For two days every year, the walls of the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco house a sanctuary of comics creativity and passion, where special guests like "Bone" creator Jeff Smith and "Bottomless Belly Button" creator Dash Shaw are featured in spotlight panels, while mini-comics publishers who spent the night before at Kinko's putting the last staples into their debut books chat with fans and fellow creators.
Founded in 1994, the Alternative Press Expo, or APE, offers small press publishers and independent creators the opportunity to showcase their creations to fans. It's one of three shows put on by Comic-Con International every year: San Diego's Comic-Con International, a worldwide cultural extravaganza that features guests from comics, film, television and more; San Francisco's WonderCon, a smaller show than San Diego aimed at traditional comic and pop culture fans; and APE, a more intimate, laid back convention where the focus is on the comics you'd find in the back of Previews, if you'd find them there at all.
David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic Con International, said it's the accessibility of the creators that sets APE apart from other shows.
"At APE the creators are manning the tables and pushing their product themselves," Glanzer said. "There are no publicists or marketing people."
While most of the tables are filled with individual creators selling their books directly to attendees, several publishers also set up at the show. SLG Publishing has one of the larger tables at the show; their publisher, Dan Vado, founded the show and ran it in 1994, before CCI took it over in 1995. VIZ, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf Comix, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly, Buenaventura, and Sparkplug Comics, among others, were also represented at the show.
Jamaica Dyer, one of seven special guests at this year's show, has been attending APE for years, usually manning a table with friends. This year she spent the show at the SLG Publishing table, signing copies of her new graphic novel "Weird Fishes."
"It's always been my absolute favorite," Dyer said about APE. "Everyone there is doing comics and art just because they want to, it's not fueled by money the way other conventions are. When I go to bigger conventions like WonderCon or Comic-Con, I always want to hide in the small press/artists alley, and that's all that there is at APE."
"For me what sets it apart is that it's in the same city as me and it's not called WonderCon," said Jon Adams, creator of "Truth Serum." "I have an aversion to giant shows where it's too crowded to move and you're surrounded by people in costumes. That's just not my thing. But APE is mellow and full of great independent artists creating gorgeous prints and books and beautiful, hand-crafted objects. I like it better than MoCCA."
The mini-comics creator simply known as Storm said he appreciates the emphasis on independent creators and the creative process.
"There are more opportunities to hear an artist or writer describe their creative process," said Storm, a creator who sold his first mini-comic "Princess Witch Boy" at the show this year. "You are less likely to hear someone refer to a character or comic as a 'franchise.'"
"You'd never know it was put on by the same folks in charge of the San Diego Comic-Con -- in a good way," said Russ Kazmierczak, creator of "Karaoke Comics." "Comic-Con is a great place for comics as a pivot for pop culture, but strip away the mainstream commercialism and franchising, and comics are still just a bunch of guys and gals drawing stories. That's APE, the garage band of comic cons."
At a smaller show like APE, you can typically pick up on the buzz in the room about various comics and their creators. Sometimes it's easy to figure out the show's "buzz books" based simply on the foot traffic surrounding a table.
For instance, Dash Shaw drew attention at the Fantagraphics table as he painted the cover of his new book, "The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.," for people who purchased a copy. Jeff Smith kept a steady line at his table whenever he was signing. And appearances by "Beast" creator Marian Churchland, "King City" creator Brandon Graham and webcomics creator Kate Beaton had people talking and seeking them out on the floor.
Dean Haspiel, founder of the webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE, attended the show as a special guest, appearing on several panels and selling copies of the just-released "The ACT-I-VATE Primer." He and Jeff Smith also participated in a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
"I hadn't been to APE in years, but being one of the featured guests at this year's show was an honor," Haspiel said. "I participated in four different panels, including an art battle between peers with crayons of mass destruction benefiting the CBLDF, and a spotlight where I got to show 'The ACT-I-VATE Experience,' a half-hour movie by Seth Kushner and Carlos Molina about the premiere webcomix collective. It was well received and helped sell out 'The ACT-I-VATE Primer,' our brand new print anthology, which made its West Coast party debut at The Isotope, a notorious comix/cocktail lounge, the night before APE."
Dyer's "Weird Fishes" also went on to sell out at the SLG table.
"Just being at a publisher's table front and center on the convention floor meant for more traffic and a whole new audience, of course being a spotlighted guest helped that a lot," Dyer said. "The panels were great, I am still processing some of the topics we covered on the Personal Stories and Webcomics panels. There was a handful of people who stopped by after the panels to talk about comics and pick up my book, and that was really cool. The coverage was pretty great, and we sold out of 'Weird Fishes' by the end of Sunday, and I'm thrilled by that."
Even without a publisher like SLG or Fantagraphics behind them, some of the small press creators called the show a success as well. "I had a very successful time at APE," Storm said. "I spent all day Saturday and most of Sunday at the Writers Old Fashioned booth signing copies of my mini. I also had two one-hour signings at the Prism Comics booth. I had a great time meeting people, and I sold three-quarters of my initial print run. I expect to have a second printing by the end of this week."
