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23 September 2011

The fuo 2011 SPX report.

 (Image stolen from the fine folks at Exile on Plain Street.)

Sweet mammity hambone.  Did I ever tell you about that time I went to SPX (Small Press Expo Sept. 10-11 Bethesda, MD USA Earth) during the way backie time of early September 2011?  Well strap it on bro cuz here we go!

I've never been to SPX before so I was super excited.  It was really down to a game-time decision on whether I would get to go or not but coach put me in.  See, a great many horrible things have occurred to and/or around me in 2011 all of which had me thinking I would not make it to SPX.  Again.  I've been trying to go for years and when I totaled my car back in August I was ready to throw in the Ben Towle and try again next year.  But, thanks to a miracle (my parents) I was able to get a sweet new (used) car and the game was back on.  Don Heck yeah!

I did not get on the road until pretty late the Friday evening before the show.  Sometime after 5 PM.  I had to work and I had some errands to run.  But eventually I got on the road in my rad new (used) car.  My new (used) car is such a joy to drive.  My old (totaled) car was twelve years old and void of joy.  The new car has a ride as smooth as the Silver Surfer's buttocks.

It was a nice and uneventful drive from the western end of VA (Very Appalachian) to the south eastern end of MD (Medical Doctor).  My standard co-pilots, two cans of Red Bull and their cousin 5-Hour Energy handled most of the navigation.  I got to my aunt's house early in the AM (Absolute Madness).  My aunt has a very nice house on the water on Somomons' Island.  The house had a very comfortable bed in the guest room so I got a few hours sleep.  Saturday morning my aunt made me breakfast and gave me directions to Bethesda.  We thought it would take me a couple of hours to get there because of the recent flooding but I made good time.

It was an interesting drive.  There was a noticeable police presence and the highway signs had notices about looking out for suspicious activity because the terrorists hate our freedoms.  I got to the free parking garage near the Marriott at around 10:30 AM  (Almost Midday).

Gosh golly gee willikers the weather was fantastic.  What a lovely late summer day.  I only saw a small part of Bethesda in the daylight but it seemed nice.  My walk to the hotel was very cheerful.  Mr blue bird was sitting on my shoulder and all that jazz. 

When I got near the entrance to the Marriott a nice fellow pointed me in the direction of the comics show as if he could tell by the huge box of comics I was carrying that it was the place I needed to be.  I walked in to the sight of cartoonists everywhere.  Many I'd met in person but a great many faces I know mostly from teh intronets.  I felt right at home right away.  The staff had me registered and headed for my table in seconds flat.  (The second may have been round.  I was not paying attention.)

I set up at the end of one of the center aisles facing the back wall.  There was a table with a complimentary water cooler and bowl of candy up against the back wall.  At first I thought it had to be the worst spot in the room but I warmed up to the spot when I latter realized that it was one of the few places where people could actually stop and shop without backing into the people at the tables behind them.

I sat near my pal Jeremy Massie.  He lives about an hour drive away from me and as far as I know he is geographically the closest cartoonist to me.  It was good to get to hang with him.  We came up with multiple plans to save comics and a backup plan to destroy them.  Good times.

As soon as I set up I was selling comics.  Actually, before I was really set up.  As soon as comics hit the table I was making sales.  I was surprised.  Having never been before I expected to feel like a freshman showing up at a new school half way through the semester.  But right away I was seeing people I knew through teh intronets.  And they were buying comics.  This is how it is supposed to be.

The room got crowded very fast on Saturday.  By about 2 PM you really could not walk through the aisles without having to ask people to please excuse you as you climbed over them.  It was insanely crowded.

Jeremy and/or his pal Jason Rainey pointed out a back exit from the hall which I could use to make it to the restroom.  I went that route only to find a line backed down the length of the hall.  The line was for Kate Beaton.  Now, I'm prone to exaggeration and I'm also near sighted but that line looked to be at least 100 people deep.  At least.  It was crazy.  And I think almost everyone in line had her new book in hand.  I can only think of a few occasions where I've seen creators have bigger lines at conventions and those were much bigger conventions with much higher attendance and those creators were much older than Kate Beaton.  The point is, that Kate Beaton sure is popular.  Apparently them intronets are a good way to build an audience.

