When Small Press Expo executive director Warren Bernard was planning SPX 2012, he had one thought in mind.
"I wanted people 20 years from now to say 'I was there when," he said.
SPX 2012, held Saturday and Sunday at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, was perhaps the most successful Expo in the show's 18-year history, possibly breaking attendance records according to Bernard (though the final tally had yet to be totaled).
Attendees came ready to spend money too, as evidenced by fact that all of the hotel’s ATM machines were empty or broken.
"By every measure, people were spending moolah in amounts not seen in previous shows," Bernard said.
In fact, all the publishers and exhibitors said SPX 2012 was one of the best comic shows they had experienced in recent history.
Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics, said Saturday was the best convention sales day they had in the past ten years, period. Many of the publisher's books sold out early, including show premiere books like "Blacklung" by Chris Wright, "Heads and Tails" by Lili Carre, "The Cartoon Utopia" by Ron Rege Jr. and "Prison Pit Vol. 4" by Johnny Ryan.
"There was a genuine buzz in that room," said Fantagraphics co-publisher Eric Reynolds. "It was probably the craziest convention day I've ever experienced, in a good way."
Drawn & Quarterly went one better, selling out of every single book it brought to the show, including their debut books "New York Drawings" by Adrian Tomine and "Multi-Story Building Model" by Chris Ware, according to editorial and marketing manager Julia Pohl-Miranda.
Even creators who had been coming to SPX since its inception in the mid-1990s, like "Finder" creator Carla Speed McNeil, said they had never experienced anything quite it.
Why was this particular show such a hit? The guest list might have been a factor with two of the biggest stars in the indie comics firmament, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, both of whom rarely attend these sorts of conventions, at the show for the first time. Also on hand were Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, promoting the newest volume of their annual "Love and Rockets: New Stories" series, Toon Books publisher and New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly and Adrian Tomine.
Other artists were a big draw as well. Crowds flocked to the Koyama Press table to meet Michael DeForge, who debuted the fourth issue of his ongoing "Lose" series. Newcomer Johnny Negron did strong business at the Picturebox table with a collection of his comics and illustrations entitled "Negron," as did Sammy Harkham, who debuted a new collection of his short stories, "Everything Together."
There was also a strong British contingent at the show, as publishers NoBrow and Self Made Hero (which brought a few titles from fellow U.K. indie publisher Blank Slate Books) exhibited. One of Self Made’s highlights was "The Nao of Brown," a standalone graphic novel by Glyn Dillon (brother of "Preacher" artist Steve Dillon) that also sold out.
"It was extremely well organized and genuinely welcoming with a friendly indie crowd who weren't afraid to spend their hard earned wages," said Self Made Hero’s marketing director Doug Wallace. "We’ll be back."
Beyond the visiting big-name artists, many exhibitors say the reason the show went so well was mainly due to the efforts of Bernard and his cadre of volunteers.
"This show was a hit because Warren and everyone else on the SPX team have done an incredible job of making this one of the premiere alternative comics shows," said Pohl-Miranda. "It's very welcoming to all sizes of exhibitors and it's a show that cartoonists like to go to. That they were able to put together such an incredible lineup of new and seasoned artists is a testament to this."
As packed as the show floor was, it never felt crowded due to Bernard expanding the allotted space. While this allowed for more exhibitors, it more importantly featured much wider aisles -- a definite boon to anyone who spent past shows constantly bumping into other attendees and smacking them with bags of books.
The book of SPX 2012 was arguably barely present at the show. Chris Ware’s latest work, "Building Stories" -- an immense box containing a variety of differently shaped mini-comics that could be read in any particular order -- was supposed to debut at SPX prior to its October 2 street date, but ended up a no-show. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund had a few copies in stock, which went quickly. By Saturday afternoon, most attendees were left eying enviously those lucky few who struggled to balance their copies under their arms.
"There were supposed to be 300 copies that [bookstore] Politics and Prose ordered to sell early. Though we had early copies in the warehouse and P+P ordered them in time, our shipping company failed to deliver them," said Michiko Clark, publicist for Pantheon Books. "I still have not heard the reason why, but Pantheon is furious at this. It was a major disappointment for us as well as the fans."
Still, if fans couldn’t get a copy of Ware’s newest comic, they could at least see the man in person, especially via a lively panel discussion on Sunday led by Dickinson Colege professor David Ball, co-editor of "The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking."
All of panel discussions, organized by Bill Kartalopolous, were strong this year. In addition to showcase Q&A sessions with guests like Ware, Clowes and the Hernandez brothers (each of whom got their own panel), the panels covered topics like the resurgence of the British indie scene, a look at Barnaby creator Crockett Johnson, a fascinating discussion on Osamu Tezuka’s seminal breakthrough manga, New Treasure Island by scholar Ryan Holmberg and a screening of the new documentary about the Center for Cartoon Studies, "Cartoon College." Moreover, the bulk of the panels were well attended and, in the cases of the Clowes and Ware panels, were standing room only.
This year’s Ignatz Awards, an annual staple of SPX, was emceed by Jerzy Drozd. Jaime Hernandez was the big winner and took home three Ignatzes for Outstanding Artist, Outstanding Story and Outstanding Series. The wins seemed like a bit of a rebuke to the Harvey and Eisner awards, which completely shut out the Hernandez brothers this year, despite the considerable acclaim received for Jaime’s recent work.
Perhaps the positives of SPX were best exemplified by the students for Ball’s "Experimental Fictions" class, which came to the show, scavenger list in hand, to experience the world of indie comics for themselves.
"Watching my students geek out was nice," Ball said. "My big thing these days is … making certain that something from my classes sticks with my students well after the semester is over. I hope SPX was that moment for many of them; for me it felt like drinking from the verbal-visual fire hydrant. It was really, really exciting -- literary scholars have a lot to learn from the generosity and enthusiasm of the comics community."