When it started fifteen years ago, the Small Press Expo, or SPX as it's now more commonly known, was one of only two conventions solely devoted to the alternative and independent comics scene (the other was the Alternative Press Expo or APE, which launched just months before).
In recent years, the formation of similar-themed shows like SPACE, The Toronto Comics Arts Festival and MoCCA (to name but a few) has raised the question of whether or not SPX was still a relevant, let along significant, show.
Judging by the crowds thronging the exhibitor hall in the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Maryland last Saturday, the answer is a definitive "Absolutely."
Well after 11 a.m. that morning, when the doors had been open for a good thirty minutes or so, a considerable line had continued to snake all the way down the length of the hobby. Inside, the hall was bustling as scores of publishers, artists and other exhibitors sold a variety of comics, graphic novels, minicomics and other related ephemera from their tables. The hall remained crowded and busy throughout the day, with attendees often jostling each other or offering hurried "excuse me's" as they made their way along the narrow aisles.
For the unfamiliar, SPX can perhaps best be described as an upscale flea market or craft fair, or perhaps the largest and coolest artist alley ever. A lot of the exhibitors are nascent or up and coming cartoonists offering a number of hand-crafted (and in some cases hand-stitched) comics.
While the scene boasted a decidedly indie vibe, with publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf being the biggest boys in the room, there remained a good bit of genre diversity. Manga-themed minis bumped tables with more genre-flavored action/adventure pamphlets or avant-garde exercises. Even Marvel and DC were represented, sort of, via Picturebox artist Frank Santoro's longboxes of classic comics from the 1970s and 80s. One table was even selling T-shirts featuring a paunchy, middle-aged Robin.
While there was the occasional table that seemed to be left adrift and hungry for customers, most of the exhibitors appeared to be doing a brisk business throughout the day, and many of the people I talked to said they were having one of their best shows ever.
"It seems to keep on doing better and better," said Dylan Williams, publisher of Sparkplug Comic Books. "Last year was one of our best shows and it seems like this year seems like it will be [better]."
"I think we're doing really well this year. It's been really crowded since the doors opened." said Jessica Campbell of Drawn and Quarterly, adding "I think the benefit in shows like this is in getting out and meeting people and having the cartoonists around to meet people. It's not necessarily sales based."
SPX does usually play host to some notable guest stars each year. The most notable name this year was certainly longtime Playboy and New Yorker cartoonist Gahan Wilson, who was at the show to promote his three-volume collection of gag cartoons, coming out later this year from Fantagraphics.
"I think it's great," said Wilson of the show while signing autographs. "They're all so brave" he added, gesturing to the tens of young artists hawking their homemade wares on nearby tables.
Wilson was not the only cartoonist of note at the show promoting a new book. R. Sikoryak had regular stream of people coming by to pick up his new collection from Drawn and Quarterly, "Masterpiece Comics," while James Kochalka, Matt Kindt and Jeffrey Brown, among others, entertained visitors over at the Top Shelf booth.
But if this year's SPX had any superstar at all, it was surely Kate Beaton who had a constant throng of admirers lined up to get buy her book, "Never Learn Anything From History," or get a quick sketch from her.
SPX is also a good place to discover relative newcomers like Lisa Hanawalt, who was not only winning raves for her Buenaventura Press book "I Want You," but also won an Ignatz award Saturday evening for her minicomic Stay Away From Other People. (Robot 6 has the complete list of winners.)
But commerce isn't the only draw at SPX, The show has always boasted an interesting and varied line of panel programming, allowing attendees to listen to their favorite artists, like Wilson, talk about their work or discuss issues germane to the industry and art form. This year's panels covered such topics like comics criticism, humor in comics and the ominously titled "The Future of the Comic Book." In other rooms, creators like Jerry Moriarty ("Jack Survives") and John Porcellino ("Map of My Heart") were given the special "spotlight treatment to discuss their artistry in depth.
Just about every SPX event has a "Book of the Show" - that single title that everyone can't help buzzing about. Past "BoS"s have included Brian Chippendale's "Ninja" and Craig Thompson's "Goodbye Chunky Rice." This year, however, was noticeable for a seeming lack of buzz towards any one definitive book, though Josh Cotter's "Driven By Lemons" from AdHouse Press seemed to be generating a bit of discussion, as did the latest issue of "Cold Heat" by Santoro and Ben Jones.
But in addition to the comics and the presentations, people seem to be drawn to SPX equally for its sense of camaraderie and convivial atmosphere. Everywhere you turn there seemed to be a meet-up of some sort and the aisles were filled with fans, critics, and various online personalities conversing and saying hello. For most of these people, SPX offers the chance to not only discover comics they might have difficulty tracking down otherwise, but also to meet and greet other like-minded folk and talk about their hobby without feeling shunted to the far corner of the comics room. That friendly atmosphere alone seems to ensure that SPX will remain a viable and important show for years to come.