At the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, the presses may be small, but the festival isn’t

If you can’t strike up an interesting conversation here, you’re doing it wrong.

Welcome to the hall of immense possibilities. To the left you may find sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, except when the music switches to hip-hop. To the right will be religion and politics — sometimes both embodied by a lone congressman who can preach.

epa04176175 Shane Red Hawk of the Sicangu Lakota band of the Rosebud Sioux (L) and his daughter Tshina Red Hawk (R) wait for tribal leaders with the 'Cowboy and Indian Alliance' to begin a horseback ride in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline across from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, USA, 22 April 2014. The alliance of farmers, ranchers, and tribes has dubbed their week-long series of protests 'Reject and Protect.' EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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This is Small Press Expo — SPX, for short — the independent comic-art festival that is a must-stop for hundreds of cartoonists great and small, some coming all the way from Argentina and New Zealand. Warren Bernard, comics scholar and executive director of SPX, which runs Saturday and Sunday at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in North Bethesda, says that the convention floor has roughly doubled in size in recent years. The presses may be small, but the festival isn’t — and it continues to ratchet up the star power.

One of the brightest names on the cartooning marquee will be in attendance: Jeff Smith, creator of the epic young-adult fantasy-adventure tome “Bone.” His new hardcover book, the sci-fi noir thriller “RASL,” offers sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, albeit in alternate dimensions.

Compared with “Bone,” Smith says, this new venture is “different in tone — it’s a different kind of story. I’m in a different place. . . . One shared theme is innocence under attack. But in ‘RASL,’ the theme is much more about damaged people trying to sort out their lives.”

Smith embraces his return to SPX, as do so many of the indie stars and up-and-comers. And why not? In this crowd of fans — mostly under-30, families mixing with hipsters, tattoos and graphic T-shirts as colorful as the comic art — the vibe is eminently open and collegial. These ­comics-makers personally appreciate their fans.

On hand at the expo to peddle his narrative wares will be comics star Peter Bagge, who has married his over-the-top, wild style of rubbery expressionism to a biography of a birth-control pioneer in his excellent new book, “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story.”

“ ‘Important’ people like Sanger are often portrayed in a somber, serious manner, and, being a political animal, she portrayed herself in this way,” Bagge says. “But many of the details of her life were so over-the-top in so many ways that I was most eager to draw them in my own style.”

Bagge says he tried not to dwell on Sanger’s sex life in telling the story, but he didn’t want to play down the role it had in her life. “She routinely spoke of sex as if it were a religious experience,” he says, and that spirit is what he tried to capture.

At SPX, it’s possible to go from Sanger’s version of a religious experience to a very different approach in the work of Gene Luen Yang. Yang rose to literary stardom in 2006 when his breakthrough book, “American Born Chinese,” won a raft of awards and became the first graphic novel to be named a National Book Award finalist.

Yang will be on hand with his new two-volume epic of historical fiction, “Boxers & Saints” (First Second), a masterwork that tackles China’s Boxer Rebellion with opposing narratives. Yang, who grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, says he first became interested in this history in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese saints. When he looked into the lives of the newly canonized, Yang says, he discovered that many of them had been martyred during the Boxer Rebellion, as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

“To me,” Yang continues, “the Boxer Rebellion embodied a struggle within myself, a struggle between the Eastern and Western parts of me.”

Yang’s work at times registers like epic Chinese opera grafted onto Avengers action, with a style influenced by Western super­heroes and, he says, by the “myth logic” of stories his mother told him when he was growing up.

Yang may visually quote caped crusaders, but SPX is not where mainstream superheroes assemble. In this land of indie creators, famous costumed crime fighters don’t stand a chance. “Whenever I see a modern superhero comic, I feel depressed,” says Seth, the Canadian cartooning A-lister (so A-list he’s one-name-only). He is here to sell his superb new “Palookaville 21.”

Seth represents a common draw here each year: The middle-aged rock star of a cartoonist who is worshiped by the next generation. (Previous special guests have included Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.)

“I am painfully aware of how much time I might have left. I have a handful of projects that I really want to do before I drop dead,” confides Seth, who will turn 51 on Monday. “You don’t think that way when you are younger. You have all the time in the world ahead of you.”

Joining Seth at SPX are next-gen cartoonists who are still very much plugged into their youth.

Best-selling young-adult author Raina Telgemeier will be there. She’s all about the drama of middle school. Literally — her critically acclaimed recent book, “Drama,” is about theater kids. “I think I’m perpetually 12 years old and have a pretty easy time slipping back into that mind-set,” the 30-something Telgemeier tells us. “It’s a great time and a terrible time and an overwhelming time, which gives an author tons of territory to explore.”

Pittsburgh-bred talent Ed Piskor will be there as well. Nine years into the business at age 31, Piskor has just published “Hip Hop Family Tree,” which richly mines the cartoonist’s love of ’70s and ’80s pop culture. “Comics and hip-hop go together like chocolate and peanut butter,” Piskor promises.

Nate Powell, the mid-30s Southern cartoonist who has just topped the bestseller list with “March,” also will be at SPX. “March” is a collaboration with civil rights icon John Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin. “Once we started spending a lot of time together, I finally realized the level of reverence so many people have for him,” Powell says of Lewis, who will speak Saturday at SPX. “If you’re walking anywhere, you can’t make it 20 feet without handshakes, hugs and photos. . . . It’s been a transformative experience.”

Powell calls SPX his “favorite comics event in America.” And Piskor, the hip-hop/comics auteur, makes this promise about the weekend of comic art:

“I can absolutely guarantee that there will be something cool for any human being who enters the ballroom.”

 
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