The Small Press Expo is more than an annual gathering of legendary comic artists, aspiring cartoonists and rabid fans. It’s a place where comics get the respect they deserve as a true art form. Comics (and their brainy cousins, graphic novels) tell stories. And this year, SPX welcomes some of the best storytellers. This 15th expo features some of its biggest names yet, says executive director Warren Bernard. “All these artists together — it’s the Higgs field of comics,” he says, referring to an invisible energy field endowing particles in the universe with mass and … well, it’s really important. Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (of the long-running cult series “Love & Rockets”) and Daniel Clowes (of “Eightball” and “Ghost World” fame) haven’t appeared together since the early ’90s. And Adrian Tomine (“Optic Nerve”) and groundbreaking artist Chris Ware (“Acme Novelty Library”) make their first trip to SPX. “It’s going to be epic,” Bernard says. To comics fans, that’s a galactic understatement.Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center, 5701 Marinelli Road, Bethesda; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. & Sun., noon-6 p.m., $10-$15; 301-822-9200, Spxpo.com.
It’s the rare comic that can weave superheroes, luchadores, punk girls in love and space mechanics into intricate, overlapping storylines on the level of a Robert Altman film. It helps if the comic has run for 30 years, which is how long Jaime Hernandez and his brother, Gilbert Hernandez, have been drawing “Love & Rockets.”
The brothers dream up parallel-but-unconnected plots and characters: Gilbert’s trace several generations of a sprawling family from the fictional town of Palomar, Mexico. Jaime’s stories focus on L.A. Latinas Maggie Chascarrillo and Esperanza “Hopey” Glass through a lifetime of ups and downs, all rendered in his distinctive, Dan DeCarlo-esque style. (If Betty and Veronica had shacked up in a van, they’d look like Maggie and Hopey.)
Over the years, Jaime Hernandez has introduced other characters, including warring factions of female superheroes whose serialized adventures have just been collected into the hardback volume “God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls.” (“Gee whiz, I just like drawing women in tights,” he deadpans.) He’s been at work on a third volume of “Love & Rockets: New Stories,” serials that tack on new characters. Still, he always comes back to his “babies.”
“I take care of them, and they take care of me,” he says of Maggie and Hopey. “If I don’t like the way they end up, I fix it. Or, if they’re too comfortable, I throw a wrench in.”
Hopey has had the harder knocks over the years: a miscarriage, living in a sorta-brothel before getting it together and becoming a teacher’s assistant. Maggie mostly has her head screwed on straight. The two dated early on, and they remain best friends. Their complex relationship is the anchor of the series, and it’s so realistic that it can be hard to believe a guy is writing this.
“My wife told me I was the most feminine heterosexual man she’d ever met,” Hernandez says. “My brother and I knew that if we were going to handle women characters or gay characters, we had to do it right. It’s a responsibility, in a way. It’s our duty.”
Maggie and Hopey are in their 40s now. Will fans follow them into parenthood? Retirement homes?
“It’s not over until I’m dead or my hand gets cut off,” says Hernandez, 53. “They die when I die.”
Will Maggie and Hopey ever get back together?
“Never say never,” he says.
Jaime Hernandez discusses his work with artist Frank Santoro at SPX, Sat., 12:30 p.m. He and Gilbert Hernandez will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
Dan Clowes draws some very ugly characters: louts, drunks, sleazy old guys, a woman shaped like a potato with a peg leg.
In one of his early ’90s “Eightball” serials (which originally ran from 1989 to 2002), he addresses this penchant for uggos in a story called “Caricature,” about a caricaturist. “Why do you make people so ugly?” the main character’s mother asks.
“That was actually my grandmother,” Clowes, 51, says. “When I was a kid, every week we would get the TV Guide and I would black out everyone’s teeth and draw glasses and pimples on them, and my grandmother would go, ‘Why do you do that?’ ”
One man’s childhood micro-aggression is another’s keen insight into the human condition — his calling, if you will.
“I grew up in Chicago, where people tend to be unattractive. You also see people who are trying to look glamorous in some way and are failing miserably. I think I was blessed with vision that was too good when I was a kid, where I could see everyone’s enlarged pores. I was always attracted to that idea of seeing the details that people don’t want you to see.”
Clowes’ characters aren’t always the greatest people in the world on the inside, either. Enid and Rebecca, the teenage antiheroes of “Ghost World” (which ran in “Eightball” from 1993 to 1997 before being made into a graphic novel and a 2001 film with director Terry Zwigoff) are too-cool verging on cruel. “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” (which ran in “Eightball from 1989 to 1993 and should never, ever be brought to live-action life), is hard to explain, but it features dirty cops, a murderous cult leader and the nymphomaniac mother of the aforementioned potato lady.
“My policy for writing that was that anything that made me feel uncomfortable or too personal, anything that felt like the side of yourself that you wanted to hide, I would go in that direction instead of recoiling from it,” Clowes says. “That was my guiding light throughout the whole thing. For myself, it’s a good reason to never look at it again.”
Two decades later, Clowes is recognized as a comics legend, but he’s also a screenwriter, a graphic designer and an illustrator for the New Yorker, among other publications. (“If you had told me that when I was 24, I would have fallen backwards out of the panel,” he says.) He continues to make new comics — he resurrected “Eightball” last year for its first issue in nearly a decade — but says he’s done with serials and is sticking with full graphic novels, such as 2010’s “Wilson,” which told one tale in several different comic styles. A traveling museum show of his work just opened in Oakland, Calif., where Clowes is based, and will make its way to the Corcoran Gallery of Art next year. And a new monograph, “The Art of Dan Clowes: Modern Cartoonist,” offers a scholarly retrospective of his career.
“It feels a little like the gold watch,” he says of the retrospectives. “Like, ‘You’ve done your service to the comics community and now you must go on. Enjoy your retirement.’”
Dan Clowes discusses his work with Alvin Buenaventura, editor of “The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist,” and scholar Ken Parille at SPX, Sat., 4:30 p.m. He also appears at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, Baltimore, Fri., 5 p.m., free; 410-662-4444.
Françoise Mouly: A Groundbreaking Career
Sat., 1:30 p.m.: Mouly co-founded Raw magazine, a groundbreaking alt-comics mag she co-edited with Art Speigelman, in 1980. In 1993, she became art editor at the New Yorker. She’ll discuss her career in a slide show presentation led by Paul Karasik.
Gilbert Hernandez: Love from the Shadows
Sat., 2:30 p.m.: Gilbert Hernandez’s “Palomar” stories are half of the genius of “Love & Rockets,” which he writes with his brother, Jaime. Gilbert will discuss his work with critic Sean T. Collins.
Chris Ware: ‘Building Stories’
Sun., 1:30 p.m.: Ware’s (“Acme Novelty Library”) graceful, mostly silent comics integrate graphic design with heart-wrenching storytelling. He’ll discuss his latest book, “Building Stories,” with David M. Ball, co-editor of “The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking.”
Adrian Tomine: ‘Optic Nerve’
Sun., 4:30 p.m.: Tomine’s “Optic Nerve” series was originally self-published while he was still in high school. He’ll discuss his work, including his new graphic novel, “Shortcomings and Scenes From an Impending Marriage,” with Slate editor and critic Dan Kois.