27th Nov2012

Blast From The Past: Small Press Expo/SPX 2006

by Will

So, I pretty much find any excuse to let you know that I was once a purchasing brand manager for Diamond Comic Distributors. Basically, I helped make the Previews catalog, and worked with small press publishers. Anyway, I was going through old emails yesterday, and I found this draft from that time. I’m not quite sure why I never posted it. I think I was going through a blogging dry spell. Anyway, I thought I’d share it with you, as a lot of my feelings haven’t changed in the past 6 years. I’ve also added annotations to it. So, sit back and enjoy this blast from my comic past!

I went to my first-ever Small Press Expo today in Bethesda, MD, to see what the nation’s alternative “comix” creators and fans are all about

My initial impressions:

1. It was a different scene than the Baltimore Comic-Con last month. For one thing, there were a lot of young women — the brainy, hippie types with pale skin, sharp noses and chins, piercing eyes and Lisa Loeb glasses … if you’re into that sort of thing. Sadly (*sigh*) I totally am.

Heh, I’m gonna get in trouble for that one. And it’s right up front. Next!

2. Even the guys looked different. Super-hero comics guys are two-thirds fat slobs, one-third skinny geeks. Indie comix guys are two-thirds skinny geeks, one-third fat slobs. Indie comix cost more, so maybe their readers can’t afford food.

Aren’t stereotypes a wonderful thing? Still, I maintain that you’re more likely to find a vegan amongst the indie crew than the mainstream set!

3. It’s hard to casually flip through comix for sale on a table, then walk away, when the artist is sitting right there, staring at you. I felt guilty. A similar problem: Opening a comic, realizing it’s very explicit gay porn and worrying that I’m going to look like a homophobe to the artist two feet away if I quickly close the comic and put it down. So, um, how long do I have to stand there?

So, there’s an anthology I picked up called True Porn. It’s really just trying to cash in on the taboo nature of sex, but it’s pretty graphic. For years, it was one of my prized indie collections. A few years later, I picked up True Porn 2. This volume, however, was nothing but trucker sex and glory holes. I’ve never ventured to see if there was a 3rd volume.

4. Lots of self-published comix have colorful, well-drawn covers with clean lines … but then you open them, and the interiors are black-and-white scribblings from an epileptic chicken that must have clutched a Bic pen in its claw. One guy was charging $5 for a comic in which he had simply scratched out typos, rather than use Wite-Out.

True story, boo.

5. I think I’m the only fanboy who does not want to write or draw comics or comix.

This part is why I didn’t last long at Diamond. The vast majority of the employees are in the midst of a conflict of interest. Everyone wants to be a writer or artist. I just liked getting comps. If you’re not trying to get your foot in the door, you’ll realize you care more about paying your bills than having an uncredited short story in a Red Sonja anthology.

6. Scott McCloud packed a room to share his latest theories on comix storytelling, which bored the crap out of me. He drew a four-box grid, divided it into “classicists,” “animists,” “formalists” and “iconoclasts” and talked at length about the wars between those camps. He referenced ongoing debates on THE COMICS JOURNAL message board — in-jokes that provoked waves of nerd laughter. I left early. My seat was claimed immediately.

I don’t remember this at all, and I pride myself on my memory. I remember trying to read Understanding Comics while in college, and ditching it after a few pages. I just don’t care about the “science” of comic making. To me, that’s taking the fun out of it. Sure, it’s cool to learn about creators and influences, but when you get into the mechanics of thought bubbles and page gutters, I’m out.

7. The panel next-door, on political cartooning, was much more interesting. Ted Rall is very funny. The cartoonists agreed that America is so badly polarized now that nobody is going to change their minds on any serious issue, such as the Iraq War. So they see their job as rallying the liberals, the way Fox News Channel rallies the conservatives. A dozen lost elections in a row — way to go, cartoonists!

I do remember this, which is funny because I grew to dislike Ted Rall and his whole schtick. To me, this is the crowd that birthed the Occupy Movement.

8. Rick Veitch, our Comicon lord and master, is a truly nice guy. I walked up to his table, stuck out my paw, gave him my real name and said I was one of his message board idiots. He smiled and asked for my screen name, which he claimed to recognize. And he didn’t tear-gas me! We had a pleasant chat about Comicon, which he says he enjoys doing, except for the occasional defamation lawsuit threat. Veitch and co-owner Steve Conley apparently are thinking of ways to make this place bigger and link it to other parts of the fanboy Web world.

