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A Comics Convention For The Unconventional: The Small Press Expo

Sep 20, 2016
Originally published on September 20, 2016 4:53 pm

Additional reporting by LA Johnson.

I've attended the Small Press Expo, or SPX, for 10 years now. This year, I convinced NPR to let me take a reporting kit and interview attendees about what drew them to the show.

(You can check out more photos, illustrations and interviews with creators from the 2016 Small Press Expo on the NPR Illustrations Tumblr over the coming days and weeks.)

In theory, SPX seems a lot like many of the other comic-cons that have been popping up across the country over the last few years. There's the vast exhibit floor, there's a packed schedule of panels and spotlights featuring interviews of, and discussions between, various comics creators. People mill about, lugging bags loaded down with stuff they've bought, or find an empty patch of carpeted hallway on which to plop themselves and rest while perusing their purchases.

If you close your eyes, its sounds a lot like any other con: the low, steady murmur of voices punctuated by the occasional exclamation of delight or surprise from someone who's stumbling across an old friend — or a new passion.

But the moment you open your eyes, you're reminded that SPX isn't like most other cons.

It's smaller, for one thing — the big shows in San Diego and New York attract upwards of 130,000 people, and SPX's attendance is closer to 3,000. It fills the huge ballroom at a hotel in North Bethesda, Maryland, but unlike other comic-cons, where companies build massive booths that tower over you with video screens, loudly hawking all manner of comics-adjacent stuff like toys, games, statues and t-shirts, everything at SPX is at eye-level.

Hip-level, technically, as it's just rows and rows of folding tables piled with comics and artwork.

Funkier, Smaller, More Approachable

"It's not just a way to sell comics or buy comics," said Whit Taylor, from New York City. "It's also a social event ... a chance to catch up with people, and meet new people both during the show and after the show and that's kind of the most meaningful part to me."

Whit came not just to buy comics, but to connect with the people who make them. And SPX is built around making exactly that happen.

It's a convention for independent comics. People define "indie comics" differently, but for our purposes: not Marvel, and not DC.

"I like that it kinda sticks to just comics," Whit said. "That's how it started out. I know that shows can kinda go in different directions. I'm happy to see merch here and there, but I like that it's just about independent artists or small presses."

Some small presses do set up tables at the Small Press Expo, fittingly enough — publishers like Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics are SPX staples — but mostly, it's men and women sitting or standing behind the tables, grinning earnestly at passersby to get them to stop and sample their work. That work could be a handsomely bound graphic novel, a print, or, in many cases, a mini-comic that they've drawn and copied and stapled together themselves.

Sarah Elizabeth drove up from Williamsburg, Virginia, and she appreciated that many of these comics are made without the usual gatekeepers — which affects who gets to make them.

"What I really like about this one so far is that there's a lot more queer comics," she said, "a lot more comics by women here, specifically women of color, that's what stuck out to me the most."

Liz Hathaway from Philadelphia came to support the creators.

"It's independent comics, you know I give a lot of credit to a lot of these artists because they really believe in what they're doing," she said. "They have a passion for it, they're spending a lot of their own money and resources to promote themselves so they must believe in themselves, and I like that independent, alternative type of comic."

But Liz is also here for a more practical reason.

"I'm trying to get a feel of how they promote themselves," she said. "I have a comic called The Hellwood Kids, and it's coming out next year, so I'm trying to get a feel of, you know. How they lay out everything and they show their comics."

A Con About The Craft of Comics-Making

It turned out that Liz, and Whit Taylor, and 18 out of the 25 people I approached at random last weekend, make comics themselves. (Three of those 25 turned out to be NPR interns — make of that what you will.) That's something else that sets this con apart, and has since it began in 1994.

"Well it was started by a bunch of local DC people who basically revolted against the mainstream superhero conventions," said Warren Bernard, Executive Director of SPX. "They were like, why can't we independent comics people get together with self-published people ... and they had their first con over in Silver Spring back in 1994."

The reason it grew to its current size, he said, is that today, "Many more people are activated by comics that aren't superheroes — now that's not taking anything away from superhero comics, I happen to like reading them — but there's this other universe that's everything but. And that's what SPX is all about: everything but superheroes."

