2011: A Banner Year for SPX

The poor state of the national economy and a host of weather related problems on the East Coast in recent weeks -- including an earthquake that rattled the Maryland/Virgina region -- didn't do much to harm this year's Small Press Expo, held annually at the North Bethesda Marriott in Bethesda, MD.

In fact, this year's show turned out to be one of the best-attended and profitable SPXs in recent memory. According to SPX treasurer Caroline Small, the Expo made more money at the door on Saturday than it had during both days of the 2010 show. Sunday seemed equally busy, and many of the publishers and exhibitors CBR News spoke with reported strong sales throughout the event.

"Speaking in strictly financial terms, [on Saturday] I made more than I've ever made in a day at SPX," said artist Dustin Harbin, who in addition to selling copies of his latest issue of "Diary Comics" emceed the Ignatz Awards Saturday evening. "I feel like it's the best SPX it's ever been."

"SPX has been on upward growth curve for the last few years and this year's show is probably the densest attention I've seen in my 12 years of being here," CBLDF's Charles Brownstein told CBR. "The [SPX steering] committee did a really excellent job getting people into the room."

"I think it's more diffuse than it used to be," said Picturebox publisher Dan Nadel about the crowd. The company was debuting Matthew Thurber's surrealistic graphic novel "1-800-MICE" at the show. "It seems like it's a more targeted audience, people coming and looking for particular books."

Part of that might have been because of this year's rather high profile guest list. "Blankets" author Craig Thompson, for example, was at the show for the first time in many years, signing and selling preview copies of his yet-to-be-released graphic novel "Habibi."

Notable indie cartoonists could be found elsewhere in the room as well. Long lines swung around corridors near the Drawn and Quarterly table for both Chester Brown ("Paying for It") and later Kate Beaton, whose "Hark, A Vagrant" collection from D&Q was a quick sell-out.

"It's the best one we've ever had," said Drawn & Quarterly's design manager Jessica Campbell. "It's a huge year for us."

The guest list also included folks like "Congress of the Animals" author Jim Woodring, "Prison Pit" creator Johnny Ryan, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes.

"Warren [Bernard, SPX executive director] did a lot of work starting with making sure we got a lot of wonderful guests," said Small. "We tried to promote the cartoonists a little more and I think -- when you promote what's going to happen at the show, not just the show as an event, that makes a difference."

Many exhibitors also credited Bernard and the rest of the steering committee with getting the word out via a number of media. Weeks before the show, organizers announced both a Graphic Novel Gift Program designed to get comics into libraries in the Washington, D.C., area and the creation of special Small Press Expo collection at Library of Congress, designed to expand the library's comics collection and preserve the type of independent comics found at SPX. Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros said these announcements helped get people excited to come down to Bethesda.

"SPX has always been a pivotal indie show," he told CBR. "This show, especially in a down economy, shows how well the organizers have done getting the word out, getting people excited about the show, months in advance, so when the doors open, it's been nonstop business. That's exactly the way a publisher dreams a convention will operate."

Even newcomers to the show found themselves amazed at the size and scope of the crowd and comics being offered. BOOM! Studios, for instance, was on hand with "Snarked!" and "The Muppet Show" cartoonist Roger Langridge and was selling a new collection of the artist's short humor strips entitled "The Show Must Go On."

"The thing that is really awesome about this show is there's a really diverse crowd, in all senses in the world -- lots of guys and gals interested in the non-capes-and-tights comics scene," said BOOM! marketing director Chip Mosher. "I can't believe it's actually taken us so long to make it out here!"

The weekend's programming played up that diversity with a number of panels that highlighted both the guest line-up and the issues being discussed in the industry, like "The Secret History of Women in Comics," "Stories of Cultural Identity" and "Navigating the Contemporary Publishing Landscape."

The highlight for many was the annual Ignatz Awards and its afterparty with free drinks for those who had a few tickets in their hands. Despite the overall festive atmosphere, a pall was cast over the proceedings as the news spread that Sparkplug Books publisher Dylan Williams had succumbed to cancer. A regular SPX attendee, Williams was remembered by many for his warmth and dedication to both the indie scene and the cartoonists he published.

Still, the news was not all bad. During the Ignatzes, Bernard announced that the committee hopes to expand the ballroom by possibly as much as 50 percent in coming years, meaning more tables and wider aisles. Perhaps the best reason to anticipate next year's show, however, was the announcement that indie super-stars Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes were scheduled to appear as guests.

But Clowes or no Clowes, many exhibitors said there was little doubt they would be back again next year.

"Personally, SPX is my favorite show to go to," Campbell said. "It has its demographic really down and know its audience really well."

"I still think it's a cornerstone," Nadel said. "I think SPX has kept up beautifully with the times. Part of that is it has its own unique location, kind of like TCAF does. There's no competition so everything you do is going to be fairly special."

For more photos from the show, visit ROBOT 6

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