Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland is generally renowned as the “alternative” comics convention, focusing on indies, chapbooks, web comics, and, well, small presses. The fact of the matter is that the convention is bursting with content. Case in point: I traveled with a friend to the convention on Saturday, September 13 and wound up arriving late, missing all of the panels I had anticipated attending. We left SPX without any disappointments, though.
The layout of SPX within the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel is pretty basic: a huge, perpetually crowded ballroom for artists and vendors on the second floor, and two panel rooms directly underneath on the ground floor. Impossible to get lost, right? My friend and I were glad the convention handed out maps to navigate the rings of booths. We took a blind first pass in a large circle to get a feel for the place, then focused on the studios/artists we knew we had to see. Parents were undoubtedly grateful for the “Family Friendly” booths indicated on the map, as each booth’s content was radically different from the next, and families looking for Owly or Donald Duck or Raina Telgemeier probably don’t want to walk their kid directly into a bong-smoking Jesus or a slab of t-shirts reading, “Fuck this and fuck you.” (Or maybe they do! I’m not here to judge.)
The slate of publishers was as varied as it was full of talent. Describing them in any sort of order could only resemble the sensory experience of browsing a massive flea market of passionate creators, tainted by my biases and straining to not sound like a giant advertisement. Big small presses (is that how they are labeled?) such as Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf were the most “corporate” entities I could find on the show floor, while dozens of self-publishers and indie presses showed off and signed their eye-catching merchandise. I was surprised by Self Made Hero, who have a heavy slate of quality books that I will need to check out over time (why did I not know them already?). Seeing a print copy of the anime/Simpsons mash-up “Bartkira” blew my mind and was an instant purchase, even if it only contained samples of the larger project. Early copies of the Kickstarter-funded “Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream” were massive and stuffed with creative layouts.
The back wall of the floor included a slew of my favorite webcomics folks from TopatoCo, including KC Green, Jon Rosenberg, Chris Hastings, and Jeffrey Rowland, who was a formative webcomics author I’ve read since high school. Rowland was unassuming as TopatoCo’s cashier, but agreed to a quick photo anyway. I missed Tom Tomorrow, who was out to lunch (if you’re reading this, Tom: I love your work!). Print editions of the massively popular interactive webcomic Homestuck were on sale, which I never thought I’d see, and I bet plenty of young people’s minds would be blown to find them on a library shelf. I took a chance on Pete Sickman-Garner’s sick sense of humor. Books were signed (if not simply gushed over) with Raina Telgemeier, Jillian Tamaki, Charles Burns, Mimi Pond, Emily Carroll, and Ed Piskor, a set of names that should sing “great comics” to you, in case you can’t hear it yet.
The lines to see these artists were never long, if there was a line at all. I observed some packed speaker panels, though, especially for Lynda Barry, whose signing afterward created a line that stretched through the hallway outside the show floor. I said hey to Chris Butcher, whom I met earlier this year on a manga panel for the American Library Association, and he introduced me to some friendly folks from Koyama Press.
One of my favorite meetings at SPX was purely by accident. Despite missing the comics journalism and criticism panel, I kept an eye out for the speakers and eventually spotted Brigid Alverson crossing the hall. I introduced myself and told her I really liked her work, and she took a moment to speak with me. While this happened, my friend and I noticed that the guy she was walking with wore an “Atomcat” Osamu Tezuka t-shirt, at which point she said, “Oh, and this is my friend, Ed Sizemore,” causing us to gasp. A few moments later, Johanna Carlson showed up and introduced herself. Meeting graphic novel critics/reporters is a fringe benefit to me at these kinds of conventions, as I enjoy talking to people who read way too many comics.
The other major fringe benefit is gathering Nintendo 3DS streetpasses, which is a transfer of data between the game consoles whenever they come within a certain range of each other. Every so often I would spot some gamers camped out for a panel or resting at a table and mentally take note to check my 3DS alerts. If this paragraph has done nothing else, it should inform you that SPX is extremely geek-friendly. There was not much cosplay on display, though the occasional child in a Pokemon outfit or knitted beard could be found. While I am loathe to engage in low-brow stereotyping of people according to their fashion and interests, I have to say, Lenscrafters would make a killing as an SPX vendor, given all the glasses worn.
I left Maryland the next day after my friend and I ate brunch at Ize’s Deli, a small but wonderful eatery with plenty of local flavor. As we ate, I spotted someone in a “Pimp My Bookcart” t-shirt (always with the recognizable t-shirts, this guy) and decided to say hi as a (presumably) fellow librarian. The stranger said he used to be a librarian but had started taking classes with the Center For Cartoon Studies. “That means you’re Andrew Shuping,” I said, and we shook hands as fellow No Flying, No Tights writers.
I don’t know how often I will return to SPX, having driven up from South Carolina this time, but the mixture of alternative presses, easy organization, diehard audience, and friendly faces puts it a notch above the larger, flashier, more expensive shows. I may have missed the panels and Ignatz Awards that were initially mapped out, but my autographed book haul thanks SPX for the experience.