Small Press Expo-sed

Small Press Expo-sed
It's embarrassing to admit this now, but I had narcissistic expectations for the Small Press Expo held September 15 to 17 in Bethesda, Maryland. After two years of semi-regular writing about comics, I looked forward to the Expo — essentially the most important trade show for independent comics in North America — as a kind of reward: the opportunity to chat face-to-face with creators I'd interviewed over the phone, to make new contacts, and maybe inspire a smidgen of awe or respect as a tireless champion of the best the medium had to offer. Unsurprisingly, nothing of the sort happened — nobody had a clue who I was. The look of incomprehension on Charles Burns' face, as I thrust my hand towards him and introduced myself as "that guy from Canada who interviewed you last year," was especially sobering. Fortunately, the dense flow of visitors in the Holiday Inn's Washington Room, drawn by the tables for Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, Drawn & Quarterly, Highwater Books, and Top Shelf, among others, bore me away in its sweaty undertow before I could humiliate myself further.
In the other three exhibit rooms, where the proportion of lesser-knowns was greater, things were also less hectic. So I caught my breath, lowered my expectations, and took some time to browse. In the massive Versailles Ballroom, with its caramel-coloured hotel convention atmosphere, sat comics legend Will Eisner, strangely un-mobbed. Animator Bill Plympton had a table in an obscure corner on the other side of the room. In the middle, Paul Hornschemeier was selling issues of his self-published comics digest Sequential. The most recent, number 6, features a well-designed cover (a pleasure in a sea of photocopied pamphlets) and a nicely paced and drawn, though slightly mawkish, story, The Devil's Lonely Day. Later, I stopped to shuffle through some screen-printed postcards by Jordan Crane, founder of the indie anthology NON, and creator of the winsome book The Last Lonely Saturday Night, which had received an Ignatz nomination for Outstanding Comic. The Ignatz is the Expo's festival prize, voted on by festival attendees, and named after the brick-throwing mouse in George Herriman's classic strip Krazy Kat. As I chatted briefly with Crane, he predicted (correctly, it turned out) that he'd lose to Chris Ware, nominated for Acme Novelty Library #13.
Out of all the books and pamphlets I leafed through, read at the table, or bought, the anthologies from Monkeysuit Press impressed me the most. Started by a group of professional animators looking for an outlet for their comics work, Monkeysuit has published two books so far: last year's Monkeysuit and this year's The Bride of Monkeysuit. It's clear the artists make images for a living; all of the stories communicate well, regardless of their content. But I was particularly struck by the work of Mike Foran and Jonathan Royce, who both work without words. In Foran's Rover, the tough, resourceful inhabitant of an unnamed planet befriends a naïve little space probe — the titular Rover. Royce brings his Keef and Bruno characters (which I first saw years ago in an issue of Nozone) to the collection with a story called The Mask. Keef and his rabbit buddy Bruno make masks to pass the time one day, and have fun scaring each other with their creations. Later, they find a flower-headed baby creature in a well, who uses Bruno's mask to gain its freedom from an oppressive subterranean society. What I like about both artists' work is the ambiguity surrounding names, locations, and the motivations of the characters. This ambiguity doesn't stem specifically from the lack of words, but from both artists' refusal to find visual equivalents for the "missing" words. Both artists draw comics that require a very sophisticated ability to create signs that clarify without closure.
For every book like Monkeysuit I picked up, I'm sure there was another great book that I leafed through too quickly, or just couldn't appreciate properly at the time — and that's sort of comforting. It's good to know there are creators out there bashing away at their work, and sometimes even trying to push it somewhere comics haven't been before. I went to the Expo hoping to get the big picture of independent comics in North America — it turned out to be bigger, and richer, than I'd imagined.