November 21, 2013

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SPX 2013

The SPX Show Floor
For someone who does the mother of all pre-show coverage of the best convention I've ever attended, you'd think that doing the post-show write-up would be foremost on my mind, especially this year since I'm freelancing now.

Well, honestly, I think the reason this took so long is that there's a very real possibility that it might be my last SPX for awhile, depending on my finances. As you may have seen in bits and pieces across my show write-ups lately, Erica and I are planning to move to the West Coast sometime in Spring 2014. I love SPX to death, and I can guarantee you that my SPX pre-show coverage won't change one ounce next year.

On the other hand, spending $400 on a plane ticket and $200 on a room is $600 of comics. That's twice my normal SPX show budget. So we'll see what happens.

That's a long-winded way of saying that part of me figured if I don't write this post, I don't have to think about the fact that the only thing I don't like about this life-change is losing SPX.

Rafer Roberts
A brief history lesson. in 2008, I was really starting to get into non-mainstream comics. We heard about SPX late in 2007, I think, too late to make the show. So we drove down in our brand-new used car in 2008, and ended up dropping an ungodly amount of money on this whole new world of comics. My God, I bought some really awful things that year, compared to how my taste would refine and change, but still. I learned about Joey Weiser and why Drawn and Quarterly only does hardcovers. I got to talk to James Kochalka and ask him a question at a panel. I filled up on autobiog comics and Erica traded zines with some webcomics person named Kate Beaton.

I can say without a single doubt that Panel Patter probably wouldn't exist without SPX. I don't think I'd have stuck with blogging if I hadn't started to see that there were things like Plastic Farm that people needed to hear about, and that I could help them do just that.

I've always loved comics. SPX is what turned me into a Comics Evangelist.

So working on this post kinda chokes me up, because despite the fact that I can't draw worth a damn and my total comics output is exactly zero, this show had a huge impact on me and my life in ways that go beyond the normal fan.

Anyway...

Rob Ullman, Chilling
Big emotions weren't the only large thing going on, because, due to some unfortunate issues with booking tables at SPX this year (the less said about this the better, they know it was screwed up, they're not going to let it happen again), they expanded the show to unprecedented proportions. All of a sudden, SPX was as big as the entire Artist's Alley section of Baltimore Comic-Con and packed with as many special guest stars as they could manage to draw a crowd to support that level of artists and costs.

If this was my last SPX for the foreseeable future, then by God, it went out with a bang.

Now I'm no stranger to bigger shows, as long-time readers know but when I looked in and saw a view of the tabling floor, I almost had a swooning fit. This was going to take awhile.

And take awhile it did. I ended up spending the entire time on Saturday just going around and seeing what was available to me, with a policy of buying only from my "usual suspects" until I'd hit all of them. With so many people at the show--and so many things I wanted from my SPX Spotlights--I was seriously concerned I'd hit my budget and miss some folks.

Alternative Comics and Noah Van Sciver
In the end, I did manage to grab all the stuff I thought about, but still managed to miss at least one table I wanted to do at SPX (Study Group), but I caught up with them at Rose City, so it all worked out. Unfortunately, what it did mean was there were probably at least 5-10 minis I wanted to get at the show that I missed out on because they sold out on day one. Good for the creators involved, not so good for me.

I spent a lot of time examining comics at the show, and I have to say that despite the increased size of the creator pool, the overall quality of SPX remained amazingly consistent. While there were comics that weren't for me and comics that were priced too high, the same as always, I found almost no comics where you couldn't see time, effort, and care put in by the creator or creators involved. There seemed to be a great range of new and established creators, of stapled paper work and elaborate books. Publishers of all levels in the indie comics world were represented, and thanks to aggressive work on the part of the organizers the term world was quite literal, as we had some publishers from Australia and New Zealand joining the usual groupings of Canadians and Brits.

AdHouse Books Gives SPX Thumbs-Up
So that was the good part of the size. It would be unfair of me as a comics blogger if I didn't talk a bit about the bad. While SPX will always be Rob's Christmas (and Rob's Homecoming), it did lose some of its intimacy at this size. It used to be you'd say, "oh, they're two aisles over" and this year, I found myself saying, "Go this way for a bit, pass Box Brown and hang a left, then go right for a few more lanes and you'll find Rob's table." The sense of community was a bit harder to feel, because the community was stretched out so far.

