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Alternative Press Expo’s Big Spotlight on Small Press

by  in Comic News Comment

Having attended the Alternative Press Expo for more than a decade, Lark Pien has seen the show change from a small show in San Jose, CA to its current incarnation, where small press publishers and independent creators take the spotlight to share their creations with fans.

“I remember the attendance being slight in the early years,” Pien told CBR News. “APE was somewhat small and very basic in set-up, and a little sleepy. I remember retailers with quarter bins and cartoonists who self-published and made ashcans using local copy centers. There were a good number of zinesters doing prose and poetry work. There were very few girls at APE, tabling or otherwise. Trade paperbacks weren’t a big thing yet, so most self-published comics were pamphlets, xeroxed in black and white. Sometimes the covers were in color. People were friendly, sometimes shy, but open to trading ashcans and mini-comics.”

Over the years the show has been held at a number of locations, migrating north to San Francisco and growing to what it is today. This year’s APE was held October 16-17 at its current home, the Concourse in San Francisco, and Pien was there to sell copies of her latest children’s books, “Long Tail Kitty,” published by Blue Apple Books, and “Mr. Elephanter,” published by Candlewick Press, as well as her mini-comics and original art.

“The spectrum of self-published comics at APE seems to get bigger every year,” Pien commented. “There is a wide range in content and image, and there are small publishers that produce beautifully packaged comics – square binding, dust jackets, and embossed covers, for example. There are more girls tabling. There’s a healthy attendance, consisting of all kinds of people, not just haggard-looking guys all dressed in black. APE’s become family friendly – I’ve seen a lot of babies this year, and grandparents, too.”

Pien wasn’t the only one to note how much APE has grown. This year’s show brought in more exhibitors than in years past, according to David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con International.

“We did have more exhibitors than last year, and I think the expanded exhibit hall allowed us to make room for them without it being too crowded,” Glanzer said.  “We noticed a lot of attendees who purchased one-day tickets, return at the end of the day and upgrade those to two-day tickets. What we heard over and over again was that there was more to see and do than could have been accomplished in one day. That’s a great thing to hear for a show the size of APE.”

Small press, big draw

While most of the tables at the show are filled with individual creators selling comics and other wares directly to attendees, several publishers also set up at the show with SLG Publishing maintaining one of the larger tables. Their publisher, Dan Vado, founded the show and ran it in 1994 before CCI took it over the following year. Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly and Sparkplug Comics, among others, also attended.

After being absent for a few years, AdHouse Books returned to the con. Publisher Chris Pitzer said it’s the “location, location, location” that sets APE apart from the other shows he attends.

“It’s a nice chance to see our friends who don’t make it back East all that much,” Pitzer said. “Also, we made a vacation of it and ate lots of good food and ran up to Napa for a few days.”

One of the main draws of a show like APE is all the books that are hot off the presses and, in some cases, that are available to buy before they hit retail shops. AdHouse had copies of “Duncan the Wonder Dog” on hand, and creator Adam Hines was there to sign and draw sketches in them. Renee French’s “H-Day” could be purchased at the PictureBox table, where the creator was signing it for enthusiastic fans. Tony Millionaire was at the Fantagraphics table signing his newest book, “Little Maakies on the Prairie,” while Drawn & Quarterly had the latest graphic novels from (and long lines for) Lynda Barry and Daniel Clowes.

APE also gives creators who don’t have a publisher a chance to get their books in front of people, including seasoned pros like Charles Yoakum. Yoakum has worked as inker on titles for Valiant, DC Comics and Radical, but he attended APE to sell fans a title of his own.

“This was my first year at APE, and I was selling the ashcan version of ‘The Carnival: The Human Hourglass,'” Yoakum said. “I will have the finished version done, with a little more time to get the tones done, but this was my first chance to get the book out into the hands of people and get some feedback on the story. Coming from working as an inker for many years in mainstream (i.e. superheroes) comics, this was finally taking a deep breath and writing and drawing my own work. After all, as an inker, if a book looks great, usually the penciller gets the credit, but if it looks bad, many times the inkers are given the blame. I’d rather live and die, love or hate my book, on my own merits!”

New layout and more programming

Although the weather on Saturday was beautiful, Sunday brought rain – but that didn’t stop people from showing up and spending money, according to some of the exhibitors.

Writer Jason Ciaccia and artist Aaron Norhanian attended the show for the first time to sell their first graphic novel, “The Sinister Truth: MK-ULTRA,” a Cold War satire of the CIA’s mind control program of the ’50’s.