He believes the people who come to SPX each year are not looking to score big Hollywood development deals. They're driven by a different ethos.

"I think that's part of what keeps SPX a little bit separate is that, you know, people are here for the art and the craft," he said. "Whether you're an attendee coming in and wanting to do stuff yourself, or you're a creator that's hanging out with all the other creators or just an attendee that kind of enjoys it, that is the thing that ties everyone together is the art and the craft, kinda combined."

Stepping Stone to Wider Success

Which is not to say that big development deals don't happen. Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon send people to SPX every year to scout for talent. Rebecca Sugar, who created the TV show Steven Universe, put in her time behind a table at SPX. So did Lisa Hanawalt, whose distinctive character designs can now be seen on the Netflix series Bojack Horseman. Raina Telgemeier sold her mini-comics here, back in the day, as did many other creators who've gone on to huge commercial success.

Several established indie comics creators said they love coming back to SPX, for various reasons.

"Honestly [we come to SPX] because it's part of the world that we live in, and that we came up in, and it's cool to see all these people doing what they want to do instead of what they have to do for money," said Jaime Hernandez, half of Los Bros Hernandez, the team behind the venerable, and venerated, alt-series Love and Rockets.

"What I have really liked about SPX is it's a comics festival which is more or less only about the things that I like about comics," said Tom Gauld, creator of deadpan comics marvels You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack and Mooncop. "It's not about movies of comics, it's not about toys related to comics, it's not about superhero comics, it's more or less about whatever you call the thing that I do. It's the kind of indie comics literary comics."

SPX isn't completely unlike other cons — you'll likely leave having dropped a healthy chunk of change on books and art. But people like Bailey Kung, who started coming to SPX as a volunteer and is now a member of the executive board, leave with something else as well.

"It's definitely inspiring to be here," she told me, "everyone is making such awesome work, it does make me want to go home and draw something."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes the world can feel a bit uniform - the same department stores in every shopping mall, the same fast food chains on every corner. Atlas Obscura yanks the rug out from under that sense of monotony.

DYLAN THURAS: The world is still this huge, bizarre, vast place filled with astounding stuff. And if you sort of tilt your view a little bit and start looking for it, you start finding it everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Dylan Thuras co-founded the website Atlas Obscura, and now he has a book by the same name. Atlas Obscura is a guide to the world's hidden wonders, places you would not find in a typical guidebook.

THURAS: You know, very small museums - the ventriloquist dummy museum in Kentucky - or sometimes they include sort of wild places, very far-flung, like in the Turkmenistan desert there's a 200-foot-wide hole that has been on fire for 40 years. That's an amazing place. And it's kind of one of these places when you find out it exists, you're a little bit surprised you didn't know it existed before.

SHAPIRO: You don't have to go to Kentucky or Turkmenistan to find these places. Dylan Thuras wants you to find wonder in your own backyard, so he took us on a tour of some of the wonders of his backyard - Manhattan.

THURAS: So we're going to do a really fun thing that I think a lot of New Yorkers don't - I don't think they realize you can do this, but we are going to take the 6 loop, which - basically, you stay on the 6 train after its last stop. You're able to look out the subway car windows and see the City Hall Station, which is one of the most beautiful subway stations ever created. It's been shuttered since 1945, but it is this immaculate space. It's this little piece of lost New York grandeur.

SHAPIRO: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Brooklyn Bridge City Hall is the last downtown stop on this train.

SHAPIRO: We're the only people left on the train. Like a small child, I want to kneel on the bench with my nose pressed to the glass.

THURAS: You should, it's the way to do it. Wait, here it is.

SHAPIRO: OK. Oh, cool.

THURAS: So there's all this, like, green and white Gustavino tile work, there's hanging chandeliers, and that's it. That's it. It's 20 - not even 10 seconds of, like, what was that world we just went through? That's the whole thing.

SHAPIRO: That old abandoned subway station was incredible. Where are you taking us now?

THURAS: So we are going up to Bleecker Street to a place called the Earth Room, which is what it sounds like. It is 280,000 pounds of dirt that has been sitting in a room in a SoHo loft.

