Thoughts on SPX

On Sunday, September 16th our English class took a field trip to the Small Press Expo, or SPX, in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to arriving I had no idea what to expect, but was generally imagining something in between an art fair and comic-con. I was immediately overwhelmed by how crowded it was, and how many booths there were, and felt very shy about approaching any of the booths or asking anyone any questions. However, I found that all of the artists were extremely friendly and more than enthusiastic to talk about their work.

What I found as a trend at this expo was a diaspora between the traditional, Japanese-graphic-novel inspired comics and a newer, simpler design of comics, with a few mixes in between. I found myself most drawn to comics featuring cute characters, ones with big eyes and tiny smiles that gave characterization to cats, unicorns, manatees, or cupcakes. These comics seem to be pretty popular on the internet these days.

It was interesting to see how the internet had made a difference in the way graphic novels and comics were presented at this expo. Some booths had iPads featuring their internet shorts for passerbys to watch. One thing I noticed about these artists was that their creativity knew no bounds. Many of them seemed very interested in experimenting with form and showed their originality not only through their comics, but the way they presented their comics as well. One artist built a paper model of a skyscraper and set each panel of his comic as a floor in the building, complete with moveable slots that allowed the panels to change as the scene changed. Another artist used photographs of tiny clay figurines in her comics and presented those clay figurines on a cake stand at her booth. Another artist made complex puzzles out of his work. I was not expecting artists to sell things other than paper copies of their comics, but many of the artists were extremely talented in other art forms as well and sold other crafts and things at their booths. I learned from the expo that being a comic book artist is more than just being good at drawing or printing; to succeed in the comics world it helps if one is a well-rounded artist in other mediums as well.

We also got the opportunity at the expo to hear an interview with Chris Ware given by our professor, Dave Ball. I found this interview fascinating as I was a huge fan of Chris Ware’s book we read for our class, The ACME Novelty Library Report. One of the things I found very interesting in the ACME report was Ware’s use of color and how that color could contribute to the story in a subliminal way. Chris Ware said in his interview that he felt a story could be told through color just as much as it could be told through words or pictures, and I think it is this detail that gives his works such artistic depth.

Overall I was very impressed by all of the artists at SPX and their ability to combine both their artistic talent and creative mindsets to create works that were all so uniquely different from one another.  It definitely broadened the definition for “experimental fiction” for me and helped me to better appreciate the artistry behind the world of comics.

image courtesy of Jason Viola, www.manateepower.com

My Day of Beauty at the SPX Comic Festival

As Ware spoke in his discussion on the latest work and exploration of his ACME Novelty Library, “you have to trust yourself as an artist at some point.” This trust of the self, otherwise following ones visceral, guttural, nature was a theme I encountered over and again throughout my interactions with artists at SPX Comic Expo venture. Asking the artists I found in the realm of the ‘experimental’ their motivation for this type of expression and communication, they continually replied that by trusting the depth and truth of what they wanted to voice, it naturally came out in this ‘alternative’ mode of expression–observing, from purely the aesthetics of the comics, a stripping of the six panel comic strip, the narrative, and the using of colors outside the primary pallet. John Martz, a comic who labeled himself of an artist of the experimental, spoke, “I just make it. It’s unplanned, its my humanness.” Aligned not only with this mode of trust,  a comic standing right next to John named Brian, also of the experimental described this trust as also one between the reader/audience and the artist. When first spreading his comic Day Freak the readers he encountered were frustrated the blind following of the narrator, and how they did very little in the shaping of the story itself, something that the readers of the experimental I also observed require in their readership. Creating a futuristic narrative of a man with many physical obstacles to overcome, Brian decided to not only listen to this feedback from the reader, otherwise audience, but trust its honesty and relation to the text. He then, in the copy right before our conversation, reverted back to his theme in his other experimental works where the character, otherwise protagonist talks directly to the reader, telling him or her how to navigate the text. thus making him or her partly responsible for the outcome–I then of course chimed in and said, “If we are told how to breathe and live within the adventure you have carved out for us, how is that experimental at all?” He replied, ” It is not the experiment of how closely the follow my instructions but when and how they decide to break them, to trust their path within the one I have already laid before them. Ultimately, if they don’t follow their own gut and break my instructions, they won’t get to the end of the narrative with the same satisfaction.” Here in his words I realized that every other experimental work I had seen earlier in the festival or throughout my engagement with the works of the experimental in our very class requires this upmost assertion of the self and our path within the very one laid before us by the artist and his or her creation. Specifically in Brian’s work DayFreak, this interactive nature plays out in not only the narrator talking to the reader directly, asking us with both visuals and words to ‘shoot the comic’ for example, and lines directed at us such as ‘ are you okay?’

