By Bruce Lidl
While the vast bulk of the comics industry, including most of The Beat staff, was gathered in Manhattan for New York Comic Con, there was, quite literally, an Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco over the same exact weekend. Unlike at the Javits Center, where Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and the rest of the big players in comics lorded over the masses, APE provided a more sedate and intimate gathering, with a few hundred odd exhibitors. Most were very small one and two man teams with very personal projects to share, and the “big” players were independent publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Last Gasp. The professionals and creators I spoke to were happy to be in San Francisco rather than Manhattan, although the growing prominence of NYCC is having its effects even at smaller shows like APE. Shannon Wheeler of Too Much Coffee Man, God is Disappointed in You and The New Yorker admitted to being tempted by New York this year, and was hearing from Top Shelf that God is Disappointed was selling “very well” at the Javits Center. But APE was too close to his heart, and as “the only person to have had a table at all 20 APEs” Wheeler remained loyal to his “hometown show.”
It is quite a strange coincidence that Comic Con International, the group that organizes the massive San Diego convention and the (almost) as massive WonderCon, puts on a purposefully smaller type of show at exactly the same time as NYCC, the only comic convention that can really compete with San Diego. Yet Damien Cabaza, Manager for Sponsorship Marketing and Public Relations for Comic Con International saw no conflict, “APE is really a very different thing from New York, and serves a very different audience.” He did tell me that up to 30 members of the Comic Con team comes up from San Diego to run APE every year, and I’m sure it must be an amazingly different experience than San Diego. The vibe is very mellow, no real lines to speak of, no parking hassles, human scale interactions with creators available at any time. APE attendance was 5,600 in 2012 and was likely to be very similar in 2013, even as the show is beginning to expand its programming and workshop tracks. Next year will mark a significant change for APE as the Concourse Exhibition Center, the show’s home for the last eleven years is slated for destruction. In 2014, APE will return to its previous home at San Francisco’s scenic Fort Mason.
The hometown nature of APE was clearly demonstrated, with some of the best known guests having strong Bay Area roots, including Bill Griffith the creator of Zippy the Pinhead, Ron Turner of Last Gasp Books, Dan Vado from SLG Publishing and the vast majority of the smaller exhibitors were local as well. With WonderCon likely staying in Anaheim for at least another year according to Cabaza, APE is just about it for comics conventions in San Francisco right now. Yet many out of town creators did travel to APE, including some that would gather a crowd no matter where they exhibited, including the Eisner Award winning Colleen Coover and Paul Tobin of Bandette. Coover and Tobin skillfully straddle the line between the independent and the mainstream, with Bandette’s notable success as a digital only title on Monkeybrain about to be supplemented by a lavish print version from Dark Horse, and with Tobin also writing the movie tie-in Prometheus title for Dark Horse.
Also gathering a crowd at APE was Andy Ristaino, lead designer on the wildly popular cartoon Adventure Time, but at the show to exhibit his comics, some published by SLG and some through a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Ristaino was singled out by Dan Vado in a panel discussion on independent publishing as both a hero and a villain of the new world of comics. According to Vado, Ristaino had built enough of a following that he could take advantage of the new tools of promotion and distribution like Kickstarter, and didn’t really need a traditional publisher, even one as small as SLG, any more. Ristaino told me, however, that while his Kickstarter project had worked out well, it was still quite a challenge and that becoming one’s own publisher was not something he would do again without serious thought.
I heard similar sentiments from Joan Reilly, co-editor and illustrator of The Big Feminist BUT comics anthology (along with The Beat’s own Shannon O’Leary). While Reilly was very happy that Kickstarter had made a title like BUT possible, an collective work that takes on big topics and espouses sharp points of view, she was not exactly eager to jump right back into another Kickstarter campaign. The amount of time and energy required is considerable, although Reilly did learn one very important lesson, “having so many co-contributors was crucial to spreading the word about the campaign, in a far more effective way than just one or two creators could have done. And having an interesting title definitely helped as well!”
Myself, as someone who consumes the vast bulk of his comics digitally these days, the opportunity to get together with so many great creators and like-minded fans makes any convention worthwhile. And APE, with its small scale and quiet creative intensity is an amazing counter-point to shows like San Diego and WonderCon. I can definitely understand why Comic Con International continues to devote time and resources to a show like APE, that may not have the movie studios or the cosplayers but remains after twenty years as an important gathering of a vibrant strain of the comics world. I’m looking forward to next year’s APE already.