This was my second time attending the Small Press Expo in just as many years, which to be honest is a pretty impressive level of consistency on my part. My general relationship with conventions is that once I go it's usually enough exposure to my comic bookin' brethren to last me a couple of years. And yet, I came to SPX again more-or-less under my own volition. Obviously I was there in a somewhat journalistic capacity for Spandexless, but even if we weren't in the middle of our “Putting on sunglasses while walking away from an explosion” revival tour I probably would have gone again just as a regular dude (although the press pass has some nice perks, like I bet ya’ll didn't even know SPX had a secret water park beneath it).
I went with my buddy Jim and although we got an early start leaving New Jersey, I ended up getting held up because I forgot I had to fight Old Coal Pete (guardian of the Pennsylvania border) to leave New Jersey and that always takes a while what with Old Coal Pete threatening to turn the Delaware River into coal pit and afterwards having to pull my enchanted brass knuckles out of Old Coal Pete's face (don't worry he’s revived with every crescent moon, so he’s fine) and the Jersey Devil giving me its blessing to go forth. Plus you know traffic. Which is just the worst. Ugh.
Anyway, we managed to get to SPX with just enough time to get our passes and take in back to back panels featuring Jeff Smith and Rep. John Lewis, both of which were very interesting and probably the perfect way to start everything off. Smith talked about his complicated feelings at Bone being labeled a kids' comic and how he ultimately came to terms with it. He spoke about how all his heroes, like Carl Barks and Charles Schultz, were basically doing the same thing just without the label. Plus, he joked, the cross-generational appeal of the work has made him rich!
As good as that panel was though the John Lewis panel, which he shared along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, was probably the most memorable panel of the whole show. Honestly, I probably would have been fine with doing nothing except learning about the huge impact distributing the comic book Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story played in teaching the fundamentals of non-violent protest to people civil rights activists would not to have been able to reach easily. Ultimately, I felt like it was a good way to start the whole thing for me because, combined, both panels sort of of showcased why I love comics in the first place. It's a medium that can be equal parts fun and energetic as well as powerful and thoughtful. The fact that comics represent all of that and the people that make them are so well represented at SPX is astounding.
Despite all that I did spend most of Saturday feeling going through my usual depressed awkwardness, which is pretty normal for me with conventions since whenever I’m completely surrounded by people my first instinct is to start punching things until I reach open air. A pretty good policy in, say, a bar fight but maybe not the best reaction to have when there are women and children and a civil rights icon in the immediate area so I kept that instinct locked down. Despite that amazing self control on my part though I still tend to be all elbows at these things so I mostly just walked around the floor, talking to a few people here and there but mostly keeping to myself and trying not to accidentally hit anyone in the face with my flailing appendages (I failed...a lot. I'm so sorry.).
During one of those awkward elbowings I decided that maybe just standing in place for a few minutes might not be such a bad idea and struck up a conversation with a pair of very friendly cartoonists and upon learning I was at last year's SPX too they asked me if it was bigger than last year at which I replied I didn't know and I thought it was about the same size at which point Beth appeared at my side like a phantom to do what all good editors do and told me, no, I was wrong and it was nearly twice as big as last year.
Which was interesting. Not that it was that surprising that I didn't notice, because a crowded room feels the same to me if its filled with five hundred people or five thousand, but I think it's telling that that despite the increase in size the vibe was pretty much the same. More stuff to see and, by extension, more variety of stuff, meant I realized over the course of the next day that you could spend all your time on the floor and still not see everything. A convention showing this kind of growth is sort of the norm nowadays but it has been sort of weird reading a few alarmists writing recently, wondering if SPX will go the way of an NYCC or SDCC. I sincerely doubt that since to my mind that's like wondering if a monarch butterfly will eventually turn into a peregrine falcon or something. It’ll be interesting to see if SPX will get bigger in the upcoming years, but I doubt we’ll ever get so big that that you get a headache just thinking about it.
I pondered this over and other of life's big questions, like if Stephen Hawking had a problem with the lyrics "tale as old as time," for the rest of Saturday so by the time Sunday rolled around I was finally out of my head enough to actually talk to some people and, surprise surprise, it was a lot of fun! I didn't do any real interviews this time around so the conversations I had had the benefit of me not being “on” and being a bit more casual.
Some highlights were: Talking to Michel Fiffe about how he constructs the flow of his fight scenes in Copra, talking with C. Spike Trotman (aka the hardest woman working in comics) about her recent success publishing anthologies and the continued greatness that is Poorcraft (seriously if you haven't picked that up yet you should get on that and buy a copy of Smut Peddler too while you're at it because that's also great), and creepin' on Roger Langridge to whom I’m pretty sure I babbled, “YOURONEOFMYFAVORITECARTOONISTSANDIMREALLYHAPPYFORALLYOURRECENTSUCCESSNOWIWILLBUYTHISCOPYOFFREDTHECLOWNFROMYOU!” and threw some money at him.
I also managed to see the Sam Henderson and Michael Kupperman panel, which was mostly notable for Mark Twain showing up and screaming about books through a pre-recorded video (it was also a really interesting conversation about the state of humor comics and comedy in general).
To close this out (cheezus I’m not done yet?) my second time at SPX didn't have the “I am witnessing the return of Christ”-esque awe I experienced my first time around, but I think I had about as much fun as I did last year because despite all my dumb nonsense it's still a great weekend of looking at cool comics and art and in some cases flasks with cool pin up art on it that I REALLY wanted but I needed gas money for the drive back, and was just generally a fun time. I even managed to meet some people I only knew through the Twitters, which is always fun, and managed to leave with a decent haul of stuff AND some gas money for the drive back. Which considering I spent 75% of money within the first forty minutes last year before going to an ATM several times, it's a vast improvement. Almost like I’m a real adult or something.
Good show is what I’m saying. Should have just said that.
Art in header by Jesse Lonergan