Pop Omnivore visited the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland, looking for environmentally minded comics—and the chance to get some books signed by indie-comic luminaries. Both ventures were successful.
The SPX began in 1994 as a reaction to the spandex-and-cape comic industry, which holds gala conventions to display the latest in mainstream superhero comics, movies, and action-figure technology.
SPX gives artists that aren’t publishing for Marvel, DC, or Image their own space in the comic universe. These alternative books feature offbeat superheroes, iconic everymen, and even a comic exclusively about poo. “You can’t find most of this stuff in Barnes & Noble,” executive director Warren Bernard says.
Over the last 18 years, SPX has grown in size, notoriety, and economy. This year’s expo drew 5,000 attendees, 443 exhibitors, and a guest list that included the biggest names in independent comics: Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and the Brothers Hernandez, to name a few. Yet they’re still relatively small.
This mainstream obscurity allows artists to explore avant-garde styles as well as non-traditional business models. Publishing online with on-demand book printing simply isn’t possible for big corporations, but many of the artists at SPX do just that. They save money by marketing only to people they know will buy their comics and save paper by not printing more books than will be sold. For environmentally minded artists, this could be the future of publishing. And that environmental mindset surfaces in their comics as well … although not in typically unpredictable fashion.
Strays N Gates by Jason E. Axtell and Barry Kaufman
Premise: Moxie, a primped and prim lap dog, finds herself homeless and lost. Then she meets stray mutts Charlie and Mr. Buckets, who show her the ropes of life on the other side of the tracks.
Soundbite: Moxie: “Don’t talk to ME like that. I’ll have you know I’m an AKC registered bichipoolabraradoodle. Half Bichon, half Poodle, half Labrador.”
Charlie: “… Not real big on math at the American kennel club, are they?”
Cryptozoology, A Pragmatist’s Guide by Reid Psaltis
Premise: A field guide to spotting and identifying mystery fauna, this fancifully illustrated work illuminates a menagerie of creatures, from the possibly extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker to the impossibly ubiquitous Jackalope.
Soundbite: “Cryptozoology can be such a polarizing field of study,” Psaltis says with a wry grin. “This book is more for the interested but unconvinced. I draw no conclusions.”
Summit of the Gods by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi
Premise: Based on Baku’s 1998 novel of the same name, this Japanese comic traces the perilous journey of an Everest climbing party that may have discovered George Mallory’s camera from the doomed 1924 expedition.
Soundbite: “Habu and Kishi entered the northern alps together in December. On the first day, they got to the start of the ascent … and they climbed a 200 meter slab. The second day … they overcame the largest overhang of the ascent. And so it was there … when he was traversing left across the overhang, that it happened. CHRRUK”
Falling Rock National Park by Josh Shalek
Premise: A young, idealistic park ranger named Dee and a cast of animals—Ernesto, a lizard; Carver, an owl; Melissa, a mountain lion; Pam, a chain-smoking pig and former schoolteacher—inhabit a fictitious national park.
Soundbite: Ernesto: “PAM! What do you, as an educator, think of the comics?”
Pam: “In my many, many years of teaching there were kids I privately thought of as failures. I encouraged these kids to be cartoonists.”
Formerly serialized online with daily updates, this strip is now available in printed special-edition collections. Each copy is made from repurposed chipboard and recycled paper and printed with soy ink. If the content isn’t overtly conservationist, the comic itself certainly is.
Herman the Manatee by Jason Viola
Premise: The titular character is an existential, self-loathing sea cow, brutally unforgiving and undeniably hilarious. Described by Viola as “the Charlie Brown of the Sea,” Herman’s desire for simple joy—shown in five-panel episodes—is stifled at every turn, usually by a passing motorboat.
Soundbite: Herman: “God? Is it true what the sea turtle says? Is it my destiny to be hit by boats?”
God: “Oh Herman, don’t fret. Getting hit by boats is not your true calling.”
Herman: “It’s not?”
God: “No! Truth is, I have no plans for you at all. I’m at such a loss I almost killed you twice last week.”
Ball Point Botany by Suzanne Baumann
Premise: Six plants with comical names such as Lesser Messberry and Polly-Don’t-Puke are considered in this inch-by-inch-and-a-half “sketchbook mini.” Further fantastical fauna appear in Baumann’s digital sketchbook.