Minneapolis Indie Xpo creates new comics fans

When I first heard about plans for the Minneapolis Indie Xpo, I wasn’t sure why we needed another local convention, but I was sure glad we were getting one. I love conventions and only get to go to one out-of-town one a year, so I lean pretty heavily on the two cons that the Midwest Comic Book Association throws annually. If someone wanted to put on a third, I wasn’t about to question it.

There is a reason for the new show though, and it’s a good one. According to MIX’s website, the show “aspires to create new comics fans by reaching out to the local community and inviting them to learn to love comics again, or for the first time.” They do this by varying from the business model the MCBA uses for its shows. The MCBA doesn’t charge for creator tables; it makes its money selling space to retailers and charging a modest ticket price to attendees. That creates a fun show with tons of local talent and admission is cheap enough to encourage curious members of the community to come by and check it out. It’s a great time that Twin Cities comics fans look forward to all year.

But if the goal is to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily pay to attend a large celebration of comics like the MCBA puts on, MIX’s organizers – Sarah Morean (The Daily Cross Hatch) and Andy Krueger (founder of the St Paul Craftstravaganza) – have found a good way to do that. They charge a reasonable table fee for exhibitors, hold the show in a part of town known for its arts community, and let the public in for free.

How that worked out, after the break.

The show kicked off Friday night, August 20th, at Big Brain Comics in downtown Minneapolis. Zak Sally (Sammy the Mouse), Will Dinski (Fingerprints), and Aaron Renier (The Unsinkable Walker Bean) were all on hand to debut their latest books, sketch, and sign for fans. I stopped by for a few minutes and got a copy of The Unsinkable Walker Bean with a kick-ass sketch in it.

I’m an elderly family man, so I didn’t attend the kick-off party afterward at the 501 Club. I wasn’t even at the show particularly bright and early on Saturday. But I headed over Saturday afternoon with some money in my pocket, ready to visit friends and hopefully discover some new cartoonists.

The Soap Factory really is a cool space. It’s an art gallery housed in a 120-year-old industrial warehouse on the banks of the Mississippi River. As they make clear on their website though, they have “no climate control, air conditioning or permanent heating system.” What they do have are four great rooms – a couple of which have large outside doors to let the breeze in – and plenty of electric fans. There were some muggy rooms, but if things got too stifling, it was easy to duck outside or into one of the ventilated rooms, and catch your breath for a minute.

In the first room I found Brent Schoonover (Horrorwood, Astronaut Dad) who has a new mini-comic called The Midnight March. I’ve known Brent for a while and am very familiar with how well his love for classic horror translates to the page, so that was the first thing I picked up for the day.

Not too far from Brent was a fellow named Christopher Hastings whom I didn’t know. His graphic novel, Operation Dracula! From Outer Space, features a ninja-scientist and a cyborg bear and sports a cover homage to Plan 9 from Outer Space. Even though it’s the third volume in Hastings’ Dr. McNinja series, I got it anyway (with assurances that the first two volumes are still available on Hastings’ website).

Around the corner from Hastings was Tyler Page (Stylish Vittles, Nothing Better) and his wife Cori Doerrfeld (Leah Loves Pink, Leah and the Owl). Cori was away from the table for a minute, but Tyler was debuting a cool poster/comic about a boy’s love affair with his bike. He also had a book he illustrated for Trina Robbins called Chicagoland Detective Agency: The Drained Brains Caper. It’s published by Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint and looks to be a zombified high school take on The Stepford Wives. So I got that too.

Down the aisle from Tyler was Lena H Chandhok who’s got a series of mini-comics about a yeti. She’s also got a homemade board game to go with it and she hand makes her business cards, writing her information on each one and personalizing them with a sketch. Very cute and clever idea. I needed to make my money stretch, so I didn’t get the board game, but I did pick up both comics, Abominable and Monsters.