Dark clouds and silver linings
But not everyone found the show to be profitable from a sales perspective. Adams said his sales were down compared to previous years.
"This was my fifth year exhibiting and probably the poorest for sales," Jon Adams said. "Not as bad as my first year when I didn't actually have anything to sell and a girl asked, 'So this is like an information table?' Sunday always seems to be better than Saturday and that was the case this year, too. I spoke to several other exhibitors and all seemed to agree it wasn't a great year for sales."
Lee Post, a creator from Anchorage, Alaska, who bought a table this year to sell some of his comics and prints, had a similar experience.
"This was my fourth time in four years of being there, but the first time having a booth and by far, the amount of talent drastically increases every year," Post said. "Correspondingly, however, I think, based on talking to a number of people, the money made per booth is, well, not very much. One person I talked to said that it appeared to her to be the same amount of customers/attendees as when she had a booth two years ago, but that there just weren't enough dollars/people floating around to support the number of booths and the vast quality and quantity of merchandise people were selling. In short, I sold a bunch of dollar mini-comics and not a lot of $4 or $10 prints."
Russ Kazmierczak and Brent Otey also didn't pull a profit, but found the experience worthwhile.
"Brent and I hadn't exhibited together at APE as K.O. Comix for a few years, so we were to eager to get our latest issues out there and to see if our old stuff would strike a new chord," Kazmierczak said. "Sales were as we expected; the overall trip didn't pull a profit, but a chance to network with fellow indie comics artists and zinesters, and to distribute our material to an audience friendly to this stuff, is priceless."
Attending APE also gave some creators the opportunity to get out from behind their table and do a little shopping and meet their fellow creators.
"I bought many cool books and mini-comix, including Justin Hall's 'Le Croisic,' Al Columbia's 'Pim & Francie,' 'Eschew #1' by Robert Sergel, 'Jin & Jam' #1 by Hellen Jo, 'Danny Dutch' by David King, 'Comics Diorama' by Grant Reynolds, 'Sublife' 1 and 2 by John Pham, 'Princess Witch Boy' by Storm, 'Gran'pa Tell Me a Story ...' by Greg Hinkle, and latest efforts by Scott Morse, Jed Alexander, Tom Neely, and Liz Baillie," Haspiel said. "Plus, 'Strange Suspense - The Steve Ditko Archives Vol 1.' I'd just visited Ditko at his NYC office the week before, so it was a pleasure to pick up some of his rare, crime/horror work, and I was gifted a mint copy of 'Comic-Con, 40 years of artists, writers, fans & friends' -- from the organizers of APE."
"I think one of the only things I bought was Kate Beaton's book 'Never Learn Anything From History,' and it was cool to meet her in person," Dyer said."I met my flash illustration hero Pascal Campion, and he was sweet enough to give me his gorgeous 'Oogeley Boogeley' books. I was also excited to meet special guest Dash Shaw, who beat out everyone signing by painting on the covers of his books right in front of you. And there I was just doing brushpen sketches."
"At one end of the hall, you got a guy like Mike Rios, selling a pocket-sized, neon-colored, interactive zine called 'War Is Gay,' a challenging piece of political satire with seemingly random images about masculinity and war," Kazmierczak said. "A few tables down, there's Chubby Craft selling video game magnets made out of fuse beads. On our end of the hall, Doctor Popular is selling homemade 24-hour comics and screen printing little paintings on the spot. All totally different genres and media, all with different points or purposes, but I'm telling you, all united by a passion for telling a story and making some art."
Finding your tribe
During his spotlight panel on Saturday, Smith said it was important for creators to find their "tribe," or a community of creators they can look to for support. And while the internet may offer endless opportunities to interact with peers and fans, face-to-face interaction just can't be replaced.
"Meeting my readers and peers face-to-face is everything," Dyer said "It gets to feel a little imaginary when you're only reading comments from screen names and looking at random numbers from your webcomic counter, but this year I got to meet lots of great faces, like girls who show up to my table with their moms, artists who are just starting to think about making their own comics, not to mention all the creators and visitors I see every convention. It's the reward for staying inside and drawing all year."
"Creating comics can be a very solitary experience and I find it refreshing to come to a convention where I am surrounded by independent creators," Storm said. "It's validating and inspirational to see their work. Being at APE reminds me that I am part of a movement that is larger than my personal vision. It's humbling and exciting at the same time."
"I think we exhibitors all ask the same desperate question, 'Does anybody else like this stuff, too? I made it, but do you like it?'" Kazmierczak said. "At Comic Con, the numbers speak for themselves, and the mob is like one voice. At APE, it's a genuine conversation between creator and consumer. No middle man. I've been to all kinds of shows, and I haven't seen that anywhere else."