Created by: Caitlin Cass, Carey Pietsch, Sam Alden
I was a little bit nervous flying out to DC for my first Small Press Expo. I wasn’t sure how I’d interact with what I half-expected to find out there. I hadn’t ever been to this kind of show, one focused on small-press products, the work of the true indies.
This photo was blatantly stolen from a google image search
As mentioned a couple days ago in my review of Helter Skelter, I admittedly suffer from prejudices against art that doesn’t fit within my established sense of what is Good Art. My biases are definitely set a bit more broadly than many comics readers, but there is still too much that I tend to pre-judge—books that I’ll shy away from before ever reading simply because the art doesn’t appeal to me. I try to fight against those tendencies,11Because of Good Ok Bad, I feel especially responsible to approach work with as little of my prejudices entangling me as possible. I want to be able to direct readers to solid comics literature that they might appreciate whether those works match my personal tastes or not. It’s a skill I’m still working on and one I may spend my entire life developing. because think of how many fantastic books I would have missed out on had I only pursued that which matched my tastes.
In any case, as the early morning of my John Wayne–Ronald Reagan flight approached, I worried about the work I would encounter. The terms small-press, independent, and self-published all conjure the idea of Not Ready For Primetime. Creators who are of course earnest but lack either the skill or the story to sell their work on a large scale. Hopelessly elitist of me, I know, but I do remember what happened to writing with the rise of the internet and the democratizing of mass publishing. (Chills.) I was concerned I’d step from table to table, politely nodding at homemade dreams that just didn’t merit the space. My anxieties along these lines, happily, were unfounded.
I bought a lot of books,22Thirty-four! Some large some small! though not as many as I would have had I had more money. Because many of these are only a handful of pages long, I’ll cover them all in a single post and briefly discuss what I liked about them each.
(Incidentally, I’ll hit the books alphabetically OR you can click on a cover in this image below to zip to that book’s review.)
by Lena H. Chandhok
Abominable is very short, almost a sketch of a story idea. It’s cute and could grow into a worthwhile story but in its present shape, it’s too spare. I want morrrrrrrrre.
Alison and Her Rainy Day Robot
by Fred Chao
Fred Chao did Johnny Hiro, which you absolutely should read. Absolutely. It’s hot.
Anyway, I ran into D.C. Hopkins and he said, “Dude. Fred Chau is here. You should say ‘Hi,’ he loved your review.” I said, “Cool,” and went looking for him. His table abutted Nate Powell’s. A glorious corner of real estate. So I walked up, said “Hi,” and mentioned nothing about having reviewed his book. Instead, I just said that I loved it. He thanked me and asked how I’d heard of it. I said David Hopkins made me read it and “Do you know him?” He said, “Who?” and “Oh, uh, oh yeah!” With nothing else to do, I bought Alison and her Rainy Day Robot (AND one of his sketchbooks). It’s about a girl who’s super bored and so she builds a robot to have fun with. Only the robot only wants to do boring stuff, like clean her room or make a gazpacho. It’s a great book for kids. And I have kids, so Win-Win!
The Black Well
by Jamie Tanner
When I was visiting Fred Chao’s table, The Black Well caught my eye. It was handsome and well-produced. It was also on Fred Chao’s table since he shared a table with Jamie Tanner, The Black Well's author. The visual from the cover stayed with me and Tanner’s description of the story as pretty surrealistic won me over aaaaaand I went ahead picked up a copy on Day 2. The story was weird and funny and absurd and mysterious. It’s less concerned with wrapping up its ends into tidy contraptions than it is with conveying to the reader a sense of place. I may end up giving this a full review, so I’ll pause here.
edited by Kelly Phillips and Claire Folkman
A fairly uneven collection of (semi-?)autobiographical stories treating somehow the topic of breaking up. All the storytellers are women and most of their tales are romantic concerns (exceptions feature a young woman’s gradual loss of interest in Wiccan practices and another investigates the collapse of a network of internet friends in the early days of the Dubya-Dubya-Dubya). Some of the stories were well-told and enjoyable, some were a bit obscure (intentionally), and others may have been of that Not Ready sort I worried about before arriving at SPX. I’m certain that with practice, they’ll all become fine storytellers and I’m happy to have been able to read these early works.
