Prologue - Paraphrased From Two Emails Exchanged on October 1, 2008

"Hey Joe, looks like the show starts at 11:00, so I figure I should be at your place no later than 9:00. I dreamed last night that I drove to SPX only to realize that I'd forgotten to pick you up, and you were wondering why the hell I was so late."

"Chris, the best part of that dream is that I never thought to use a cell phone. Because that's what would happen in real life too."


SPX 2008: Tears of Gettysburg


I didn't get to sleep until the wee hours of October 4, 2008, and then I had to wake up at 7:30 AM to make the show.

I'd been nervous the prior morning, and it'd inevitably gotten worse as the actual day arrived. I let my computer warm up as I washed; after I was done I clicked my way through a dozen or so places, scribbling down pertinent Japanese names as my cell phone rang. I can't remember or pronounce anything whatsoever. I've heard that if you pronounce a name wrong at SPX, every volunteer staffer is authorized to push you down the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center's main escalator at any point during the day. I hoped that wouldn't happen.

I also hoped I didn't shit my pants in Chris Mautner's car; that'd put a strain on our friendship.


My first visit to the Small Press eXpo was in 2006. It was my first-ever comic book convention, before I even understood what 'comic book conventions' were like. Truth be told, a proper-as-dictated funnybook show is mainly a venue for commercial anticipation and ultra-formalized 'interaction' with noted personalities, with corollary attention paid to discount shopping of the back issues and bookshelf items type and artists-behind-tables sightseeing. There's also cosplay.

In contrast, shows like SPX and MoCCA are similar to Tokyo's Comiket -- a premier manga gathering, and the biggest comics convention on the planet in terms of sheer attendance (over half a million served, twice yearly) -- in that they're far more personal and nakedly capitalistic, with artists sitting at tables and typically acting as salesmen for their often handmade works. Larger publishers (so to speak) fill their areas with stacks of recent-and-otherwise releases, signings and previews often available.

There's a personal element there, albeit one that carries a certain jolt of anxiety when you talk to someone and don't give them money in exchange for something. Still, the person is effectively tethered to their work, one going with the other over the table. At larger conventions, the work floats, almost theoretical, as the issue of some immaculate, inhuman conception. Promises, promises! I'd rather put my hands on something.

And, downstairs at SPX, away from the show floor, there are events focused on the art of comics. I participated in two of them this year, which was pretty comic.


"Didn't we make this mistake last year?" asked Chris, as we pulled up behind an Arby's, the hotel still a mystery in the distance.

"I don't even remember all these fast food places," I replied, as I fumbled around for internet directions I'd just lost for the sixth time. At least the seats were clean.

We could see people that had 'comics' about them, though, which gave us strength. You can always tell when you're nearing the show - folks lugging their boxes behind them on wheels, small groups chatting in backpacked clusters. Silent, intuitive signals. You just know.

I've heard people say that SPX had a different feel in its old Holiday Inn location, which I'd never seen; supposedly it took the whole place over, transforming it into a front-to-back supercenter of comics exchange. But I couldn't even tell you what else was going on at the Marriott; there might have been empty halls, but the eXpo echoed through them. Approaching the registration table from the rear entrance is like walking through an open field and gradually realizing that a band is playing on a stage somewhere off at an angle. It's even novel when you know the band is playing, you know?

We stood in line for a while before realized that we were supposed to pick up our particular badges somewhere else. Chris got a Press badge, bearing the image of a reporter writing down comments by a talking comic book in sneakers, which does seem newsworthy. I got a V.I.P. badge, depicting a man with a box on his head pointing a ray gun at something. That's about right. I secretly hoped my V.I.P. badge would allow me to unlock a hidden door behind the hotel restaurant to a Jasmine-scented onyx and leather lounge with flashing lights and 19th century soda tins filled above the brim with cocaine.

As it turned out, only the Exhibitor badge got you in there; the cocaine is necessary to keep you going behind the table.


I figured I had to rush to get all my capitalism in; the show opened at 11:00 and my events started at 1:30. Since I wanted to see some events too, I'd be left with only two or so hours before the show closed at 7:00. Chris and I decided to start our tour of the floor moving counterclockwise, because we're original mavericks.

It was really crowded, considering that we'd gotten in pretty much as the doors opened - some people later wondered aloud if moving the first show day to a Saturday wasn't paying off immediately. There were a lot of people to navigate around, and plenty to stop and talk to. We hadn't even cleared the first column of tables before we ran into Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds, whom I'd never met. He'd brought his wife and baby daughter to the show; actually, a lot of people had young children with them. I think they were passing them out with the Ignatz ballots. Anyway, Eric was very charming, and lil' Clementine looked like she was totally enjoying the comic he was carrying, which is a good omen.


