Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A surprisingly long-winded report on SPACE 2008

The Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, neatly acronymed into SPACE, is one of several reasons I really like living in the city of Columbus, Ohio, despite some of my adopted hometown’s glaring deficiencies (Another nice thing about living here? Every four years or so the national media and presidential campaigns can’t stop talking about you and hanging around—it’s kinda nice to know that not only do our votes matter, but they matter a lot more than just about everyone else’s. Suck it New York and California!).

The annual show is often modest in size, although it’s grown pretty large in the last few years, to the point where founder and organizer Bob Corby has experimented with different locations and added regular convention things like panels into the mix. My first year in Columbus, I covered it for one of the two alternative weeklies that existed at the time—it and its major competitor have since both been bought out by larger media interests—which afforded me the opportunity to interview Corby and his perennial special guest Dave Sim, who was then still a year or two away from finishing up Cerebus.

It was at and through SPACEs that I first got to know the work of John Porcellino, Jeffrey Brown, Farel Dalrymple, Paul Hornschemeier, Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg, Sean McKeever, local comics collective Panel, and, of course, Sim’s signature work Cerebus, which I previously knew only from the aardvark hero’s crossovers with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spawn. Plus, I always find a lot of things I like. Sure, I’ve bought a ton of terrible mini-comics there over the years, but it’s usually well worth the couple bucks wasted on something that ends up being terrible for something that ends up being awesome, you know?

I had skipped last year’s SPACE because, as the first sentence in the “ABOUT ME” paragraph in the upper right-hand corner of the page no doubt indicates, I’m not what you’d call a wealthy man. Since the main pleasure of SPACE is being in a roomful of cartoonists you’ve mostly never heard of, giving a bunch of them a bunch of money for comics you’re not quite sure the quality of, and then spending a Sunday afternoon and evening reading comics, thinking “awesome,” “okay,” “eh, I could do that,” “sucks,” and so on as you set each of them down.

I was actually planning on skipping this year’s space too, as I didn’t have the money to spend gambling on comics.

There was also the fact that this year SPACE would be occurring at a Shriner complex out near Easton Town Center off Morse Road. For those of you who aren’t from around here and have never had the displeasure of visiting Easton, it is the worst place on earth.

It’s a horrible “concept” mall set up as a fake small town downtown Main Street. So there’s, like, a mall-mall, and then these little streets around it, with wide sidewalks and lamp posts, fountains, and a bus shaped like a trolley, and an Easton Town Center police force and vending carts and look I know it sounds charming but it is the worst place on earth I swear!. (Especially at Christmas). I’ve heard it compared to a mixture of The Truman Show and Hell, and that sounds pretty accurate.

Morse Road is sort of like 28th Street in that story from Kevin Huizenga’s book Curses.

Luckily, there’s a back way into Easton taking the highway, and thus avoiding Morse Road, and the Shriners place ended up being a turn before you get into Easton proper, but it was still a good twenty minutes of highway driving from where I live in Columbus, and it takes a lot to get me to brave the Easton area.

The final nail in the coffin of my desire to go to SPACE this year was the fact that I was working at my job that isn’t freelance writing this weekend, and thus there were only two hours during which SPACE was occurring and I wasn’t supposed to be at work.

But then there was this Dave Sim Secret Project #1 business, Sim’s post-Cerebus, pre-Glamourpuss one-shot that was to debut at SPACE, where it would be accompanied by a little gallery-like show of the original pages from it. The details made it on to the Internet earlier in the week—it was called Judenhass, it was about the holocaust, it made Neil Gaiman cry—and I felt a twinge of journalistic responsibility. Well, not journalistic responsibility so much as bloggeristic responsibility.

Folks around the industry are probably going to be pretty curious about Judenhass, one of the very first places it was going to be available for a looksee was 20 minutes away from my house, I wasn’t going to be doing anything important during those two hours on Sunday morning anyway—didn’t I owe it to the tens and tens of Every Day Is Like Wednesday readers to report on this book?

