Okay. I read a lot of blog posting about SPX today and several of them mentioned the lack of signage for programming. I’d like to say, this sort of thing can be helpful:
Sign
Granted, perhaps indie cartooners wouldn’t be so likely to read actual hotel signs, but it was there. And yes, there could have been more SPX-like signs indicating that the programming was going on downstairs, but sometimes the man comes through.

Another common cry was the lack of beer at the 7 Eleven. There WAS a liquor store around the corner, and the hard truth is YOU MUST PLAN AHEAD FOR BEER RUNS WHEN IN THE
‘BURBS.

I’m going to break this down into bullet points because I don’t have the faculties to weave everything together into essays any more.

The New Venue: I give it a thumbs up. Yes, we all miss the crappy old SPX with its wobbling circular staircase and the gelato amd the tunnel of love and the Army-Navy store and our favorite restaurants. But the new joint is modern, clean spacious and offers a variety of spaces for a variety of activities.

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Being the first year and all, there was some awkwardness. The hotel staff clearly didn’t know what to make of us, but they were all courteous and helpful. The hotel charges way too much for wifi and parking, true, but the room rates were comparable and the room were much nicer.

The big problem was that the hotel didn’t set aside enough rooms for SPX, leaving far too many folks to stay at far off hotels, but the word from SPX organizers was that after looking at how quickly we filled up the room block and how much we drank, they are eager to have us back and will offer more rooms next year.

I also didn’t hear about any problems with security. Late night hotel room parties seem to have gone on until everyone passed out and an impromptu life drawing class even took place. (The Marriott may not be so thrilled to know that naked men were being sketched, but perhaps they won’t find out. Oops.) Robin Bougie reports that he had to cover come nude covers on his table, but that’s the only incident we’ve heard of yet.

I also read a lot of bitching about the bar, but I don’t see that myself. There were receptions downstairs both nights — these weren’t advertised to exhibitors as well as they could have been, though — but the upstairs bar had a lot of chairs, and there was plenty of room in the sprawling hotel to settle in for your own private get together — I saw a lot of these going on. I was particularly taken with the OUTSIDE patio area. It was a very chilly weekend, but during the day it was a fine place to grab lunch or hang out. If the show moves to a date a little earlier in the year, this outside area would be a great hangout. So yeah it was different, but it wasn’t bad.

The Food: This was the big problem. No one knew where to go to eat. I came this close to eating at the same Japanese/Chinese takeout place two nights in a row, and that can’t compare to the awesome, top-notch ethnic eateries of charming Bethesda. Those places were a few metro stops away, which was a hassle admittedly. In New York you wouldn’t think anything of going a few subway stops for dinner, so it wasn’t that impassable. Once again, I think people just weren’t given enough information in advance, and next year, if they know what to expect it will go better. But yeah, I will always miss my indie nights at Faryab. (When I got home Sunday I ordered some ashak from Bamiyan, my local Afghan place, but it wasn’t the same.)

The bottom line is that the new location has sucky environs, but I doubt that there is any going back.

The show: As mentioned before, I liked having everyone in one room, and most people I talked to seemed to like it, although others report a more mixed reaction. The room itself had narrow aisles and the kind of acoustics that made it sound busy even when no one was buying anything. Some people complained about the noise, but I prefer a bustling sound (minus loud video game booths, of course) to the deadly silence of someone who just spent their lunch money for a month printing horrible mini-comics begging you to buy them.

However, up until about 4 pm on Saturday, it looked like this SPX was going to be a flop. No one had been doing very well when I walked around the room that afternoon. One veteran exhibitor said he hadn’t even made a single sale, something that had never happened at a previous show.

Luckily, around 4, the circlers became buyers and it got mad hectic as people rushed to buy stuff. All the key books sold out, and in two hours the show became profitable and successful.

Attendance was about what it was last year, or perhaps even up a tiny bit, according to one of the organizers I talked to Sunday morning. The show got MAJOR local press, so if it hadn’t done well, that would have been a big failure. While the Metro DC crowd may not LOOK like an indie alternative crowd, they have money to spend and like to buy comics. And, lest we forget, comics are HOT HOT HOT.

