Con Report: SPX 2014

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 author and Jeffrey Rowland.

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.


Some convention bloggers are mature enough to resist photographing their “book haul.” I remain easily excited by piles of books.

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 author, Ed Sizemore, and Brigid Alverson.

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.

ValhallaCon 2014

The first year of a convention’s existence is like watching a sapling sprout from the ground: there’s not much to expect from the young seed, but you want to see it grow into something strong and beautiful. ValhallaCon is one such convention, taking place at the Sheraton hotel in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, July 12 and Sunday, July 13. Valhalla in the convention’s name suggests a Norse or viking theme, but there was a little bit of everything: comics, gaming, cosplay, merchandise, artwork, spanning all age ranges.


Navigating the convention was awkward in the beginning hours, as there were no signs to indicate the names of different rooms or what was scheduled for each one. The early attendance was sparse when the programs began at 10am: a panel titled “Comics Are For Everyone” hosted by comics colorist Christine Brunson had about four people total in attendance. This is not a fault on Brunson’s part, as her casual demeanor, insider discussion, and comics giveaways were worth attending. She introduced the topic of comics as a diverse medium for all kinds of readers, but she also took several questions about her career as a colorist.

Christine Brunson cosplaying Bioshock Infinite.

Christine Brunson cosplaying Bioshock Infinite.

The game room, consisting of several televisions hooked up to several gaming consoles including a Super NES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, Xbox 360, Sega Genesis, and a dedicated computer for Dance Dance Revolution with large, solid dance pads. I did not find any tournament schedules or signups, but there was a steady stream of gamers coming through the space, all of them inviting to newcomers. Several seats were taken up with Pokemon players on their own 3DS systems, likely battling for badges. Just as the Pokemon videogames feature “gym leaders” who award badges for defeating them, there were several such characters walking the floor at ValhallaCon for players to challenge, including local artist Thor Thorvaldson as the Pokemon Champion to beat as the ultimate challenge. Seeing as how conventions are often paid spaces for geeking out, I think convention Pokemon leagues bring a fun personal touch to a game that otherwise leans on its online options.

Game room, equipment provided by Pixels & Pawns.

Game room, equipment provided by Pixels & Pawns.

Around noon, the hotel was definitely more bustling than before, with cosplayers streaming through every hall and room, often pausing for impromptu photo ops from attendees.

Ocarina expert Emily Lorick showed off her skills in a special panel, and played different tunes that gently wafted through some of the halls at different times. I nearly went berserk at the sound of Shadow’s theme from Final Fantasy 6 and wondered who was playing the game’s soundtrack on a stereo.

Another panel, about girls and women portrayed in comics, took a casual approach. The presenter pulled out several comics issues and discussed what she likes to see in a female hero and villain and invited feedback from the audience, which took her question and ran with it. Several audience members vented about female superhero designs they didn’t like, crediting the apparent sexism of DC and Marvel to the lack of female creators working for them.

Paper-ZeldaMy favorite event to watch was the Paper Cosplay contest. Several teams of designers used paper, tape, and lots of creativity to deck their models in outfits around a specific theme (gaming). Three of the models ended up as Legend of Zelda characters: a little boy as Link, a young woman as Navi, and a guy covered head to toe as Zelda, cartoonish eyes included. A fourth model also took the full-body approach as Spyro the Dragon. As soon as I saw how much fun everyone had as designers, models, and spectators, I immediately wanted to schedule a similar event for my library.

The con was conveniently timed to coincide with Soda City, a regular open-air market for artists and vendors in the area. I watched a Spock do some window shopping while cosplayers with comically large swords stood in line for hot dogs. Every few feet I could hear someone explaining their costume or merchandise to a curious bystander. “What’s with the outfit? Where is this happening? Okay, have fun.”

Later, in the evening, I participated in a Nerds of the Apocalypse trivia game. I arrived late, but the Meme Team adopted me into their fold. We had fun flailing against questions that stretched our knowledge of all things nerdy in television, movies, games, and comics. (Sample question: What was Boba Fett’s screen debut? My team answered The Empire Strikes Back. Nope – it was the Star Wars Christmas Special.) We made up some lost ground with the final question, listing all of the colors and corresponding emotions in the Green Lantern series, and came in last. The biggest reward of the contest was the banter between NOTA and the teams, as gathering nerds for a trivia contest naturally invites jokes leaning on obscure references.

