[Matt Kindt, Box Brown, Chris Staros, James Kochalka, Leigh Walton, and Jeffery Brown.]
There are certain points, I suppose, when the whole thing feels a bit like high school. Cliques are to be expected in such conventions, where attendance numbers in the thousands—not everyone can go back and party in the same hotel room (though many have no doubt tried), and therein lies perhaps the greatest tragedy of this year’s SPX—the great nightly diasporic hotel room migration.
The Nerdlinger trio of Robin Enrico, MK Reed, and Liz Baillie had also become the makeshift ringleaders of Saturday night’s post-Ignatz festivities, taking it upon themselves to print up fliers and roundup the troops for the evening’s third-annual Bethesda karaoke exodus, wherein indie comics creators by the vanful descend upon a local Korean restaurant, cramming hundreds of bespectacled and artfully tattooed bodies into a room well past any reason fire code limits.
Thing is, save for this annual excursion, it seems that the establishment in question didn’t see too many hopping Bethesda Saturday nights, and some time in the interim, the place had closed down, much to the chagrin of those early carpoolers desperate to perform the evening’s first—and therefore definitive—version of “Islands in the Stream.”
What the closing ultimately meant (well, besides a nightly increase in revenue for the White Flint Mall’s Dave & Buster’s location) was that, like Friday night, Saturday’s prospective partiers were forced to bring the parties back to crammed hotel rooms, once the Ignatzs’ chocolate fountains finally stopped flowing for the night, and with that, the “there’s nothing else to do in this burg, so let’s all party together” spirit died a bit this year.
[Dave Roman, John Green, Marion Vitus, and Raina Telgemeier.]
It was, however, alive and well on the showroom floor during the day. After a quick trip to an entirely cartoonist-free hotel gym, I made it onto the floor by 11, running into James Kochalka on the elevator down. The superstar cartoonist informed me about his pleasant trip from Vermont and told me about last night’s suite party, which we had spent an hour or so attempting to locate. “It’s in 9-11,” he said. “Easy to remember.” “Never forget,” I answered back. Sad after the weekend was over that the quip wasn’t quite clever enough to have landed me another cameo in American Elf. Oh well, there’s always next year.
The line outside the showroom was encouragingly long, with attendees eager to get in as soon to opening as humanly possible. I managed to skirt the queue altogether, one of the sweet, sweet perks of running a moderately successful comics blog. Inside, the place was humming with the sounds of old friends catching up and some stragglers piecing together last second table displays. The attendance numbers that have come out since have proven to be moderately disappointing, but a glance around the floor at opening was more than a little promising [the latest numbers seem to confirm this, reporting a 19-percent increase over last year].
In this economic climate, I suppose it’s only natural to assume that alternative cartoonists and their fan base are likely to be living photo copy to photo copy (“living like a cartoonist,” as Tom Spurgeon lovingly phrases it), but even in 2009, SPX continues to be a vibrant show and promising insight into the grassroots of sequential art’s on-going renaissance.
[Jeffrey Brown and his sweet custom ax.]
Top Shelf, as ever, had staked out the best real estate of the show, erecting its movable bar along the front wall of the room. The publisher had lined up a number of its heavy hitters for the show, including Kochalka (who was selling copies of his five-year-old son Eli’s first mini-comic for two dollars), Jeffrey Brown (seated behind a beautiful Change-Bot custom painted guitar to be auctioned off for the CBLDF, later in the evening), Matt Kindt (who had some beautiful hand-crafted minis), and Andy Runton (who had brought along his Mac to show off a cute two minute CGI film starring his most famous creation, Owly).
Chris Staros and Leigh Walton were standing front row, center, and even Box Brown had managed to secure some bar space on one corner—and of course we’d be remiss if we were to leave out the giant Bruce Willis poster for the Surrogates film, which had opened in wide release the evening before, to mixed review, as word on the floor had it.
Fantagraphics set up its table along the right wall, manned by founders Kim Thompson and Gary Groth, who spent a good chunk of the weekend filling out credit card orders themselves. The booth offered up a steady stream of signing talent, including Zak Sally, Al Columbia, Kevin Huizenga, C. Tyler, Miss Lasko-Gross (who was hopping between the booth and the nearby House of Twelve table), and the inimitable Gahan Wilson (who would later slay the crowd as the presenter of the evening’s first Ignatz Award). I also had the pleasure of meeting Hans Richkeit, author of the stunning Squirrel Machine, who was surprisingly pleasant for a guy who spends his days drawing magical instruments built from animal carcasses.