What was the 'book of the show,' you ask? I have no idea; we barely had time to circumnavigate the floor once, what with all the people around, and nobody had been there long enough to get any sense of totality or whatnot. I found myself compulsively checking my cell phone to watch the time. I'd like to formally apologize to anyone I spoke with before my events began; I simply wasn't in my right mind.

My book of the show, I'd say, was this:

That's Bad 'n' Nice, a 591-page Japanese import from 2005, found at the PictureBox table; Dan Nadel happily deemed it the best book he had around, fully aware that he did not publish it. And what else could compare to an art book/aesthetic manifesto/how-to guide by King Terry, master of the heta-uma ('bad-good') drawing style, and an influential visual arts figure comparable to North America's Gary Panter. Granted, I can't read Japanese, and only the Introduction is presented bilingually, but it's 95% art book anyway, with three color sections, a cut-it-yourself 'pink' section depicting sumos wrestling, and a Secret Club membership card bearing the urgent message "IRRADIATE ULTRAVIOLET RAYS!" Who could resist?

King Terry (credited as "Mista Gonzo and Gangrock" of "Kappa Sh_t Productions") also designed Takashi Nemoto's Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby, which PictureBox did publish; it's a 200-page English-language edition of a collection of works from 1990, shrink wrapped tight because there's nary a page that doesn't have something wonderful on it. I was delighted to see an Afterword by Kevin Quigley (also co-credited with the translation), who had edited the 1996 anthology Comics Underground Japan, maybe the best English-language manga collection of that decade, and probably the first place anyone in North America heard of heta-uma or any of its practitioners. Despite our (somewhat) early arrival, Chris and I bought the last copies of what I presume was a small advance shipment.

There were other manga floating around the show. PictureBox also debuted their second Yuichi Yokoyama book, Travel, which came with show-exclusive original sketches by the artist. Fanfare/Ponent Mon also attended (Deb Aoki was manning the table), with copies of basically everything they've published. I don't think Jiro Taniguchi's The Quest for the Missing Girl has been distributed by Diamond yet (order online here), but it's all printed up and ready to go. Expect more from the artist in the future; maybe one year he'll even pop in for a big comics convention of some flavor.

And who could resist the sight of an honest-to-god Golgo 13 minicomic - now there's the Comiket flavor! Artist Ian Harker wasn't at his table when I bought it, so I couldn't ask him if Shintaro Kago had inspired the comic's odd rotating cube visual structure, but I'm sure glad the comic exists.


We ran into Sean T. Collins -- on assignment for Tom Spurgeon, I think -- by the Buenaventura Press table, where we all stocked up on various and sundry works by Kevin Huizenga, who had four new comics present (well, Or Else #5 was at Drawn & Quarterly's table). There was a big sign on the table inviting us to ask for the Kramers Ergot 7 preview, so we did, and Alvin Buenaventura plopped the fucker right down on top of assorted import items and charged us $25 per head. No, that was a joke.

Chris and I later wondered if Kramers was somehow the true 'book of the show' despite having not yet been published. Every time I saw the preview come out, a crowd gathered. It is striking material - I heard Sean gasp when he saw Huizenga's one-page contribution, sporting some very lush coloring. I know Sean and I already have copies pre-ordered, so we let our eyes glaze over the story content, trying to drink in the art like we were reading something in a language we didn't understand.

Time went quick, as did my money. I found new minicomics by Dash Shaw, Ken Dahl and Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca. Juliacks had issue #2 of her impressive series Swell. I met up with Marcos Perez & Justin J. Fox, who had several new things. I liked that the new Cold Heat Special #8 (no, #6 and #7 aren't done yet) incorporated co-creator/co-writer/layout artist Frank Santoro's curt, label-like captions into artist/co-writer Lane Milburn's pages, and pulled one of my favorite recent(ish) minicomics presentational stunts: using silkscreened pages to provide manga-like opening color sequences. Frank also brought a pair of longboxes along to sell off some of his back-issue collection, in case anyone was itching for Michael Golden issues of The 'Nam or a complete set of Elektra: Assassin.

Ah, but these conventions always seem a little like back-issue hunts for me, trailing behind comics I failed to pick up at one or another exclusive event. I finally got a copy of 5 off of Becky Cloonan, and that thing's won an Eisner. And while it hasn't quite been released yet, I still feel like I'm behind with Rafael Grampá's convention-favorite action/fantasy/horror album Mesmo Delivery. Admirers of Geof Darrow, Frank Quitely and/or Juan José Ryp will find much to enjoy when it's out in stores.


