Sunday, March 20, 2011

I went to SPACE this weekend. For those who don't know, SPACE is the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo held in Columbus, Ohio. In its 12th year, SPACE is a showcase for self-published comics that fall way out of the mainstream world of comic book production and distribution. The number of small press comics conventions have grown over the years, among them SPX in Bethesda, APE in San Francisco, and Pittsburgh's own PIX which just began last fall.

As a celebration of the Do-It-Yourself mentality these are great events. This is a roomful of creators, writers and artists, who make comics purely for the love of the medium, knowing that very few, if any of them, will ever move on into the realm of professional comics creator. My guess is that this isn't even the goal of the majority of people there. They put out money to print their work, travel to the show, pay for food and lodging, pay for the table space at the con, and hope to sell enough comics to break even. Few of them do. This is in many ways the heart of true comics fandom and creativity. Each book is the product of a personal vision with little thought for commercial concerns.

This follows a long tradition in comics. The underground comix of the 1960's spawned an explosion of creativity and gave creators like Robert Crumb a home he would never have found in the mainstream. The independent publishers that grew as a result of the direct market in the early 80's were doing much the same thing. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a self-published book and spawned the ill-fated black and white comics explosion of 1986 (which led in turn to the black and white comics implosion of 1987).

I was reminded mainly of the mini-comics scene of the late 80's and early 90's. My collaborator Fred Wheaton and I were in the thick of that. There was a huge underground of self-published mini-comics that was, by today's internet standards, hard to learn about or track down. We started doing comic strips for a music/humor 'zine called The Plain Brown Wrapper. This was sold in some local music stores and comic shops, but mostly through mail order. Through this we learned of the existence of a mag call Factsheet Five. FF was a review magazine for 'zines and mini-comics. Anyone could send their book in and get a listing and a review, and hopefully, as a result, some mail order business. We sent copies of the original Grey Legacy, as well as some of our other mini-comics like Buggly the Inbred Bear, Dumpy Geeks at the Mall, and Boo Boo Chute and sold a few copies and traded many more (trades were a big part of this scene... everyone had something they wanted to get out there). More importantly we found this great, really supportive underground network of other people who were self-publishing.

I ran into a couple of people I had corresponded with back in the early 90's at SPACE this weekend and I was glad to see they're still out there doing something they obviously love. I met Pam Bliss at a number of shows back then and traded a number of comics with her. I met, for the first time, Michael Neno who I knew only by name. He used to publish a mini-comic review 'zine called Comics FX and in addition to giving positive reviews to our work he once cover-featured Grey Legacy and published a pretty in-depth interview with Fred and me.

Like any scene like this, back then the quality of the work varied. I like to think our stuff was on a much more professional level than many of the books we saw (and based on reviews and the fan letters we received I don't think I'm exaggerating too much). There was a lot of... how do I put this gently? There was a lot of amateurish crap.

And that's still true, I hate to say. I always feel a little schizophrenic when I walk through the Artist's Alley of a Con, especially one that focuses on Indy books. I want to be supportive of the scene. I am fully in favor of anyone who wants to make comics to do so, regardless of skill level. The artistic desire and drive should be rewarded. But at the same time, there's a lot of stuff that just simply doesn't interest me at all, sometimes because it's a subject matter I don't care about (it's not like I'm interested in every professional comic from major publishers either), but truthfully, sometimes I'm not interested because it's amateurish crap. So I've had to develop the skill of walking the aisles, glancing at tables, and trying not to make eye contact with the creators until I've ascertained my level of interest. I admire your enthusiasm, but I'm simply not interested in hearing your spiel.

And trust me, I am sympathetic. I've been on the other side of the table trying to promote my work often enough to know what it feels like when people walk by with barely a glance.

The Pittsburgh Small Press scene was well-represented. A lot of my friends had tables there, and I know I'm a little prejudiced because they are my friends, I do think the overall quality of the work in our corner was among the best books at the show. We put on a great showing and I'm proud of all of them.

I guess I'll end this by reiterating how much I support the DIY comics self-publishing effort. No matter what the quality of the product it takes a lot of time, work and dedication to do it with very little reasonable expectation of any kind of financial reward. Unlike big industry comics cons this entire scene is about the love of comics; reading them, making them, talking about them and sharing them. The big cons could learn a lot from this.

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