving out advice on production marketing, and how to deal with the avalanche of comments they get on the web. The ever quip-ready Stevens said “I meet a lot of nice people on the internet. Maybe I’m on a different internet. They smell so much better on the internet.” Although Wertz, who considers herself a print cartoonist who puts herself on the web, injected a bit of cartoonerly mopiness, the mood was pragmatic and upbeat. Different worlds.

Aside: there was also a pretty funny moment when the web cartoonists talked about the recent Hi and Lois strip that chided web comickers for making most of their money from merchandising. “The #1 rule of the internet is that people don’t want to pay you, so you have to work around that to make money in different ways,” said Beaton. “Why is that a problem to Hi and Lois?”

The divide between career aspirations in the print and web worlds is a stark one. In a later conversation with Stevens, I brought up the panel. “We’re not tortured!” he admitted of the different world views. He also pointed out that Batman makes more money from selling underwear than he does from selling comics, so the merchandising stigma is a mostly false one, at least from something as mainstream as Hi and Lois.

Despite the different viewpoints, everyone gets along very well at SPX. And, to veer into the sociological, this unity was tested by other activities going on at the hotel. Saturday, there was some kind of ministry charity get together going on, and old white dudes in minister’s collars were seen roaming around. At night, a fancy charity ball with a coat check and expensive cocktail hour took place, and a curtain and rope were erected to keep grungy cartoonists from mingling or nabbing a gin martini. It was quite hilarious to see SPXers wandering by the milling society mavens — older gentlemen in expensive suits, and their wives in extensive sates of botox poisoning.

But the next day would bring an even better contrast — SPX vs The Miss Teen Maryland pageant! (WHO WILL REMIX?????) Vendors had set up in the hall — a tanning booth, a beauty salon and a table selling high heels, push up bras and long dangly crystal chandelier earrings of the kind a real beauty contestant would wear! Walking by the table with Brian Heater and Charlito from Indie Spinner Rack I, completely innocently said “Look at those breasts!” pointing at a pile of foam inserts. The boys thought I meant something else entirely.

The biggest effect of the pageant, however, was climatic. Evidently, melting make-up is the dire enemy of beauty pageants, and the AC was cranked up to a level only Shackleton could have endured. (I had only a thin 50% wool sweater to keep myself warm, having neglected to bring a coat on the trip at all. At one point I lost the sweater, and I swear, I nearly cried because I was so cold.)

The polar bear weather was a stark contrast to MoCCA’s Death Valley Days, and led some comparisons. Scorching heat, freezing cold — what would cartoonists be forced to survive next? “Well, APE is coming up,” someone said. “Maybe an earthquake?” God forbid.

As great as SPX is, I have one problem with it, and that is LACK OF FOOD. This year it was a real problem! Unless you eat in the hotel bar (which is a fine place) you aren’t going to eat much. I was sick on Friday, and my precarious stomach–and a tight schedule — meant all I had for dinner was a small tomato/mozzarella sandwich hastily scarfed at a bar. Saturday I was running around all day and didn’t really have a lunch program structured into my day.

I was really looking forward to dinner on Saturday — for the last three years, because of my Ignatz hosting duties, I spent Saturday night by myself holed up in my room, eating room service and writing jokes. Thus, this time I was looking forward to a nice relaxing meal with cool people. The second part of the equation was easily achieved: Will Dinski, Brian, and Chris Duffy were certainly as pleasant dinner companions as you could ask. But ONCE AGAIN the Ignatz curse struck! It was pouring rain so even though we had a car, a trip to the marvels of Bethesda proper wasn’t in the cards. We decided to go to the Italian place at the mall, but there was a 30 minute wait, and the Ignatzes were only an hour away. There was no way we’d make it back in time. So, to the mall food court we went, and no offense to White Flint, whatever that is, but their food court is horrible. Oh well, at least the company was good.

Sunday night I finally got my wish of a hot meal, when we went back for the Italian before the ride back to NYC. Hardly gourmet, but by then comfort food was the goal. Anyway, next time I go to SPX, I am definitely charting out a better plan for eating in general. And I don’t mean PUFFED SNACK BITES.

