Recently I visited SPX, the Small Press Expo, inBethesdaMaryland. As I was walking through the convention center towards the event I was struck by how small it all seemed, there was just one room with the artists and two auditoriums for the panels. I took only a few steps onto the floor before I revised my opinion. It wasn’t small, it was dense. There were people everywhere and all in a clamor of activity. It struck me almost immediately that I was surrounded by my kind of people, enthusiastic nerdy people. I spent the first thirty minutes just wandering around and trying to get may bearings. I had steeled myself against spending any money, as the cost of breakfast was a bit of a sucker punch (we made some back in purloined novelty honey jars), but I immediately bought a bunch of pins punning on the names of the Beatles. I couldn’t help myself. There were three pins: Pope John Paul, George Washington, and Ringo Star (after all, has there ever been a notable Ringo?). With my will power and self control crumbling around me I fled for the first panel discussion.
The Chris Wear panel explored a variety of topics and questions which were to guide the rest of my explorations of SPX. How does the form of the work help create the meaning that is being conveyed? How does the artist see their relationship with the experimental or avant-garde? How does the artist tackle the practical concerns of their craft? What was it like to be in comics these days anyway? Armed with a renewed sense of purpose and willingness to harass and generally badger the artists I returned to the floor.
While I found many artists whom I was actually previously familiar with from their online work (Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, Danielle Corsetto’s Girls with Slingshots, and Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content) I had trouble finding an artist that thought of their work as experimental. Even Sarah P who I felt was breaking new ground in terms of genre considered her gay space opera to be largely conventional. It was her co-artist, R.M. Rhodes who finally fulfilled my experimental quest.
R.M Rhodes (http://oletheros.com/ ) began our conversation by showing another student and me a little patch he had. It was a small word balloon that said “Bueno.” He said that the Bueno patch totally changed his perception of what a comic could be. Any picture he slapped the patch on suddenly became a single panel comic. It was with this adventurous attitude that he began to see what he could do with comics. He claimed that he could not draw, so instead he looked for new mediums and techniques to work with. He has turned to collage, scrapbooking, layering, computer generation, infographics, and even magnetic poetry. He applies his Bueno principle to mix text with the images he finds compelling. Rejecting the standard pencil drawing and panel structure has served as an incredibly fruitful generative process for him. He sees himself as experimental and believes that these new techniques have allowed him to tell new kinds of stories, and to tell those stories in new ways. In addition to creating interesting work he was emblematic of the kind of folks I met at SPX, smart, quirky, and really pleasant to talk with. I’m not sure if anyone else could quite match his purple suit though.
That experimental impulse was not obviously on display out on the floor, but it was there tucked away in corners and scattered on cluttered tables. This is not to say that the majority of the artists were slavishly following every old comic convention. On the whole SPX represented a departure from the sorts of comics that the big name producers like Marvel and DC Comics churn out. But it was especially exciting to see work likeRhodes’ that was taking comic books in new directions.