Ed. Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the Saturday, Sept. 14, edition of The Post’s Style section.
IF YOU can’t strike up an interesting conversation here, you’re doing life wrong.
Welcome to the hall of immense possibilities. To the left will be sex, drugs and rock and roll, except when the music of choice turns to hip hop.
To the right will be religion and politics — sometimes both embodied by a lone congressman who can preach. And all around, some creators will show you what’s so “funny” about peace, love and understanding — especially when drilling down into the little ironies of postwar life. (See: Rutu Modan. Literally, see her; the gifted Israeli graphic novelist [“Exit Wounds” and “The Property”] will be in the house.)
This is Small Press Expo — SPX, by shorthand — the independent comic-art festival that, as it nears the last of its teen years (it was founded in 1994), is growing by leaps and bound covers. Top indie talent is featured every year, yet SPX manages to ratchet up the starpower with each iteration, while still offering space to the young, hungry minicomic makers who are part of the event’s rejuvenating lifeblood. For hundreds of cartoonists great and small, some from Argentina and England and New Zealand, this is a must stop on any East Coast tour swing.
Ah, here’s the man to help us get our bearings. Milling about will be Warren Bernard, comics scholar and executive director of SPX, which runs Saturday to Sunday at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in North Bethesda (hard past the White Flint Metro). Bernard tells us the convention floor has roughly doubled in size over recent years — yet the exhibitor tables still sold so fast last spring (within a matter of hours), the online crush crashed the sales website. The presses may be small, but the festival has been growing so packed and popular, something had to be done — otherwise, esteemed spotlight guest Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) wouldn’t be the only one this year pressing the flesh.
And speaking of flesh: Here to peddle his narrative wares will be comics star Peter Bagge, who’s married his over-the-top, wild style of rubbery expressionism to the biography of a birth-control pioneer in his excellent new book, “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story” (Drawn + Quarterly).
“ ‘Important’ people like Sanger are often portrayed in a somber, serious manner, and being a political animal, she portrayed herself in this
way,” Bagge tells Comic Riffs of his storytelling. “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.”
Yes, here on your left, inquiring minds, you’ll find the aforementioned sex: “I actually tried not to dwell on her sex life as much as I could have, but to ignore it entirely would be to downplay the huge role sex played in her life,” Bagge continues about what’s illustrated between the sheets, er, of paper. “It also should be obvious that she never wasted her time [sleeping with] the milkman. Instead, all of her sex partners were highly intelligent and accomplished men. So sex to her was never just a physical act, but was always a meeting of the mind and body — and soul, for that matter, since she routinely spoke of sex as if it were a religious experience, as well. ...
“[When in bed] good old-fashioned coitus with a really smart man was all she was really interested in.“
Is it just us, or did it suddenly get biographically hot up in here? We can cool down, perhaps, if we turn to a different type of “religious experience.” Here to help will be another featured guest, Gene Luen Yang, who found literary stardom in 2006 when his breakthrough book, “American Born Chinese,” won a raft of awards, becoming 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 the Boxer Rebellion from oppositional narratives. “I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in 2000, when Pope John Paul II canonized a group of Chinese saints,” Yang tells us. “I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community. ... [And] when I looked into the lives of the newly canonized, I discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.
“To me,” Yang continues, “the Boxer Rebellion embodied a struggle within myself, a struggle between
the Eastern and Western parts of me. Plus, there were spiritual aspects to both sides of the historical incident that allowed me to incorporate magical elements into my narrative.”
Yang’s work at times registers like epic Chinese opera grafted onto Avengers action. “I think my art style draws primarily from Western influences,” he tells Comic Riffs. “But at the same time, I grew up in a Chinese American household. My mother filled my head with the Chinese stories from her childhood. As a creator, I’ve tried to capture all that. I try to draw in a way that appeals to American kids, but at the root of my storytelling voice is that myth-logic from my mom’s stories.”