Ware spoke later in his conversation that as artists ‘all we aim for is truth and beauty correct?” First seeming completely unrelated to my interpretation of his ACME Report, I then for the fist time understood why his book bothered me so deeply at points in my journey of absorbing its life. It was the pure honesty unavoidably extracted, that was first felt as a bombardment I should be able to avoid. As he then spoke later that the ‘best books’ are not just entertaining but shift something within you–indeed his work achieved this within me. Aligned exactly with Ware’s insight to the objective and desire of the artist, Celine Hoop, an identified female comic artist wanted to the very same thing. She goes about doing this herself by removing the text completely, with the idea that it is an analytical tool that removes one from the visual, otherwise the universal that she believes language can’t achieve. Hoop then backed related her vision to the experience of stroke victims who after having no words in their life feel the sensations of life much deeper, without an translation. She also spoke about her phenomenal experience of self publishing. “I can do literarily anything by self-publishing my work. The printing press allows for the freedom of speech and what should go with this is the freedom to present this speech whichever way one chooses, from the cover to what is actually said. However, moving away from her table I found a small publisher called Sparkplug that seemed to allow for this freedom of the artist. The man Jesus spoke that they as a company do not interfere whatsoever with the artists process, from the tittle to the actually pages and words themselves.” It was fascinating to me that this freedom of the artist, experimental or not can go about this journey many ways, with a seemingly growing support and foundation.

I was speechless for days after this plunging into this beautiful artistic world I had no idea existed–The display of pure emotion on a page. It permit me to comprehend that taste really is habit, that not only do we like what we are taught to like but that one can break out of this by diving into art forms that present and beg us to bleed outside this comfort zone of taste. Comics, as spoken by many artists that day, should no longer stay in this rare isolated segment of the world but spread its potential and brilliance to many humans and readers who can benefit from its power

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SPX

As someone who has never read a comic beyond the Sunday Funnies, SPX was quick a shock to the system.  I’ve been at conventions and marketplaces before, but this one had so much to take in that I found my body wandering in a nonsensical pattern around the room.  After reading Chris Ware’s book in class, I thought I had a basic understanding of comics; both in form and content.

One of the booths that caught my attention was of a woman who made comics as a hobby. She formed her comics in grids like bingo boards, but when I asked her if she considered herself “experimental,” she said “no.”  From her perspective, she considered her comics conventional because while her form may have been a little out of the ordinary, her content was what she called “everyday problems.”  Although I respect her opinion, I disagree. I think that having experimental form warrants enough to be considered an experimental comic artist.  It was wonderful speaking with her though because she was very humble and enthusiastic.

The second booth I was completely taken with was the cuddlesandrage booth that featured cartoons of vegetables or cute little animals.  What I liked most about their comics was that their characters were very easy to relate to.  They seemed to depict the random moments of absentmindedness of the average person.  They seem relatable because I think most people have days where they feel as melancholy as the unicorn shredding the rainbow, or as exasperated as the pickle in the jar.

While some demonstrate instances of shock or frustration, some were just silly. This made the comic full or truth, but also entertaining and fun to examine.

Lastly, this expo was enlightening in the way each artist presented his or her work.  Most of the booths contained people who were very enthusiastic and immensely proud of their work, while others seemed nervous and almost too uncomfortable asking for money.  The most memorable man, was presenting his first comic at this convention and was very nervous when I approached his table and asked to read his comic entitled “Home.”  The comic was about a boy asking his mother to go home even though they were in the house where they lived.  I found this comic especially powerful because I have been questioning the meaning of ‘home’ myself.  When I asked him what inspired this comic, he explained the feeling of distance and disorientation he sometimes feels in spaces he knows he should feel at home in, which is exactly how I have been feeling ever since my parents uprooted from our home two years ago.  His uneasiness seemed to dissipate as we spoke, and my questions opened him up to a deeper conversation about what makes a place home.  Overall, I found the Expo overwhelming, but I greatly enjoyed the conversations I had and the people I encountered.

