Remember the old location? It was great, so much closer to downtown. The restaurants were much better—and closer—than those around the North Bethesda Marriott Convention Center. Remember when the show was held on Friday and Saturday, so everyone could play softball and picnic on Sunday?
I don’t. I only began driving down to the Small Press Expo three years ago—not quite enough time, I think, to have developed a glimmering sense of nostalgia for those long gone good old days—you know, when the show actually meant something. Three years, however, is certainly long enough to have fallen in love with SPX, and it’s more than enough time to have designated the early autumn weekend as three of my favorite days of the year.
There’s plenty of cause for nostalgia, I’m sure, and I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t expect to be carrying a similar fuzzy feeling a decade or so from now for the way they ran things back in the ‘00s. It’s just that, in a sense, constant fluctuation ought be one of the defining principles of the show. There’s a place for tradition at SPX certainly, but when we become fixated on the past, we lose sight of the expo’s true purpose as a platform for the some of the industry’s most exciting and underappreciated names. The moment the show loses focus of this moment it becomes just another entry in the seemingly endless parade of comic book conventions.
Launched in 2006, the Nerdlinger Awards were a tongue-in-cheek pushback against the tendency to institutionalize SPX and the Ignatz Awards. The Nerdlingers began as a joke, and, in some sense, have continued to be so—the awards, themselves, after all, are presented as labels pasted onto bottles of beer (which, for the record is, at the very least, is far more useful in real life than a brick on a wooden stand), representing categories tailored-made for each of the winner, with names like “Grand Wizard of Dick and Fart Jokes and Champion of Despised and Unappreciated Art” (Winner: Cheese Hasleberger), “Lifetime Achievement in Cell Phone Sex Comics, and All-Around Gentlemanliness and Fine Cartoonistry” (Winner: GB Tran), and “MOST LIKELY TO BECOME RICH AND FAMOUS AND REMEMBER THIS AND REWARD ME DON’T YOU FORGET ME STEVE” [sic Caps] (Winner: Steve Wolfhard).
The event is held at Atomic Comics in Baltimore, the evening before the start of SPX, as part the store’s SPXplosion party, featuring guests of honor like Emily Flake, Peter Kuper, Ken Dahl, Julia Wertz, and John Porcellino (a “who’s who of drunken cartoonists,” as the flier for the event succinctly puts it).
Our carpool left New York early on Friday to make it out in time for event—one of our great regrets from the year before was having driven past Baltimore without a second thought, arriving in Baltimore only to spend a few extra hours mulling around the hotel after the bar’s 11 closing last call (it also gave us ample time to mull over the evening’s other major misfire: a detour to a North Maryland Waffle House).
When we pulled up, the event was already in full force, with throngs of indie cartoonists spilling out onto to the sidewalk, on what has to be the hippest neighborhood of Baltimore, a far cry from the detour that Heidi MacDonald’s iPhone GPS sent us on through the streets of the which came far closer to meeting all of the expectations I harbored after hours spent watching The Wire on DVD.
The store itself is amazing, an indie shop on-par with the likes of Quimby’s in Chicago and Rocketship in Brooklyn. There’s a staggering amount of books and zines crammed into the brightly lit space, and toys and magazines and CDs up front. The story also happily stocks the work of local underground legend John Waters, who, I’m told, uses the location to receive fan mail.
[MacDonald, Neufeld, Newelt.]
The store manager set up an open bar in the back and number of folding chairs were set up amongst mingling cartoonists, in anticipation of the evening’s makeshift ceremony, a celebration of those artists who have largely been overlooked by more “mainstream” awards, like Saturday’s Ignatzs. The Nerdlingers are the brainchild of the event’s three emcees MK Reed, Robin Enrinco, and Liz Baillie, the latter of whom was lovingly referred to by MacDonald in a blog post the next morning as the indie comics “It Girl.”
SPX this year embraced the Nerdlingers in its own roundabout way, asking Baillie to emcee the Ignatzs. Baillie gladly took the torch from three-time ceremony host MacDonald, opening that event with her own bit of heartfelt nostalgia, recalling her early days at SPX as a bright-eyed SVA student. It was all part of a delicate balancing act between the new and old guard, the most successful manifestation of which occurred when artists like Gahan Wilson handed over bricks up-and-comers like Swallow Me Whole’s Nate Powell. There was still certainly attention paid to perennial favorites like Chris Ware, who is no doubt considering added a wing to his home in order to accommodate his ever-increasing collection of statuettes, but in all the awards maintained a suitable focus on emerging talents like CCS grad Colleen Frakes, who humbly walked away with the award for Promising New Talent.
[Ballie Intros Gahan Wilson.]
The Nerdlingers, however, are ultimately just a lark—a chance for friends to catch up and give each other commemorative beer bottles before heading into Bethesda to sit behind a table for seven hours. Judging from the crowd, they more than served their purpose, and my fellow travelers MacDonald, Josh Neufeld, Jeff Newelt, and myself took the opportunity to catch up with some folks we hadn’t seen in a year, before heading over to a local hipster-friendly café recommended by the owner of Atomic. I recommend the fried tofu—an excellent compliment to the Sonic Youth playing on loop on the restaurant’s speakers.
We made the rest of the drive to Bethesda to check into our room, which, thankfully, had an proportionate number of beds, unlike the year before, when impenetrable pillow forts were built in the middle of the night. There was a small gathering in the bar, where we chatted up CBLDF’s Charles Brownstein, Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton, and MoCCA’s Ellen Abramowitz, amongst others, as Gary Groth, Tom Neely, and friends hatched world domination plans at the other end of the room. It was roughly half an hour before the bar staff dimmed the lights and kindly asked everyone to vacate the premises.
[Dustin Harbin dons a Colleen Venable original.]
We moved things to a fifth floor room belonging to Dustin Harbin and Scott Campbell—something of a sign of things to come for the show’s parties, which were largely confined to the Marriott for the bulk of the weekend. Harbin demonstrated how he’d managed to snag the previous year’s Nerdlinger for Greatest Gentleman/Greatest Smile in Indie Comics, by pulling out a 36 pack of Budweiser and a bottle of Jameson out of the trunk of his car.
I met a handful of new folks in the snug confines of the room, including current Webcomics rock star Kate Beaton and waitress/mini-comics creator Emi Gennis, who had knocked on the door to investigate the sounds emanating from the next room over. She told me that she’d opted to ride out from Chicago, despite not really knowing anyone coming out to the show. A few hours into the show she was drinking in a hotel room amongst a sea of cartooning talent, a testament, I think, to the show’s friendly and warm nature—and really, to the indie comics scene at large.
Four AM seemed an appropriate time to trek back to room to rest up for the con’s first official day.
[Continued in Part Two].