In the next room was the Top Shelf table. I can always find things to buy from Top Shelf, but I decided to save my budget for stuff I couldn’t find anywhere else. Paul Taylor was there too promoting his Wapsi Square webcomic and the printed collections. I’m caught up on those, but I stopped to say hello.

I also ran into MIX organizer Sarah Morean in this room. She introduced me to Daily Crosshatch editor Brian Heater who traveled to the Cities especially for MIX. He was moderating panels most of the day, but I’d caught him on a break. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to attend panels, but there was a full day of programming on topics ranging from Paranormal Activity in Comics to Cartooning Tools to How to Make Webcomics. And there were lots of spotlight panels for folks like Aaron Renier, Diana Nock and Spike, Evan Dahm, John Porcellino, Kevin Cannon, and Will Dinski. Next year I’ll make sure to have more time.

I asked Sarah about next year’s show and she seemed a little uncertain, but she later clarified that a) she was probably joking and b) some things were still up in the air on Saturday when I was talking to her. [Pro Tip: always ask convention organizers about future plans in the middle of the convention they’re currently organizing when they have the least time and mental energy to answer to your questions.] When we talked again a few days later, she let me know that they are definitely planning a 2011 show and that it will almost certainly be at the Soap Factory again. They just need to figure out dates that won’t conflict with anyone else’s shows.

When I asked her about the experience of using The Soap Factory, Sarah told me that they loved it. Besides being an amazing space with a lot of history, it’s also one of the largest galleries in the Twin Cities and is a magnet for outstanding arts events. “We were really happy to have our first show with them,” she said. One of the other benefits of having MIX at The Soap Factory was that they provided volunteers at the door. “Next year we’ll definitely work with them more closely to plan the show,” she said, “but overall they were very easy to work with on our end and exhibitors seemed really excited about the space and satisfied with the layout.”

The third room was really more of a hallway connecting the second and fourth spaces, but it was here that I found three mini-comics that I had to get. Steve Robbins, Reynold Kissling, and William Frederick Schar were all sitting next to each other. Robbins’ The Burrowed is an awesome book that’s part comic, part scrapbook and tells the story of a tentacled, lizard-headed creature that appears on a Minnesota farm. Kissling’s Kingwood Himself is about a little girl who discovers a hidden cul-de-sac of monsters in her suburban neighborhood. Schar’s The Iron Sea: Southern Lights combines two of my favorite things: robots and seafarers.

Entering the last room, I was greeted by a table full of doughnuts from The Donut Cooperative. These were no ordinary doughnuts though. There were homemade and featured not only Vegan options, but also flavors like root beer and spiced rum. I had two.

I found Sam Hiti in this room, very excited that the first part of his long awaited Death-Day graphic novel is about to come out. He didn’t have copies at the show, but he did have a cool, giant monster print, so I picked up one of those.

One of the coolest things about Sam is his willingness to encourage and share his knowledge with young cartoonists. For the past several years, he’s always had a protégé sitting next to him at these local shows. For this show it was JP Beaty, who’s made a very funny mini-comic called The Adventures of Alan Moore in which the bearded legend battles Mainstream Comics and tries to use his star-power to cut in line at the grocery store. Beaty drew a pretty swell Swamp Thing on the title page for me when he signed it too.

Finally, I found the Rooster Jack crew before I left. I’ve known writer Adam Hansen for a year or so now, but just met artists Ben Zmith and Sara Witty at SpringCon this year. It was cool to visit with them and I picked up a couple of micro-comics they’d put together as well as some Rooster Jack pins.

I asked Sarah Morean about the attendance later and she said they had about 1000 people over the course of the day. Enough to keep it steady, but not crowded, which fits with what I saw. It was a good day and no one I talked to – from organizers to exhibitors to attendees – was disappointed. In fact, some of the exhibitors who regularly attend the MCBA shows were especially excited about the opportunity to reach a new audience and sell older books that don’t move at the more established conventions because those fans already have them. Sounds like a perfect example of what MIX was created to accomplish.

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