 

Thoughts on SPX

SPX was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I could tell from the time I pulled up in the parking lot across from a man in a purple three piece suit unloading his wares that this was going to be new and different for me. I sneaked a peak into the exhibition room on my way to lunch, and was instantly amped up for what was to come. I found lunch to continue this process as I was able to share my excitement for all things literary and English major-esque with the scholars that joined us as well as my peers. The anticipation was building and I was too excited to get in to the middle of the expo to see what it was all about.

Following lunch, we braced ourselves outside of the exhibition hall before diving in. It was a disorienting dive to say the least, because with just a few steps into the hall I hit sensory overload. There were more booths than I had imagined, all covered in publications that the people manning the booths were very eager to sell. In talking with a few of the artists I found it extremely refreshing how proud they were of their works. Now, I know my classmates have hinted at having a very different experience, but perhaps this was the nature of the type of comics I gravitated toward throughout the day. I didn’t really spend much time around the dark and violent looking comics. I tended to be drawn in by simplicity and often by the artists who were playing with letters or words. This may simply speak to my eternal optimism and rejection of the doom and gloom in many of the artists’ works, but in the more cheerful and playful comics I observed, there was still plenty of room for the experimental.

One booth I particularly enjoyed was called Cuddles and Rage, “a disturbingly cute comic.” Most of their work was lighthearted and cute, but what made it experimental to me was the use of clay in constructing their images. It was almost like comics doing Claymation in the style of Wallace and Grommit. Some were not the most cheerful figures, but the style just made me think it was all perpetually cute. I proceeded in asking the artists if they considered their work experimental, and they agreed with me that the multi-media aspect of the clay and still image led it to be classified as experimental.

Another interesting experience I had at the expo was encountering comics collectors and discussing their passions with them. While I was waiting in line to get my book signed by Chris Ware I met a man who had all of Ware’s published works. I found his passion also extremely refreshing and enjoyed helping him get a good handful of the works signed by Ware himself.

Overall it was an extremely enriching day. I got to meet people I would have never have met otherwise, and I allowed myself to push outside of my comfort zone and chat with everyone I could possibly chat with! I realized how nice people can be when you are genuinely interested in what they are doing, and I was happy to ask questions as I found most of their content intriguing. When it comes down to it, the only phrase I can use to explain what went on at SPX was extreme nerding out. That’s all there is to it.

SPX Review

SPX was the first comic book convention that I have ever experienced, so I had no idea what to expect. Naturally, upon entering the main room I couldn’t help but feel wholly consumed by what appeared to be an explosion of pamphlets, small, handmade flip books, buttons, stickers, and the rare, professionally bound comic book. As I took my first lap around the expo floor, I found myself sifting through this plethora of material without actually absorbing any of the images or text that I encountered. Slowly, I realized that my sensory overload was causing this instinctual rejection of the material before me, so I decided to change my approach the environment in order to make it more familiar. I imagined the room as the Sunday Brooklyn Flea Market.

My second lap around the room proved to be much more fruitful and telling than my first. I was able to pay more attention to the actual content of the artwork, narratives, and inventions that I was sorting through and subsequently found a few strains of common themes that all seemed to be rooted in human failure and nostalgia.

Most of the comics and simple strips that I came across dealt with re-purposing classic characters (Pippi Longstocking, Goliath, Wonder Woman, Superman, Hulk, Rapunzel, Liz Taylor, and King Kong, to name several) and making them into antiheroes that ultimately fall short of their capabilities as super-humans. Furthermore, there were many representations of future dystopian societies, dissatisfaction, identity crises, labyrinths that don’t seem to lead anywhere tangible, and incomplete lives and characters. One comic in particular resonated with me and seemed to encapsulate this distinct theme of dejection: Herman the Manatee by Jason Viola. In four hand bound books, Viola depicts a rotund, pathetic looking manatee doing various activities that eventually lead to his demise via motorboat crash.  I returned to this booth several times throughout the day and in every single instance I left feeling inexplicably attached and deeply sorry for Herman. Towards the end of the day, I began to realize the profound effect that all of these characters had on me. Maybe it was because this was my first experience spending a considerable amount of time with so many different comics (outside of Marvel superheroes), but the vast amount of depictions of these characters began to function as a mirror for my inherent failures as a human being.