Yang may visually quote caped crusaders, but SPX is not where mainstream superheroes assemble. In this land of indie creators, famous costumed crimefighters don’t stand a puncher’s chance. “Whenever I see a modern superhero comic, I feel depressed,” says Seth, the Canadian cartooning A-lister who’s another marquee guest, here to sell his superb
new “Palookaville 21” (Drawn + Quarterly). “These were innocent little comic characters and they [the big publishers] have utterly deformed them into strange, perverse fetish objects. As far as I am concerned all those superheroes died when I was a teenager. I don’t know what these things are today.”
Seth represents a common draw here each year: The middle-aged rock star of a cartoonist who’s worshiped by the next generation at a scene like SPX. (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 turns 51 Monday. “You don’t think that way when you are younger. You have all the time in the world ahead of you. At the age of 50, I made a resolution to get as much work done as I can before the age of 60.
“For the longest time I didn’t really feel like I was getting older. That is officially over,” continues Seth, whose new book includes the stellar meditation on childhood nostalgia, “Nothing Lasts.” “I look in the mirror now and know I am over 50. It happens to everyone.”
Look to each side of Seth, though, and there’s a more common SPX sight: Those next-gen cartoonists who are plugged very much into their youth.
Here’s bestselling Young Adult author Raina Telgemeier, who is all about the drama of middle school. Literally — her critically acclaimed 2012 book, “Drama” (Scholastic), is about theater kids. “I think I’m perpetually 12 years old, and have a pretty easy time slipping back into that mindset,” the thirtysomething 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.”
Here’s Pittsburgh-bred talent Ed Piskor, who at 31 — nine years into the business — has just published “Hip Hop Family Tree” (Fantagraphics), which richly mines the cartoonist’s love of ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture. “I’ve always had problems with authority, and it was right up my alley early on to go around with comics in my back-pocket while uttering
[profane] rap lyrics just to be a brat,” says Piskor, whose knowledge of early hip hop is encyclopedic. “Those bratty impulses subsided over the years and my increasing analysis of comics took over, but I still have these outside interests that I want to explore. Comics and hip hop go together like chocolate and peanut butter.”
And here’s Nate Powell, the mid-30s Southern cartoonist who’s just topped the bestseller list with “March: Book One” (Top Shelf), his collaboration with civil-rights icon John Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin; “March” is the first book in Lewis’s planned memoir trilogy. “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’ll speak Saturday at SPX. “If you’re walking anywhere, you can’t make it twenty feet without handshakes, hugs, and photos. What’s amazing is that he disarms any potential weirdness by taking it all in stride, treating everyone kindly and fairly. It’s been a transformative experience.”
And then there’s one of the brightest names on the cartooning marquee here: Jeff Smith, creator of the epic Young Adult fantasy-adventure tome, “Bone.” His new hardcover book, by marked contrast — the sci-fi noir thriller “RASL” (Cartoon Books) — offers sex, drugs and rock and roll, even if the jukeboxes in his bizarro world pointedly don’t play Dylan.
Compared to “Bone,” Smith says, “RASL” 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. Between the eclectic conversation and community, why not?
“I can absolutely guarantee that there will be something cool for any human being who enters the ballroom,” Piskor says. “Lots of great creative energy and lots of interesting comics coming from lots of different points of view.”
“This year marks my 10th [time] attending SPX,” Powell says. “It’s my favorite comics event in America, keeping us all connected to each other personally as well as creatively. Most people leave feeling inspired, and even attend just for that rush of connection and inspiration.”
PROGRAMMING: Some of the other special guests will be Frank Cammuso, Domitille Collardey, Farel Dalrymple, Liza Donnelly, Lisa Hanawalt, Michael Kupperman, Liniers, Jay Lynch, Jon McNaught, Anders Nilsen, Gary Panter, Frank Santoro, Dash Shaw, Adrian Tomine and Carol Tyler.
Click HERE to view programming for both days.