The Cross Hatch Rehash: Minneapolis Indie Xpo 2010

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It’s strange to think of a city as a layover—well, only strange, I suppose, once you have invested in it more than a ten minute run from one side of an international airport to the other. As I boarded the plane, a 727 out of LaGuardia, there were jokes to this effect—that everyone on-board was really destined for somewhere else. Most for Los Angeles, the plane’s final destination. Others for Bozeman, Montana, of all places—a fine destination, I’m sure, but odd that it might be one more in demand than the Twin Cities.

I’ve spent my entire life on two coasts—the lion’s share just outside of San Francisco, and the last half-dozen or so in the heart of New York City. Destination cities, I think. And I know that every city and town possesses within it the potential to be either a pitstop or a destination, but there’s a reason we arrogant coastal urbanites refer to heart of our contiguous nation, somewhat condescendingly as “fly over.”

I’ve not spent a lot of time in the Midwest. I visited Cleveland last year, and stayed in Michigan next to the lake for part of one summer as a youth, to visit my extended family. I have been told by a very reliable source that neither of these place “count,” however. Chicago does, apparently. I spent a little time there, traveling for business.

I liked Chicago. It was by sheer coincidence that I was reading Devil in the White City on the plane ride there, and in its own way, that book informed some grotesque sense of romanticism for the fractured semblance of a temporary kingdom on a lake. My preconceptions were also informed by a Dan Clowes strip. One from Eightball about weird Chicago, a city where’s it’s perfectly acceptable to run a store that specializes in individually wrapped brown eggs.

And true to form, there is a wonderfully vibrant oddness to the Windy City, one I’ve largely failed to properly relay to other in conversations—especially those who live there. I never found that store with the eggs, but I did discover a city that, at least in my brief experience, long ago learned to accept and perhaps embrace those qualities that have made it so unique.

I do find glimmers of this, from time to time, in my home of New York, but taken together, they don’t provide enough light to read with, in a city where habitual insomnia can, in part, be chalked up to the fact that the lights never truly go out. Good luck to those in New York City attempting to find a truly dark place to fall asleep.

I didn’t really know a lot about Minneapolis, last week. And, after two and a half days there, I still can’t really claim to be an expert. I do have friends in the Twin Cities, however, and I do know that most people from there will happily brag about their hometown, from demographic abstractions to infrastructure minutia. Over the course of my two and a half days there, I was told, at least twice, that it is “the new Portland.”

By sheer coincidence, I had a copy of Main Street on me, a novel by Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis about an educated woman leaving a school in St. Paul for the town of Gopher Prarie, where her new husband was set to practice medicine. The residents of the town, he promised her, “are real up-and-comers.”

Oh, and I can tell you now that Minneapolis is the “most literate city” in the U.S., and that the tap water is especially clean–hell, everything in that city seems to be, and when you walk through its downtown area, past the Target corporate headquarters and the recently erected Mary Tyler Moore statue, there’s a certain feeling that the whole thing was built yesterday, or perhaps pulled out of a box in one giant, prefabricated piece.

I think I fell in love with the idea of the city, long before I ever visited. A strange thing to put into words, perhaps, but I’d liken it to a drunken conversation I had during this weekend about hyper-romantic autobiographical comics—artists in love with being in love, the kind who don’t look forward to the heartbreak, necessarily, but ultimately wear their battle scars proudly, like medals of honor.

The idea of a city that loves its libraries and public radio, that begets such strange and engaging and polarizing political forces and gives rise to a disproportionate number great artists, and that even, perhaps, loves its mini-comics, sounds like a pretty terrific way to while away one’s days. I’ve grown, over the years, to associate locales with the musicians they’ve produced, and Minnesota’s list is an embarrassment of riches, with its Bob Dylans and Princes and Husker Dus and Replacements. But on the plane ride over, it was the Hold Steady for the better part of three hours, because rarely has their been a rock band with such a literal romanticism for the street names and neighborhoods of its birth.

I left work early on Friday and flew back on Monday, a day-long show really is the ideal length for an event of the Minneapolis Indie Xpo’s size. A few hours is the perfect amount of time to spend walking down the halls of the show chatting with artists and looking at books. And a day to one’s self to explore the city with friends is almost mandatory, to help with post-show decompression. Finally experiencing Bloomington’s Mall of America with my own two throbbing feet was just something of a happy side effect.