And then, around the 11,000th time I checked my cell, it was time to go.


EVENT #1 - Critics' Roundtable; 1:30-2:30, Conference Room

Arriving downstairs, I ran into Tim Hodler, my editor at Comics Comics and a fellow panelist. We chatted about my hometown for a while, and he promised to start an argument with me at some point in the show, possibly working in the phrase "say it ain't so, Joe" in honor of contemporary politics. Programming Coordinator Bill Kartalopoulos soon arrived to show us in, where I shook hands with Sequart's Rob Clough, whom I'd not met before. He proved to be a very articulate speaker, which is more than can be said for certain participants who had a one-word internet name sitting in front of him at the table.

I said some of words at that panel, a minority of which correctly followed each other. I spoke easily the least out of all participants, including Bill, who was only the moderator. At least two separate parties were making recordings of the event, so I'm sure we'll all get to savor the sweet taste of incoherence soon enough; considering how close we were to Washington D.C., I suspect someone from the Smithsonian may also have been there to rush my answers down to their Masterworks of Clarity exhibition.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little - I'm considerable more eloquent a writer than I am a speaker, so I tend to presume that anything comics-related in which I stand and deliver off the cuff will prove disastrous. Even talking to Chris on the record had me grasping my head in pain. Probably a transcript will clean me up somewhat, as they often do, but mostly I burbled and babbled and burped out my answers, eyes fixed on Bill, as if he could pull anything out of me.

There's probably a more fundamental issue at play, though. I'm an absolute dunce at talking about criticism in broad terms, on top of being remarkably lacking in self-awareness as to my own procedures. I constantly feel my critical philosophy has all the depth of a puddle on blacktop, powered by rampant self-absorption and reliant on some elusive shit I write off as instinct, to the endless detriment of my internal life.

The first question Bill asked the panel dealt with our individual approaches to criticism, and it was the best I could do to cough out something that was probably supposed to sound like how my writing is fundamentally communicative, and essentially a clarified, stylized presentation of processes that my mind runs through in reading a comic. I like a broad range of comics; so goes my attention. I find myself attracted to context, history and completism, and my writing expresses those things as they inform my reading; I like to imagine sometimes I'm a structuralist, but I'm more a neurotic post-structuralist, grasping at contexts as they pass.

What's for certain is that my writing is, at heart, my reading. I've read of people turning a switch from 'critic' to 'reader' to really enjoy comics when they're not writing about them. I haven't found that switch yet, although I am a product of abstinence-only education, so I probably just don't know where all the important bits of the body are.

I also tend to take books in particular terms of genre practice, if applicable, since I inevitably bring that understanding to my reading, and I feel it's often interesting to go over how a good or bad superhero book might function among the long-developed particulars of its surroundings. I think Gary Groth took that part (or whatever equivalent tumbled out of my throat) as an affirmation of sheer relativism; he opined -- and I'm drastically paraphrasing here -- that by accepting corporate-manufactured comics on 'their own' terms, you tacitly affirm corporate-dictated strictures on the art form, thus becoming compliant in a devitalizing aesthetic, dictated with the primacy of monitary gain in 'mind.' He wasn't just talking about Marvel or DC either; many 'independent' comics today are the dictates of corporations, and by treating them 'fairly' (my term), you become a signatory to unfair terms imposed on the culture.

This doesn't necessarily translate to outright rejection of those works (I don't think; hopefully I haven't misrepresented Gary's comments), but it does demand the rigorous application of objective standards, presumably positioned above the generic qualities of this-or-that type of comic. The thing is, I do have objective standards, but I'm very bad at articulating them. Or, they exist as broad values, perhaps especially pliable ones. Does this work function with clarity? Does it inform me? Entertain me? Is its operation compelling? Hell, that issue of Batman just below this post sure as shit doesn't 'function with clarity,' but does it have something else to it of particular value? That's the inquiry that always happens with me, and its results always inform my writing.

Anyway, Tim gave a response to that (having scrawled "SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE" on his notepad at some point), while I scanned the walls for an emergency exit.

Fuck it, though. No whining. I'll just think harder, prepare better and give more interesting comments next time. I did manage to get out a half-decent bit of business on how 'mainstream' (generally print) media publications haven't been addressing the visual aspect of comics very much -- perhaps due to many of the writers coming from prose criticism, as others on the panel noted -- which I think poses the problem of a wide swathe of readers considering comics to be 'prose, jr.' Given the shrinking space allowed for substantive analysis in non-specialized publications, and the added space I think is necessary to deal with subtleties of visual operation in comics, I think it's up to writers online to provide some extended focus on the interplay between words and pictures, the bottom of the art.

