I’m south of the Mason-Dixon line in Bethesda, Maryland at the Small Press Expo (SPX). Self-published cartoonists and mostly small presses offer their comic book bounty. A split between invited exhibitors and lottery-winners vie for customer and mutual attention. Growing from the mid-90’s, SPX has become a jewel in indie-comics broadening convention circuit. Executive Director Warren Bernard says via email that the show has, “doubled the exhibitor floor space since 2011 from 12,500 to 25,000 sq ft. We now have 280 tables up from 162 in 2011. Attendance has gone up from just about 3000 in 2011 to over 4000,” at this year’s event. Though the show remains a niche affair, independent comics are attracting more talent and readership. A lottery winner myself, I’ve come to the local Marriott Hotel and Conference Center to try and sell my books, break even on my exhibitor fees and find where the more familiar DIY-zine culture I’m used to lives among the shiny artwork of SPX.
First up: superstar Jillian Tamaki, Ignatz award-winning co-author and cartoonist of the stunningly gorgeous This One Summer. I start out by asking what it’s like being a Canadian in America. “It’s only a strength. I live in New York and coming from Canada you’re seen as slightly more interesting and there’s this great cartooning history there, Tamaki says, “Canadians are going to interview other Canadians, because we have to reinforce one another. We have to work a little harder to acknowledge each other’s accomplishments.”
Tamaki teaches BFA Illustration at the School of Visual Arts. I’m curious how she transmits her experiences to her students. She says, “I try to communicate the realities of being a working artist and talk about how, yes there’s a component of emotion and expression but, there’s an industry behind that as well. I talk about my own experiences, the easiest of to illustrate to them what the business side of it is. I think it’s almost immoral to not talk about how the realities of being an artist to students. They’re a lot savvier than when I started teaching in 2007. There’s so much information online and they’re doing research on their own, coming to it more as entrepreneurs. They kind of have a game plan, which I think is impressive. They also come in pre-jaded. But even with that knowledge they still want to make it because they’re artists. It’s in their blood and it’s something they need to do. I think that bodes well for the future.”
I wonder how Tamaki orientates to the DIY aspects of art making. “I know to someone doing something smaller, it might feel like because I have a publisher, I’ve made it in some way. But I’m a comic artist and there’s always going to be a degree of DIY to your life and career,” Tamaki says.
“With DIY, there’s a lot of hustle and labour, juggling and managing a lot of little things. I’m sometimes dealing with a bigger entity or affiliated briefly with bigger companies. But that’s only part of it. A lot of times I’m trying to get something off the ground that’s only mine and you’re stapling mini-comics still. I like having a mix.” And indeed Tamaki is tabling her new Super Magic Academy zine.
Fellow Canzine veteran Jesse Jacobs is down with his new book, the tantalizing and textured Safari Honeymoon. I wonder how Canadian nationality affects Jacobs in publishing and promoting himself outside of Canada. “I’ve only ever been Canadian, so it’s hard to put it out of context,” Jacobs answer, “I don’t really think about it. I’m not much of a regionalist. The more I travel and meet people that are interested in art and comics, there’s no real difference.”
I probe Jacobs for his DIY roots and how it informs his current practice. “When you’re first starting to make things how else are you going to make them – other than print them yourself and sell them at zine fairs?” he says. “I still make my own books from time to time and it does inform my published work too, in the way I chose the paper and decide to spot print it. It’s essentially the same process up until the point of printing. I don’t mind making my own books, but I could never make so many. It’s so helpful to have a publisher with promotion and distribution. The creative process is the same, it just reaches a wider audience.”
Veering from my Can-Con mandate, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to chat with SPX special guest Ben Katchor. Coming up with strips in New York’s alt-weekly newspapers, Katchor has been recognized as a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Fellowship recipient and for his most recent surreal and satirical collection Hand-Drying in America. I ask Katchor about the conditions he faced when beginning in comics in the 70s and how things have changed. “I grew up in a cushy time. It was really cheap to live in New York then. I paid $200 a month rent,” Katchor says. “There is a social history of art. If you can’t afford to live, you’re not going to be sitting home making comics, you’re going to be working in a factory. The few paying weekly gigs are still paying what they paid in the 60s.”
Katchor increasingly sees economic privilege as a basis for access to training and a career in the arts. “I once saw this list of 20th century composers, and I wanted to see how they came to be writing music. It wasn’t popular, no one wanted to play it. They all, almost every one of them, were from wealthy families. They all went to ivy league schools and could do these strange things, subsidized by their families. That’s the reality,” Katchor says. “Most cartoonists and illustrators are probably still white, middle-class people who can do this stuff. But they’re being pinched out of it too. Only affluent people can do it, or artists hired by those kinds of people. And those venues are not going to let you do what you want.”
As for advice about how to begin a career today, Katchor is realistic. “The newspaper business used to have a complete monopoly. If you were in the one or two weekly newspapers in New York, you instantly had hundreds of thousands of people looking at your work. People were not picking up newspapers for comics. They were looking for an apartment or movie time and they happened upon our comics,” Katchor says.
“There’s no way to make money and sell ads in an open market. The old connection between ads and society is now broken. You advertised to the demographic of the publication. The question is, how in this open playing field, where anyone can put work up and it can be theoretically seen around the world, what kind of audience do you have? What are the economics? I don’t think it’s clear.”
