Dan Vado founded one of the early indy comics publishers, SLG (originally Slave Labor Graphics) in 1986, where he published the early work of creators such as Faith Erin Hicks, Evan Dorkin and Jhonen Vasquez. In 1994, he founded Alternative Press Expo (APE), as an event for small comics publishers and independent artists. Comic-Con International, which also runs Comic-Con International in San Diego and WonderCon, took over APE in 1995 and in 2000 moved it from its original home in San Jose to San Francisco. They handed the con back to Vado two years ago, and he moved it back to San Jose.
This year's APE takes place on October 8 and 9, and in advance of the show, we talked to Vado about how it has changed, what to expect this year -- and how this old pro views the overall indy comics landscape these days.
CBR: Let's start with APE. The comics scene was very different in 1994, when you organized the first one. Why did you do it? What made you think it would be a good idea?
Dan Vado: Those days were kind of pre-Internet. You did not have Facebook, social networks were not really a thing,/ and small press guys got kicked around quite a bit by distributors, retailers. I felt like there was a need for a convention that stripped away the big parts of the business and focused on the work being done by small and independent creators or people with that mindset.
I had no notion that it would be a good idea, I just wanted to see it happen and was hoping that it could become something of a gathering of the tribes where people could support each other and share information, or just discover new things.
Looking back, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Certainly I wish I knew how big social networks were going to be. Ten years after APE, Facebook became a thing and social networking changed a good portion of the game. I also wish I knew how big mobile devices would become.
Why did you hand it over to Comic-Con in the first place?
APE was a money loser from the get-go. I don't believe Comic-Con ever made a profit from APE. As an event, though, APE fit very well with their mission statement and with being an educational non-profit. I was not going to be able to keep it going along with the publishing company.
Why were you willing to take it back?
I am not doing much in the way of publishing anymore. They had offered the show back to me a few times, so the last time they did, I finally said yes. I have unfinished business with the event.
Aside from the change in venue, from San Francisco to San Jose, how is it different now that it's in your hands?
It's most definitely a smaller event in terms of exhibitors and attendees. I upped the space people were given (Comic-Con sold six foot tables to exhibitors, I increased that to a 10x10 booth in order to make it easier to share space).
There are a lot of alternative and small-press comics festivals now -- MOCCA, CAKE, SPX, TCAF and smaller events. What sets APE apart?
I used to attend MOCCA and SPX, but stopped going as the cost of travel and shipping goods across the country was prohibitive for me. One of the things I am trying to do, or wanting to do, to set APE apart is to go back to a little of my original intention, which was for it to be more of an educational event and a place for discovery.
Retailers were always let in free, going all the way back to the first one. However, I expanded that to letting in teachers, librarians and other people associated with libraries and schools for free.
I have several good friends who are public school teachers, and one of the things that always amazed me was how much teachers go out-of-pocket for basic stuff like supplies and things like that. They are always looking for things to better engage their students, and I always meet a lot of teachers at conventions, so letting them into APE free seemed like a natural extension to me.
Do you go to any of those other festivals, or to bigger comic cons? If so, what do you like about the experience? What do you think APE does better, or what do you wish you could do better?
I mentioned SPX and MOCCA above. This year I stopped going to Comic-Con in San Diego -- first time in my adult life I did not go there. The thing I liked best about the entire convention experience is meeting new people and the opportunity to reconnect with people.
What I hope to do better at APE is provide a good experience for exhibitors and for people interested in comics as a medium and who want to learn more about it.
Do you still regard APE as a comics-centered show? How do you select exhibitors for APE?
Yes, APE is about comics, the P stands for 'Press,' so it spans a pretty wide gamut. We have a lot of space available to us in the venue we are currently in, so beyond not wanting to have people who are inappropriate at the event, I do not do a lot of curating of the exhibitors. I kind of dislike that aspect of some of the festivals. I had a creator I was publishing denied space at one festival, so I did not want to put myself in the position of denying someone space because they did not fit some vision of what I or someone else felt like was quality.
