by Kevin Czap
While I was having an absolute blast at the Small Press Expo this past weekend, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about lofty things like history and community. Part of that preoccupation was a side-effect of having this weekly column, and wanting to have something substantial to write about. The other part was just from the sheer experience of it all – with each convention or expo I attend, I feel that much more enveloped in this big wonderful thing. When I started going to shows not so long ago, just being around one’s own people was satisfying to an overwhelming degree. That feeling is still there of course, now with the added texture of feeling that you’re a part of something. History and culture are not simply texts, these things are literally the accumulation of present actions by people doing their thing.
Standing at the foot of this accumulation can be humbling. SPX has become a formidable institution over the past 18 years, one that has now been recognized officially by the federal government as being significant to American culture. In fact, one of the things that prompted this particular article was hearing some long-time veterans of the show murmuring about how “it ain’t what it used to be” (this kind of statement was made a lot last year, haven’t heard it so far about the 2011 show). Obviously, I am not able to speak from an informed, first-hand experience on this matter – 2010 was the first SPX I ever attended, and this year was the first time for me to exhibit there. However, I’m interested enough in the history of artistic cultures to be somewhat read on the subject and, you know, am a human being who’s prone to gut, emotional reactions. Anyhow, you can’t really argue against those kinds of statements – it’s true, things have changed, things will always change and they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
What’s more questionable is if there’s a value judgment tacked on, as if to say, things used to be great but now things are not interesting. Again, since I wasn’t there “then,” how can I refute that judgment with full confidence? I can’t, but it doesn’t feel right, or at least, if doesn’t feel objective (shocker). SPX may be a really big show now, but anyone nostalgic for the days when it was just starting out have any number of smaller, local shows dotted all over the comics-making world.
All the people involved in the comics game are interacting with a number of timelines. There was a time when Chester Brown, for example, was very young making great comics under most people’s radars and now he’s a distinguished guest, who’s presence in a room makes you gasp. I keep visualizing what I’m talking about as a complex subway system. We each get on the train at some arbitrary stop, and this determines what sees, who one encounters, etc. Each person sets their own path through this network based on the variables available to them, but it’s all on a level playing field. People get on and off the trains at different points but the comics get left behind, like those copies of the Watchtower faux-casually left waiting on empty seats.
The Jehovah’s Witness comparison is intentional.
With all the various levels and “stops” along the way, comics culture is rather complex, and shows like SPX, given their size and scope, are good displays of this. As I said, I’m interested in history, so for me, a convention like this is really fascinating as it gives one access to potential visions of the future (collecting the soon-to-be obscure and rarefied early work of a future “old master”), the current work of cartoonists at their peak, and even getting to interact with and learn from the giants who have helped define the cultural landscape. I have a lot of respect for the established creators who comb the show floor, more often than not these are the lifers.
I owe a huge debt to one such lifer, my colleague and brand new Ignatz Award winning talent Darryl Ayo. A man who’s been hustling in this game for a long time, Darryl soldiers on fueled by a pure love for the comics medium. This is clear to anyone who meets him. His generosity and passion for comics have been a wonderful form of support for me, and I’m sure that without his cheerleading, the work of amazing artists like Liz Suburbia would remain criminally overlooked. Darryl and I met for the first time at SPX last year, and he was kind enough to introduce me around to everyone he knew (like L Nichols, in particular). By a years time, most if not all of these people are good friends and knowing them has made this year’s SPX exponentially more fantastic. So with all this and more in mind, I can’t be more proud to have witnessed a lecture hall pressed to the walls full of cartoonists explode in cheers when Darryl was announced the recipient of that Ignatz brick. Moments like this make me realize how fortunate I am to be entering the culture when and how I am.
Of course, there are other times when it doesn’t feel as fortunate. It was Darryl who broke the news about Dylan Williams to us before the Ignatz ceremony even began. I used to make ill-thought-out statements like “there needs to be more punk rock in comics” – I clearly didn’t know much about what I was talking about, because as I would learn soon enough, there was already Dylan Williams and Sparkplug. I feel I’ve been a fast learner when it comes to this culture, so it didn’t take me long to recognize how significant Dylan was to everything that SPX represents. Reading all the heartfelt memorials that have been written since news of his passing has spread, it’s clear how fortunate those are that knew him personally or where able to spend any amount of quality time with him. Aside from a few words exchanged at TCAF this past May, I was not so fortunate. The inspiring thing about it, if we can look for any silver linings, is that Dylan’s life and work have become a permanent part of this culture’s foundations, and the world of comics that I exist in is so much more better because of it. As far as I am concerned, Williams has always been a seminal figure and an example I do my best to follow. On the backs of giants, you know?
So yeah, SPX 2011 was a really amazing weekend and I’m so grateful to all the friends I saw, everyone who came and talked to us at our table (yo, Yusef, hit me up if you’re out there), and definitely everyone who bought our comics. It’s really an honor to be living the dream, and it wouldn’t be possible with all of you (we’re all making this together, you understand). And of course, big love to my brother and sister.
Here’s a picture of my haul which I don’t have the time to get into now, but my next post will be a detailed look at all the things I came home with. Next month I’ll be exhibiting at PIX, hope to see you there.
Photo of Darryl at the Ignatz Awards taken from the SPX facebook page.