For the last six years, I’ve made the trek up to the Small Press Expo at the North Bethesda Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, and for every year Deadshirt has existed, I’ve written about my time there. I say “trek” but really it’s usually just a train ride. It’s the one convention I go to consistently because a lot of close friends attend, it’s nearby and there’s a super legit barbecue spot up the road from the con floor that I only ever seem to frequent when September rolls around (what up, Rocklands!?).
I didn’t get BBQ this year. A lot of good mates I’d forged these unspoken traditions with didn’t make it this weekend, so the expected structure I’d grown accustomed to shuffling through evaporated. In its stead, a new SPX-going paradigm was born, one where I just drifted around in concentric circles, looking at comics, bumping into acquaintances new and old, then taking copious breaks as my old man body can no longer sustain walking for eight hours while making crude jokes about Hank Pym.
But I still bought comics. I guess a lot can change about the way you consume SPX. This year, for instance, I actually went to panels, as the convention had some really stellar programming on deck. That’s ancillary, though. The primary ritual of SPX is talking to friendly strangers and then handing them money in exchange for their blood, sweat and tears distilled into print. Every year I buy a bunch of comics and every year I take a picture of my haul for social media and every year that haul ends up in a pile of comics I literally never end up reading. It’s not that I don’t like reading new comics. I just tend to grab things on impulse that I think look cool because I like supporting indie cartoonists. For me the thrill is in the discovering new stuff and helping sweet-natured creatives sustain their dreams. I’ll get around to the actual reading eventually.
This year’s haul was considerably smaller than usual. I’ve learned restraint. I’ve learned discipline. I told myself I’d only buy what I know I’d actually read within the first week after the convention. I also made sure I bought comics from any friends I knew who were tabling, because supporting your friends is what sets us apart from the fucking animals. These are the three comics I copped whose merit I felt I could cogently expound upon.
(Special shouts-out to Julian Lytle’s Ants, Sean Causley’s Panda Force, and Sean T. Collins & Julia Gfrörer’s The Hideous Dropping Off of The Veil as well. I also loved these books, but didn’t think anyone would benefit from me all caps typing “this is my shiiiiiit!” a bunch of times in summation.)
Can You Smell What The Rock Is Cooking?
By Kendra K & K.T. Sheldon
Obviously, a zine masquerading as Dwayne Johnson cookbook is very on brand for me, but the real reason I stopped at Team KK‘s table is their mutual, unironic admiration for actor Nicolas Cage. (They’ve also got a wonderful product called The Nic Cage Fun & Activity Book which is exactly as perfect as it sounds.) Here, however, they’ve artfully bundled their love for The Rock into a usable collection of recipes and lovable asides. From entrees like The People’s Elbow Macaroni & Cheese to desserts like Scorpion King Cake, it’s the ideal resource for the inevitable The Rock themed party you’re liable to throw the week Fast 8 is finally released. Hell, if there’s going to be an adult beverage element, they even have you covered with cocktails like The Jabroni Negroni!
Both Kendra and K.T. display a playful but earnest art style, bridging the gap between coloring book pastiche and the kind of truly loving hero worship renditions you might find on the flip side of algebra notes inside a marble composition book. There’s not a shred of holier-than-thou snark in their work, and that sincerity amplifies their ample sense of humor. Real infectious stuff.
Kill The Drug War
Written by Tres Dean & Stewart Jester
Drawn and lettered by Kendrick Drews
“The drug war killed my wife. Tonight, I kill the drug war.” This straightforward declaration of murderous intent pulls double duty as a hypnotic mantra and the central premise of Kill The Drug War, a sugarshock love letter to Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra. It’s just about the only dialogue Brock Hardwick speaks throughout the book, uttered with exponentially dramatic amounts of conviction between extravagantly violent shootouts. Like the earworm refrain of a bubblegum pop song, this hook grows to the transformative power of gospel through sheer force of repetition, beginning as a call to arms and ending as something akin to the word of a vengeful god.
This is essentially a comedic action sprint executed with such bugfuck intensity as to transcend from mere ’80s homage into punk rock poetry. Drews’ hyperkinetic line work bursts at the seams of every frame, careening with a thrilling fluidity from over the top beat to over the top beat. Even his lettering is out of this world, as Hardwick kicks a wooden door to pieces, the splinters arrange in mid air to form the word ‘JUSTICE.’ Tres Dean has been a friend of mine for years, and while I love his work with Jamie Jones on Dodger, seeing him and Jester indulge in something so uniquely insane is astonishing. It’s like a madcap one-off cover song rattled off by a makeshift side project, recorded in a garage and pressed for friends. It trades in action cinema vernacular, but this is why comics exist.
By Ed Luce
So, I’m super late to the Ed Luce party, but this man’s art is incredible. After wrestling with the idea of spending $60 on a sweatshirt from the Massive table that I’d probably not wear any time soon, I happened upon Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, a similarly burly display of large man iconography. Oaf follows Oaf Jadwiga, an absurdly hirsute man who also happens to be, as the kids say, “thicc af.” Oaf makes Flex Mentallo look like Ben Kingsley, but his outward toughness is a distraction from his inherent cuddliness. He loves cats and making stuffed dolls out of his chest hair.
The book has a ridiculous bent, but it mostly concerns itself with Oaf’s quest for love. Luce’s art alternates between an epic kind of simplicity, with clean, assured lines implying broad figures, and an uber detailed intricacy that gives his work this really fascinating quality. Oaf draws much of its style from San Francisco bear culture, but the book’s queerness is interesting in its bluntness. It never feels like a bold expression of queer identity so much as a sweet tale that happens to feature a lot of big, hot and hairy men. There’s something pedestrian about its depiction of gay romance that makes it so endearing. Fantagraphics has since collected many of Luce’s original issues, but this, the first Oaf story, definitely hooked me.