[Lisa Hanawalt, Kevin Huizenga, Dan Zettwoch–Alvin had actually just left the booth in a hurry.]
Situated in the center of the room, Drawn & Quarterly’s showing was strong, featuring Huizenga, R. Sikoyak, and John Porcellino, who had had drawn this year’s badges to commemorate the 20th anniversay of his flagship book, King-Cat. Porcellino’s new collection, Map of My Heart, was easily one of the strongest debuts of the show. We spoke about the new book in-depth during an interview the next day.
[Josh Cotter and friend.]
The real star, so far as I’m concerned, however, was over at the Ad House booth. When Douglas Wolk asked me on Sunday morning what the book of the show was, I didn’t hesitate. At last year’s SPX, Josh Cotter had given me a sneak peak of his sketchbook, allowing me to leaf through the collection of abstract pages, which slowly congealed into something resembling a cohesive narrative. This year the same pages were debuting as a real book, faithfully reproduced for mass consumption. I’ve yet to even dig into the thing (the company had flown in a limited number of copies from China), but it already seems safe to declare it one of the year’s most impressive undertakings.
Over as Secret Acres, Ken Dahl was signing copies of Monsters, his impressive followup to Welcome to the Dahlhouse. The artist had also printed up a pile of herpes tattoos for eager show goers, a proper compliment to the theme of his latest work. Dahl’s current book tourmates Baillie and Reed were also debuting new books, Baillie with the second volume of her semi-autobiographical My Brain Hurts and Reed with her debut graphic novel, Cross Country.
NBM debuted Jesse Lonergan’s Joe and Azat, a look into life in “the strange land of Turkmenistan” and Ted Rall’s autobiographical The Year of Loving Dangerously. Rall agreed to do an interview later that afternoon, his voice still recovering from a recent nasty bought with the swine flu—though he could certainly speak well enough to repeat his much publicized call for Barack Obama’s removal from office. Sitting just across the row was Neil Swaab, who was debuting the latest Mr. Wiggles collection. Swaab and I would sit down for an interview the following day, wherein I happily declared my love for Adult Swim’s Superjail, for which Swaab had performed some character design. I also managed to finagle an interview with the legendary and rather friendly Jerry Moriarty, who is seemingly capable of discussing nearly any topic at great length.
I happily emerged from the weekend with handfuls of minis, including Corinne Mucha’s hilarious Buzz #3; Sophia Wiedeman’s surreal The Deformatory; Matt Wiegle’s Why Did I Put This Town on my Face (which features a nice little history lesson involving American settlers and prarie dogs); Anchorloss, a nice little anthology from One Percent Press, Miriam Libicki’s beautifully rendered Art Star, Dustin Harbin’s Dharbin #2, which features some insight into our misadventures during last year’s SPX, and recent Cross Hatch contributor Susie Cagel’s downright awesome Nine Gallons.
Along the back wall, the Savannah College Of Art And Design had left a space open for Jeremy Mullins, who passed away in June during a rock climbing accident. His friends compiled a collection of works, Sweetwater is an Asshole, and a tribute anthology, Sweetwater is Not an Asshole. Mullins had paid for his spot prior to his death, and his classmates set up a memorial spot in his absence.
Colleen Venable offered a far happier set up, in the form of $2 felt lumberjack beard, which were selling like hotcakes. I also emerged from the floor with a handful of t-shirts, including s Double Fine from party-hoster, Scott Campbell and Pat Lewis pre-faded “I Survived The Giant Monster Invasion of ’94.” I’m at a loss for the name of the gentleman who designed the blue on brown open book designed tee I picked [if this is you, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily amend appropriately—ed.].
[Chris Duffy, Will Dinski, Heidi MacDonald, and the scenic White Flint Mall Eatery.]