This. This shit right here. This…OK, let me back up. I don’t remember this. I don’t even remember having a screenname on Comic.com. I remember the site. It used to be awesome, as it had The Pulse, The Beat and more. I don’t remember being on a message board, though. I HATE message boards. I tend to always kill threads. I need a medium where a response is somewhat guaranteed. I do remember having nice correspondence with Jen Contino, who used to edit The Pulse. Was that on a message board? Who knows?

Here’s the kicker: when I got to Diamond, I kinda got in some shit with Rick. Ya see, part of the conversation that I didn’t post was that he kinda steered me into talking about his books. I get kinda starstruck, so I was all like “Sure, sir. We’ll put the spotlight on your books!” Later on, I realized that he was, at that point, primarily a backlist publisher. This meant that he wasn’t putting out anything new, but was depending on reorders of his back catalog. Let me tell ya something: unless you’re Marvel or DC, Diamond doesn’t give much of a shit about your back catalog. So, I essentially made promises that I couldn’t keep – something I was raised never to do. So, my Diamond career could be charted by a series of flubs and make-goods for Rick Veitch. I gave him an ad in Previews ($3500 value!) but none of his books were in stock. Once they were restocked, he wanted his free ad again. Instead, I relisted all of his books (something that’s never supposed to be done unless there’s a new printing or REASON), and he didn’t like that there wasn’t enough of a spotlight on things. I think I even requested a “Rick Veitch Month” for Previews, and no one could understand why I was doing all this. Mainly, I had to make good on my word. He was a tough bastard, though I feel he kinda took advantage of me. I had offered him things he hadn’t really earned, but he was going to hold me to it. I learned a lot from that experience.

9. Fantagraphics sells a ton of lovingly produced comix and books (boox?) that I’d read for free at my local library out of curiosity, but I don’t see myself plopping down $5 to $45 to buy it. Like a comic about an unshaven clown who weeps. For the entire 20 pages. In French. Drawn with chalk. On black paper. Who has the money to fill their house with this?

I later became the Diamond contact for Fantagraphics. Regardless of how I felt about your product, I became a starstruck poseur once those people were on the phone. I pimped everything that came down the pike from them, and it’s not like you can suggest anything because they’re FANTAGRAPHICS! Once I was gone, I started railing against all their stuff in the comments sections of hoity-toity blogs. Such a coward. They’re still cranking out the same kinda highbrow pablum, though.

10. My apologies to those who suggested questions for me. I had no chance to ask McCloud anything, because I left his panel to hear the political cartoonists. I started to ask Gary Groth a question at the Fantagraphics booth, but as I opened my mouth to speak, he snarled at some guy that he wanted to catch the next flight the hell out of Washington and get back home. It wasn’t a “come introduce yourself, my friend” snarl. Groth is a relatively short, compact, wiry guy with dark hair fading to gray — ironically, he looks like Harlan Ellison did about 20 years ago.

Who the Hell am I apologizing to? Questions? I didn’t have readers to submit questions. Hell, I only have about 20 readers now when I don’t write about Power Rangers. I don’t know what’s going on in this blurb. How the Hell did I know what Harlan Ellison looked like 20 years ago? I guess I had read some old Comics Journals or something.

11. I think I like super-hero comics fanboys better than indie comix fanboys. Comics guys don’t take themselves half as seriously as do comix guys. Even John Byrne, on his most arrogant day, isn’t waiting for his MacArthur genius grant so he can start his 1,400-page autobiographical graphic novel.

This is one of most incorrect statements I will ever make. I wasn’t as entrenched in the internet at this point (MySpace was still hot and The Facebook hadn’t let in the riffraff yet), so I didn’t know what was going on amongst the various message boards. Both fan bases are two sides of the same coin. I hold the same opinion of the indie set, but I also apply those traits to the mainstream.

So, there ya have it – the ramblings of 25 year old Will. I enjoyed my time in the industry, but it was definitely a “don’t meet your heroes” kind of experience. Also, I ABHOR the stylized “comix”. I hope I wasn’t too hard on the small press. Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of cool small press books that I’ve recommended to friends (some are even in the Adventures West Coast posts!), so there’s definitely some great stuff out there. That said, I just can’t bring myself to go to SPX anymore. It has gotten was too hippie at a time when I just don’t have time for that. I’m not sure what that says about me or them, but we’re just not in the same place anymore. To read this post, I’m not sure we ever were.