It’s half past midnight, I’m packed in a basement ballroom with a hundred or so strangers in varying degrees of formal wear, we’re all some combination of sweaty, drunk, exhausted, and alive, and I can feel every inch of my body pulsing in time with the B-52’s as a DJ with the most magnificent fiery beard starts spinning “Rock Lobster.” I didn’t crash a wedding, and I can’t say I’ve ever been to a club like this. No, this is SPromX, the not-so-formal prom of the 20th annual Small Press Expo (SPX). And the only thing we all have in common is a love for comics. It’s kind of beautiful.
This past weekend I attended my first SPX, and it was without a doubt the best convention experience I have ever had. From the moment I entered the showroom, I was awestruck by the sheer diversity of comics being bought, sold, and traded—and in such volume. Not only was there an amazing variety of subject matter but of experience as well; rookies stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the best independent cartoonists alive today. And we were all fans.
It had been a while since I have been willing to think of myself as a comics fan; it carries quite a bit of baggage with it. Even if you have never touched a comic book put out by Marvel or DC, merely associating yourself with the medium carries with it a stigma that has only seemed to able to be eclipsed by the clusterfuck of reprehensible behavior occurring in the gaming community. And even then, it feels like just a matter of time before we have another Brian Wood, before Marvel makes another billion off of a character they own due to work-for-hire, before we hear more stories about just why conventions need “cosplay is not consent” posters. Despite all of that, SPX 2014 made me feel like a comics fan again.
I flew into DC on Thursday afternoon in order to have time to settle in at the convention and because flights are disturbingly cheap on September 11th. My friend Kevin Budnik arrived that evening with freshly printed copies of his new minicomic Hand Book Vol 1 in tow, and we promptly hit the hotel bar. That evening we had the fortune of meeting a cartoonist from Australia, closing out the bar and discussing everything we love about comics. It was a sign of how the whole weekend was going to go: unexpectedly and joyously. As Friday was still a pre-con day, we mostly bummed about the hotel and ran into more con-goers—including a pair from the United Kingdom—talking comics, what creators we were excited for, and planning our hostile takeover of the convention center from what could only be described as a war table kept in the Marriott lobby.
The next two days were a blur of comics with SPromX right in the middle, and I can honestly say I have never been in an environment that was so pro-comics. Whether you had been making minicomics as long as folks like John Porcellino and James Kochalka, you were a cartoonist fresh out of (or still in) school, or you had never once put pencil to paper to craft a comic, you were among peers. I think I speak for most of the attendees when I say that the environment at SPX felt like home, despite knowing virtually no one there before my plane landed. Over the course of the first twenty-four hours, I made fast friends with artists and fans, and I get the feeling these are friendships that are going to last. From the (sometimes exhausted) smiles I caught on the faces of nearly everyone there, I would imagine I was not alone in my joy, and I think a great deal of it stemmed from the communal feeling of SPX.
In fact, that was one of the last things Kevin and I talked about before we flew back to find Chicago in the perfect, pumpkiny embrace of autumn. SPX is just as much about putting cartoonists on an equal playing field as it is anything else, and while I have heard talk of the event possibly moving to a juried show, I hope they are just rumors (ed. note: they are damn dirty lies). It’s not just about giving the same kind of exposure to everyone, though that certainly helps; it’s about letting the new kids know that there may just be a few years and some luck—if that—between them and the folks who are household names in the comics community. It’s about a kind of pick-me-up that is sorely needed when the vast majority of the people making comics are aware that it’s not the kind of field you can typically make a living from. That’s the kind of infectious energy that had me leaving SPX thinking “maybe I should try my hand at some comics.”
For a few hours, SPX broke from being a metaphorical non-stop dance party into a literal one, the love and enthusiasm we all had for this incredible medium filled the air, and for the first time in months I felt the slowly building disgust I’ve gained for comics melt away. All that’s left in me is an almost childlike wonder at what the medium can accomplish and an incredible respect for the folks who are able to follow their dreams and make them work.
Jack Kirby was telling the god’s honest truth when he said that comics will break your heart, but SPX is proof that comics can also help you glue the pieces back together into something beautiful and new, stronger and more resilient than what was there before. Or at least staple them together into a minicomic.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.