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Programming: We only got to go to the Feiffer panel, but by all account it went well, with most rooms 2/3rd full. The Scoot McCloud panel was the marquee event and lots of people couldn’t get in. Bill Kartalopoulos did the programming, and he tried to make it more intelligent and informative, and he definitely elevated it to the level that a serious festival of intelligent comics needed.

The Ignatzes: Well, I’m hardly in a position to judge, but the goofy UN-style room definitely made this a unique event. Unfortunately the room just wasn’t large enough. Lots of people couldn’t get in. Something to be tweaked for next year. The traditional Ignatz set up with the big room and people schmoozing in the bar in the back, wasn’t as captive an audience, but more of the SPX crowd seems to want to hang out at this awards show than ANY other comics award. In the future, we suspect it will be the most collegial hang out for attendees.

Guests: Now here is where it gets tricky. This was certainly a good line-up of guests and attendees, but when you think about how Jeff Smith, Evan Dorkin, Eddie Campbell, Terry Moore, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran and the like used to come to this show, I, for one missed having more of that level of guest. (Not to mention having The Hernandezes, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Seth and so on there at one point or another.) Now I suspect I may be in the minority here: the new kids don’t really want to hang out with old farts, and at least one self-publisher-turned-superstar at the show was actively snickered at when his name was mentioned.

This was, above all, a transitional year. SPX began as part of a series of showcases for the Dave Sim-era of self publishers, and those people are just off doing other things now — only Batton Lash, Jackie Estrada, Rick Veitch, and Paul Pope were really of that mindset. The Simians were replaced by the Xeric gang, but the people who made SPX in the late 90s weren’t there, either except for Jon Lewis and Megan Kelso.

Bart Beatty has his own SPX remarks at The Comics Reporter, and they mirror many of mine in this regard.

Of course, the business has changed so much that those models don’t even apply any more. Nowadays, it’s all about getting into prestigious anthologies and then getting a book deal from a publisher, or else your own book from Fantagraphics or D&Q. Those publishers and Top Shelf are really the core of SPX. Oni has been coming for a few years and doing well, but their more mainstream identification isn’t automatically embraced to the indie bosom. Behind those three come smaller but prestigious publishers like Buenaventura, PictureBox, Bodega and AdHouse, and the collectives like Global Hobo, Sparkplug and Meathaus.

In fact there were a number of new collectives — I didn’t get a chance to check them all out because, to be honest, one table covered with tiny little hand printed items tends to blend into another, and I generally don’t have the strength of character to stand there and look through something while someone with eyes like a Margaret Keane painting watches you, praying for a positive reaction—and then not buy it. (I did buy way more comics at SPX than I do at any other show — not being able to spend a few bucks on someone’s mini is just bad form.)

There were a lot of kids who formed collectives out of art school — SVA had a large contingent, and Maryland was also represented. There seemed to be very very few people who want to do comics any more, however. No more FINDERs, AGE OF BRONZE or STRAY BULLETS.

One thing I did notice, as did other observers, is that with money back on the table, people are getting more competitive and less “We’re all in this groovy tenement together!” Dark Horse’s Diana Schutz and Vertigo’s Bob Schreck and Shelly Bond were all patrolling the floor for new talent, and we heard that Janna from Scholastic was there. MoCCA is definitely the show to come to get a book deal, but SPX is on the radar, too.

200610171346One thing that must be mentioned is the state of Alternative Comics. Once one of the bellweathers of the biz, it is still putting out strong books — Jon Lewis ‘ Power of Six, Dash Shaw’s The Mothers Mouth and even a new edition of Meathaus — but they did an awesome job of keeping this top secret.

The Vibe: The buzz book of the show was NINJA, a huge hardcover collection of Fort Thunder’s Brian Chippendale’s obsessive, punk comics. Large, heavy and colorful, I heard as many comments from people about how they felt just carrying it around as I did the contents. A beautiful object, it makes many statements — I decided not to buy a copy because I didn’t want to worry about getting it home. Now I regret having to wait.

