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.
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.
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.
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.