News travels quickly in alternative comics circles. You’re greeted with reminders of this, from time to time.When the when the half of the North Bethesda Marriot conference room devoted to the Small Press Expo opened, just after 11 AM on Saturday, I soon discovered that tales of our roadside culinary misadventures had managed to arrive at the showroom floor far ahead of my fellow passengers. The reactions, strangely, were mixed between an outpouring of gastrointestinal sympathy and a defense of that American South chain that unrepentantly displays the words “scattered, smothered, and covered” at every imaginable opportunity.
The evening before, the decision was unanimous—some combination of morbid curiosity and the desire to sample the local cuisine, knowing full well that neither desire would be appeased by the next two days’ food consumption, which would likely revolve largely around the quasi-swank ambiance of the restaurant just down the hall from the North Bethesda Marriott lobby. Really, it was the same desire that drove Heidi MacDonald to purchase a bag of crab-flavored potato chips, a touch of the Maryland seasoning that she was immediately forbidden from opening within the confines of the maroon SUV thoughtfully rented by one Jeff Newelt.
As we sat down beneath the neon yellow glow of the Waffle House, moments before our waiter smiled to reveal a pair of brown filmy incisors, Ben McCool uttered cheerfully like a ravenous harbinger of impending doom, “you know, I think may be the greatest decision that’s ever been made, ever.” The tale of distress that followed that evening (and, troublingly, into the next morning, for me), is one which will live on in roadside lore, for years to come (though, for the record, so far as I can tell, The Beat’s reports of “explosive diarrhea” have been somewhat exaggerated). I mention it here for it was precisely because of that unfortunate decision that we missed the pre-SPX festivities occurring that evening at Atomic Books, featuring an impressive lineup of familiar names, like Brian Ralph, Lauren Weinstein, Jesse Reklaw, Julia Wertz, Laura Park, Theo Ellsworth, Austin English, Ken Dahl, and Ben Claassen III.
We stumbled on to hotel check-in to discover that, in spite of our request, the Marriot had run out of hotel rooms with double beds—fine for McCool and MacDonald, no doubt, but Newelt and myself were forced to request extra pillows soon assembled into a makeshift barricade down the center of the king-size bed. It was McCool and MacDonald who soon discovered that, not only had the hotel bar closed prior to our midnight arrival, but the 7-11 across the street carried no liquor, a predicament that led us to a hotel room of a comic shop owner where single-malt bourbon was being drunk from plastic cups and hotel glasses by a crew of Norwegian comic artists who had come out to Bethesda stocked with a few boxes of photo-copied minis, a mind-boggling menagerie of college and cartoons, who intensely strange sensibilities could not simply be chalked up to wacky cultural difference.
I ultimately purchased one during Sunday’s final lap around the showroom floor. One the cover an anthropomorphic duck in a fedora seems moments away from striking an unseen object or creature with a chair. He’s flanked on top and bottom by the words “Goddamit! I Didn’t Get That Boat!” and “It’s Not Difficult to Find Things with Humor to Draw in Norway.”
By Saturday morning, said gastrointestinal distress was giving way to what would turn into a nasty head cold. If, however, there’s one thing I’ve learned the many weekends I’ve devoted to convention-going, it’s the fact that, if you’re still able walk following Monday, you’ve clearly largely squandered your weekend, no matter how many bags of comics you’ve managed to buy or sell.
For the second year in a row, Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier managed to snag what was arguably the best spot on the floor, with a large table directly facing the front door, in case the checkered picnic table cloth and huge Comics Bakery backdrop weren’t eye-catching enough.