The entire Fort Thunder/Paperrad school of comics is getting a lot of attention now, which it should, but, admittedly, I like the narrative parts of KRAMER’S ERGOT the best. The practitioners of storytelling both touching and horrifying — BILLY HAZELNUTS springs to mind — are as rare as ever, but I feel like the level of craftsman below the full blown genius of a Chippendale or Millionaire is being lost in a world where the audience isn’t taken into account. It’s wonderful that Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen and Gabrielle Bell have been able to ascend to the next level of achievement and attention, but the next generation is dead set on writing the Great American Graphic Novel, and they don’t seem to have any place to pay their dues.

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. I suspect the level of hits and misses will adhere to the Sturgeon’s Universal Constant, but there is some sense of continuity that is missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. In fact if you read this story that I wrote for PW in 2002, you’ll see everyone is excited. The promise has paid off to a great extent, but the excitement was gone this year.

I had a long conversation with Craig Yoe — which he summarizes in a post on The Comics Journal Message Board:

loved jeremy tinder’s ‘cry yourself to sleep’ book. also finally got ‘private stash’ which is incredibly beautiful and fun. both of those projects have most excellent DRAWING. i was appalled that 99% of the books i saw at SPX had real bad art. wassup with that? oh, dug meeting ivan brunetti and tony millionaire when i was signing ‘arf’ books at the fantagraphics booth. THOSE guys can draw!

Yoe’s constant cry was “Why can’t these guys draw?” I took him over to the table of a universally praised and beloved indie superstar, and Yoe pronounced the art disappointing. Admittedly, Yoe has his own fairly focused (but high level) tastes, but it’s a question worth asking and a point worth pondering. Sometimes the indie world seems to be throwing out its collective shoulder patting itself on the back without any real reason. KRAYON’S EGO pricked a pin in the balloons of most of the current indie darlings, and for that reason it’s been the REAL buzz book of the year at every show it’s been sold at.

On the other hand, Yoe was just registering what his senses told him. There were some truly horrible looking things on the floor. College humor strips, wannabe goth books, poop comics, unfunny animals, and so on. I advised Karon Flage, who is taking over running the show next year, not to expand the exhibitor space, and this is why. IN fact, in going through my booty from the show — a 50/50 mix of purchases and things that people had given me opun seeing my name badge — I could barely get past the first page of almost any of it. Admittedly, I had already seen most of the big books of the show in galley form — CURSES, Ivan Brunetti’s GRAPHIC FICTION anthology, LUCKY — but there were fewer new treasures.

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There were also a few breakouts — Eleanor Davis and Drew Weing and their LITTLE HOUSE collective deserve all the praise they get, and not just from their agents. Kazimir Strzepek’s THE MORNING STAR was also a star. I haven’t gone through most of the anthologies I picked up, and maybe i missed the good ones, but the ones I got were…disappointing.

Sunday: This was probably the big problem at the show, and partly because of the last minute nature of much of the planning. There were three panels in the “small press summit” portion of the show, but there was not much advertising the times of setting. (I was on the last panel and it was well attended, for whatever reason.) Afterwards everyone went off to Dave and Busters for some free food and games. I had to split since my ride was leaving, but people seemed to enjoy the Dave and Busters. I would have traded it to just hang out on the patio. The “chill out day” of SPX has always been its greatest draw, BUT, it may just be time to sacrifice it. Most everyone I talked to would rather have a two day sale show on Saturday and Sunday, and ditch the now-theoretical-only picnic. If the show were a few weeks earlier and warmer weather were more likely, the picnic could come back, but that is all a theory. I think the idea of seminars and a real industry summit — the “retreat” idea I heard some people talking about — is very very valuable, and I could tell that many of the less experienced exhibitors would like such a thing. That would take a lot of planning and organization, however, and that is always the problem.

The SPX committee is all volunteer and they’ve all been at it a long time. Previous director Steve Conley was clearly burnt out after three YEARS on the job, and Karon Flage has experience and know how, but volunteer burn out is a fact of life.