So, half-conscious at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, I decided that I would go to SPACE after all. I had to be to work at noon, and the show didn’t open until 10 a.m., which gave me about an hour and forty minutes time to spend at the show. If it’s a quick in and out operation, I’ll be less likely to spend grocery money on comics. I’ll just drive out to Easton, give Bob my $5 to get in—and really, I’d pay $5 a year just to keep SPACE going on every year, whether I attended or not; if Columbus city put a SPACE tax issue on the ballot, I’d totally vote for it—take in Sim’s pages, buy a Judenhass, and read and write it up later.

That was my plan.

It was gray and windy but pretty warm out as I followed my Google map directions to the complex, sighing in relief as I noticed SPACE was at a place on the way to Easton, but not actually within the unnerving, fake-ass confines of Easton.

The Shriners place had a big, stone statue of a man in a fez and vest holding a child aloft, with a quote on the base saying something along the lines of, No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child. Or something like that. My favorite SPACE location was at the Ohio State fairgrounds, which, in addition to being much closer to me, had a better statue—that of a gigantic cardinal, the state bird of Ohio.

As I walked across the small parking lot to the door pointed to by the little signs bearing arrows and the head of Cosmo the SPACE mascot, I checked the ticking wind-up alarm clock in my man-purse (I don’t own a watch, so this is what I have to do in the rare instance in which I need to keep an eye on the time). Okay, it was only 10:22, so I had about an hour or so to spend at SPACE.

On thing I hate about SPACE, and cons in general, is the often awkward relationship between the creators seated behind the tables and the visitors walking down the aisles. Creators—and their friends, family, significant others or whoever else they could rope into helping them—have different approaches to interacting with potential customers. Some ignore you, some act like salespeople or carnival barkers, some stare silently at you. In all cases, I almost always feel horrible, as I keep my eyes on their wares and try to avoid eye contact. See, no matter how good or bad the books they made look, I know they worked damn hard on them, and spent a lot of time on them, and I always feel like a heel when I don’t buy them or, worse, don’t even stop to at least flip through the books. It just feels like such a rejection, you know?

Shopping is usually a completely anonymous experience. When you go to the grocery store, the farmer who grew the produce isn’t standing right there, when you squeeze the melons or turn the apple around in your hand, looking for brown spots. When you shop for clothes, the designers aren’t usually lurking in the racks, looking wounded if you turn up your nose at their latest line.

Since I was trying to spend as close to zero dollars as possible, this SPACE threatened to be more even more awkward than most, as I would pass up as much as I could, even the stuff that looked fairly interesting.

A lot of the usuals were there: Matt Feazell, Pam Bliss, Max Ink, Panel, and, of course, Corby. Bodega Distribution had a booth set up, which I didn’t even look at, for fear I’d end up buying something from them.

At the end of one aisle, my eyes fell on a couple of familiar covers—Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, Macedonia, Wizzywig—prompting me to look up, “Oh, hey, are you Ed Piskor?” I asked the young-looking guy behind the table.

He was Ed Piskor, the artist responsible for illustrating Pekar’s Macedonia and one of the better-looking portions of SDS. I chatted briefly with the Pittsburgh-based artist about his new, self-published project Wizzywig (while secretly calculating whether I should buy it here and how much that would dent my wallet or wait until said wallet was a little fatter and buy it online) and asked about the book he was doing with Pekar about The Beats (It’s done, and should see release by the end of this year or beginning of the next).

I saw something at another table called Break-up Bots which appeared to be a well-put-together mini-comic featuring a drawing of a robot and a bubble of dialogue on each page, with one reading something like, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” This intrigued the hell out of me—were they robots breaking up with humans, or robots breaking up with each other, or robots one human could program to break up with another human on their behalf?—but it was $4. I’ll buy almost anything for $1, and anything pretty good looking for $2, but when you get up to $4, you’re asking for a buck more than the average full-size comic book, and 1/4th a Showcase Presents.

Further temptation came from Joanna Estep’s table, where I found two very attractive looking volumes of a Tokyopop manga series called Roadsong. I decided I could get those at some future point, but should first see if any local libraries carry them (Unfortunately, it turns out they don’t). Estep had a mini-comic for sale, but I didn’t see a price, so I didn’t buy it.

