I’ve often thought of independent comics as the great social equalizer. By this I mean that no indie cartoonist or fan walking alone into a room full of similar stock should be able to leave without a friend. My estimation of indie comics, it seems, was too naive. See, until last weekend, I’d never been further west than Denver. The indie shows I’d seen were packed with internet acquaintances, kind artists recalling my fan letters, and other Midwesterners. In other words, people that I already knew. I’d been biased, for sure.
Going to APE for the first time, I learned that the west coast scene is so large, it can very easily make you feel like an outsider — especially when you are. There are enough west coast shows to occupy a creator’s time, and due to the cost of travel, I don’t think many west coast creators appearing at APE, Stumptown and the San Francisco Zine Fest also feel the need to exhibit at MoCCA, SPX or SPACE (AKA shows I might attend). This is one reason why it’s a good idea to get into California once in awhile. Otherwise, you might never meet these cartoonists. However, it’s also a possible explanation for why the Friday night mixer at Last Gasp was such a rough place meet people. If they all know each other already, then why should they care about you when they have no idea who you are?
Last Gasp is basically a warehouse. It’s expansive and full of great media, so if there was a friendly face to be found, it was likely in a book. At least the bartender was hospitable, despite the fact that the two heaping bowls of dried fruit he pushed on revelers remained largely untouched. I took his good attitude — sustained in spite of constant fruit bowl rejection — as a sign not to give up.
I attended APE with Will Dinski, who by Friday already had an inkling that his book Covered in Confusion would be the winner of the 2009 Isotope Award. We’d been tipped off long ago by veteran Isotope recipient Max Riffner that the Isotope winner is not “suddenly announced” the day of, but is contacted ahead of time to insure the recipient’s attendance at the show and subsequent ceremony. When Will got an email on Thursday saying he was a finalist, and would he be around, it was kind of a big deal. I had a lot of trouble keeping the news under wraps. We later learned that he won “in a landslide” to quote the judges, which means that Covered in Confusion made the top 5 of each of the judges’ lists. While we stood around at Last Gasp on Friday night being unpopular, we joked quietly, awkwardly, about what would happen once he was revealed as the winner on Saturday night. We predicted some confused silence and a disappointed crowd. “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is winning our awards on our turf? Don’t California’s confusing seller’s licenses preclude that sort of thing?” Ha? Cough.
After walking the circuit at Last Gasp, we luckily made the acquaintance of Simon Gardenfors and his posse, which was comprised of Robin Enrico and a girl I’ll only remember as “The Boss.” Gardenfors is an autobio cartoonist and America’s next great Swedish import. The English translation of his book 120 Days of Simon is due out from Top Shelf next year.
The tone set by the Last Gasp mixer made me nervous for the first day of APE. It was a bit disorienting, kind of elitist, quickly out of beer, and promptly closed (as advertised) at 9pm.
We wound up asleep on Friday at an all-too reasonable hour, and arrived early to APE on Saturday morning to set the table. The view of the floor that morning though was fantastic. It seemed like the exhibitors setting up ASAP had the most large and exciting displays. Very impressive. But even those creators that wowed me in the beginning kind of faded away by the afternoon, because once all the tables were full and the floor was buzzing with attendees, they just blended in with the rest.
It would be very difficult to stand out at APE. Most creators agreed that the space held too many tables and didn’t lure in enough attendees. Also at APE, rumor has it that nobody makes much of a profit. It’s fine, but the average creator’s haul is below what they’d take in at other comparable shows. Of course, considering the low table cost, I wonder if it evens out in the end. Since I wasn’t really exhibiting (apart from the Cross Hatch bags) I saw APE as a good place to go and get ideas that I could take back to smaller shows, or craft fairs in my hometown. Even the worst display at APE would probably be the best display at most conventions, because at APE the bar for eye-catching graphics and display gear is set pretty high.
Because APE comes on the heels of a very busy convention season, its identity seems to be a a mash-up of the past several months of big conventions. I thought, if it wasn’t all comics, it would be all hand-made books and ironic t-shirts, but forgot to consider that it’s a west coast show. Pretty much anyone already primed to sell in California is who you’ll find at APE, so you see some more mainstream items — like zombie and pin-up girls — that seem a little out of place but definitely have their audience. Certain ideas trickle down from the big shows into APE, simmer over the winter, and leak out re-imagined next season. APE is part of the great circle of regeneration within the indie comics medium, but it would be a tough show to table year after year, given the sales and gargantuan floor space.
I even had a tough time giving my Cross Hatch bags away. I’m a lousy salesperson, but c’mon. Free handmade bags? I was even turned down by a guy with his hands full of stuff he could barely carry. If I had it rough, I don’t envy the real exhibitors.
The Isotope Award Ceremony was a lot of fun. Before the bar opened Will and I ran into Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock, the night’s temporary bartender. He had just gone out of his way to find a pepper for the margaritas and was headed back to Isotope when we crossed paths. It seems Warnock has tended bar before, so he obviously knows what’s up, but I’d never heard of the pepper-margarita marriage, and I was pretty excited to try it. In the middle of our stop-and-chat, Brett took the pepper from its paper bag, gave it a discerning look, nipped a small bite off the end, and rolled his eyes — it wasn’t hot at all. It was like they’d given him the most tepid pepper in the store, made and sold especially for gringos. He was obviously having none of that. I’m not sure if the pepper ever made it into the margarita, but my margarita was tasty regardless.
Will and I were still pretty much wallflowers by the time the Isotope Award was given away, but just watch the video at the top of this post to see how quickly that changed. It wasn’t so much the quiet arm-crossing response we’d expected; it was more like a deafening love fest. Thanks to Nate Beaty for his incredible, immediate kindness from day one and Jonas Madden-Connor (Isotope winner 2008) and Francois Vigneault of Family Style for the same. They are all good dudes to know, which is good, because they were the only people we knew at Isotope before the announcement was made.
After many surreal hours of strangers taking photographs of my boyfriend and a long battle with sleepiness in the upstairs reading room, where I was able to re-read some of my favorite minis like Disquietville #2 and Shithole, we were finally transported back to our hotel by a guy who looked like Racetrack Higgins from “Newsies.” No kidding. “Higgins” later reported that the party went on until 4am until it broke for donuts at a 24-hour shop. Guess it’s true what they say about west coast parties.
Sunday at APE was much like Saturday at APE except that Lilli Carre and her latest Little Otsu print were nowhere to be found, there was a trophy on our table, and suddenly the on-site bar didn’t look so appealing.
On Sunday, I went around taking photos with my $10 digital “spy camera” from Walgreens, but sadly lost it all due to incompetence.
– Sarah Morean