I felt alright with that one. I considered giving a shout-out to Dick Hyacinth, or maybe a third-grade class. Any third grade class.

"I have no regrets," I thought, as I turned again to stone.


A prepared answer to a question that wasn't asked:

How has the comics internet changed? Great question, and thanks for blowing me that kiss. I remember when Dirk Deppey was kind of an axis that the comics internet revolved on, and you could cover pretty much all the ground in not a lot of time. It was like a village, where everybody sort of knew each other, and even if they didn't get along all that well there was an expectation they'd at least interact, with the space being so small.

Now it's like a city. A small city, but still something you can't cover in its entirety. The population has bunched up into closer, self-sufficient groups, which is as natural as a city gets. I know its contours, and its basic layout, but I couldn't name every cheese shop or hairdresser. And there's no need to, really - I know the places I like, and I know how to find other places, and there's enough transportation by communication to keep the place lit. It's even gotten so there's cleaner borders with other (sub)cultural municipalities, like Anime City, which is where I go to buy meth away from the eyes of my family.

And I don't mean glamorous destruction meth. I'm talking tinfoil-on-your-callused-fingertips, sitting-in-a-field-firing-a-gun-into-the-woods-while-tears-stream-over-your-grinning-face down-home country-style meth. Anime is not kids' stuff.


There were also questions from the audience. One guy asked me how the internet could accommodate longer writing, what with the added necessity of pages to click through and such. I noted that I usually put long pieces all on one page -- as everyone reading right now is acutely aware of -- and I emphasized that I value the internet not for its bursts of information but for the access (and comperable permanence) it can provide to works unburdened by the spatial limitations that print media labor under.

Someone else asked a very involved question centered on the 'reviewers vs. critics' issue -- as in, why so many of the former and not much of the latter? -- but in a form I haven't seen applied to comics. Usually this stuff get rolled out with 'reviewer' bandied as a pejorative, essentially meaning someone whose analysis of a work is shallower than that of a 'critic.'

This take, however, defined a 'reviewer' as someone who functions in a journalistic capacity, keeping focus on the work at hand ('under review'), while a 'critic' adopts an authorial stance, using the work as a means of addressing the culture at large. Pauline Kael was duly cited, actually in reference to a comment Gary made at last year's Critics' Roundtable, concerning the decline of a firm readership for critical commentary. The speaker felt that this form of criticism was necessary to draw a wide audience for critical writing, in that 'reviewing' primarily addresses specialists of the form.

I agree there isn't much of that in comics criticism. By that standard, probably the only bona-fied, consistent, capital-C Critics in the whole of English-language writing-on-comics are Bob Levin and Abhay Khosla. I love those two, and I'd love to see more writing in that mode, but I don't buy the scenario as presented; as was mentioned to me later, it seems a little spurious to expect that broad cultural writing utilizing a niche art like comics would attract much of a wide readership. More basically, I'm not convinced that 'reviewers' can't move back and forth from 'critical' mode when it seems worthwhile; isn't that what Kael herself did?

Or maybe that speaker meant that there ought to be more variation between the two among an individual's work. I wish I'd said something to her. Or simply said something.


I had a half-hour or so until my next thing was due to start. I wasn't even out of the Conference Room when Marc Singer approached me; he was doing a Drawing the Election panel with various political cartoonists the next day, but he attended Saturday's show as well. I was glad to see him, although I was probably too distracted for meaningful communication. We vowed to meet later.

Shortly thereafter, I finally managed to meet Johanna Draper Carlson in person, thus drawing to a close four and one half years of near-misses. She was leaving the show right then, but it was good to finally have an in-person meeting. I'm not even sure how she realized who I was, although I've narrowed down the possibilities to: (1) overheard my name, made a guess based on my badge; and (2) blatant Harry Potter resemblance. Or both.


EVENT #2 - Bryan Lee O'Malley Spotlight; 3:00-4:00, Auditorium


On the other hand, I thought this one went splendidly.

I hadn't met Bryan Lee O'Malley in person before, but I think we got on really well. The Auditorium was equipped for video, but we opted to just spend the hour talking. There was a big crowd, as I expected.

The goal of the panel, at least from my viewpoint, was to have an event at SPX that took a prolonged look at manga, and how a foreign, often heavily demographic-driven, corporate-powered popular art might inspire a popular artist working in the North American small press. After all, manga has become enough of a success in English-speaking environs that its influence on younger artists is inevitable, even if they work at very non-commercial comics. The small press will be so affected; it happened thirty-five minutes ago, as they say in the funnies.