There were several artists who had big signs and suchlike, and several others who were selling or giving away sweets like Dum-Dum suckers or brownies. The most unusual such incentive I saw was a half-eaten sandwich on a paper plate with a sign reading “Take a bite of the community sub.”

The most successful incentive I saw was the brilliantly-bright paper toys at artist Matt Hawkins’ table. He had a lot of neat looking things on his table, and lingered over a book featuring a perplexed-looking cowboy that read “Cowboy Clyde & The Pirates.”

Hawkins leaned over and explained it was about a cowboy who gets a job on a pirate ship, and laughed as he said this. I find it charming when people laugh at their own comics. I noticed artist J. Chris Campbell laughed a lot when talking about his own comics when I spoke with him briefly for a Comics Journal piece on a SPACE past, and his comics all turned out to be pretty great (Check out his Zig Zag comics from AdHouse).

The first comic I actually bought at the show was a $1 mini-comic called The Lone (Red) Ranger, which featured a cute little, almost-super deformed version of a Power Ranger on the cover. I liked the title. (I used to love Power Rangers…at least the first two seasons of it on Fox. I lost interest after the original Pink Ranger was replaced.)

I returned to Piskor’s table for a copy of Wizzywig; I figured I might as well buy it while the book and I were in the same place. By this time, the previously empty table next to Piskor was full of comics an manned by a Pat Lewis, also of Pittsburgh.

I was eyeing something called One-Horse Town featuring a very cool cartoony horse on the cover (looking vaguely like the one who used to say, “No sir, I don’t like it” on The Ren and Stimpy Show) when I asked for a recommendation. They suggested the most expensive item on Lewis’ table, an IDW-published hardcover entitled The Claws Come Out. The subject matter—and the quality and style of the art—looked familiar, and I asked Lewis if he had drawn a mini-comic about a werewolf that fights aliens.

He had, and I had bought that at a previous SPACE. In fact, it was one of my favorite SPACE finds.

So I bought the hardcover. I was way over the $0 I had hoped to spend already. Lewis said the IDW book had been released last December, and I was a little surprised and disappointed that I didn’t know that, as I would have liked to have covered it for LVW or “Best Shots” if it was as good as Prowl was. Did my shop just not order any copies of it? Did IDW make a big enough deal out of it? Did I just never connect Lewis’ name, that book and that old mini-comic in my brain last December?

Someone at the Killjoycomics.com table asked if I read web comics, and I answered, “Not really,” as Achewood was really the only web-only comic I read. He made a pretty good pitch for web comics—“They’re free!”—and handed me a card. I took a brief look around the site; there’s one about a garbanzo bean, which sounds like a good idea in theory, but wasn’t terribly funny. I liked the art for the one called Killjoy, but it wasn’t any funnier than any of the strips you could find in the paper.

Suzanne Baumann had a lot of neat things at her table, including lots of magnets, and hers was a table I would have bought something from in a previous year. She did hand me a very tiny mini-comic, called The Blokes of Ball Point, featuring pen-drawings of the busts of men with funny names, like The Bee Keeper, Spaghetto and Vasquez Scenario.

A brief visit to the Panel table to pick up their latest anthology, and I’d been through the whole show and was ready to go, when I remembered I didn’t see any Sim’s exhibit anywhere. I knew Sim himself wasn’t going to be there, as he was scheduled to appear at SPACE on Saturday only, but I assumed the Judenhass exhibit would be there both days.

I asked at the check-in about it, and it turns out the men in charge of the display had just arrived and were just then setting up, over an hour after the show started. I asked them if they were selling copies of the comic, but they weren’t. Judenhass was going to be available to be read at a reading table there, which they hadn’t set up yet either, but they weren’t selling copies. Maybe Sim really supports that whole no-early-convention-sales position paper that ComicsPRO put out, kicking off all that blogosphere babble?

Whatever the reasoning, I ran out of time before they were assembled the display of Sim’s original pages or the reading table, so left Judenhass unread or even looked at.