The next panel on my schedule was called Disney’s Downfalls, one sure to generate some vigorous debate, but as far as I could tell, it never happened. The schedule indicated which floor and room, and several people were gathered to see the panel, but the presenter didn’t show up.


With time to spare, I re-toured the artist alley, which was on the brink of closing. One vendor observed that the crowds dried up after lunchtime, which leads me to believe the con’s golden hours were between 11am and 3pm. That night, the game room was emptied out for one of the final panels of the day, Horror Manga, with staff at the door to check that everyone attending was 18 or older. Kelly Shull, who has presented this topic at a few cons before, spotlighted multiple horror titles, gradually showing gorier, stranger, and more gruesome pages that made the audience gasp. She learned at the beginning of her presentation that there would not be a projector, so she turned her laptop toward us and we sat in a semicircle around it. This campfire-like configuration gave her talk the atmosphere of a ghost story, and it was easily my favorite presentation of the con. She also ran a booth of cute, wonky creatures as half of the creative duo behind jellykoe.

I was not at ValhallaCon Sunday, but some of my library’s teen anime club members spoke up in support of the day’s programs. One boy was excited about a demonstration of medieval-style combat using foam swords with a group called Dagorhir, and a girl told me the artist alley and con in general were more crowded on the second day. This does not surprise me, given the ticket prices. A pre-registration weekend pass cost $20, while at the door, a weekend pass cost $35, a Saturday pass cost $25, and a Sunday pass cost $15. All children 5 and younger were allowed in for free. Given that this was a brand new convention at a small venue, those prices were steep.

If you would like to see footage from ValhallaCon, I recommend Nerds of the Apocalypse’s video playlist as well as local news footage.

While ValhallaCon’s first steps were shaky, I hope the organizers take what they’ve learned to make next year’s event that much better.

TCAF Top Ten 2013

tcaf_2013_posters_500pxWhat is this TCAF of which we speak?  Well, it is perhaps my favorite comics event I am lucky enough to attend every year, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.  This year was the tenth anniversary of the festival, and so festival co-founders Christopher Butcher and Peter Birkemoe, who are also the gentlemen behind Toronto’s excellent comic shop The Beguiling, pulled out all of the stops.

Gina Gagliano coordinated an astounding array of panels, presentations, interviews, and creative demonstrations over the festivals Saturday and Sunday hours, forcing fans to choose between so many enticing options.  The many creators present are too many to list, but highlights included Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Taiyo Matsumoto, Rutu Modan, Francoise Mouly, Paul Pope, Michel Rabagliati, Gengoroh Tagame, and Art Spiegelman. Scott Robins once again highlighted comics for young readers, from kids on up to tweens, with a delightful cycle of interactive talks, demonstrations, and title highlights from creators including Bill Amend, Faith Erin Hicks, Hope Larson, Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, TOON books, and Eric Wight.


This guy was determined to read Dave Roman’s new Astronaut Academy as SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Andrew Woodrow Butcher, also the man behind North America’s only kids comics shop, Little Island Comics, gathered together a delightful company of creators, publishers, librarians, and comics experts for TCAF’s second Librarian & Educator Day on Friday, May 10th.  I was lucky to be a part of three panels that day — comics librarians unite! — and you can check out audio recordings of some of my panels at the end of this post.

Hosted at the Toronto Reference Library (and I must send a shout out to Ab Velasco, Communications Officer for the Toronto Public Library and ninja librarian, to be sure), this festival is truly like no other, and I hope to attend for the next ten years.  If you’re curious to see how the festival and library partnership came about, check out the article I wrote up after last year’s festival for American Libraries.

It’s difficult, with this embarrassment of riches, to whittle down the moments that were most exciting about attending TCAF in 2013.  However, fellow NFNT reviewer Sheli, a first-time attendee, and myself have narrowed down our experiences to our top ten highlights.  Hopefully our excitement might entice a few of our readers to attend TCAF in the future!

Robin’s Top Five


1. Taiyo Matsumoto: TCAF has developed an strong partnership with The Japan Foundation in Toronto, and through the tireless work of co-founder Christopher Butcher and the close partnerships the festival staff have maintained with publishers in Japan, every year TCAF hosts legendary manga creators.  This year, one of the best moments for me was attending the evening reception at the Japan Foundation highlighting their exhibit of the art of Taiyo Matsumoto, best known here in the States for Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White.  For the first time ever (not just in North American, but ever anywhere) Taiyo Matsumoto’s original pages were on display, and the curation and presentation of his original pages were extraordinary to see in person.