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Before we get to a few pictures, a few other notes. SPX is certainly a place to have great conversations, and some of those who graciously took the time to hang: Paul Karasik, R. SIkoryak, Chris Duffy, the Oni crew, the Comics Bakery gang, Frank Cammuso (And his adorable new baby!!) Jason T. Miles, Dan and Katie from Breen Brain, Kevin Huizenga, Lisa Hanawalt, Jerry Moriarty, Carol Tyler, Carol Burrell, Denise Sudell, Kim Thompson. Gary Groth, Randy Renaldo, Alvin Buenaventura….and SO MANY MORE. Know I’m forgetting someone. Good times.

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Inside Atomic Books

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OUTSIDE Atomic Books!

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The incredible cake for Julia Wertz/Emily Flake. THe insides had about five layers and four different substances.

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During the Nerdlingers. L-R Enrico, Baillie, Reed

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Debuting Cartoonists panel. L_R CLough, Zally, Rickheit, Davis, Dahl

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Jen Vaughn, whose strap on uterus and menstruation comics are defining a whole category to themselves.

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Gahan WIlson and Hans Rickheit

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A good look at the “modesty curtain” that was erected to keep ministers and cartooners from mingling.

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This picture didn’t come out BUT IF IT HAD, you would see a scraggly tooner walking by very well dressed people behind a rope. HAVES/HAVE NOTS. But it was all for charity so let us not put down the spirit of GIVING.

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Two bloggers + one room = LOTS OF EQUIPMENT.

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The food court at the White Flint Mall. It’s like waiting for Space Mountain except without am exciting, turbulent ride at the end. Seriously, this place took Amusement Park Waiting Area Decor to a new level of perfection.

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Kim Thompson, Carol Tyler, and Jerry Moriarty chill before the Ignatzes,

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MK Reed and Hellen Jo

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C. Spike Trotman and her giant wad of cash. You’re buyin’!

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John Porcellino at the D&Q booth

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Erika Moen, who confessed that she had been greatly influenced in her comics career by reading Disney Adventures as a kid. God, I feel old.

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Liza Hanawalt, Kevin Huizenga and Jerry Moriarty. About the time this photo was taken, the room had entered the new Ice Age and survival tactics were called for.

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Chris Schweitzer, Ray Fawkes and Matt Loux huddle together for warmth. Notice Fawkes is wearing his outside toque.

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Jon Rosenberg and R. Stevens, who tragically lost some fingers to frostbite.

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Tom Neely, Zak Sally and Jason T. Miles huddle together for warmth.

Seriously, huddling together for warmth is a good metaphor for SPX. People would probably cuddle even if it wasn’t so cold.


  1. This was my second SPX show (Trees & Hills made its debut there two years ago) and I thought it was a great show overall.

    The larger crowd was quite obvious this year (was the room smaller?), but my sense is that people were buying less. I don’t blame ’em; there were lots of great books for sale that weekend. People seemed to spend the first day looking and then the second day buying.

  2. Wait- there are “strap on uterus and menstruation” comics?

    Yes, there are. You haven’t worn a uterus mask, of course.


  3. Sorry I had to miss this one, but I just had too much work to get done. Maybe next year.

    BTW Heidi, next time you’re there and looking for a restaurant consider the Silver Grill, which is about a half mile up the road, the opposite direction from the mall. A bit noisy, but great eats.

  4. Heidi, you always seem to have problems eating while attending comics conventions. Is this some strange psychological malady? Myself, I usually carry some breakfast bars, but this time I snacked at the coffee shop (cashews, Combos, fueled by Mountain Dew).

    There were three comics schools at the show (MICA, SVA, CCS), as well as the comics godmother, Ellen Vartanoff who had many former students in the room. I actually helped one SVA student with her homework. No high school or grade school students that I noticed, unless you counted the two kids watching the table for their mothers. (How cool is that?!)

    Yup… long strange trip… I think I met you at the first or second SPX (the one with Holly Golightly before she was Holly), and the show hasn’t changed much. When you perused my “book of the show”, the S&N Ltd. Ed. of Twisted Sisters 2, many of the contributors had disappeared from comics. (The subject matter from women cartoonists has changed as well, many of the stories in that anthology are so serious and earnest.) So the new crop of youngsters comes in, the middlers sign backlist at the publisher booths, and the oldsters relax and get the star treatment.