Here’s what I did get at the show, though…

Hawkins has a wonderfully cartoony style, evoking a touch of old-school Hanna-Barbera and John Kricfalusi, and his black and white strip comic is rectangular, with a strip on each page. It apparently originally appeared in newspaper The Kansas City Star back in 2005.

The story is, just as Hawkins said, the story of a cowboy that gets a job on a pirate ship. There’s a great deal of genre culture clash—Clyde has trouble swearing, and using “be” instead of “is,” “as” and “am”, et cetera—but more of the humor is played as a sort of office comedy, with everything being pirate-ized. For example, the captain asks his employee to step into his office, and leads him up to a meeting in the crow’s nest, and talks about their new medical plan, which covers hooks and peg legs, but not scurvy, (“So eat yer limes!”).

Being a cowboy in a pirate’s world is a clever metaphor for anyone with a particular dream making compromises to make a living:

It’s a point driven home by Hawkins’ bio in the back, which says “he works as a production artist by day and he draws cartoons and plays banjo by night.”

It turns out you can read the whole thing online here. I’d recommend you do so, and keep an eye on this Hawkins fellow. The man is good at what he does.

The Lone (Red) Ranger is a 24-hour comic by Phil Skaggs Jr. and, like most 24-hour comics, it’s pretty rushed and random. That is, after all, kind of the point of 24-hour comics.

In addition to a great title, it has a pretty great concept, at least for Power Rangers fans. It opens with a funny panel of four Rangers in their crazy-Ranger poses staring blankly at the Red Ranger, who shrugs “What?” They tell them they’re sick of him, so he gets on his Mega-Zor—er, Zor-Bot and goes, striking out on his own.

He soon meets Anura, who I guess might be a parody of something, although I’m not sure who or what (He resembles a Kamen Rider-type character, but reminded me of Sgt. Keroro’s race, due to the super-deforemd like design. Then they meet another character named Bob whom I suspect may also be a parody of something, but again, I don’t know of what:

Wizzywig Vol. 1: Phreak is a 110-page graphic novel, so may require a little more digestion before I offer a very well thought-out review, but I really dug it.

As I mentioned before, I really dig Piskor’s art and style, but haven’t read any long-form work of his before this. (I’m playing to get to Macedonia pretty soon though). The book is in a square format, with just about every page divided into four-panel grids.

The subject is hackers, something I don’t have much prior knowledge of or interest in (the extent of my knowledge on the subject comes from that movie where young, upcoming actress Angelina Jolie teams up Trainspotting’s Sick Boy to fight Fisher Stevens). Our hero is Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, a notorious hacker we’re introduced to via a series of talking heads repeating rumors they’ve heard of him, and a radio host talking about him. He’s apparently a composite character, made up of parts of the stories of several real-life hackers.

In this first volume, Kevin is a middle school kid, an orphan who lives with his grandma and is mercilessly bullied. He’s very smart, but in a very weird way—he’s obsessed with puzzles and figuring out how things work, and we watch him essentially become a pre-computer hacker, messing with the phone systems and gaming the public transportation system and a local pizza parlor. He doesn’t even get a computer until almost the very end of this volume.

It’s pretty fascinating stuff, and Phenicle is an interesting character, with a big wig of hair and Little Orphan Annie eyes. Piskor divides the story up into individual strips, taking a sort of cubist approach to the story, showing different parts of it from different angles and taking pauses to focus on ancillary characters or elements of the story.

Guest-starring Harvey Pekar as the counter guy at Rocko’s Pizza:

Piskor’s a great letterer, too, by the way.

The Claws Come Out is a handful of short stories written and drawn by Pat Lewis, each of which pits a young woman against some element of the supernatural, for a highly expressive, cartoonily drawn comedy adventure. He’s created an Elvira-like character named Lily St. Dead to act as Cryptkeepr-style host, introducing the various short stories.

These include a na├»ve girl’s date with a vampire in a sweater vest, a research scientist-cum-musician’s gory battle against a defrosted Yeti, the werewolf vs. aliens story from the Prowl mini-comic, a voluptuous gypsies battle against a zombiepocalypse, and some bonus material also dealing with girls and monsters (including a very inspired way of destroying dinosaur-like monsters).