The day flew by and it was soon time to figure out what to do for dinner.  I ended up eating at a little Mediterranean sandwich shop a short walk from the hotel with Rob Ullman, his pal Bill Burg and pals Adam and Shawn Daughetee.  It was good times.  I had a gyro twice as big as anyone should ever try to eat in one sitting.  I almost finished it.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and found the lobby/makeshift bar area outside of the auditorium where the Ignatz awards would be held.  It was packed.  You could hardly move and it was getting hot.  I made it through the Ignatz (more on that below) but by the time that was over I was ready to drive back to my aunt's house and go to sleep.

I was back to Bethesda Sunday for another lovely morning.  Sunday was much the same as Saturday.  I was selling right from the start.  Super pal Josh Latta showed up with his girlfriend Erin and set up shop selling some Rashy Rabbit books.  I got to talk to Ed Choy Moorman and Jeff Zwireck for a bit.  I've known them through comics for a while now but had never met in person.  I had a lot of people swing by that knew me through file under other.  Some to say they liked the site, some to drop off books for review and some to thank me for previous reviews.  That was swell.

It was a laid back day.  I think most folks were pretty tired from heavy Saturday night drinking.  I would not know anything about that though since I was in sleepy land.

The whole two days went by in a blur but it was a pleasant blur. I'm sure glad I went and I hope to make it again.  The SPX staff do a great job and they all did it with smiles on their faces.  Thanks SPX, hope to see you next year.

And now for some random thoughts because putting it all together in essay form (like real writers and journalists used to do) is for losers (and hard):

Sales:  Despite being a first time exhibitor, I probably sold more comics than I have at any show I've been to before.  That is not to say that it was the most money I've ever made.  At a show like HeroesCon I sell sketches and original art for prices much higher than my minicomics and it adds up a lot faster.  But still, it was a good weekend for sales.  I seemed to sell more in the early part of the day both on Saturday and Sunday.  In the first part of the day people would stop at my table, look through the books and usually buy something.  As the room got more and more crowded in the afternoon, people were just hurrying by in a huge mob and not taking as much time to look at the table.  I guess you could say it was almost too busy.

Demographics:  I don't have any hard numbers.  This is just an estimate.  My guess is that 70% of my paying customers were attendees.  20% were SPX staff and 10% were exhibitors.  I did not see a lot of exhibitors at my table but I was in the back of the room and, again, it was very crowded.  I myself did not find any time to really shop the exhibitor's tables either.  The only tables I looked at were the ones on the route from my table to the restroom and the tables belonging to specific friends of mine that I sought out.  Of the attendees that bought comics I estimate 80% or even 90% were girls/ladies/women.  I don't know why but if a girl stopped at my table they almost always bought something.  My comic Brush and Pen does have kissing on the cover.  Yeah, I have no idea but there it is.

The secret of my success:  Price points.  Multiple price points.  I think one of the reasons I sold well was multiple price points.  Years of retail experience have taught me that there are two types of customers.  Shoppers and buyers.  Shoppers are just there for the experience.  They might buy something.  Buyers are there to buy and the only thing standing in the way of them giving you their money is you.  You have to have something that fits into their idea of what they want to buy.  They may have exactly $3 they do not need and for you to get it you need to have a $3 product.  At SPX I had items that cost twenty five cents, one dollar, three dollars and eight dollars.  I wish I had five dollar and ten dollar items at the show because I think they would have done well.  Some buyers look at the $8 book and really want it but don't want to spend $8.  Well, hey, look at this nice $3 book.  Some buyers can't make up their minds or they want to check out the whole show before they spend their money.  Well, hey, look at these little twenty five cent comics.  How hard is it to pull the trigger on a twenty five cent comic?

And about my twenty five cent comics.  I've seen a lot of comics folk dismiss them and roll their eyes at them over the years but, here's the thing, most people buy four or them.  So keep rolling your eyes jerks, I just made a dollar. I'll say it again.  Price points.

Chester Brown:  Chester Brown is one of my favorite cartoonists.  Louis Riel is my favorite graphic novel.  I think he is one of the four or five best living cartoonists on this here planet Earth. I was nervous about the idea of meeting him and had pretty much talked myself into thinking that I would not.  I had this idea that he would only be at his table for a few hours each day and that there would be a huge line.  But still, I took a few books for him to sign.  Just in case.