CecilTCAF     TCAFDylanMeconis

2. Books: So many books were debuting at TCAF, and I wanted them all!  My haul was fairly small compared to many folks, but I loved just wandering the tables and looking at everyone’s work.  I got to get my greedy hands on a copy of Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks’s Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, which I adored reading online.  Cecil Castellucci, as you can see, was radiant displaying her charming new book, Odd Duck.  On top of that, there is so much art! Sketches and original art are my weakness when I’m at TCAF, never mind that I have almost no wall space left at my apartment.  This year I settled for a tiny but adorable painting by Dylan Meconis (Outfoxed) called, simply, “Tea?”  How could I resist that smile?


Every time I walked by, Faith Erin Hicks’s line looked just like this.

3. Lines:  No, I don’t mean waiting in lines to get in to a panel.  I love seeing all of the TCAF creators interacting casually and cordially with their fans, and I particularly love seeing creators getting the lines and attention they deserve.  Faith Erin Hicks’s (Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong) line never seemed to wane, and I was delighted to see creator Alex Woolfson (Artifice) not only sell out of his books but also always have a crowd of guys and girls chatting around his table.  It’s never out of control — the staff is professional and attendees patient and polite — but the bustle is so exciting.

Haul2     Haul1

4. Meeting creators: TCAF is, I think, one of the gentler cons to table at for the first time.  I’ve found that I’m finding more and more great talent on tumblr and via webcomics, and TCAF has become a great place for me to meet those creators (and buy merch! and ramble about how much I love their work!).  This year I got to meet Blue Delliquanti (O Human Star) and Polly Guo (Strongman and Pianist) in person, and there’s nothing quite like seeing all the creators embraced by the diverse TCAF crowd.  Not only can people gain new followers, but it makes it that much easier for me to point out my favorites to colleagues when I can send them directly to a creator’s table to check them out.


Sheli’s Top Five

Batman Year 100 Cover     battling-boy

1. Paul Pope inking demonstration: I spend a lot of time learning how to draw, and by far the most illusive task in comics is learning how to ink. There’s the least literature on it, and every professional has a different take on it. There are plenty of great panels at TCAF, but Paul Pope (a god of comics) talking about inking was crazy educational.  Bravo to the coordinator that had that inspired thought.

ImAGermanShepherd     ellerbisms-cover-web    AlwaysRainingHere

2. Blind Buys: One of my favorite things about conventions is being exposed to new things. I love just walking around the floor and buying up books that look awesome. I Am a German Shepherd, Always Raining Here and Ellerbisms were some of my favorite scores from TCAF.

TCAFLibrary     TCAFLibrary2

3. The Library: Is it too much the mark of a librarian to say that I loved the library?  You don’t understand! The Toronto Reference Library has like, a river running through it’s ground floor?! And glass elevators. And plants everywhere! It’s so awesome to begin with, and then they stuffed it with magical comic creators.

4. Creators <3 TCAF: I saw so many great creator interactions throughout the convention. Faith Erin Hicks did amazing at making the girls in front of me feel prized. Like there wasn’t a line behind them. David Malki was such a showman for all of the minute details of Machine of Death. Yuko Ota didn’t mind when I asked her to draw a parasaurolophus. While a creator being awesome isn’t particular to TCAF, I feel like since it’s a well-regarded con, a lot of creators have more fun at TCAF. It’s not humongous, and they’re well taken care of by the staff. I’m not sure if I feel that way because I was having such a good time, but it was the impression I took away.

5. Being a librarian: Being a librarian has unanticipated benefits in a convention setting. If it comes up with creators, a lot of times their excitement goes up to the Nth degree. Sometimes it’s just because they love books, but a lot of times there’s a real appreciation for our profession. I guess because a lot of us tend to be on the front lines of literature, and ones that show up to comic conventions are obviously supporters of the art. Either way, it’s super flattering to be treated like royalty by people that you regard as royalty.

Panel Recordings

Jamie Coville, a dedicated TCAF attendee and journalist, recorded a wide selection of panels I participated on at TCAF.  If you’re curious to hear the discussions, please check out the following links, and to hear all of his recordings (like Raina Telgemeier and Bill Amend in conversation! Michel Rabagliati’s spotlight! Tom Spurgeon interviewing the Hernandez brothers!), check out his archive of recordings here.  All of the following summaries, photos, and links are his hard work — thanks Jamie!

