I wrote this for Newsarama and they didn’t run it, so HERE WE ARE! Almost everything you need to know about one of the best conventions out there! Yahoo!
Every year exhibitors and guests from across the world gather to talk comics and have a good time at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. Located in the spacious North Bethesda Marriott, this event is spread out over a Saturday and Sunday in September, encompassing a show floor with artists, writers, and publishers – as well as panels and extracurricular events like the Ignatz Awards and this year’s prom-themed after-party.
While smaller in scale than other conventions on the East Coast, there is no denying the quality of work, the breadth of scope, and the overwhelming sense of enthusiasm from all involved that goes hand in hand with this show. Since its creation in 1994, SPX has made a name for itself as one of the premier small and alternative press events, rivaled only by such compatriots as the Toronto Comics and Arts Fest and MoCCA Fest. Last year, SPX attracted between 4,000 and 4,500 attendees, a number that has been rapidly increasing over time.
SPX Executive Director Warren Bernard told me that while there were no projected attendance numbers for this year, there were more exhibitors than ever – about 690 – with around 165 books debuting there. He went on to explain the labors of love that go into the yearly creation of this event. A core group of eight organize and structure the event, while an additional 100 help ensure everything goes smoothly. Everyone working is a volunteer, paid only in a free ticket and the satisfaction of a job well done. SPX tries hard to remain conscious of the fact that many guests have budgets, so the organizers have secured capped hotel prices for the expo until at least 2017. Combined with their low ticket prices ($10/$15/$20), this show does its best to make sure that everyone who wants to can get in the door, meet their favorite creators, and have a great experience.
SPX is not only a comics event, however. It’s also an organization that does an incredible amount of philanthropy. The proceeds from the expo are used to support a number of charitable initiatives, including The Comics Book Legal Defense Fund and The Graphic Novel Gift Program. In addition, they’ve been working with curators at the Library of Congress to preserve all manner of comics work including broadsheets and original prints. They have so far aided in amassing over 2,000 mini-comics for one such collection, currently housed in the Madison building. You can read more about the good work SPX is doing for its community and the comic world at large here.
So let’s talk about the pros and cons of this… con. First of all, though I would encourage all comic fans to attend, as the name states, this event centers on small press – there are no retailers with long boxes full of back issues, the cosplay scene is minimal to say the least, and there are no Marvel and DC comics to speak of. Instead, what the expo has is an incredible array of talented, personable creators who are excited to talk and connect with attendees. The books there run the gamut from family-friendly and science fiction, to auto-bio and horror, in addition to many more. This level of diversity in content, representation, art, and writing is simply unmatched by other similarly sized events.
Here, the small-scale of the show is positive rather than negative. The floor is never so packed that you find it hard to maneuver around tables, the sheer number of attendees does not inspire anxiety attacks, the convention center isn’t so big that you find yourself lost while trying to get to a panel, and the lines for your favorite creators aren’t so long that you need a bathroom break in the middle of them. It is a safe, comfortable, and welcoming environment.
Always important to note about a convention is the surrounding area. Bethesda in September is rather nice, with cool weather and lots of sunshine. Walkability from the event to food and bars is good, but not great. A car is recommended for getting from place to place if you aspire to venture far outside of the hotel, though you by no means have to in order to get a decent meal or an adult beverage. The prices for these things, however, vary rather extravagantly when comparing the hotel versus other options in town. Food and drink in the surrounding hotels are pricey, but easily dodged by walking to any number of establishments within a mile of the expo.
As for the con itself, there is nothing but good things to be said about it. The line-up of special guests, exhibitors, and panels is always stellar. Some of this year’s special guests were Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Box Brown, Simon Hanselmann, Michael DeForge, Emily Carroll, and Brandon Graham – all titans of the small press scene in their own way. The number of comics professionals in attendance was staggering, and there were more great publishers and creators like Koyama Press, Study Group Comics, Farel Dalrymple, Sophie Yanow, and Liz Prince filling in the ranks. Programming for the event was well done, and touted panels like Pro Tips: How Comics Get Reviewed, Inkstuds Live, and Sex, Humor and the Grotesque.
This year was made extra special thanks to the additional night events, which included the aforementioned prom-themed after party, as well as the wedding of Simon Hanselmann to his chosen art form – comics. There was a lovely ceremony with a brass quintet as Hanselmann (in a lovely wedding dress) professed deep love for comics, who was being represented by Michael DeForge. After a tearful vow reading, The Comics Journal‘s Gary Groth jumped in to seal the deal with the blushing bride, giving Hanselmann a kiss that spurred the audience into greater applause. Later, all the attendees were invited to partake of wedding cake and chocolate fondue fountains before heading to the dance floor and adjoining photo booth. Apparently this was the first year with special events like these, but after such a positive response, I’ve been told they will not be the last.
At the end of the day, SPX is nothing less than a great show. Excellent special guests, exhibitors, and programming are just a few of the things that make this event more than the sum of its parts. The palpable excitement of the crowd, the incredibly diverse array of comics available in the showroom, and the general feelings of welcome all play a part in why SPX is hotly anticipated each year by creators and attendees alike.