Bart Beatty and now Ben Towle have made their own suggestions of how to make SPX a real comics festival, and less a flea market. I’m not sure if any of the suggestions would work — an art show is a great idea, though — but it’s easy for me to say because I don’t have to do it! The tools are all there to make SPX a good show, and to get it growing again. Comics probably aren’t going anywhere, so they have a little time. But for SPX to be all it can be, everyone needs to think about what they really want it to be–and that may be the hardest part of all.

15 COMMENTS

  1. I cannot even begin to say how strongly I disagree with your position of not expanding the space. EXPAND EXPAND EXPAND! More importantly, find some way to get a cheaper section.
    Heidi, this post suggests that you embrace SPX growing into a forum for the 2nd tier of the publishing world. Like a place for the people of Kill Rock Stars and Matador records to hang out.
    Look, I LOVE Top Shelf. I LOVE Fantagraphics. I think those guys are the mother-effing heroes of our personal obsessions. Seriously. Gary Groth needs a statue atop the new world trade center…
    but my first SPX in 1999 charmed the pants off of me with all the crappy little 50 cent comic books. It was so cool.
    I blew a lot of cash on stuff I didn’t like my first year. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot better at checking out the goods before buying and then sweeping back through to make my picks (thus the 4PM rush phenonmenon you described).
    There’s a lot of stuff that turns me off in comix.
    A lot of stuff I think is bad,
    but I still want SPX to be an incubator of the little mediums.

    THE TABLE PRICE AT SPX IS PRETTY HIGH!

    This sort of sucks. It’s the price of success. But I think we need to have another group of rooms at this new venue that cost less to get into… a mini-comix ghetto (as it would inevitably get known) so that new creators can sit down there and begin to start to get an inkling of if they can build an audience or not.

    If SPX doesn’t expand it’s floor size then, if comix grow in popularity, and awesome new places like Ad House and Partyka (which impressed the HELL out of me) grow (as they deservedly should), table prices will go up, they will need more space, and there will be even fewer $1 or $2 books.

    SPX will become a place where you already have to have some sort of an audience to get in the door, which totally sucks. That’s not the point of the show (I don’t think).

    It’s true, the organization has to change and grow, but the DIY movement got it off the ground and I think continuing to cultivate the DIY movement is a part of SPX’s obligation.

    Everyone wants a book deal. Of course. Of course. No one can be Dave Sim forever. Of course. He’s crazy. That’s how he did it. That said, the DIY movement is how we find the Megan Kelso’s and the Scott Mills and all those folks.

    I would probably quit going to SPX if I wasn’t meeting these random dudes who are staying late at work and stealing time on the office copier to get their books out. That’s the heart of the matter.

  2. Another point you didn’t mention was the lack of an SPX anthology this year. Sort of depressing. I remember I once tried to get involved with it and there was too much interest for me to be of any help. I wasn’t wanted! Now there’s not enough to make it go?
    I wouldn’t have known about SPX if not for 98 anthology that I bought in a comics shop.

    Also, I reread my post and you could read it as saying I didn’t want the TOP SHELF’s to be there. I do. I love them. I just want the tiny guys, too.

    I also meant to say that a lot of the stuff in comix that I see as crap other people like. For example, you have to use computers pretty effing amazingly for me to like it. If I smell even a whiff of computer, I put down most (not all, but most) books. This is not true for many, many people.

    My point is that just because you and I see a lot of junk on the tables, that doesn’t mean those folks can’t find an audience.
    I’m not likely to buy a slasher comic. They find audiences though, right?

    I have to say, I really dig the creators you highlighted. Especially Drew Weing. BLAR is like the greatest little mini ever. AMAZING. So funny. A little clean for my taste, but he uses his draughting powers well.

  3. Just a quick note about the electronic signs. Yes, they were there but they only showed the day’s events half the time. The screens kept cycling back and forth between the events listing you show in the photo, and some kind of advertisement. If you’re coming into the hotel and glance at one of those screens while looking around for directions or information, you may not keep looking at the screen long enough for it to cycle through and show the listings again. And so you won’t know that this is where the information you want is to be found.