Specifically, focusing on the creators of these comics, I noticed their willingness to call themselves experimental, but their reluctance to refer to themselves as avant-garde, as if they weren’t yet prepared to take on a distinction that so obviously deviates from literary norms. Additionally, many vendors and artists used illusive terms like “hybrid-fiction” and “active narrative” to describe their work, and introduced themselves on their business cards as “designers” and “illustrators.” All of these attributions are accurate, but seem to strategically veer away from the classification of “graphic novelist,” “cartoonist,” or comic artist.

I do realize that this post has a morose tone, but that does not necessarily reflect my entire experience of, and feelings toward SPX. Like the Brooklyn Flea Market that I frequently visited this past summer, the majority of the people whom I encountered were incredibly supportive of their fellow artist and vendor; they embraced their communal creativity, endeavors and success. I left SPX with deep respect for these “designers” and “illustrators,” optimistic that their small press publications would eventually become pervasive in popular culture.

 

 

SPX Recollection

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.

A review of SPX

Some things that struck me about SPX:

  • The on-site drawing. Table-sitters, when not chatting up passersby, could often be found doodling characters from their work on scraps of paper, perhaps in an effort to pass the time, perhaps to produce little freebies to give away (I walked away with a robot, a turtle in a party hat, a fat cat, and a drunk-looking bird-thing that resembles the Akond of Swat). I appreciated that kind of artistic presence as it was a very visible reminder that art is work and a commodity, but was simultaneously incredibly personal. In addition to the artists at tables, convention-goers were also doing a lot of doodling. In my seating row at Chris Ware’s talk, there were three people sketching him as he spoke.
  • Illustrated catalogues. I saw several volumes from different artists in catalogue format. One was a collection of urban legend monsters like the Chupacabra, Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, etc. Another was a collection of absurd ways that people have died in our highly complicated modern world. I found the pairing of text and image here to be an interesting departure from the way that they are paired in traditional comics and in children’s books. How is an artist’s relationship to each individual illustration different when the image is not part of a narrative, rather is given meaning by its place in a totality? I like the idea of the fantastical or absurd being documented in a medium that is traditionally used for reference. Similarly, I saw some alphabet collections.
  • Making the morbid cute, and the cute morbid. A collection by one artist who depicted different totalitarian dictators, serial killers, and nightmare figures as wide-eyed babies crying over fallen ice cream or scribbling on the wall in crayon. This I found strangely heartwarming. I also saw an illustration of a friendly-looking puppy with the caption, “One time at the park, before they could take it away from me, I ate half the leg off the corpse of a baby.” The artist was watching me as I read this, waiting for my expression when I got to the punch line, and had a good laugh. My response to this kind of muddling of cute and morbid was at once emotional and humorous.
  • Kitty cats. I must’ve talked to at least four artists whose work featured a cat protagonist, and often the feline hero was the artist’s own household pet and was depicted as doing unremarkable (though humorous) cat things like intrepidly exploring the backyard or eating its own vomit. This reminds me of the current internet fascination with all things cat: Henri the French cat with a bad case of ennui, Simon’s Cat, Lolcatz, Review of My Cat, etc. What is it about cats and “low-brow” mediums? I am very interested to see what a couple decades of retrospection will reveal about this generation and our determination to narrate the inner-workings of the cat brain.
  • Zombie apocalypse. The prevalence of this theme seems to speak to some generational anxiety about masses and conformity…? A privileging of the lone, enlightened survivor…? I did see one sympathetic portrayal of zombies, but I had trouble wrapping my mind around that concept and got into a friendly argument with the artist. I can imagine sympathetic portrayals of mummies, but zombies seem like a stretch…

SPX 2012: A Six-Part Reflection on a Six-Plus Hour Experience

 

SPX sometimes seemed like a slap in the face…

 

Part One: The Atmosphere

            SPX was simply overwhelming. At first glance, it seemed very well-structured, with rows and columns of nicely-sized booths. However, upon further inspection, it became a mad house. People scurried helter-skelter, making abrupt turns and stops. I cannot count the number of times I was nearly impaled by the sharp corners hidden within the totes bulging on people’s shoulders. My fellow attendees surprised me with their diversity. In particular, I didn’t expect to see so many women; then again, I didn’t expect to see so many cute cat comics.

