Visiting the 1999 Small Press Expo

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 1999
By: Darren Schroeder

Cover of Visiting the 1999 Small Press Expo

We flew into Washington DC just ahead of Hurricane Floyd at midnight. Debra Boyask (creator of Geeks, Nerds and Dweebs and The Ancient Geeks) and I were exhausted so it took until the middle of the next day for us to venture out of the hotel room and find what going on at the 1999 Small Press Expos in Bethesda, Washington DC. Debra located the International Comic Arts Festival, an event run in conjunction with SPX. This was small group of people listening to some very interesting presentations which were mostly aimed at an academic audience, examining features of the comic medium. The talks that I attended that day covered such topics as race representation and the changes in the comics industry from mass market product to Niche market.

Another attendee was Michael Hill, an Australian comic creator and the Director of the Postgraduate Design Program of the Faculty of Design, Architecture & Building at the University of Technology, Sydney. He had given a talk about the Australian small press scene which we had unfortunately missed. The last talk of the day was about narrative in comics presented by Pascal Lefèvre, a Belgian scholar. His presentation involved a close analysis of a particular Belgian one page comic, looking at the codes and means of representation that were being used in the story. At the end of the day the Belgium Embassy held a reception so we scored some free food and drinks and got to chat with a variety of comic creators and academics.

We got up early the next day to attend more ICAF presentations. Once again they covered a good range of subjects including early Asian illustration and a brief history of French mainstream comics. While the subjects were interesting some of the speakers needed to work on their presentation skills which varied from competent to mumbly messes. I had a chat with Mike Kidson who presented an analysis of the effects of printing techniques on the cultural status of comics verse fine art (Brief synopsis - book publisher needed cheap illustrations so mostly used wood cuts which gave low quality/low cost reproduction and offered this work to illustrators. The more expensive metal plate process was left for small run expensive books giving better results. This quality attracted/was offered to fine artists).

He had travelled to the convention on the profits he made buying up copies of a Superman comic that was released in Britain but not in the US because it involved a baby being put in a microwave. He chuckled over a mainstream company helping pay for his trip to SPX. I was interested to learn that He was one of the co-founders of ZUM, a long running British review zine. Later on during the con he told me that someone else has taken over producing the zine and while they are very enthusiastic they also very slow at getting things done.

Through Debra's persistence she had been able to pester the SPX. Organizers enough to get us half of a table in the expo. It cost us US$90. We set up the table with the stocks of Funtime Comics, Debra's Teacakes comics and a few of the spare issues of New Zealand comics that I had brought along. We were next to Amy Ahlstrom, a comic artist and illustrator from Chicago. We traded comic creating stories and asked her about things like tipping, internet access and medical care. She was very friendly and seemed to know a lot of the other small press people, mostly the cool ones. She had some very striking ear rings in the shape of wing-nuts.

Most of the sales we made that first day were to other creators. Debra and I worked on a roster on the table so I managed a few walks around the Expo. It consisted of two huge conference rooms plus two smaller rooms full of people selling and promoting their comics, as well as publishers such as Fantagraphics, Slave Labour Press and Drawn and Quarterly. There was lots of lovely and interesting comics to be seen. I managed to have a quick chat with Eddie Campbell and let him know he has a geeky fan in New Zealand. He had lots of back issues on sale, including a supply of his very first comic. He later told the story about how he had visited his parents and found all these unsold copies in the attic. Good to know that happens to other people.

While wandering around I had a chat to one of the Canadian creators of Xeno's Arrow. I have a few of the early A5 format issues, and he told me that they were reprinting them in the standard comic format, re working the story. I enjoyed the issues I have read so it was nice to see them having a chance at wider success.

I attended an ICAF panel discussion between Neil Gaiman and Jeff Smith (Bone). They had an interesting chat about the creative process and the practical/financial aspects of the business. Lots of amusing anecdotes and wise words.

We got up early the next day to look after our table. We sold a few issues in the morning with people having a look and asking about New Zealand comics. After a while I went to hear Eddie Campbell give a talk about comics. He came across as a bit nervous but very friendly. His talk was very unstructured, he would ask for questions and follow the train of thought. I ask him if he showed his autobiographical works to the people who appeared in them and he replied no, and that he had hid the story he wrote about Alan Moore from him until it was published. He talked a bit about how he found it hard writing for Hellblazer (I think he took offense when I mistakenly said he had drawn it.) because he worried about whether what he wrote was what DC wanted. He mentioned that he had discussed the John Constantine character with Alan Moore at the time.

After the talk I went and took over on the table from Debra. John Lent, the editor of the Journal of Comic Arts came to our desk and asked a lot of questions about the comic scene in Christchurch, taking notes for a possible article. A while latter young American man wandered up to the table and surprised me by saying that he had picked up one of our comics while on a trip around New Zealand a couple of years ago. Most people were a bit vague about exactly where New Zealand was, so we eventually drew a map to put on our table to help explain.

It took the opportunity to have a chat with James Kochalka and buy a few trades and mini comics from him. I said I like the cover of The Horrible Truth About Comics (great book, get it!), noticing the reference to The Littlest Prince. Later I had a chat with that hardworking promoter of Australian comics and bright red spectacle wearer John Weeks. He appeared with a huge box full of, you guessed it, Australian comics. We traded a few issues.