What are you particularly looking forward to in this year's show?
I am truly looking forward to having Gene Luen Yang there. He is someone that the entire comics industry can point to and be proud of. He has accomplished so much and is such a great human being that he deserves every bit of acclaim he is getting.
That being said, also having someone like Jimmie Robinson there, who was there in the early years, is gratifying for me. He is a tremendous talent, and the opportunity to put even our small spotlight on him is exciting.
What plans do you have for future APEs?
Eventually, I would like to see APE become more festival-like. I am already moving it to a multi-venue type of thing, where the programming is in places outside of the convention center. I am planning on adding some Friday night activities. Currently, we are doing our event the same weekend as South First Fridays, a very popular art walk, and Gallery Anno Domini is opening a show called The Art of the Zine, which will be a very cool event for people attending APE to see. Since they are hosting programming on Saturday and Sunday, APE attendees will be able to see this for free.
The indy and small-press comics scene has grown quite a bit since you founded SLG in 1986. From your vantage point as a publisher, what is the most significant change? What sort of options do indy creators have now that they didn't have before? And conversely, what sort of obstacles do you see?
The advent of the Internet and social networks are the easy answers to this, but the big change and advantage that creators have now that did not exist 30 years ago is crowdfunding.
Things like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and the like give creators today an opportunity to monetize their work while building an audience that did not exist years ago. Kickstarter is practically a marketplace for Indy comics. At one point a few years ago, Publishers Weekly calculated that if Kickstarter were a publisher, it would be the #2 publisher of graphic novels in the US.
The Internet and the access artists have to it gives them the ability to develop and grow an audience in way that makes the eventual transition to print a little easier than it used to be. Of course, everyone's mileage may vary, and the Internet and crowd-funding still require a load of hard work on the artists part, but the tools now are better than they have ever been.
What is the status of SLG as a publisher now?
Beyond keeping our better sellers in print and continuing some of the things we started a few years ago, I am not doing a lot with publishing. I am no longer looking for new material and don't envision myself getting back into that in the near future. In a way, the advent of things like Kickstarter made SLG kind of irrelevant. An artist can make way more on a Kickstarted book, assuming it is successful, than they can from being published
You have run several crowdfunding campaigns in the past few years. Were they helpful? How is your business running now? What are your priorities for SLG?
Most of those were targeted at our music venue business, which is a weird offshoot of our publishing business. A few years ago, we got into direct-to-garment printing to run our apparel line (we sold as many t-shirts as comics, at one point) and run a small imprint called TeeGeniuses and ArkivaTropika. We do a lot of consulting with people, so I am moving the SLG side of the business to more of a service thing.
I notice your comics are available on comiXology. What portion of your business is digital?
Minimal, like less than $50 a month in total.
What trends have you seen among the small presses that you work with for APE? Are they more businesslike? Do you see more focus?
I see a lot of people who work very hard and have very sincere efforts on their tables. I am hoping to see people get more creative with their displays, not like big and flashy, but fun and inventive. To that end, we are having a contest for most creative use of the exhibit space.
What about the independent artists who exhibit there? What sort of demographic shifts have you seen? Are there any groups who you feel are underrepresented, either as creators or readers?
I can only comment on what I personally see, but I feel like there is a much greater emphasis on design and package than there ever has been. Maybe it is the advent of digital, but now I see people put a lot more effort and resource into the physical package of a book or comic, making the book sort of an objet d'art.
Overall, what do you think the state is of independent publishing today, and what do you see as the most significant challenge it faces? Is it a better or a worse time to launch a small comics publisher than 1986?
Indy publishing is always going to be filled with risks. I think it is a great time to be in it, if you are looking at crowdfunding as your major source of revenue and audience. Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as Kickstarter, or even the Internet as we know it now. You needed things like APE to be seen and get your message heard. There are a lot of people who have great small companies that are doing wonderful books and have the benefit of things like a book and library market to sell into that did not really exist three decades ago. So, yeah, it is a great time for Indy comics and publishers.