I headed immediately for the back, where Sarah Morean and Will Dinksi were setting up their table. Morean was readying a display of Man Up, the book she’d compiled for the recent Minneapolis Zine Fest, which, interestingly enough, was one of two books I noticed over the course of the two days which provided the reader with their very own fake mustache. Dinksi, for his part, was stacking up piles of his latest, Beautiful, Cool, and Irreplaceable, which, as always, retains the author’s keen eye for beautiful packaging. Morean and Dinksi kindly agreed to give me a little table real estate to display the new Daily Cross Hatch tees, which were making their debut at the show. Morean concocted a makeshift display out of stables, packing tape (borrowed from the nearby Drawn & Quarterly booth) and two SPX nametag lanyards. Leftover shirts will be available through the site, in the near future.
Along the front wall, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was setting up its table of not-for-profit goods. Charles Brownstein, decked out in his trademark suit, was showing the fund’s two new hires the ropes, whilst trying to work out some better scheme for displaying their own t-shirts—the lanyards and staple approach apparently wouldn’t do the trick for seasoned professionals, such as themselves.
At the next table over Larry Marder was toiling away on his sketchbook, behind a bowl of dry beans that had been turned into authentic Beanworld action figures, with the help of a Sharpie. All those years working with Todd McFarlane had clearly paid off. Marder was my first interview of the weekend. He brought along a full-color proof of the upcoming Darkhorse reissue of his book. Over the course of the weekend, we snuck in Q&As with Marder, Freddie & Me’s Mike Dawson, Andy Runton, Dash Shaw, Frank Cammuso, and Kevin Huizenga, all of which will be appearing on The Daily Cross Hatch in the coming weeks.
As always, I happily leave the SPX with far more luggage than I arrive with. Dawson sent me off with the final three issues of his pre-Freddie series, Gabagool. Drawn & Quarterly had the fifth and latest issue of Huizenga’s Or Else mini, an older copy of Curses, Matthew Forsythe’s stunning Ojingogo.
Top Shelf may have had the debut single issue book of the show with Robert Goodin’s hilariously offensive The Man Who Loved Breasts (b/w George Olavatia: Amputee Fetishist). Also hot off the presses was James Kochalka’s latest addition to the American Elf series, along with Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole, in its stunning hardcover edition. Nate Powell, for his part, had secured a booth of his own, with a handful of Swallow Me Whole copies, a few older books, LPs he’d designed for his labels, and his SPX debut mini, All Bets Are Off, which culls all of its text from the Pretty Girls Make Graves track, “The Get Away.” Powell, for the record, may just be the nicest guy in comics, and as such, he happily signed a copy of Swallow Me Whole for my mom.
Powell, of course, proved one of the night’s big winners, taking home an Ignatz for Outstanding Debut. The artist wasn’t there to accept, however. When I asked Brett Warnock where he’d been hiding (Chris Staros, for his part, had spent the time between prior to the awards showcasing his chops with the CBLDF’s Owly Stratocaster), he answered that Powell had been up in his room, watching Mr. T, an allegation that Powell denied, the following morning. He had, in fact, been watching Soul Plane.
As in previous years, the Ignatz were held in a meeting room unanimously described as some combination of a university lecture hall and the United Nations, complete with glasses of water, notepads, and tiny fruit candies at ever single seat. And while Powell hadn’t shown, plenty of others had, lining the conference room walls up and down the steps. The winners list was one of the most indie-centric in recent memory. Cross Hatch favorites like Laura Pa k, Sarah Glidden, Jesse Reklaw, Lille Care, and Papercutter all took home bricks. Center for Cartoon Studies student Chuck Forsman was the big winner of the night, with two awards for Snake Oil, a Lynchian piece of dreamlike storytelling. Forsman also debuted a new mini at the show called Daffy.
Last year’s acceptance speech gorilla made a reappearance, this time accepting on behalf of Chris Onstad for Achewood. The gorilla, like all like his fellow award recipiants were presented awards bricks from the resident SPX luchador. The big hit of the night, however, was the return of the chocolate fondue fountain, which arguably provided the most compelling catalyst for emcee Heidi MacDonald’s insistence on keeping things short and sweet.