I really love Lewis’ art, and the straightforward simplicity of his stories, he doesn’t get distracted or hung-up on any of the many pitfalls that tend to come with horror comics. And cool-looking as many of his simplified monster designs are, he really shines at people. The date story was particularly great showcase of Lewis’ gift for cartooning human expressions, with each six-to-nine-panel page often featuring the same characters with six-to-nine different expressions.

It’s a seriously fun book, and I’m pretty bummed I missed it when it was originally released a few months back. I’d definitely recommend it, and I’d also recommend checking out his site too; there’s a lot of great stuff on it.

This isn’t a comic, but I did get it from SPACE, on a table where people set out free things. It’s a postcard for the upcoming Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond show at the Wexner Center. In addition to 75 Smith drawings from Bone, Rasl and Shazam!, it says here it will feature work from artists who influenced Smith—meaning Walk Kelly, Charles Schulz, Will Eisner and George Herriman (!)—plus Smith will be creating an original mural for the Wex’s lobby (!!!), plus the catalogue for the exhibit will include essays by Neil Gaiman and Scott McCloud. Wow. Speaking of reasons I like living in Columbus, Ohio, huh?

Finally, there’s the eleventh Panel anthology, Panel: Work. They generally publish two books a year, one timed for Mid-Ohio Con and one for SPACE. Because SPACE was a earlier this year then usual, they didn’t have time to put together a book proper, so here’s what they came up with

See, the theme for this anthology is work, so they were selling the anthology as a one of those inter-departmental mail envelopes, the ones with the string clasp thingees like this

full of mini comics and suchlike, with the contributors’ names all over the enevelope.

Pretty clever, guys.

Inside I found…

—A duet jam comic called Goby from Steven Russell Black and Tim McClurg, in which they trade off every other page to tell a silent story dealing with a fish and tentacles. I didn’t get it, but I liked the pictures.

All in a Knight’s Work, a wordless comic written by Dara Naraghi and drawn by Matt Kish, about a knight’s quest, complete with a punchline ending. Kish draws lots of neat-looking fantasy characters and monsters, although I felt a little sad reading it, given the sad news today regarding the death of Gary Gygax. Kish draws excellent dragons, skeletons, bats, and spouts of flame.

—Craig Bogart provides a pretty literary Weird Tales sort of zombie story in his five-splash page long A Strange Farewell to Reginald Everbest.

—Brent Bowman strives for economy in a one-page story called Broken showing a five panel story of domestic violence occurring in panels made by the windows of an apartment building, Eisner-style.

—Someone going by the acronym M.A.D. provides a story of an awkward job interview entitled Wink! Wink!: An Interview Gone Wrong. I’m afraid I didn’t understand the punchline it ends with. (Actually, “M.A.D.” is apparently Molly Durst, according to the memo that came with the envelope).

—Sean McGurr and Brent Bowman collaborate on a mini-comic called Pyramid Scheme, which is a piece of clever packaging within the clever packaging of the envelope, as it’s shaped like a triangle, and when you open it up to read it, the two open pages are shaped like a diamond you read from point to point.

Comics Related
Frank Sonotoro
Eric Adams
Joanna Estep
Max Ink
Tony Goins
Tony Goins again


Anonymous said...

Yee Harrr, indeed. I'm jealous. Houston never has cool shows like that.

Chance said...

You know, you can invert pictures on just about any art tool. Even MS paint.

Tony said...

I didn't get over to Suzanne Baumann's table until late, so I missed her new stuff.

Did you see the "grab bags" she did a few years ago? Each one was full of random old book illustrations, found objects and pieces of string. They were really fascinating.

Ed Piskor said...

Hey, man, good meeting you at the show this year. I dig your wrap-up/experience at the show and I feel relieved that my book didn't suck to you.

Unknown said...

Wow, what a report! Thanks for picking up my book, and I'm really glad you're enjoying it.

Martin Gray said...

Now that's in-depth - and entertaining, cheers Caleb. I particularly fancy The Claws Come Out.