You take the tram to the light rail—the latter of which is an immaculately clean model of public transportation, that nearly everyone in Minneapolis will tell you is the best thing that single-term governor and former wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura ever did for their city. When you stand at the top of the escalator going down, the sign on one side is for the mall and the other simply reads “Minneapolis.” (“Avoid those tax free deals,” my hostess told me in an e-mail, “and go downtown.”) Easier said than done.

The show’s co-organizer and my fellow Cross Hatch Editor, Sarah Morean picked me up at the station—Metrodome, just across the street from where the Vikings play; the Twins had, until recently, played here as well. They now have a shiny new stadium to call their own, a fact commemorated by a number of arty life-size statues of St. Paul-born Twins catcher, Joe Mauer, which dot the downtown area.

Morean guided me through a miserably balmy Midwestern summer night to the 501 Club, for the kickoff party—it wasn’t packed but there were, thankfully, a number of familiar faces. There was a signing earlier, at Big Brain Comics, which I had missed completely, having had been en route. It was all one big four-day celebration for the first-ever MIX, the result of the manner of pre-show planning generally reserved for larger events. There was a band playing when we arrived—a strange two-piece.

Most of the MIX attendees were seated in the backroom, up a flight of stairs, including Minneapolitans Will Dinski, Kevin Cannon, Tom Kaczynski, Tim Sievert, and Cross Hatch Dispatcher, Athena Currier. Dylan Williams of Sparkplug and Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock had flown out from Portland, and I saw Aaron Renier for the first time since he moved from New York City to Chicago. It was an already over-tired night of conversations about past conventions and the strange mélange of rock bands up front and Minneapolis art supply stores, and getting punched in the face while riding a bike. True story.

I was told when I arrived that everyone who was going to show up was there already. “This is Minneapolis, after all.” Not a mecca for late night party hoppers, I suppose. Not that we didn’t stay late enough, of course, considering that I’d somehow been talked into working the show’s check-in table, from 7:30 AM to opening. I suppose I’ve never really worked that side of a convention before, so I’ve never experienced the magic of interacting with a parade of hungover cartoonist before 8 AM on a Saturday.

I passed out at around 1:30 on Dinski and Morean’s futon, after being regaled by the list of all of the indie cartoonists who have slept on the foldout previously during their stays in the city. And I was up five hours later with a loud knock on the door. The event was held at the Soap Factory in the Marcy-Holmes district of the city.

There’s a playground in the district that unwittingly lent its name to an alternative rock one-hit wonder from the late-90s. One the way to the venue, Dinski points out that the bridge we’re driving over on the way is the former site of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge, which ran across the Missippi River until its 2007 collapse. It’s strange, the manner of events that ultimately turn a location into the landmark.

The Soap Factory is something altogether different. It’s a repurposed space, as so many modern working art spaces seem to be these days. And it has one of those perfect names. Someone will inevitably, in any introduction, utter the words “you know, it actually used to be a soap factory.” It’s a little brick box of building. And while it’s also a bit dark and concrete and dank (well, perhaps not in August), it’s also a perfect blank canvas—one brimming with character, yet willing to adapt to whatever event it is housing at a given time. Next month it’s hosting an art sale. For all of October, it’s an artist-curated haunted house.

For today only, however, it’s the site of the first ever Minneapolis Indie Xpo, an attempt for Morean and Andy Krueger—co-founders of Twin Cities Zinefest and St. Paul Craftstravaganza, respectively—to construct their own MoCCA or SPX or TCAF in their own backyard. It’s a celebration of self-publishing, screenprinting, and photocopying. Top Shelf is far and away the largest publisher represented, with Sparkplug a bit of a distant second. Dinski and Morean hand crafted booth signs as a small thank you to both publishers.

In the morning, as mentioned, I’m tasked with check-in, which quickly devolves into an attempt to stop large clusters of box-carrying artists as they fly up the flight of stair and through the front entrance. More than a few wipe out on the gravel in the front. Many carry electric fans, as well, as per a note sent the by the planning committee the night before. “If you live near Minneapolis, don’t forget to bring a fan if you have one.” It’s an ominous sign, too be sure.

At 10:00, I’m on for my first panel, in a tiny room through a small entrance in a wall. It’s too early, perhaps, to expect a great turn out, and Renier and I play to a largely empty room, though Morean had the foresight to run the mic into Garage Band on her laptop for posterity. Over the next week or two, we’ll be posting a number of interviews.