After fondue, a good number of SPXers once again descended on the nearby Korean karaoke bar, Robin Enrico and Liz Baillie were kind enough to squeeze me into their two door, along with some guy we’ve come to know only as “Wayne.” Again we shoved an ungodly amount of sweaty indie comics artists into a single room. This time out, however, our party branched out into another room, which had aptly come to be referred to as “the grown up room,” wherein the likes of Laura Hudson (who had brought down copies of the brand new issue of Comic Foundry), McCool, MacDonald, Jimmy Aquino, and Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton took a decidedly more civilized turn-based approach to karaoke singing, as the rest of us screamed and bounced to the likes of “Yellow Submarine” and “Buddy Holly.”
The ride home took an even more chaotic turn, with Dustin Harbin behind the wheel, Kochalka in the passenger seat, and Newelt and myself in the back, holding on for dear life, as we flipped an ungodly number of U-turns, ultimately driving the wrong way down a one way road. Thankfully all survived, because, had there been no diary strip to capture our final moments, we’d all have truly died in vain.
The magic of SPX has always been, at least in part, due to the fact that the show is held in a Bethesda, rather than New York or San Francisco, so most of those in attendance haven’t just happened onto the showroom floor to get in out of the heat or the cold, but have rather devoted a significant chunk of time and money into attending the show. The location also ensures that those present don’t scatter to the wind as soon as the floor closes, but rather hop in massive carpools to the next location. And, when you wake up, bleary-eyed the next morning, there’s a pretty good chance that the person riding down in the elevator with you or stumbling down the hotel halls is there for the same reason. It’s a sense of comradery by necessity almost entirely absent in big shows like San Diego, and even smaller ones like MoCCA or APE.
Sunday, unsurprisingly, got off to a later stop—despite the fact that the showroom floor officially opened an hour later, there were still a number of tables that had yet to set up shop. A few more laps around the floor yielded a handful of new treasures.
Joshua Cotter didn’t actually have any new books to sell, over at the Adhouse table. But he did happily let me flip through a notebook that will become his follow up to Skyscrapers of the Midwest. Less narratively cohesive than its predecessor, the book is a dizzying collections of patterns that may even prove more graphically impressive than Skyscrapers. At this early stage, it’s difficult to determine exactly what the artist is shooting for with the book, but it will no doubt blow us all away.
Liz Baillie set up shop across the aisle, alongside Enrico and MK Reed. Baillie was displaying copies of her Bouncing Souls-centric mini, Sing Along Forever. A woman was standing with her, behind the booth, shooting the artist for a student documentary. I happily offered myself up for interview, hoping for a chance to ride on Baillie’s purple leopard print coattails.
I’d be remiss, were I to forget to mention Sparkplug, which debuted the latest issue of Elijah Brubaker’s Reich and Jonas Madden-Connor’s Ochre Ellipse. Bodega slipped me a copy of Brian Ralph’s third episode of Daybreak, I picked up a copy of Ken Dahl’s Welcome to the Dahl House from Microcosm, and the always-friendly Ed Piskor handed off his new stop-gap mini, WIZZYWIG 1.5. I’d have asked Fantagraphics nicely for a copy of the latest Popeye book, but there’s no way the enormous volume could have been shoved into my backpack after all of that. Plus Fanta PR legend Eric Reynolds spent a good chunk of his time walking the floor with his baby daughter Clementine (whose rebellious phase will no doubt involve reading a lot of Rob Liefeld comics), leaving much of the book sales to publisher Gary Groth.
I capped off the weekend with the James Kochalka panel moderated by MacDonald, partly because I greatly enjoy James’s work and partly because Heidi would have no doubt been upset had left her behind in Bethesda.
The long ride home was punctuated by countless tolls and menacing signs for all manner of Waffle Houses. The bags full of comics in the trunk and at our feet, however, served as a constant reminder of why we had all signed on in the first place, and they would thankfully line the floor around my bed the next day, as I recovered from yet another comic convention plague.