Montreal resident Sophie Yanow has her own perspectives on SPX’s DIY credentials. Her sparse, yet revealing Ignatz-nominated War of Streets and Houses looks at Quebec’s 2012 student uprising, capitalism and urbanity. Yanow has been going to comics shows since she was 15. “The first time I tabled a show was in 2005 at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco when I was 17. Me and two of my friends got half a table, which was kind of silly because we made and sold one zine,” Yanow says.
Compared to SPX, “APE didn’t have a hotel. In that sense, it was kind of less community-oriented, harder to run into people because everyone would just show up for the day and disperse, as opposed to at this hotel. The vibe I’d say is not that dissimilar to APE in 2005, but now that I’ve been to a lot of shows, they kind of blur together,” she says.
“I’ve been to three ExpoZine shows. I think the fact that ExpoZine is free for attendees creates a different atmosphere. It’s in a location that’s accessible to the public who might just be walking by, whereas SPX is much more fan-orientated because you kind of have to know that you’re going to go because of the entrance fee. I think it’s good that SPX is on the subway line. I enjoy SPX, but also like to be in places where random people walk in. I think that zine fairs and comics festivals should do their best to make entry free or really cheap.”
Yanow is the current fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). “I feel like at SPX there’s kind of two worlds now. There’s the webcomics world and then folks who have come out of the stapled zine world and I wonder if the zine world is kind of dying or not. I have no idea,” Yanow says. “There’s the CCS students and alumni, getting an education that is very oriented to the physical object, so that tradition is being passed on. It’s funny that an institution is keeping zine culture alive, in a way, in the comics world.”
That doesn’t necessarily means there’s a major schism. “I post most of my comics online for free,” Yanow says. “Webcomics people put their stuff online until they have a book to sell. At CCS there’s a lot of emphasis on making art objects that you can produce yourself. That comes from the tabling crowd. You want to have something that looks nice and is going to draw a buyer in, that you can cheaply produce yourself.”
“Whereas maybe with the webcomics folks, they already have a readership coming to meet them and buy their books, therefore they can make a more expensive object but it doesn’t necessarily have to be DIY,” Yanow says. “When I make my mini-comics I try to make things I can easily produce myself that are a little more interesting even with just a photocopier. I put stuff online, but lots of people still want to have the physical book. Even with my book, I wanted it to be the cheapest thing possible for people. It’s accessible and it’s printed in America. For me part of the DIY thing is to not make super expensive things.”
Zine Queen Nicole J. Georges is on Invincible Summer issue 22.5 and her 10th annual calendar. It’s the comic she’s been making since 2000. She’s finding success with major US publisher Houghton Mifflin and her intimate memoir Calling Doctor Laura. “I got my first zine around 1994. It was boring and poorly put together, which made me realize it was something I could do and improve upon,” says Georges. “My zine, Hitman included stories of Aliens, Ska Music, punk things, and working at Subway. I did probably 5 or 6 issues before scrapping it for more personal work that included drawings, comics, collage, and writing from my life, inspired by trauma zines and grrrl culture.”
A Portland native, I ask Georges to compare SPX to the Portland Zine Symposium. “It is one of the only places where people remember that I have been creating comics for as long as I have (17 years), whereas to a traditional comics crowd (SPX, MOCCA, TCAF, etc.) I might be seen as a new talent,” says Georges.
“SPX is the best. This year was seriously one of the best tabling experiences , even though I was secretly sick with a head-cold, and hoarse in memory of Joan Rivers. People came ready to buy things and get their books signed in, and that was awesome. Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Rutu Modan, Eleanor Davis, Mimi Pond. I’ve met so many great cartoonists in just two years of attendance!”
Nicole isn’t taking any of my sell-out accusation undertones. “I am working on my second full-length book but I will always have a flood of non-profitable ideas that don’t fit into the mainstream marketplace. I’m not going to bury those ideas anywhere. I need to get them out, so I continue to self-publish,” she says. “It’s in my bones. It’s a compulsion. I like punk ethics, I like touring and selling photocopied work, and creating art for people who share my sensibilities. I am lucky to reach a broader audience with a major publisher. I am happy to not just be preaching to the choir.” ”
“I grew up reading comics and I love them,” Katchor says. “In the last 20 years comics have become an approved artform with critical recognition. In the 50s young people wrote poems or literary fiction. Now a lot of them are making comics. You have this explosion of work and it happens to coincide with the demise of corporate publishing that might have supported it.”
Jillian Tamaki is optimistic. “SPX was my first comic show ever, in 2006. It’s fun coming and having a table again. This is the easiest time, probably, to be a cartoonist in some ways because there is an audience that is trying to actively look for new comics to read. To print a book used to be impossible, a real hard cover, bound, that was the hardest thing to do. It’s not that big a deal now. It still requires some effort, but it’s a really great time to be a cartoonist. There are so many more tools available to get your work in front of eyeballs.”
My happy conclusion is that, despite my intimidation as a first-time vendor and foreign national among many more established, sparkly peers and a total lack of crust-punks, SPX exists on very much the same hustle, collective effort and true love of expression that fuels any zine fair.
Jonathan Rotsztain is a writer, artist and dreamer. Check out comics on his website.