The second problem is that, if you aren't a show veteran--and even if you were--that floor was really damned intimidating. I knew how to approach it, how to pace myself, etc. For anyone new to SPX, or anyone who isn't a hard-core fan of indie comics and wanted to check it out, I worry that the size led to feeling overwhelmed, leading to an early exit. And of course, that sense of awe and shock could also lead to not buying anything, as all the "good stuff" starts to blend. I am not privy to sales figures for creators, but I'm just not sure there was enough foot traffic to cover that many creators.

Here's what I mean. Let's imaging that in 2012 there were 1,000 exhibitors and 5,000 spectators who spent
Steve Seck and Sara Lindo
$50,000. (These are easy numbers, not real ones, okay?) Now in 2013, let's picture 2,000 exhibitors. For the money to work out to lift all boats, you'd need either 10,000 people or have the same 5,000 folks double their expenditures. I just don't see that, from my eyeballing the crowd during the days I was there or discussing how sales were for the creators I talked to.

I realize my analysis is oversimplifying. But it is something SPX needs to think about for the future and I bet they have better numbers than my guesses. It's possible that I'm way off, but it just seems nearly impossible to sustain what happened in 2013 without some changes. My guess is that they scale back a bit (but not too much, because clearly, demand to exhibit at SPX is there) or look at moving to a place where foot traffic can be increased, namely taking the show to Baltimore City or DC itself. Bethesda is a lovely place, but it's not gonna get casual visitors that SPX needs if they want to keep that many exhibitors.

Queering the Mainstream Panel
Because I know so many people at SPX by now, no matter what form it takes, the show will be full of people I know and have come to cherish as friends. Every year, that list grows a bit more. I'm not even going to try to name everyone here, but over the course of the two days, I got to interact with some of the best and brightest in comics and put some faces to names I've talked to but hadn't met yet, which is always great to do. Speaking as a person who cares a lot about putting effort in promoting great comics, it was gratifying to see that it meant a lot to those I'd profiled. Honestly, whenever I'm feeling doubts about what I do, shows like SPX or getting a short "thanks man" tweet really keep me going. The creator-reviewer relationship one is tricky, but at SPX, a lot of it is about mutual support and improving and growing the medium, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Box Brown and the Kickstarter Panel
The other side of spending so much time on the floor is not a lot for panels. I only saw three this year, but all of them were very good. I caught the end of the Kickstarter panel, and the folks talking definitely had experience and knowledge, which is crucial given now important Kickstarter is to comics right now. I also attended one of the best-moderated panels I've ever seen, with Rob Clough talking to a bevy of queer creators about the rise of queer comics and their integration (or segregation) in the larger world of the medium.  Rob did an amazing job targeting general and follow up questions, getting all opinions heard, and making it all look easy while never letting the conversation stray or get boring. It was a clinic.

Mark KupperTwain and Sam Henderson
My final panel that I went to was controlled anarchy, but that was perfect, because it was old friends and comedic comic creators Sam (Magic Whistle) Henderson and Michael (Mark Twain) Kupperman. After pretending Michael was absent, "Mark Twain" strolled in, to the music of Sanford and Son, promptly started taking over, and cracking zingers left while Henderson played straight man for the start of the panel. Once they got done with that ("Kupperman will be here soon, I can see his bare ass under the table" quipped Henderson) the two talked about their careers, the difficulty in being visual humorists, and ways to expand your audience using Twitter and other concepts. They're two of the best at what they do, and they're also really nice folks. I'd love to see them collaborate sometime soon.

No matter how long I'm at SPX, it always ends too soon, and we all have to go back to where we came from. This was especially bittersweet for me, knowing it could be the last time I see some of my comics-making friends in person for a few years. Even with a few growing pains, SPX was another amazing experience and I came home with so many good books and minis to read for this coming year. If you love comics and you've never gone to SPX, I encourage you to do so. It's like nothing else on the East Coast, and it just might change your comics-reading life, too.

For all of my SPX 2013 pictures, you can go to my Flickr page.