“The show was fantastic.  Our sales were excellent. We nearly sold out. We flew in from New York with 29 copies and sold all but one,” Ciaccia said. “It is indispensable for a small press outfit such as ourselves to connect directly with people – with readers and retailers, with press and connoisseurs of comics.  The interaction forces you to describe your work in ways that will make it desirable.  Shows like APE allow creator-owned comics to cast a wider net and catch plenty of attention otherwise not available.”

Geoffrey Golden and Amanda Meadows attended the show to promote their anthology, “The Devastator.” They had copies of the first issue on hand and were selling subscriptions to subsequent issues.

“We sold a ton of ‘Devastator #1,’ but the big ‘hoo-ha!’ victory for us was the number of new subscribers who signed up. Everyone is very excited for our upcoming Devastator #2- the theme is sci-fi, featuring a hilarious cover by R. Sikoryak (‘Masterpiece Comics’),” Golden said. “Our goal for APE was to either leave with much lighter luggage or buy those industrial back braces for the way home. Luckily, we accomplished the former.”

When he wasn’t on a panel or doing a workshop, Silady split his time between Writers Old Fashioned and his students from the CCA, who also had a table.

“New books by Storm (‘Princess Witch Boy’) and Greg Hinkle (‘Parasomnia’) were flying off the Writers Old Fashioned table,” he said. “Over at CCA, we had a good first day. But things really picked up on Sunday. Alek Morawski’s ‘facebook tour de force’ was the hot ticket, although Xeric-winning alumnus Ben Costa had people talking about his beautiful hardcover edition of ‘Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk’ at the table too.”

He added that the experience helped his students learn about how to sell themselves and their comics to the public.

“Without having to worry about table fees (thanks to the CCA Writing and Literature department sponsorship), students get to throw all of their energy into their work and the art of the sale,” Silady said. “Honestly, they do need some help with the latter. Selling comics is its own art. Finding the balance between honest enthusiasm and a sales style that doesn’t turn the casual customer away is essential.”

Yoakum and Pitzer, meanwhile, both said their sales were ok.

“Honestly, this being the first time that I was out there with my own book, its hard to know what to expect,” Yoakum said. “You don’t really have anything else to compare it to. I guess that whole point is to actually get people to take a chance on a new creator with a book that they’ve never heard of. You have to figure out how to impress them enough to take a chance, especially with crime/noir comic, which is a genre that works great in comics, but outside of Darwyn Cooke and [Ed] Brubaker, is hardly done. I’d love to provide something for someone to read when they’re done with ‘Criminal’ and ‘The Man with the Getaway Face.'” 

The books + the experience

Attending APE also gave some creators the opportunity to get out from behind their tables to do a little shopping and meet other creators.

“It was fun having Barron Storey next to our table, listening to him talk to fans,” Pitzer said. “I liked having time to sit down and talk with Annie Koyama of Koyama Press. She is the nicest person in comics. It was also cool to meet Malachi Ward.”

“I got to see Lynda Barry, briefly, and thanked her for the advice she had given me in working with editors,” Pien said.  “I felt like I had completed an important task somehow, giving her my new book. Then she sang me a song! Her book, “Picture This! with Near-Sighted Monkey,” published by Drawn & Quarterly, looks great, and I’m excited to see it out on the shelves now.”

“I was really happy to have James Robinson, whose “Starman” book I thought was the great American comic book for the 1990s, come by our table and pick up some of my tablemate Alex Sheikman’s work, as well as my own comic,” Yoakum said. “I enjoyed meeting Erica Moen, whose webcomic I’ve enjoyed for quite some time as well.”  

Golden and Meadows, meanwhile, used the experience to help find new creators for future issues of their anthology.

“At APE this year, we met many super-talented people who deserve a chance to be published,” Golden said. “Quite a few creators came to our table to give us their mini-comics, which was awesome! All those mini-comics we scored made our flight delay immensely enjoyable.”

With APE 2010 just having entered the history books, David Glanzer told us CCI was already looking ahead to 2011. “There are always things to learn. Even the best-run shows can have issues that need to be addressed. We’re going to have debriefings this week and, as is common for us, we’ll hear from different departments on what worked and what didn’t. Those will be discussed and we’ll work out best how to make sure any issues that did arise this year will be addressed for next.

“All things considered we’ve heard from many exhibitors and attendees that it was a great show, and I can’t think of a better way to cap of a great week in San Francisco!”