    Yet it remains a cool show, full of surprises and interesting people.

  5. I realized I put together an SPX restaurant guide, but next year, I’m packing food. I’m lucky that my hotel-mates brought food for breakfast and I was grateful for my emergency stash of Clif Bars, but finding food there is an issue. I think it would probably be worth it to throw a few peanut butter sandwiches or something into my bag.

  6. We ate at the hotel restaurant 3 times. Would’ve been 4, except they stop serving “regular” breakfast at 10:30 on Sundays, and jack up the price to $26 per person for the special Sunday brunch.

    There *are* plenty of places to eat in the opposite direction from the mall, but you kind of have to have a car to get to them. Even WITH a car, we were not interested in leaving the hotel Saturday night in the rain. Wet on top of cold seemed like a bad idea, and I’d only brought one light sweater and no umbrella.

    It’s become the norm to pack lunch for each day of the show. That either means bringing tons of food from home, or picking up an extra sandwich or salad at the bagel place at breakfast time. There seems to be a trend for people to give away sweets on the con floor (we’re plenty guilty of this): we were offered brownies, cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, and chocolate throughout the weekend. Someone needs to start selling meat pies or quiches or something–they’d make a killing.

  7. lol! Great pics in there! Thanks for the report! :)

    Never seen some of those creators too, so great to put names with faces!!!

  8. Good to hear that the ‘Fantasy Economy’ of comix conventions continued at SPX with increased attendance, following the successes seen by NYCC, SDCC, DRAGON*CON earleir this year… Proving that even in a down economy, people have to have their words+pictures stories

    A question for the SPX ’09 attendees: I read other SPX reports that mentioned the presence of many web comics artists this year, offering dead-tree translations of their online creations, alongside the more traditional pamplets/minis being sold there.

    Was wondering if this is something that the smaller, creator-focused Cons are “evolving” to? Will certainly see if this is the case with APE coming up in a couple of weeks…

  9. Ed, the webcartoonists have been a formidable presence at indie (and mainstream) comics shows for longer than I’ve been attending them (say 2002). It isn’t a new phenomenon at all.

  10. There’s a really good Chinese food restaurant in nearby Kensington called Hong Kong. There’s a Hamburger Hamlet down Old Georgetown Road. Montgomery Mall has a much better food court than White Flint and it’s only slightly further away.

    I agree that there isn’t a lot of food within walking distance, but this is North Bethesda – which means that there isn’t a whole lot of anything within walking distance.

  11. If you want the best Chinese food in the area, I highly recommend Joe’s Noodle Shop. It’s a drive up 355 toward Rockville, but it was amazing. I went with a few other DC Conspiracy folks for dinner, and I’m going back there next year.

  12. As micheal says, thanks for the write ups, and the photos. I love reading these reports.

    And yes, I guess you need to bring food to these conventions. The hotels and convention centres seem to cater ( and that’s the right word) to the high paying visitor, or don’t expect people to get hungry. Even bringing in processed food, smack full of preservatives and sodium, is better than nothing..

  13. Pumpkin Pecan pancakes at the Silver Diner for Lumberjack Sunday (or was that Lumberjack Saturday? it’s all such a blur), then another stop there on the way out of town Monday morning for biscuits and hot chocolate with an insane amount of whipped cream, and playing with the jukebox. Easy walking distance, and tasty tasty tasty. Also warm.

    Hotel food and Thai food near the old venue were so so, but the company was spectacular.

  14. I second Carol’s comment! Silver Diner is my favorite. Food is seriously great there and they have ridiculous jukeboxes that play your selected oldies over the entire restaurant—a simultaneously wonderful and dangerous thing considering they have a whole section of bad tv theme songs. You can also get your food in a cardboard car. Next year I am going all cardboard car the whole time. Also next year we are so taking you there. The French place down the road is also pretty decent. Definitely for desert, which is the most important meal of the day. Both are easy walks.

    That said, I if Raina should starts selling meat pies at her table next year I will go on a strict all meat pie diet for SPX 2010.

    Having been at both SPX venues I have always favored the second. Every year there is a little bit more lobby hangout time with strangers and one of these days we’ll all take over the pool…though I can’t promise Brian anyone will start joining him in the gym.

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