Early Saturday morning after I set up my table I went to the restroom.  Drawn and Quarterly (Brown's publisher) had a booth right near the restroom.  When I had zipped up, washed hands and exited the restroom there was Chester Brown and his huge smile behind his table with only a couple of people in line.  I ran to my table and got my books.
By the time I got back there were about four people in line ahead of me.  I noticed the first guy in line was talking a lot.  Like, telling Brown his life story.  Like, telling him which brand of toilet paper he was using when he read I Never Liked You on the john.  That guy finally moved on but Brown spent a lot of time talking to the other guys ahead of me as well.  Dang the Chatty Cathies were gumming up the works!

I decided that out of respect for Brown and the people in the now much bigger line behind me that I would not ask questions, talk about myself or waste any time.

So, I finally got my turn.  Chester Brown is not short but he is very thin.  His body is almost non-existent.  Just a large head floating on a stick.  But that head features a very big warm smile and kind eyes.  His eyes look like those of a grandparent holding a new baby. 

I said hello, shook hands and asked if he could sign my books.  Brown instantly offered me a new copy of Louis Riel.  I have one of the early copies that had a binding problem.  I decided to keep my copy.  It's mine ya know.  I've read through it over and over.  It just did not feel right to let it go.  Brown was surprised but understood.

Brown asked me my name.  I told him but I also showed him my exhibitor badge where my name was printed.  He wrote down my name on a sheet of scratch paper.  It had names of the folks that had been ahead of me as well.  Seeing that I'm an exhibitor he started asking me questions about what I do.  Chester Brown was asking me questions.  I tried my best to be fast and short but each question inspired a new question from Brown to the point that eventually I had told him about my comics, my day job and my kids.  The guys in line were not the Chatty Cathies.  Chester Brown was the Chatty Cathy.
But all the while this was going on, Brown was drawing in my books.  (Drawing and lettering with the same pocket brush and micron pen I use.  We talked about that as well.)  In each book he drew a little cartoon with a customized message with my name included.  I think the scratch sheet with the names was a trick he used to make sure that he had the lettering right.  Each drawing was in the style of the book being signed.  Every line perfect.  Wow.
So, what seemed to me from a few people back to be people taking up all of Brown's time was actually a perfectly executed creator/fan experience totally controlled and paced by Brown to give the fan exactly what they did no know they needed.

It was easily the most pleasant and least awkward time I've ever had meeting one of my heroes.  Thank you Chester Brown.  You are the best.

I also went to Chester Brown's presentation thing at the end of day one.  Apparently it is the same routine he has been doing for a while.  He has a slide show of the first chapter or two from Paying For It and he reads the comic aloud.  Which is hilarious!  I liked Paying For It but I never realized how funny it was until I heard it read aloud.

For those of you that are not me and don't have literally every comics blog in their Google Blog Reader, Paying For It is a sort of auto-bio investigative case study treaties about Chester Brown's personal experiences with prostitution.  So, yeah, there is some nudity.  No biggie.  However... to find yourself in a room where these drawings are being projected on a large screen when suddenly the cleaning ladies come in... well it could have gone poorly.  I don't know that the cleaning ladies even noticed but I kept expecting to hear one of them gasp, "What the hell kind of comic book show is this!  Put your pants on Charlie Brown!"  If we had been a state or two to the south I could easily see things going very bad very quickly.  But, it was fine.  Better than fine it was very interesting.  After the reading Brown answered questions from the audience.  His responses seemed to be honest and well thought out.  I guess at this point he has heard about every question that can be asked about the book.  The question I wanted to ask was about the scene where he and his roommate go to the movies.  I wanted to know if they saw Chasing Amy or Austin Powers.  Unfortunately time ran out so I may never know.

Ignatz:  So, when you stroll into SPX and go to the registration table for exhibitors (If you are/were me and if you are/were and exhibitor) they give you (me) a ballot for the Ignatz awards.  I looked at the ballot.  I thought about the ballot.  I filled out the ballot.  I put the ballot in my shirt pocket.  At about 6 PM I realized that the ballot was supposed to have been turned in at 5 PM.  So, sorry Ignatz nominees, I failed to help any of you.  Or, you could say, I was really nice and did not vote against any of you.  Honestly though,  I think most of the winners were the folks I selected.  I had left a few blank because I was not familiar enough with the work.  The work I was familiar with I knew mainly through teh intronets.  So, comics types, yeah, that whole intronet thing.  Look into it.

