A Guide to the Small Press Expo!

It's time for what fellow Panel Patter-er Erica described today as my Christmas, the Small Press Expo.  Coming to the Marriott in Bethesda, Maryland on September 10th and 11th, 2011, this is my favorite show of the year, as evidenced by the number of posts my colleagues and I have written about the show so far, with plans for a few more before we get to the weekend.

I don't exactly remember now how I came to go to my first SPX show, back in 2008, which really isn't that long ago, but feels like forever given how many comics I read in a given year.  It was both eye-opening and overwhelming, all at the same time.

All these new kinds of comics that I'd never seen before!  Hundreds of people who were working off photocopiers and sharing their vision of what a comic could be.  Scores of comics along the lines of the few things I'd read by Kochalka and other better-known independent cartoonists.  Best of all, these were people you could talk to and engage in casual conversation!

From the moment we left the show Sunday evening, I was hooked on a whole new kind of comic, and I've never looked back since.  However, that first show really showed me that, no matter how prepared I thought I was, it can daunting to go to a show that works quite unlike the usual comics conventions.

Keeping that in mind, I offer up my guide to the Small Expo.  This is based on my experiences at the show and may not in fact be similar to yours.  However, I think it's a good place to start, especially if you are going to the show for the first time.

  • Make sure you eat before you get to the show.  Unlike other conventions, there is no real food vendor at SPX's location.  There's a bar, an overpriced hotel restaurant, and a little convenience store on site and that's it, beyond water fountains.  There aren't a lot of places nearby, either.  We frequent a Chipotle that's about a mile away in a shopping center that also features a diner, and there are plenty of things further out along Old Georgetown and Wisconsin, but they aren't close, and if you leave the show, you'll be a long time getting back.  I always eat first and then immediately after leaving, and that seems to work pretty well for me.  Snacks in the car might not be a bad idea, either.
  • Bring at least one canvas bag.  (I bring two per day because this is the show where I spend the most money.)  You are going to buy more than you expect, and eventually, trying to carry it all while also looking at the comics you might want to buy gets cumbersome very quickly.  This is doubly true after you've stopped by one of the larger indie presses, like Fantagraphics.  Plus, if you have a cool bag, this is a great time to show it off to an appreciative audience.
  • Set a budget and stick to it.  This is my best advice for any convention.  It's very, very easy to overspend at a show, getting caught up in the excitement of the moment.  I did that at my first two trips to SPX, and I quite honestly ended up with a few clunkers that I'd have passed on if I had set a hard budget.  Make sure it's a nice limit--don't say $50 unless you mean it--or else you'll ignore it.  Also make sure you bring the cash with you to the show.  Not very many indie folks can take a card, and it makes it easier to keep track of your spending.  Do not expect to be able to get money at the show.  Get your cash in advance.
  • This is not a retailer show.  Do not go to it expecting to find old copies of 8 Ball or out of print alt comix.  There's usually a person or two with a few of those things, but it's few and far between.  This show is all about creators and publishers interacting directly with their audience.
  • Prioritize things you can't find elsewhere.  I love Fantagraphics' Peanuts reprints, too, but I can get them at Barnes and Noble.  Instead, I'll be looking for things like their Bill Everett collection or the last of the Mome anthologies.  You should, too.
  • Try as many small comics as look interesting to you.  One of the things I like best about SPX is that I have found a great circle of cartoonist whom I love by first sampling their smaller works.  This is I got into Sara Lindo, Bill Roundy, Katie Omberg, and Joey Weiser, just to name a few.  You have to look carefully to find these among the many, many $10 for 12 pages mini-comics, but they pay off in the end.  And if they don't, you're out less than what it costs for a coffee at Starbucks.  SPX has gotten me into more new artists than anything else I can think of, save the library.
  • Take your time, and don't buy anything immediately unless you must have it.  One of the best ways to stop buying impulse purchases at SPX is to pace yourself.  Go around to all the tables before spending most of your budget.  There's a lot of great stuff out there, and you can't get it all.  You have plenty of time to make decisions, unless you are planning to just leave after only a few hours.  Spend all day, and you'll spend wisely.  Buy quickly and you'll either blow up your budget or end up walking around mournfully.  
  • Get at least one thing outside your comfort zone.  It can be anything.  Maybe it's an autobiographical work.  Maybe it has crazy visuals.  Maybe it's a little cruder than you'd generally pick up (or conversely, less edgy than you'd normally buy).  Whatever your normal reading habits are, try at least one thing at SPX that might not normally occur to you to pick up.  This is arguably the best show on the East Coast to expand your horizons with.
  • Not a lot of people cosplay.  It's okay if you decide to do so, but keep in mind you're likely to be alone in that regard.

I hope this helps you when you go to SPX this year.  It is truly an amazing show, with great people, great organizers, and great comics.  See you there!  If you're looking for me, I'm the guy floating around on Sunday with long, curly hair, black glasses, and a bushy beard.  I'll probably have my Jim Lee Batman shirt on.  Don't be afraid to stop me and say hi!