 

But Robot Cat is so cute!

 

Part Two: The Artists

            I was honestly quite shy in approaching artists. In light of this, it is either amusing or sad that the first two times I got up my courage to ask about work which really interested me, I was informed that I was not talking to the artist, but instead 1) his parents who were up for the weekend or 2) his older brother. I think this says a lot about the type of people I gravitate towards—not soulful, brooding artists, but their smiling, bright-color-wearing counterparts.

            Anyway, I did finally speak to an artist (after perhaps insulting him by settling on asking about his work after he informed me that the work which had piqued my interest was that of his neighbor, who wouldn’t be back for a while). His name was Rich Barrett, and his approachability salvaged the wreckage that was my un-savvy query, “Uhm, so, do you feel that your work is… unique…I mean, like, experimental…like, are you doing anything different with it?” (I’m sure I sounded every inch the astute student pursuing a double major at a reputable liberal arts college.) Luckily, he gave me a very quotable answer: “I think everyone here tries, or hopes, to be experimental. I’m not sure if I succeed, though.” He cited time jumps in his graphic-novel-in-progress, Nathan Sorry, as a place where he tried to defy conventional expectations of the sequential graphic novel. 

            Next to his novel, he had several illustrated alphabet books, which seemed to me very simple in contrast with the aforementioned “experimental” text. When I asked him about them, he was pleased to tell me about a fellow artist, Ben Towle, who started using the alphabet book as a generative device for illustration. Barrett noted that the idea’s popularity was due largely in part to the rise of social media, especially blogs, which allow artists to more readily communicate with each other, regardless of distance. It was really interesting to me that professionals in the field were using the same tactics that we were in class—blogs and generative devices.

            I got a little obsessive with the other artist I spoke to, walking by her booth a good seven times before she was actually there. In my defense, it was a really cool-looking booth. This woman was an illustrator, hands down, no questions asked. What attracted me to her work was its undeniable artistry, fraught with detail and emotion reminiscent of Brian Selznick’s illustrations. One print in particular caught my attention; it was on the back of a tiny business card—just a strip of a young boy’s face, and his shining, questioning eyes. It was this picture, no bigger than my thumb, which compelled me to keep coming back in search of the yet-unseen Katherine Wirick. To my great relief, when I finally did see her, she was as friendly and unassuming as a velvet-clad artist writing about the violence of mankind could be. Observing the depth of emotion and frequency of violence in her real-life historical subjects, I asked her if she had ever felt limited by her medium of choice. She confirmed that she had, but noted that she had always loved comics so much, that their limitations had not initially occurred to her. Her main struggle, she said, was depicting destruction and violence in a constructive manner—one that would make people feel more deeply rather than encourage a kind of perverse bloodlust.

 

The business card that hooked me on Katherine Wirick

 

            Very interestingly, upon discovering that I was a Dickinson student, she informed me that she hopes to write in the future a graphic novel about John Dickinson. She really geeked out on the topic (and I mean that in the most flattering of lights). She feels that that he is undervalued as an influential figure because he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, and she wants to emphasize his centrality in Revolutionary events, and his foresight in freeing his slaves before his death.

Part Three: The Publishers

            My inquisitive spirit was greeted rather poorly at the publishing tables. One woman at Drawn & Quarterly was very eager to sell me the most expensive book on the table, but notably reticent to answer any question that didn’t start with “How much” and end with “does this cost?” When I asked if she felt the publisher was experimental, she responded that she didn’t think so. When I asked what “experimental” meant to her, she said she really didn’t know. Then when I asked about the types of work generally chosen for publication (what makes a work “Drawn & Quarterly” material), she said that she had no idea, and that since the people who made those decisions weren’t there, she didn’t think anyone could help me—sorry. I left the table with the impression that I had unwittingly frazzled an underling, but I was still shocked that she didn’t have a general view of the kind of work her company published. If I were established enough to have underlings, I would be darn sure that they knew in great detail the intricacies of my artistic vision.