After the floor’s close on Saturday night, a band of four of us, including Heidi MacDonald and Nickelodeon Magazine’s Chris Duffy jumped into Will Dinski’s rented Impala with fancy pants leather interior, in search of food in the rain (I’d nominate Dinski for the Nicest Dude in Comics Nerdlinger, based largely on his running to the car in the downpour and pulling it up to the curb for the rest of us) . Looking for something decent to eat is something of a fool’s errand in North Bethesda, particularly when one has roughly an hour and a half before a certain indie comics award show, and despite our best efforts, we ended up at the White Flint Mall, where apparently everyone in the area goes for a good time on a Saturday night, hence the 45 minute waits at P.F. Chang’s.
Ultimately desperation drove us to the white-tiled Eatery, a minute food court with less than a half-dozen restaurants. I ate the world’s palest chicken salad on a Styrofoam plate, and we declared the meal this year’s Waffle House, yet another piece of the instant nostalgia that seems to define a great weekend convention. I blame Twitter.
The Ignatz Awards were moved to a room down the hall. It had more seating, the organizers assured us. Perhaps it was the lack of elevated university seating, but somehow the whole thing felt smaller. Emceed by Baillie, the event maintained its title as the world’s fastest awards ceremony. Eat your elongated heart out, Eisners. I shot stills with one hand and video with the other, as MacDonald sat next to me, live tweeting the event. Collen Frakes’s humble and quiet acceptance of Promising New Talent was hands-down the most touching moment, while Gahan Wilson’s drawn out hilarity filled in the void left by the presence of the guy in the gorilla costume. “One thing that strikes me about a lot of awards, tacky, shiny, made out of expensive metals, ostentatious, braggarts,” Wilson announced, walking over to the table holding the evening’s awards. “Whereas, we’ve got a brick!”
Also worthy of mention was Nate Powell’s under-the-leg brick acceptance and Jeffrey Brown’s quick rebuke as Baillie’s goofy haiku intro, “Sad tears / My girlfriend broke up with me / Here’s Jeffrey Brown.” Brown quietly approached the podium and answered, “thank you. Actually, I’m married and have a kid. I’m backed up with the writing.”
After the awards, the hallway reception lasted a touch longer than usual, due in no small part to the unforeseen canceling of the evening’s karaoke party. We eventually moved things to a ninth floor suite, a bit of a grownup party, compared to my usual SPX fare, complete with a far classier brand of liquor. The owner of the room, thankfully didn’t flinch when we descended upon the party eight people strong.
Eventually, however, we ended up back where we started, in Harbin/Campbell’s cozy fifth floor room, where I spent a good chunk of the night debating the merits of Public Image Ltd. with Bill Kartalopoulos. [Bill, if you read this, I stand by my assertion that “Albatross” is the group’s strongest track.] The next morning I spotted fellow hotel partier R. Sikoryak on the stationary bike in the hotel’s gym. Sometimes a guy’s just got to sweat it out.
Sunday’s traffic was steady, though it seemed a touch lighter than the previous day’s. Perhaps a number of prospective show-goers had opted to mingle amongst the painted on smiles of the 2o10 Miss Maryland USA/Miss Maryland Teen USA Orientation Seminar being held next door, punctuated by the woman sitting in the hall behind a table of brightly colored push-up bras—all said, a pleasant change from the ministry gathering that occupied the space on Friday. For my part, I spent the bulk of the day walking and talking, taking a quick break outside in the sun to chat up the guys from Indie Spinner Rack and Johnny Hiro-creator Fred Chao.
[Neufeld, MacDonald, Newelt, and our sweet ride.]
We rolled out of town late this year. MacDonald had to host a panel with Jeffrey Brown, and we had to wait until the floor closed for fellow traveler Josh Neufeld to pack up the few remaining copies of AD. We took a quick detour to our old stomping ground, the White Flint Mall, for some chain restaurant Italian food, served by a rather friendly waiter named Sean, and quickly got back on the road.
The five hour drive back, it seems, is the perpetual culmination of that instant nostalgia of which I spoke about earlier, and we quickly tallied our list of highlights. Another favorite game was, “who is the nicest person in indie comics.” It’s a testament to scene I think, that Newelt, McDonald, Neufeld, and I came up with a seemingly endless list of candidates.
That’s the thing about SPX—when all’s said and done, long after the books are sold and the money is counted, the show feels, at its root, like a two-day gathering of old friends catching up, sharing ideas, and laughing over the best mass-produced foodstuffs North Bethesda, Maryland has to offer.