I opted, this year, to focus largely on spotlight interviews, one-on-one conversations with artists I was fascinated in getting to know better. The result, really, was a series of your standard Cross Hatch interviews, conducted in a live setting in front of an audience. It was a chance to create for smaller artists the manner of intimate conversations oft snubbed, in favor of jam-packed panels. I spoke to John Porcellino, Kevin Cannon, and Will Dinski, back-to-back-to-back. I’m sure I apologized to each for sweating in the steadily rising Fahrenheit.

I’ll not go too far into any of those—if the audio quality held up, each will become its own Cross Hatch post in the near future. So too will the conversation between myself and Webcartoonists Dina Nock and Spike, with whom the word “Kickstarter” came up more than a few times. As for the discussion on paranormal comics between myself and Ed Choy Moorman, Sarah Becan, Sievert, and Will Duff—I’m told that it was video taped for posterity, though the audio may or may not be listenable.

Were this a, say, MoCCA, post-show reports would almost have certainly revolved around the heat. But even that sense of discomfort lent credence to the show’s plucky nature, with a multitude of fans buzzing in every corner. I’m surely sugar coating this to some degree, but my post-show nostalgia generally takes a lot longer than a day to kick in, so I’m taking that as a fairly good sign.

And nearly every single cartoonist with whom I spoke offered up a similar response. They sold a varying number of books, but each one seemed genuinely thankful to have opted in to the first-ever MIX, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see nearly all of their names on next year’s exhibitor list.

I had the last hour off from panels, thankfully. I made a quick detour to an ATM in a deli, a few blocks away. A paper taped on the door read “Santa Market Bans Guns From the Premises”—a fairly standard piece of signage in Minnesota, from what I’m told. I spent a few crisp $20 on comics with titles like Memory Foam, Drawing on Yourself, the Traffic-inspired Low Spark, and The Intrepideers—a comic about a game of D&D.

I picked up the latest issue of King Cat, with a picture of Noah Van Sciver on the cover. And Sciver’s own Blammo, with a joke strip in the back about the cartoonist winning an Ignatz—it had, incidentally, been nominated for one a few days before. Sciver made some joke to me about including a comic about him winning $1 million in the next issue. I bought a book about Michelle Bachmann, too—it’s important as a tourist to celebrate a place’s eccentricities. And as I do every time I see him at a show, I regretted not buying one of Jeremy Tinder’s animal-centric mini-paintings. Next time.

At five, we wrapped up and cleaned the space out with the help of an army of motivated volunteers. By 7:00, Morean, Dinski, Krueger, Warnock, and myself were toasting our collective victories with regional beers at barbecue joint a few blocks away. By 9:00, I was DJing the after party in the back room of Altered Esthetics, an art gallery in what I’m told is an “up-and-coming” neighborhood, which had been hosting a Lutefish Sushi D exhibit for most of August.

And then an after hours trip to the city’s terrific Big Brain Comics (with a Read Comics in Public Day poster displayed proudly behind the counter), a failed attempted at Karaoke at a sport’s bar, and a night-capping round of Rock Band, in a bar owned by some member of the Dillinger Four. Those indie cartoonists love their Pixies, godbless their hearts.

I’ll not bore you with the rest of the trip. I insisted on seeing that big mall in Bloomington and some local used bookstores. I walked around one of those 10,000 lakes. Thai food and tofu scramble was consumed.

I do feel the need to add, however, that Minneapolis’s name is a conflation of words from two vastly different languages—Dakota and Greek. I know this because I did a little last minute research about the city on Wikipedia the night before my flight. What’s relevant to this story, however, isn’t the meaning of either of those two words, so much as who chose them. It was Charles Hoag, the young city’s first schoolmaster.

And in that respect, at least, not much has changed. Minneapolis is a city that loves its libraries and its literature. Walking around one of those aforementioned bookstores, there was an index card in front of a novel, proudly displaying in handwritten lettering that it was the product of largely unknown local writer.

Minneapolis is proud of its artists and writers. It’s a place that, at least from my brief experience, celebrates and nurtures its creative types—something of an enigma in a country where art funding is an afterthought at best.

MIX is the product of such sentiments. It’s the outgrowth of a disproportionately vibrant cartooning scene. It would almost be enough to make one daydream about moving there, were it not for those infamously drawn out winters.

It’s a city that ought to leave the obsession with being “the next Portland” to some place like Providence. Minneapolis should focus instead on all of the wonderful things it does so well—and maybe think about getting a bit more indoor air conditioning. I’ll be back soon, after all.

–Brian Heater

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