    I agree with Brady that the exhibits area should be expanded. My company was not able to get a table at the con because they sold out, and I don’t think we are “not ready for prime time.” Of course, you may disagree. Any one curious can check out our website.

  4. When I think of the dude at my first SPX who was making 1 inch by 1 inch comics that he sold for a quarter each… even if you weren’t ready for prime time, SPX shouldn’t be prime time (at least not entirely prime time).

    And, yes, the electronic signs did change a lot. Really slow. I thought the same thing when I read the first post.

    Still, the new venue ain’t so bad. They just need to suck up more of it! MORE MORE MORE!!! RARGH!!!

  5. it was a blast, i had not been to any of the previous SPX’s but was happy with this. I wish I had more many to spend because of all the awesome books, but i look forward to following up and doing some interviews with some of the talented folk I met.

  6. If it is at the same location next year, I might make the trek out to go. I basically just need a good excuse to go out to Bethesda and a comics convention that’s only ONE MILE away from MEAT ON SWORDS (Green Field Churrascaria) is basically the best excuse ever. Mmmm, meat on swords.

  7. Great report… Very thorough!!!
    A couple Things:

    1) your “A beautiful object, it makes many statements” comment on Ninja is spot on. It was the SPX equivalent of walking a puppy in the park (although it drew more geeks coming up to me than hot women in halter tops). Anyway, it is a great, great book!!! I was a bit reluctant to buy it based on my “where the hell will I store this” phobia, but I’m glad I did, and it fits just perfectly lying flat on top of my DVD player.

    2) I would disagree with your “don’t expand” assessment. If what someone mentioned on tcj is true and there is a sliding wall on one side of the current hall, I say “expand away”!!! Expansion would not only eleviate the narrow aisle issue that people seem to be bringing up, but it would also bring in more exhibitors.

    3) The hotel is top notch. I almost felt like it was too good for me! Seriously. Maybe the new location will serve to “raise the bar”, and draw even more top talent next year.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to next year. I had probably my best time since 2000 this year. Thanks to all involved.

    Take Care,

    Trevor

  8. Heidi, thanks for the report. I think you were right about almost everything except the 4 pm rush… well at least I didn’t experience it. However, Saturday was very busy for me all day long and I had already sold out of both of the “Wang” GN’s that I brought with me long before 4 pm ever came around.

    Certainly, communication about mixers and events could have been better at this location, but I still had a blast. Food was a big issue… I definitely like the choices and convenience at the old location better, but I do appreciate the folks that were passing around the dining guide… very helpful.

    Expensive? Yes. If it weren’t for the fact that I was staying at my aunt’s house and having Kevin Freeman drive me back and forth, it would have been more. I felt I did well sales-wise, but I still only covered table, not plane fare. If I had to also get a room, I’d have been way under water. I can only do these conventions occasionally until I’m making enough to cover more. It’s expensive to travel in from Denver.

  9. In summation: had a great time. Sold a bunch of books. Chatted with a bunch of enthusiastic folks. The new facilities worked for us. From our perspective, not a single complaint in the world. See ya next year! Same time, same place!

  10. I can’t say as I experienced the 4 oclock thing you mentioned. I had pretty decent sales friday, and then saturday the morning was light, and by noon it had picked up to pace that stayed consistent right through to the end. I will say that I noticed the room get much more packed every time a panel finnished, so I took my bathroom breaks while panels were going on.

    In fact, this was the first convention I broke even on. if it hadn’t been for me not being able to find anyone to split a room with (I asked and asked!) I’d have made a profit.

    I like the open convention floor, but the environs of the hotel do suck hard.

  11. Sorry you were so bummed about the food situation. Granted, North Bethesda doesn’t have the same great restaurant per square mile ratio as down the Pike, but there are some real gems in the area. I actually put together a restaurant guide with recommendations and a map that was handed out to exhibitors. Maybe next year they’ll extend it to press as well.

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