The WorkBook - A trip to the Little Book Fair in Pittsburgh, PA

previously_Main Street Seems So Lonely Now_here

The Open

Caught in the real world, I’ve missed all opportunity to write this column (sorry, Max). However, I did trek to Pittsburgh on Friday for The Little Book Fair – a small-press show organized by 23-year-old Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) student Juan Fernandez.

Thoughts below.

The Feature

Pittsburgh’s comicbook scene interests me not necessarily for its reported energy but its proximity. I grew up only an hour and change away, yet in the constrained, two-tone Ohio Valley comics didn’t have a community pushing it. Instead, passive reading was the active effort, and even the shop regulars seemed bored by the whole thing.

Yet not so far away, in the Burgh, the opposite was true. People were making, discussing and selling comics of all varying breed, entrenched in an actual scene – socializing and creating because of one medium. I regret not making more of an effort to explore that at an earlier, impressionable age. I should have snagged my driver’s license at 16, borrowed the parents’ car and went.

It could have been an active hobby, that way. Instead of the message board, I could have hung around Copacetic Comics, read amazing work and talked with other interested readers in a face-to-face setup. I could have avoided all that industry, Internet bullshit. I could have, at least, hung out in a place other than Wheeling, WV.

The Little Book Fair offered an enjoyable experience, though, easing some of those regrets. It wasn’t the best show I’ve attended in terms of work available, but seeing a community, or at least part of it, under one roof for a few short hours had its charm.

Guys like Frank Santoro, Ed Piskor and Dave Wachter provided familiar faces while a number of unknowns, at first glance, offered a chance of finding something new. Regular people, just off the street, shuffled through the few, short aisles, tossing up whatever support they could muster. All the players there, you got a sense Pittsburgh’s attitude toward comics – that the medium is just as a part of the city as the baseball team or steel industry.

The scene outside the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center emphasized this. Street merchants and food charts decorated North Pacific Avenue as an arrangement of people – all shapes and size – hung out, congregating in the sticky, Friday evening air to eat, drink and laugh. A “comic convention” sat feet away, yet The Little Book Fair felt like another street merchant out on the pavement. It wasn’t an inconvenience like a tourist-driven San Diego or New York show but an addition to the neighborhood. The situation suggested comfort. Judging eyes were absent. Even police officers tasked to blockade the street seemed happy to be there, eating fajitas and shooting the shit.

Between the location and free admission, I would assume Juan, the organizer, intended this, but it’s also possible that intention wasn’t necessary. Comics seem intertwined with Pittsburgh’s identity, and the support could arrive no matter the circumstance.

While the sight of the scene impressed me, Frank Santoro, a Pittsburgh cartoonist and Eisner judge, says the scene can grow tiring. He undoubtedly loves his hometown’s comicbook community, calling it "great," but he feels the necessity to join a scene just to be aware of certain work is frustrating. There’s eventually a limit, and not everyone will go to such a length to read comics.

A few artists, like Frank, were enjoyable to chat with, but some came with awkward encounters. One gentleman, initially receptive and chatty, asked whether or not I make comics (to which I responded, “no, I just read and write about them.”). He recoiled, sat down and waved me off - as if I spoiled the show attending as a reader. Throughout the evening, I accidentally locked eyes with him a few times, looking out over the room, and he would, in these moments, give me a unwelcome scowl.  It was very weird, like an unnecessary sense of inclusiveness drove his reason for being there, and I intruded.

That was about the worst of it, though.

The best moment of the show came at its conclusion. Planning to grab a beer with Juan and Dave Wachter, I hung around as the doors closed and helped strike. The tables came down, and the artists gathered, thanking Juan for organizing the thing. They all joined in the cleanup, and in some sappy, bullshit way the community was truly visible and unrestrained.

Juan says he’s happy with the show. A sizeable crowd attended, and most of the artists made money selling books. He wants to attempt something similar in White River Junction, home of CCS, in the future, saying it’s a great location for an American version of Angouleme.

The Short Stack

Reading through the show haul, it’s clear that I picked up more than a few duds. Thom DeLair’s Star Story needs serious editing – even at 11 pages – and Steve Stelling’s The Air Waves Goodbye just feels pretentious. That said, Rachel Masilamani’s Las Cuerpas offers a field of tones and delicate line work, making it a nice grab. Here’s a short review.

Las CuerpasRachel MasilamaniSelf-published2010

It’s hard to describe what occurs on Las Cuerpas’s pages. Masilamani shows us a giant, naked woman flattening a town between one-page scenes of everyday life (for citizens of that town, that is), but aside from the surface value of these images, it’s unclear. Maybe this giant woman represents an unconscious, emotional burden put upon this place, but who am I to define what she means?

That said, Masilamani creates suspense, inevitability and even beauty in such a small space, and there’s a threatening rush to the pacing. The work obviously gains vibrancy from these abstract qualities, and it’s well balanced. Masilamani uses the giant woman as the focal point for these sensations, but the township’s citizens, appearing nervous, if not uncomfortable, draw the horror away from this outlandish figure, suggesting beauty more in tune with her.

This beauty is voiced by the delicacy of Masilamani’s line. At times, her drawings do lack certain clarity, but when pages open, the art settles and feels light. Sound vibrates from these lines. You can hear that town simply via body language, another source of vibrancy.

Las Cuerpas suffers only a few instances of messy storytelling, but that cover is clear as day. A nice introduction to a previously unfamiliar cartoonist.

The Exit

I’ve already written half of the next column, so a follow-up should follow up soon.

Follow Alec on Twitter. @Alec_Berry

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