After four years of attending the Small Press Expo, the one thing that always strikes me is how unique it is as a convention experience. This is not going to be some elitist indictment of the average comic-con, more concerned with cosplay and trotting out long-since irrelevant screen stars than showcasing the product that ought to be the main focus. More than anything else, SPX represents an important bastion in the industry, an IRL effigy of the kind of healthy and productive circular loop of artist/consumer give and take that occurs daily on social media sites like Tumblr. There’s a kind of barrier between talent and fan if you’re visiting a big comic convention. No matter how friendly or approachable a given cartoonist may be, there’s often this unspoken line between those that produce the work and those that consume it.
Some of this can be blamed on the essential mythologizing done by the Big Two about What Goes Into Making Comics. Since the days of Stan Lee’s bullpen, there became an overblown sense that the hands behind the pencils and typewriter keys were somehow larger in stature than the ones that forked over cash to read the funny books. At SPX, whether you’re Brandon Graham or just some schmoe with a mini-comic about your co-worker’s cat, the sense that we’re all there to celebrate the making and sharing of art wins out.
The interactions I’ve had with writers and artists at SPX have always felt more inviting, inspirational, and affirming than those I’ve had at bigger cons, so I became very fascinated with getting some perspective from the other end of the bargain. After a day of buying zines and walking around the convention, I got in touch with some of the creators I had spoken to and discussed their experience exhibiting at SPX for the first time.
“SPX is the first [convention] we’ve done where indie comics ARE the con, and not just a feature,” says Andrew Ihla, a writer tabling at the con for the first time. “It’s a big difference, and it’s great, because everyone on both sides of the table is sort of speaking the same language.” This was Ihla’s first time at SPX, as an exhibitor or a visitor. He found the entire experience refreshing. “It’s legitimately inspiring to be in a place where such a wide variety of creators are there to tell so many different kinds of stories and no one has to compete with a Jim Lee signing or the cast of Arrow.”
Unlike Neal Adams selling signed copies of Batman: Odyssey, the creators behind the tables at SPX are often people you would consider your peers. In a very real way, they are putting themselves out there with no net, baring their work to strangers. Unlike on Tumblr, where you might post a piece of art and tell yourself a lack of notes is just a lack of followers being online at the moment, the reactions you get at SPX are right in front of your face.
At last year’s SPX, I ran into a friend of mine, Kial Dowery, who was tabling for the first time with a mini-comic she had done. Casually running into someone I know from actual real life and not the wide net of comic nerd friends I had made online really opened up for me what made SPX such a special endeavor. This year, she came as a regular spectator. When I asked her if the prospect of selling her own art at the con made her nervous, she replied, “Good lord, yes. I felt like I was selling pieces of my clothing off myself.”
The nerves associated with baring yourself on such a stage apparently paid off pretty well, though. “A girl went nuts over my book and as soon as she got through the first page, she was like, NEED.” Therein lies some of the majesty of SPX. No retailer. No ComiXology. No Kickstarter. Just handing someone something you’ve made with your own hands. A real connection between creator and consumer.
Tres Dean, a writer, had promoted a student anthology he edited at two previous conventions this year, but SPX was the first where he was able to do it from behind an exhibitor table. For him, being at the con in an official capacity offered other perks. “I’m so used to just carrying my work in my backpack and handing it out. It was really cool to be able to tell pros I admired to swing by the table and point across the room to where it was.” The tactile aspect of selling someone a physical book was important, as well. “The one thing that stands out is almost everyone that got a copy of our anthology commented on how well it was printed. While comments about the content itself are always appreciated, it’s rare to get feedback about something more technical. It let us know to keep doing whatever we did in the printing process last year.”
That sense of feedback goes both ways. The encouragement given to exhibitors has an effect on the way those same exhibitors act when they go back out on the floor to mingle and buy books. I asked Dowery what it was like walking the floor of the con having seen things from behind the table, and the main thing she learned from her experience was courtesy.
“I’ve never been one to be too impatient,” said Dowery, “but I definitely empathize with sellers while they take care of their Square payments, and promise to return from the ATM when they don’t take cards. A couple of them were nice enough to give me a freebie for my trouble, though I just tell them it was no trouble at all. I didn’t take cards at my table last year, so I always promise to return since I know the feeling of ‘ugh, they’re never coming back.'”
That pervading motif of human decency, sweetness and mutual inspiration is SPX personified. While the internet has given comics a place where a variety of voices can be given modes of expression, having a brick and mortar meeting place for those voices to intermingle and exchange their work is incredible.
Dean offered some advice for next year’s class of first-time tablers: “Get your shit printed in advance. Get to the show early for setup. Be courteous to your booth neighbors and don’t invade their space. Always be willing to trade books with someone if they’re low on cash. Don’t go to the show with the intent to make money. Go with the intent to get your work out there. If you make a few bucks along the way, that’s just a bonus.”
As Jack Kirby famously said, “Comics will break your heart,” but here at least once a year, at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, a gaggle of passionate souls gather, perpetually trying to prove The King wrong. The comics industry may suck you dry, but at SPX, the indomitable spirit of comics will heal you, console you, set you right.
At least until next year.