The award show itself was pretty great.  It was very crowded.  Standing room only.  Dustin Harbin did a great job as the MC/host/announcer guy.  Harbin and most all of the presenters were very funny.  I was very impressed with Warren Bernard's brief introductory message/state of the convention update.  What a personable and swell guy.  You could almost see wavy comics love radiation lines coming from the guy.  Like invisible comics hugs.  Good job team SPX.

Kids these days, yeesh!:  I'd guess the average exhibitor age was pretty young.  I'm not good at guessing ages.  Everything from thirteen to thirty looks the same to me but I'd guess the average age was under 30.  I could be totally wrong.  I am nearsighted remember.

I notice that things are so different for younger cartoonists today.  Not that younger the cartoonists or younger people are different.  Just the times are different and comics is different.  I don't buy in to any of that "entitlement generation" BS.  Every generation seems like slackers to the previous generation.  Hell, my generation thought we invented slacking.  (Well, maybe we did.  Who can be bothered to remember?)  But it is interesting for me to see how different their perspectives are.

When I was in my early 20s I liked to draw, I made zines, I drew rock show fliers and I read comics but it never really occurred to me that cartoonist was something one could decide to be.  I thought you had to move to New York and work your way up through Marvel or DC.  As far as being a newspaper strip cartoonist I though you had to wait for Charles Schulz or Jim Davis to die and then hope to get their slot.  (I was sort of right about that one.)

But these youngsters today have their college courses, their SCAD, their CCCS, their portfolios, their minicomics, their website etc. and they all seem to believe that it's just a given that some publisher is going to put out a book for them.  And most of the publishers they are talking about did not exist 15 years ago.  Or maybe not even five years ago!  These youngsters can pretty much survey the entire industry online in an afternoon and say 'here are the publishers I'd like to work with'.

Now that does not mean it will happen.  But, at least they have some targets to aim at.  I overheard a couple of guys talking about which publishers they should show stuff to as if it were a given that one of them would want to put out their book.  And maybe they were right but it cracked me up.  They were talking about how certain publishers were just a bunch of old guys and about how other publishers were younger and cooler so they would go with those guys.  Which is also hilarious because those older guy publishers happen to have some of the best young cartoonists out there.

But it's good.  It's good.  It's great that there are enough publishers that an artist can aim for the publishers who's aesthetics most closely match their work.  That is just super.  But it sure is different.  Things have moved so quickly.  I hope it lasts.  I hope it grows.  Oh you skinny young cartoonists with your ill fitting clothes and your awful hair.  God bless you and good luck.

The gas stations of Virginia and Maryland:  Where I live, most of the gas stations also have convenience stores.  But nothing like the mind blowing over the top-ness of Sheetz and Wawa.  Holy macaroni.  Those stores are insane.  I went into a Wawa early Sunday morning and saw a sign for "2 for $3" on their biscuits and croissants.  So, of course I got one of each.  The biscuit was about the size of a baby lamb.  I ate about two thirds of the sucker and died.  I'm writing this now from Heaven.  (FYI, in Heaven we are all spiritual beings without bodies and sex and/or gender are irrelevant.  Oh, and the streets are paved with pastries.  Weird.  I know right?)
Okay, but what is up with 7-eleven.  The 7-elevens in MD (Medicinal Doughnuts) don't have gas.  What!  That's like 7-three-and-a-half.   Oh and Bethesda barely has any gas stations at all.  I spent forever Saturday night looking for a gas station.  If anyone has thousands of dollars sitting around needing to be spent, you might consider opening a gas station in Bethesda MD (Moderate Downer).

Palin/Bachmann 2012:  I blame anything about this post that does not make sense on the time when Rick Perry forcibly vaccinated me when I was a teenage girl. *

The loot:  I did not pick up a lot of stuff at the show.  As I said it was crowded and the aisles were hard to walk through.  I'll try to post reviews for everything I picked up at file under other as soon as I have time.  For now I'll say that I really enjoyed Matthew Smith and Jeremy Massie's new minicomic Bee StingRob Ullman and Jeffrey Brown's Old-Timey Hockey TalesDustin Harbin's new mini about the Doug Wright Awards (amazing shiny card stock cover) and James Kochalka's Retrofit book Fungus.

Okay, okay, that's enough for now.    I need to stop adding to this post before the next SPX starts.  

Your best pal ever,
Shannon Smith

*I have never been a teenage girl.
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