SHAPIRO: Why?

THURAS: It is the artwork of Walter De Maria. I think it's going be fun.

SHAPIRO: A little sign tells us to buzz in and walk up to the second floor. Before we reach the stairs, we run into a tourist from Spain named Juan Carlos Fernandez.

JUAN CARLOS FERNANDEZ: Well, to tell you the truth, I want to visit this space since 1986.

SHAPIRO: For 30 years you've wanted to see this room?

FERNANDEZ: Yes, but for different reasons every time we're here in the city, we couldn't. I'm so thrilled right now. You - can you feel it in my - the tone of my voice?

SHAPIRO: You must have had such high expectations.

FERNANDEZ: No. I'll explain why. I'm a clinical psychologist. And I know if I have such high expectations, the experience, it doesn't work really well.

SHAPIRO: Was it worth the 30-year wait?

FERNANDEZ: I will say yes.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.

THURAS: It's got, like, the real smell of, like, a forest floor.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe this room?

THURAS: So it's, like, a full floor of a SoHo loft, but every inch of the floor is covered in this, like, rich, kind of nicely groomed-looking dirt.

SHAPIRO: Somebody has raked this dirt and misted it with water every week since 1977. After the Earth Room, it's time for lunch at the kind of restaurant Atlas Obscura loves.

THURAS: We're going to El Sabroso, which is a small South American lunch counter in a freight elevator entrance.

SHAPIRO: Explain that. Or would it be better for us to just go experience it?

THURAS: We should go check it out.

SHAPIRO: We head to Midtown and walk into a sort of loading dock. There's a counter, and behind it the cook tends to eight pots bubbling on a small stove. Seating consists of a long folding table with plastic chairs.

THURAS: In a way, there's, like, a history here because Midtown has always been home to, like - to garment workers and people, you know, who were kind of working on a tighter budget. And that's still true today. So there are these sort of - there's a few kind of remaining little hidden basically, like, old-school lunch counters where you can get a great meal for, like, 6 bucks.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Chicken stew, $6. Roast pork, $6.

THURAS: And it's killer. It's, like, super killer.

SHAPIRO: Let's do it.

He's not kidding. It was the best $6 lunch I've had in a long time. Dylan is the kind of traveler who will pack every minute of a day with experiences, and that's how we treated our exploration of New York, too. He took us to see mysterious tiles embedded in the roadway, a shuttered art deco skywalk that is completely sealed off from the world and the Conjuring Arts Research Center, one of the world's largest collections of books about magic. Finally, our tour concluded with a hidden discovery that is audio only.

THURAS: An easily overlooked little wonder in the sort of exact epicenter of Times Square, Midtown Manhattan.

SHAPIRO: It's called the Times Square Hum. It comes from under a metal grate on a pedestrian island in the middle of Times Square. An artist named Max Neuhaus created it almost 40 years ago.

THURAS: It's this kind of sonic secret just, like, tucked away. Almost nobody stops and says, what is that strange noise?

SHAPIRO: Well, because we're surrounded by a million strange noises. We're in Times Square.

THURAS: For me, it sort of serves as this wonderful reminder that in the middle of all of this madness in what I think most people would find the most commercial, least sort of whimsical or magical place in Manhattan is this kind of little gem waiting for you if you're willing to sort of slow down, listen and kind of start asking questions.

SHAPIRO: OK, so we're going to let you hear this hum. Ignore the honking horns. Ignore the drummer. Ignore the crowds. Ignore the squeaking brakes. And listen for this low vibrating tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUM)

SHAPIRO: Dylan, do you ever worry you'll run out of things, that at some point the Atlas Obscura will be so full of wonders there won't be any left?

THURAS: We asked ourselves this question at the start, and so far the answer seems to be it is infinite. And I think that's because it's not just about oh, this is a weird place and we're just going to catalog them all and that'll be it. It's - honestly, it's a way of looking at the world.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for helping us see the world through this lens. It's been really fun.

THURAS: Thank you for coming on this, like, epic journey today. It's my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Dylan Thuras is one of the co-authors of the new book "Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide To The World's Hidden Wonders." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.