By the end of the expo Debra and I had sold US$70 worth of comics which paid for the basic table hire costs, but I would have spent almost that much on comics and had to carry a very heavy bag of comics around for the rest of the trip. Almost two months later and I have yet to read them all.

On the Saturday evening the Ignatz Awards were held. While waiting for the ceremonies I had a chat to an ex-marine who published his own comic. He was entertaining to talk to but when Debra arrived there was some serious body language going on that suggested he didn't really know how/want to deal with a real live woman, interesting when you consider that some of his main work was for pornographic comixs. I thought it was quite funny but Debra thought he was a berk. The organizers appeared to have underestimated the interest in the event because there were quite a few people standing at the back of the hall during the awards. A group of creators put on some skits between each award which were amusing but involved a lot of in jokes.

I didn't recognize the names of many of the nominees but was please to observe that Dylan Horricks got the biggest cheer when his name was read out. If he had won I was considering running up and accepting it on his behalf, seeing Debra and I appeared to be the only Kiwis here. During the presentations there was a murmur of discontent from a very nervous man sitting next to me regarding Frank Cho winning an award, seeing as Frank was also one of the judges. I found out later that Frank had nominated his own book cause so much of the other stuff was, in Franks opinion, "crap." Steps have been taken to stop this kind of thing from occurring next time.

Early on Sunday morning the small press discussion panels were held. The expo tables had been packed up the night before and there were several rooms for presentations on different topics. The first that I went to was nearly finished by the time I got there. This was about printing and mostly concerned the information and format of artwork that a printing firm needed to produce a comic for a customer. I didn't learn much from the talk itself but managed to pick up some good information pamphlets about producing print jobs and design.

The next one about comics and the internet was far more entertaining. The panel consisted of a web consultant who helps comic stores create web sites. He promoted the web as a promotional tool for print media. The second speaker ran his own web site for online, non-profit comic strips. The third and final speaker had a web site with daily strips and was looking to sell advertising on the page and make some money.

The non-profit guy had a real bee in his bonnet about the fact that the internet could be used to sweep aside the current, evil distribution system. He asked why creators strived to print stuff and send it round the country with invoices, paperwork etc. when the web offers so much more? He had quite a rant at the consultant, who admitted that the possibilities were there, but if you want to sell comics, then he saw the web as being a useful tool to help with that. The third guy sat on the fence but admitted that he wanted to make money and could, in the long term, see some ways of doing this.

I suggested to the free online guy that what he wanted to do was okay for hobby, but not much use for anyone who wanted to make some kind of living. He tried to deny that it was just a hobby for him but when I asked him if he made any money from it he said no, so I told him it was a hobby. I think now that he was just against the whole financial capitalist structure thing that selling comics involves, but couldn't be bothered giving comics away free. I was also amused that he had these grandiose plans for the world wide web when Debra and I had been unable to find any form of computer within walking distance of the Expo on which to check our e-mail. It was kind of funny cause there was a comic shop just down the road. At least comics on paper are very transportable and easy to read no matter what the local power supply is.

After that panel I went to a discussion about distribution which had the representatives from PODS (Publication Ordering and Distribution System) promoting their business which will involve a central office that tracks orders from retailers. Orders and payments are passed on to publishers who ship direct to retailers. The retailers will be billed on delivery. The guy from PODS did this trying not to offend Diamond (the big name in comics distribution) and a guy from the LPC Group, a book distributor which is promoting prestige format alternative press comics in the mainstream book trade. They all said the same thing, we can shift your book if it is good enough and the market loves it. PODS added that they could do it even if not many people loved it, and it would be more user friendly. PODS were understandably the talk of the expo, lots of creators are expecting good things from them.

The final talk I went to was the Diamond State of the Nation Address. There was good news and bad news, things are bad in the comic market but they can see them getting better. Lots of good independent comics are being produced and there are shops who are interested in this kind of stuff blah blah blah.

Once the talks were over Debra and I joined the remaining attendees at the Distributors verse Creators softball game and barbecue. The food was excellent, huge servings of BBQ ham, salads and such with cold drinks. Shame that every wasp in the continental United States was there for the food as well, but no one died from stings so that was okay. It was a very hot and muggy day which all added to the spirit of the event. Neil Gaiman was there, all dressed in black having a chat with the more un-sporty types. It is safe to assume that Sandman don't watch the sports channel.

I joined in the game on the creators team, mainly cause I really wanted one of the free T-shirts, but once I was out on the diamond I turned into Sports Billy. I was crap at running bases, mainly because my baggy skater dude trousers kept tripping me up. I got to second base but fell over on the way to third. I had more success fielding at back stop. My moment of glory came when I caught a fly-ball. Aside from that moment of success the Diamond distributors whipped our butts but we all had a great time. There was a bunch of creators doing an excellent job of heckling both teams. The best line of he day was when one of their friends took a wild swing at a pitch and missed. One of their number yelled out What's wrong Luke, you've turned off your targeting computer?

Thus the Expo ended. Debra and I had a great time over the course of the five days. If Indy comics are your thing then the SPX is your mecca. It was very inspiring to see so many alternative comics in the same place and to talk to people who were interested in what we were doing. We realize now that we should have taken some business cards, information flyers and a poster or display stand to attract people to our desk as well as a good supply of change. T-shirts would also have been a good idea for free advertizing while we walked around and for sale. Now I just have to figure out how to finance it.

Darren Schroeder

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