If you entered the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center this weekend expecting to see Batman and the Avengers everywhere, you were in for a surprise.
Although Small Press Expo’s yearly festival, known as The Expo, is a comics convention, it has more of an indie flavor than larger conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego. Small Press Expo, or SPX, promotes a variety of styles, artists and genres, many of which challenge or expand widely held notions about comics as an art form. Rather than focusing on large franchises such as Marvel or DC Comics, SPX showcases innovative comics and unique artwork mostly from independent artists, writers and publishers.
Though small in comparison to mainstream conventions with massive fanbases, SPX is the largest festival in the United States for self-published comics writers and artists. For creators looking to get a start in comics or to release their work to eager consumers, it can be a rare and exciting opportunity for artists and audiences to interact.
Since its inception in 1994, The Expo has become a major force in independent comics. This year, the two-day festival featured more than 600 artists, creators and publishers, as well as events such as Q&A’s with some of the more prominent guests, panels on cartooning and illustration, and the Ignatz Awards, the highly coveted festival prizes.
Some artists debut books at SPX, while others simply debut themselves, as was the case with local writers Oliver Mertz and Mike Isenberg.
Isenberg used to ride his bike to go to SPX in high school, while Mertz said he grew up about a mile away from the convention center. The two have been attending conventions for three years promoting First Law of Mad Science, the science fiction horror comic series they co-author.
“This show’s sort of like a homecoming for us,” Isenberg said. “We’ve been trying to get a booth for a while.”
Drew Brockington, a designer and illustrator with a background in stationary and invitation design, was also a first-time vendor at SPX. He traveled from Minneapolis to present his art prints featuring characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as well as original works Cat-Stronauts and the series BEACON.
A relatively new self-published comic artist and writer, Brockington said this was the fourth convention — though perhaps the most important — he’s presented at in the past year.
“SPX is the crucial point for self-published people, so this was one of the goals when I started doing comics,” he said.
Vendors ranged from individual artists selling a few small homemade art prints or Xeroxed zines to larger publishers selling hardcover graphic novels for more established series. TopatoCo, a corporation that works as a merchandiser for independently published comic artists, featured several popular artists such as Jeph Jacques, creator of the long-running series Questionable Content, as well as anthologies of several popular web comics, including A Softer World and Homestuck.
Besides comics of all shapes and sizes, attendees could also purchase T-shirts, homemade plush toys, art prints, posters and even hand-carved wooden puzzles. Many unique art styles were on display, as well as lots of creativity. Guests eagerly approached artists to gush over their work and creators of all kinds were eager to interact with their fans, newfound or otherwise.
Artist and aspiring publisher Sarah Martinez, who helps manage business operations for Interrobang Studios, has seen many conventions in the past five years — she estimates she and her fiance, artist Kevin Bolk, work about 20 to 25 conventions a year all along the East Coast and into Canada. Though Martinez and Bolk primarily promote their work with Interrobang Studios at anime conventions, Martinez still places a very high value on SPX.
“We come to Small Press specifically because this is a book convention,” she said. Though Interrobang Studios also sells prints and art cards, Martinez noted that their primary desire is to make and publish comics. “If there’s a show where people buy books, this is it,” she said.
With comics covering a variety of topics, from horror villain Jason Voorhees to the comical story of Doctor Cat to love stories about gay and lesbian couples, SPX has carved a prominent place for itself in the world of comics.
This year marked senior government and politics major Kyle Jamolin’s second SPX. A huge comics fan, he recognized how important a show like SPX can be.
“SPX is a wonderful way to showcase the legitimacy of the comic book medium in telling a story,” Jamolin said. “Comic books aren’t just about superheroes. SPX showcases how comic books can be about any topic, any source, from high science fiction to daily lives of people from all over the world.”