By Hannah Means-Shannon
The revelries following the Ignatz Awards continued long into the night and crowded the lower levels of the conference center took over the bar and spilled out onto patios, steps, and walkways, but that didn’t stop expo-goers from taking in another day of star-powered panels on Sunday. The big names and signings on Sunday brought in a substantial crowd of one-day ticketholders also, making Sunday just as busy as record-breaking Saturday: even better news for comics sales.
In Chris Ware’s panel “Building Stories” with David M. Ball, co-editor of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, the audience got a sneak-peak at some of the personal logic behind the newly released multi-format visual storytelling work BUILDING STORIES. Plenty of attendees were proudly hauling around multiple copies of the boxed set around the show floor long before Ware’s panel, and no doubt hoping they’d hear a discussion of the much-anticipated work when Ware took to the dais.
Examining Ware’s past covers for The New Yorker, he commented on a fascination for architecture and the “spaces in which we choose to live out our lives”. These are also, he said, the “spaces we keep in our brains”, forming a mental landscape packed with information. Ware called his BUILDING STORIES, which took him 11 years to complete, a “box of things” that he feels as strongly about as about people who he “loves”. Ware’s commentary on his works was laced with sudden theoretical asides that shed significant light on his psychology as an artist. Characterization is perhaps the most important part of his work in his own mind, achieving a degree of reality that he finds overwhelming. The internet puzzles and entrances him as a kind of pseudo-life form. Comics continue to hold primacy for Ware because they form an “honest relationship with the reader that very few other things have”.
Some of the mental landscape from his own life colored the discussion, from the geography of Oak Park where he resides, to the choices he’s made as a parent to create a “safe” environment for his daughter, and the lamentable desecration of a childhood Marvel lunchbox that inspired a later lunchbox design for Darkhorse. One thing was clear, Ware has no problem emphasizing the imperfect humanity that goes into his work, despite its visual precision and his reputation for perfectionism. “Maybe the characters don’t feel that life is as beautiful as the form says”, he warned regarding BUILDING STORIES, hinting at the paradox that may well run through all of his visually stunning work.
In “Life After Alternative Comics” with Daniel Clowes, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Bill Kartopoulos, panelists took on the history and development of indie comics and expressed some degree of chagrin over the kitsch corners that indie comics have inhabited over the years from fanzine illustrations by the Hernandez brothers to perplexity of the mainstream in classifying ground-breaking work. A recurring theme was the struggle between indie work and the expectations established by superhero comics in this “frontier territory”. Gilbert Hernandez continually wrestled with reactions to LOVE and ROCKETS during its early publication and the attitude that the series was a “comic about superheroes but the superheroes are not there”. Dan Clowes addressed the “wasteland” of comics in the early 1980’s and the origin of his LLOYD LLEWELLYN series and the strange, often intriguing piles of fan mail he received from readers and prison inmates. Adrian Tomine clarified that he had a less “angry” attitude toward the mainstream at the outset of OPTIC NERVE, and the role that indie comics played as part of his artistic graduation from superhero comics into finding a more personal form. Since LOVE AND ROCKETS was already on the shelves in his late teen years, he “didn’t have to scrounge around for inspiration” the way his mentors did.
Four of the panelists commented on the comedic aspects of producing comics with adult themes around their young children, influencing when they work and how in the context of their home life. Clowes, particularly, feels that parenthood has affected the way he thinks of characters, since observing children has convinced him of a strong innate personality from day one of existence that “inflects” childhood. Gilbert Hernandez said that a “steady paycheck” from comics is a great relief raising his daughter but keeping the “naughty stuff away from her” can be a challenge in the face of increasing curiosity about his work.
The “Images of America: Real and Imagined” panel took on the individualistic vision of America expressed through comics and featured Nick Abadzis, Dean Haspiel, Stan Mack, Ben Towle, and Isaac Cates. America, panelists agreed, can be well represented in comics in terms of focusing on a representation of a specific “place”, but it becomes quite a feat to try to express the breadth, scope, and size of the American experience. Abadzis, an international traveler and US resident who hails from the UK, talked about the difficulty of creating continuity in his comics that span national boundaries. Haspiel confided somewhat facetiously, “I don’t know if I know America, being a native New Yorker”, but believes his works STREET CODE and the various BILLY DOGMA visual narratives express “place” in a strong way. Mack brings a “reporting” sensibility to his approach to American history and feels that allowing characters to “tell stories in their own words” succeeds in creating cultural groups and regional difference. Toll recognizes that there are plenty of “big city” stories, but hopes this doesn’t deter readers from recognizing that there are “lots of other stories” out there for comics to express.
When asked how they expect a changing America to be represented in comics, Occupy Comics came up in discussion, and Haspiel said that he feels a certain amount of “responsibility” to “react”. “We can all react”, he commented, as a way to give back and show an awareness of changing times. Panelists felt that blogging is paving the way for change in comics, as well as an evolution in visual language when when the “speed of reaction” from readers and citizens is increasing. “Are we reporters” Haspiel asked at one point, challengingly, a question posed, essentially, by the intersection between comics and digital media. The perhaps unwise “speed” of reaction expected in digital media may be countered by the reflective qualities comics can provide as American experience and identity is continually updated.
It was difficult to top sales, panels, or enthusiasm after the opening day of Small Press Expo, but by the time the clock struck to close the show on Sunday, there hadn’t been a significant sense of lull at any point. In fact, there was a run on many books and sales items, and quite a few back order sheets were drawn up right up until closing time. Reactions from the floor echoed the sentiment that this had been the “best SPX ever”, both for creative input, unexpectedly high sales for many self-employed creators, and a sense of indie comics having “arrived” commercially as a bigtime draw with its own con culture. SPX celebrated its own “rock stars” in record fashion and expo-goers took home some of the most consistently high quality indie works in the history of SPX.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.