So, it'd be pretty odd not to have something on the topic happening at the Small Press eXpo, and I was glad to have someone as perfectly positioned to address the topic as Bryan, who many younger readers and artists see as an inspiration.

It was a good, funny presentation, and I think it got something across. Bryan had a really fine connection with the audience, and was very eloquent in taking on all of my questions. In larger panels (like the Critics' Roundtable) there's a tendency for questions to hang in the air as one party after another takes a crack at it; not so much ground tends to be covered as a result. A one-on-one talk is always going to be heavier on the give-and-take, which can be nerve-wracking. None of that with us, though.

I suspect a transcript of the talk would read a lot like an interview from The Comics Journal; I used a similar chronological structure, leaping off at certain points to explore topics as they were visible from the timeline. I'd done more preparation beforehand, and probably had a better grip on discussing the event's topic to start with, so I was much more at ease than I was during the prior panel (and it didn't hurt that I was asking the questions). Bryan brought a literal bag of manga to go through, we evoked the name of Tezuka many times, Nana was indeed hailed, and it was revealed that Cyberforce was Bryan's favorite Image comic from back in the day.

Children of the revolution gotta stick together.


I stuck around in the auditorium for the Kramers 7 panel, which was next. Bill Kartalopoulous was back as moderator, and he had a good structure planned out: a few scene-setting remarks from Alvin Buenaventura, then a whole bunch of contributors discussing their pages as samples appeared on the big screen, with Alvin interjecting added info as necessary.

The panel had gotten bigger from when it was announced; I didn't catch everyone's name. I know at least one artist was making his publishing debut in the book, and I can't imagine what that must feel like. Differing approaches were evident. Kevin Huizenga declined to reveal anything about the substance of his piece, focusing instead on process, while Frank Santoro went over seemingly every element of his two pages in thorough detail. Matthew Thurber, meanwhile, presented an awesomely deadpan synopsis of his contribution's plot, involving Brian Eno, INXS, various parrots and the realm of the dead.

There weren't a lot of audience questions. Someone asked when the book was due out, and Alvin made an early December estimate.

Then Frank Santoro turned to the crowd:

"So, anyone want to complain about the price?"


I soon realized I was crashing from lack of sleep and nothing left to get my adrenaline flowing. I'd like to formally apologize to anyone I spoke with after my events ended; I simply wasn't in my right mind.

Chris and I went back up to the show floor, which seemed to be a day away to me. Haven't I been to this store? I met up with Marc and Sean again, and chatted with Gina Gagliano of First Second. Marc accompanied Chris and I to dinner at the hotel restaurant, where we all actually got to talk to each other. Tim Hodler came over for a while. It was nice, kind of a haven. It filled with people as the show wound down, and the sun left the room amber from its fall.


Chris was also kind enough to drive me to an ATM so I could give him gas money. That fucking place cleaned me out.


Epilogue - The National Apple Harvest Festival; Arendtsville, PA, October 5, 2008

It was as nice a day on Sunday as it was on Saturday. I spent much less money down in Adams County, even though it was $8.00 to get in.

I found it easy to lose my bearings as I walked up and down the grassy rows. People hawked their wares from tables and booths on both sides. It was a place of specialization. I had sugar-frosted apple pie with raisins, applesauce with natural cinnamon, hot spiced apple cider, apple butter on bread, a sample of apple syrup, a glance at apple daiquiris. Folks enjoyed themselves, chatting with folks at booths and handing over fees. I'd managed to spill a drink on myself early on, so I kept my jacket zipped.

Several bands drifted in and out of earshot as I wandered around. I stared at a dance event, focused on Native American planting and harvesting. They'd set up barns nearby for added indoor shopping. There was a beef barn and a swine barn, and then, wonderfully, a petting zoo.

They had a beverage barn too. I went in, flashed my Hogwarts ID, and asked to sample the apple wine. They were all out, so instead they offered me some of this white wine they called the Tears of Gettysburg. Old soldiers tasted decent to me, as I drank to the area's culture, but I didn't have the cash to fund a decisive campaign. Still, I did drink.

Outside, I went to an open pit and bought a beef sandwich (no apple content). I sat down on hay, and listened to someone playing a woodwind.

I thought back to Saturday.

"I'd like to read about the culture, yeah," I thought. It was like there was something there, approaching the tip of my tongue.

So I cursed my few points of articulation, my figure so lacking in action, zipped up there in front of the sound, biting down.