The power of the small press

SPX logoLast weekend I attended the only comic book convention I go to every year, the Small Press Expo in North Bethesda, Md. It proclaims itself (and deservingly so) “North America’s Premiere Independent Cartooning and Comic Arts Festival.” Although I spend much of my comic book reading time in the world of mainstream superhero adventures from the Big Two publishers, DC and Marvel Comics, the SPX (as it is affectionately called) reminds me why I love both the art and business of comics. At the SPX you find hundreds of earnest writers and artists (or writer/artists) who are exploring the language of comics, experimenting with different styles of visual imagery, panel construction, storytelling technique, genres and book design in ways that most comics intended for mainstream audiences never do. The SPX also celebrates the egalitarian nature of comics that allows anyone with some paper, pencils and a copying machine to make their artistic vision a reality.

But as much as I could go on about the many creative and well-done examples of independent comics I saw at this year’s Expo (another affectionate nickname), as the title of my blog site suggests, I’m going to stick to highlighting just a few exhibitors who were promoting various aspects of comic book justice.

CBLDF logoFreedom of expression
Every year, proceeds from the SPX go to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which defends the First Amendment rights of comic book creators and readers.  When I went to my first Expo in 1997, the guest of honor was then-28-year-old comic book creator Mike Diana, who had been charged with obscenity in Pinellas County, Fla.  As disturbing as much of his imagery was—dealing with issues such as the physical and sexual abuse of children—it was meant to expose and condemn these crimes, not titillate readers. Despite being represented by the CBLDF, Diana was convicted on three counts. As part of his three-year probation, he was to avoid all contact with children under 18, undergo psychological testing, enroll in a journalistic ethics course, pay a $3,000 fine, and perform 1,248 hours of community service. He was also ordered to cease drawing “obscene” materials, even for personal use, and his place of residence was to be open to inspection by the police, without warning or warrant, at any time, so they could search for illustrations violating this ruling. Another notable First Amendment case was that of comics creator Kieron Dwyer, who was sued by Starbucks over his parody of the coffee empire’s famous logo (Starbucks’ zealous litigiousness sufficiently intimidates me that I’m only providing a link to the image rather than posting it here).

To further raise funds for its work, CBLDF hosts a table at every SPX where it sells autographed books and posters by famous supporters such as Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller (I forgot to take a picture of CBLDF’s table, which is why I posted their logo instead).

AK Press/PM Press/Microcosm Publishing table

The AK Press/PM Press/Microcosm Publishing table

The right to peaceably disassemble
One of my favorite discoveries at this year’s Expo was a table displaying books by three alternative publishers that share a goal of subverting the dominant paradigm. AK Press is “a worker run book publisher and distributor organized around anarchist principles.”  It publishes a number of comics works including You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive and Disaster and Resistance: Comics and Landscapes for the 21st Century by Seth Tobocman. In addition to prose books on subjects like anti-fascism, globalization, and green living, AK Press also publishes books such as Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, that discuss the use of art as a tool for social change (the subject of my 2005 presentation, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons and Graphics”). PM Press seeks to “create radical and stimulating fiction and non-fiction books, pamphlets, t-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire.” Among the several graphic works it publishes is The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, which “provides a crash course in what drives mass incarceration, the human and community costs, and how to stop the numbers from going even higher.” Lastly, Microcosm Publishing “strives to add credibility to zine writers and their ethics, teach self empowerment, show hidden history, and nurture people’s creative side.” One of  Microcosm’s titles on display at the table was the Ignatz Award-winning Welcome to the Dahl House: Alienation, Incarceration, and Inebriation in the new American Rome by Ken Dahl. This anthology includes the author’s experiences with “airport security, the demeaning experience of being arrested, having to sell off his earthly possessions at a yard sale to pay the slumlord, the creative process of trying to write comics about ‘important’ subjects.”

I unfortunately couldn’t afford all the books I wanted to buy but did walk away with a catalog from each publisher for future ordering.

Me and Adam Hines

Me (left) and Adam Hines

Justice for all
The main reason I was excited about going to this year’s SPX was to get a copy of the 400 page graphic novel
Duncan the Wonder Dog from Adhouse Books, and meet its author, Xeric Foundation grant-winner Adam Hines. The book is set in a world much like ours except that animals can talk (English I mean, animals have always been able to talk to each other). This leads to an inter-species movement to organize and rebel against human oppression. I will post a review once I’ve finished the book, but I’m already in awe of its charming and hauntingly beautiful black and white artwork and vast and intricate Duncan the Wonder Dogplot (for now, you can read an interview with Adam on the Newsarama Web site about his creative approach to the book). In addition to getting my signed copy, complete with cat sketch, I was thrilled to receive a free black and white poster of a burning car in the woods surrounded by a group of assorted animals, including a monkey armed with an assault rifle. 🙂

Roadtrip

Page from the story “Roadtrip” from Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales by J.T. Yost.

My vegan T-shirt was a big hit at the Expo, and a great icebreaker. Vegan comics creator J.T. Yost used it as an opening to sell me his Xeric Foundation grant-winning anthology, Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales, published by Birdcage Bottom Books. While the title story and one other focus on inter-human relationships, the remaining three powerfully (and somewhat painfully) depict the mistreatment of animals by humans. The stories about vivisection and the circus are both moving, but my favorite by far, and I think the most powerful, is “Roadtrip,” which juxtaposes images of a young girl on a family outing with the plight of a calf taken from his mother and shipped off to slaughter. Even though the parallels should be fairly obvious, J.T. did an elegant job of bringing them home (he also pointed out some other vegans in the exhibit hall, including the two people staffing the AK/PM/Microcosm table).

Of all the comics conventions in the country, this year the Small Press Expo may be the one that best demonstrates that justice shouldn’t just be something you read about in comics.

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3 Responses to The power of the small press

  1. J.T. Yost says:

    Hey Richard, it was great to meet you at SPX. I don’t usually (ever) demand that people come check out my comics, but your vegan shirt combined with your buddy’s tofu shirt made it impossible to resist. I’m glad you liked the book, and thanks for the kind review. See ya next year!

  2. jeff subhumyn says:

    Richard! Let me know when the SPX is happening next year! I’m just a short $1 Megabus ride away! Sounds awesome. I’m with you. While I got into comics through underground, alternative and DIY comics in the 80’s, now I mostly read superhero fare published by the two corporate giants. But it really is the independant publishers who breath life into th medium.

    Thanks for mentioning AK Press, they are amazing. When Liberte and I ran Unbound Books Distro out of our living room in Chicago we carried a lot of books published and/or distributed by AK Press. Recently they have really expanded their selection of radical, independant graphic novels. And PM Press is really badass too.

    BTW, Seth Tobocman’s You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive is one of my favorite titles.

  3. J.T. Yost says:

    Hey Richard,

    Thought you might be interested in my small comics press (Birdcage Bottom Books) latest release “Digestate: A Food & Eating Themed Anthology”. I made sure to include a healthy amount of vegan comic artists, and my piece uses an actual interview transcript from a slaughterhouse worker. Many of the carnivorous contributors also chose to focus on animal suffering. Thought it would be right up your alley!

    You can check it out here: http://www.birdcagebottombooks.com/shop/digestate-a-food-and-eating-themed-anthology/

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