Comics Defense 101 (1:10:03, 64.1mb)
Comics Defense 101 TCAF 05-10-2013

Moderated by Robin Brenner and on the panel was Gene Ambaum, Charles Brownstein, Diana Maliszewski, Rebecca Scoble and Eva Volin. This panel was about challenges to graphic novels, which if successful can result in the book being removed them from the library or school. They started off talking about their more bizarre challenges, everything from Jeff Smith’s Bone to Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life. They also talked about push back against comics both from the communities they are in and from staff within the library or school. The librarians and teachers in the audience asked questions on how to deal with situations they are currently facing. One librarian told a funny story about how a child in her middle school had The Walking Dead TPBs and was renting them out to his classmates to read at $2 a book, but wanted to house them in the library.

The State of YA (Young Adult) Comics (54:18, 49.7mb)

State of YA Comics TCAF 5-10-2013

Moderated by Gina Gagliano, Eva Volin, Robin Brenner, Cecil Castellucci, Svetlana Chmakova, Faith Erin Hicks and John Green talks about problems with the YA comics market and what they thought the market needed. They talked about a trend of publishers doing adaptations instead of original work. They all mentioned they like to see more ethnic diversity in the lead characters in YA, and they are hoping for a watershed book that really hits it big that will convince publishers to invest more in doing original work and supporting it. Other topics discussed was how in YA prose they can do things like a sex scene that they can’t do in a YA comic. The topic of manga came up a lot in regards to it’s content and it’s limitations. They also took questions from the audience.

Writing Life (55:41, 50.9mb)

Writing Life Panel TCAF 05-11-2013

On this panel were creators that did autobiographical non-fiction graphic novels. They were Derf Backderf, Lucy Knisley, Ulli Lust and Raina Telgemeier. The group talked about their books. They felt there was a difference between non-fiction and memoir books and spoke about how different people remember events differently. Derf spoke about how he was able to go back and talk to his high school friends about events with Jeffery Dahmer and revealed that people usually remembered things pretty much the same way. They also talked about depicting other people they know (eg family members) and if their reaction to it changes the way they tell a story. The group talked about if they leave stuff out of their comics and if some personal stories are “not for sale.” This panel was moderated by Robin Brenner.

ALA 2012 Update: Fandom Panel line-up!

I was privileged to moderate an excellent panel this last Sunday at ALA Annual 2012 called (Re)telling Stories: Fanart, authorship, and how stories are shared, reconstructed, and retold on fandom, fan cultures, reading, and authorship.

Attendees asked me to post the full line-up of panelists so everyone could keep track of who participated.  Everyone was so very gracious and articulate, I can understand wanting to find out more about them all.  I’ve linked their names to their major internet presence, if they have a dedicated site.

Our panelists were:

And I was the moderator.  This was a major highlight of ALA for me, and I’d like to publicly thank all of the participants and attendees for being a part of such an informative and engaging discussion.

If you attended the panel, I’d love to hear what you all thought as an audience member!  I wish we could have shared the entire panel with those who could not attend ALA, but I’m hoping to write up a report and I’m hopeful attendees might chime in on twitter or tumblr to say what they thought.

TCAF 2012 Handouts

For those lucky folks who attended TCAF this past weekend and attended the two panels I participated in but unfortunately left without our useful handouts, here they are, conveniently downloadable in PDF.

From the Friday TCAF Librarian and Educator Day panel I presented, Graphic Novels in the Public Library 101/201, here are the handouts chock full of librarian strategies, core lists, and resources.

Librarians Communities and Resources TCAF 2012 (PDF)

Subject and Curriculum Connections Dec 2011 (PDF)

For those of you who attended or were curious about our Sunday Gay for You? Yaoi and Yuri Manga for GBLTQ Readers panel The whole panel was great fun and very informative, because the panelists were the most awesome Leyla Aker, Christopher Butcher (who took time out of running the entire show to be on our panel!), and Snow Wildsmith and because the audience, as expected, was ace.  Here is our updated handout of recommended titles for GBLTQ readers.  Please note that the yuri recommendations were updated by the indefatigable expert Erica Friedman, even though she could not be with us on the panel.

Gay for You TCAF 2012 (PDF)