            Overall, the aesthetic of the large publishing houses (in this case, Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics) seemed to be very calm, clear, and emulative of “literary” texts. I saw many a hardbound volume characterized by muted colors and a simple title. That external simplicity was reflected within many of the works I perused, in the form of simple, somber pictures illustrating page after page of thinly veiled poetry. I didn’t see anything terribly astonishing displayed at these publishers; then again, I felt so harried to buy before I read (goodness knows what would have happened if I had—gasp—weighed my purchase on the actual contents of a work) that I probably didn’t give the tables the time they deserved.

Part Four: The Main Attraction

            The White Oak Room, during some other panels barely a third of the way full, is jam-packed. To accommodate the large audience, strangers are asked to temporarily overcome their polite disdain for each other and scoot together. Everyone waits in eager anticipation for… whom? None other than Chris Ware.

             I had caught glimpse of him earlier in the day, seeming incontrovertibly shy despite the wrap-around line of fans waiting for him to sign their copies of Building Stories. I had heard from my English professor that if his modesty was an act, it had been watertight for years. I had even read his Acme Novelty Final Report to Shareholders, guilt, alienation, self-consciousness and all. Yet still, nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed during this panel: a brilliant man, humble to an indisputable fault. To show you what I mean, let me give you a choice sampling of Ware’s own words, describing himself, his work, and the public opinion of both:

“it may be a terrible mistake” “they laughed at me” “stupid fold-out” “stupid jokes” “drearily monotone” “total nonsense” “the dumb answer” “I’m sorry I’m rambling on” “I’m not a real writer” “the stupid thing I did” “maybe that’s the wrong way to approach things” “really pretentious” “stupid and kinda art-schooly” “I don’t think of myself as an illustrator” “miserably depressing, boring, cold, and constipated” “a run-on-sentence” “like breathing in somebody’s face and demanding a dollar”

Oh, my, how… depressing.

And yet, when asked about his goal in making a work as complex as Building Stories, he said “I hoped that it would be beautiful. I love things that seem to promise a lot.” Here’s the thing: his work is beautiful! It does promise a lot. As does he. So why does he sell himself so short in his head, let alone in front of an adoring audience? The world may never know…

Part Five: The Overarching Themes

            Though I understood it in theory, I had never been so fully aware of the diversity of comics until my exploration of SPX. I saw something different at every booth, from talking dinosaurs to robot cats to fat ninjas. Nonetheless, there were some common themes present in much of the work. 1) There was a definite focus on artistry, as seen in the attention given to line, color, and beauty in many comics. Additionally, some of these comics were broken down into single prints to be hung on a wall, further emphasizing their artistic aspirations. 2) There was also a notable exploration of sexuality—perhaps beginning with a backlash against heteronormativity, but growing into a general call for the enjoyment of sexual acts, of sexual ideas, and of sexual images (notably the scantily-clad female form). 3) There was no escaping the work addressing feelings of alienation and failure. I’ve concluded that comic artists either have sadder lives or higher standards than the rest of us. 4) Lastly, perhaps due to the very nature of a small press exposition (where artists really need to sell), there seemed to be an emphasis on the shock factor. Very telling of this was one sign, which read “Gay Porn Space Opera: You either perked up or you didn’t.” For me, that sign is utterly indicative of the general attitude I perceived at SPX: “If this is your thing, great. If not, there are tons of other booths and one is bound to speak to you. Now please step aside for the paying customers.”

Part Six: The Aftermath

            A few days later, when I had finally begun to process the draining thrill that was SPX, I pulled out all of the souvenirs I had brought home with me: bookmarks, stickers, business cards, and ‘zines. In an effort to streamline my reflection, I asked myself which item best summarized SPX for me. It was a simple postcard.

 

The Ice Cream People Post Card

 

             On the front, there is an empty ice-cream cone on a pure white background. On the back, it reads “An Ice Cream Person is a frozen dairy product with human characteristics. Please illustrate your own Ice Cream Person on the reverse side!” It then gives you space to list your name, e-mail, location, and Ice Cream Person information. Neat, huh? But here’s the kicker: It has a return address, courtesy of Brian Butler.

            I can’t help but like a person so interested in receiving stranger’s drawings of ice cream. Furthermore, I cannot help but respect an artist so attentive to his audience’s desire for communication and creativity. For me, the return address on that postcard is what SPX is about—artists who reach out to their audience, asking for feedback, and an audience that reaches back.

SPX 2012 Review

While looking for an experimental artist to interview, Jeff and I passed Sarah P’s “Gay Porn Space Opera!” table to which Jeff said, “Well, that certainly seems experimental.”  We began to talk to Sarah P about her work and eventually asked her how she perceived her relationship with avant-garde and experimental work.  She characterized her relationship as “fake” and explained that she did not really desire to have a relationship with the avant-garde.  She believed her Gay Porn Space Opera was relatively conventional aside from its novel premise.  Sarah P was fun to talk to – she told us that the inspiration beyond her comic was simple.  She made something that she wanted to read herself that didn’t yet exist.  Indeed there is a dearth of Gay Porn Space Operas on the market.  Sarah P then directed us to the artist beside her, R.M. Rhodes, who she believed to be a truly experimental artist.  I think he also collaborated with her on the Gay Space Porn Opera, too!

R.M. Rhodes was the gent with thick sideburns wearing a purple-three piece suit with purple business cards. Rhodes explained first that he doesn’t/can’t draw, so he uses many other methods to present his work.  He took some sort of scrap-booking class at Michael’s and made a scrapbook narrative and has also created a long form metafiction combining photo generated graphics and photographs against a green screen background.  Sometimes he photographed other people to insert into his comics but often used his own image because he explained, he is himself always around to take more pictures if he desired to make any changes to the work.

Rhodes also gave us some information on the business side of being an independent comic artist.  He has a day job and has dedicated the last five years or so to building a career as an artist.  His wife is in marketing, so she gives him advice on how to present himself as an artist(purple suits and purple business cards were apparently her suggestion).  He told us that he has sold more lately than ever before, so he’ll be very happy if, in five years, he makes as much progress as he’s made in the last five.

By far the most fascinating part of our Rhodes interview was when he explained what got him started as an artist.  He got this “Bueno” patch in New York for under a dollar and realized he could place it on any picture to start a story or communicate some sentiment.  Below is the Bueno patch on one of his creations “Emo Galactus.”  His suit doesn’t look very purple in that picture, but oh it was.  Check out R.M. Rhodes website here http://oletheros.com/.  I think he at first thought Jeff and I were more important than we actually were since we interviewed him and wrote down his every word. He even abandoned his table to ask us who we were and what the questions were for.  So definitely give his online blog some hits and check out his review of SPX.

 

 

Our comic expert at lunch explained that when you walk into the room, it’s like hundreds of artists look at you hopefully with the intention of making a sale.  This was entirely true.  It was at times awkward to browse through work and not make a purchase; however my best interactions were with some artists that made no effort to sell anything.  Sarah P and R.M. Rhodes were just incredibly fun to talk to/interview.  One artist seemed to be waiting for someone in the crowd to make eye contact with him.  When I came over, he explained in detail how he made his comic and then just asked what I thought about it.  There was another artist around A4 who seemed to ask every passerby if they were awesome, and when they inevitably responded yes, he gave them a free button and a free sample of his upcoming work.  I tried to find him using the SPX Exhibitor site but instead found this really cool artist http://www.artichokepresents.com/ from approximately the same area.

I loved listening to Chris Ware speak – he was so humble and fun to listen to.  His childhood story about his graffitied lunchbox just summed up so much of what I felt as I read The Acme Novelty Library.  It was surprising, funny, and devastating all at once. I definitely look forward to reading Building Stories next month.

Lastly, I also enjoyed the independent Marriott buffet exhibit nextdoor, particularly the bacon and the maple scones.