These guys were super friendly and awesome
My favourites of the collection well-justified the book’s price. Jess Ruliffson’s one-pager is a well-illustrated woodsy affair that glances on that common obstruction to human connection, a fear of interaction (with all the possible motives that lie behind such fear). It’s a quiet, unassuming piece but powerful for all that. Win Evans wrote something tremendously sad and all-the-same perfectly innocent. It spoke to exactly the inadequacy children exhibit and face when exploring the barbarous lands of interpersonal romantic relationships. Jillian Fleck’s journey into and away from the mysticism of Wicca was pretty fine but one panel stood out to me:
I loved Carey Pietsch’s reminiscence back to the shores of the wild '90s internet and how so few of those relationships were able to survive because the technology just didn’t leave enough tracks to trace a decade later. I think back to the friends I made on IRC. Screen names. Maybe a location. Perth. Pittsburg. Vancouver. Never IRL names. And as communities folded, as the internet grew up, there would never be again any means to connect to those people. They were lost to me just as they were lost to Pietsch. And I hadn’t thought about them for years until this anthology brought them back to ephemeral life. Thanks, Pietsch. Thanks a lot.
Coming Home is a 24-hour comic from Zachary “Doom Carousel” Garrett. Each page features a single panel and is a representation of the environment he was in at the time of illustration. The pages are handsomely designed and are watercoloured in mute tones. There isn’t much in the way of story save for a minimalist narration, but Comng Home (because of its conceit as a book of single-panel pages and watercolours) is easily the most beautiful 24-hour comic I’ve ever seen.
Diabetes Is After Your Dick
by Cathy Leamy
Cathy Leamy writes healthcare comics. I saw one that I wanted but instead got the one that was ostensibly about my penis because I’m a responsible adult. Still thanks to Leamy, I now know more about diabetes (like, how it works) than I did previously. Also, before reading her mini, I had no idea that diabetes could effect erectile function. Good to know. I don’t have diabetes, but you’re never too young to start, am I right?
Zachary Garrett, so far as I can tell, is a pretty nice dude. His art seems largely concerned with the several calamities that plague our environment. At his table he was selling hand-painted cards featuring oil rig fires. The primary object of interest on his table was Doom Carousel, a book of featurettes each concerned with some aspect of our environmental narrative. Flipping through, I encountered a chapter called “Whale Songs” in which a whale sings its moaning melodious crooning. A couple pages later, human-made boats issue a cacophonous counterpoint, causing the whale to retreat to a place where it might presumably resume its solo undisturbed. That chapter sold me and I picked up the book. Not disappointed. Garrett packs the slim work with information and pretty watercoloured drawings. In the book’s backmatter, he includes helpful information for further reading on each subject. He says a Doom Carousel 2 is in the works. That makes me happy. I mean as happy as doom can make a man.
Falling Rock National Park &
Tomb of the Zombies
by Josh Shalek
As I stumbled, exhausted and frazzled, through the expo hall late on Day 1, I saw Josh Shalek standing at his table, friendly and attentive. I wasn’t at the top of my game. I was weary and heavy-laden. I needed a soft and caring woman to collapse into, not this—this—comics creator. Really, I had no business wandering the hall as wiped out as I was. Bad for business, really. Not that I had business.
I glanced at Shalek’s work and decided, on a whim, that it wasn’t for me. But he said hello and I was drawn over to his human interaction thing. I asked him how the show was treating him and what he was all about. He has a comic called Falling Rock National Park (a series) and another book, Tomb of the Zombies (which I’ll give its own review later). While I was proud of him and immediately liked him as a person, his art was cartoony and featured talking animals. Neither was what I was looking for. Still, we continued our brief conversation and he noticed my Good Ok Bad tag and asked after the site. When he found out I was a critic-reviewer-person, he picked out two books for me: Falling Rock #2 and Tomb of the Zombies. I was wary33I actually don’t really like getting self-published works for review anymore. When I first began reviewing books in earnest, it was exciting and gratifying. It was like some small proof that I was really doing this thing. That people were out there who cared.
But the problem is: without a publisher, the barrier between the creator and me the judge is just too lean. If a publisher picked up a work, then there’s at least one person out there who believed in the creator’s work. If there’s a publisher involved, even if I pop out a negative review, then it’s just a matter of taste. A publisher, who knows what’s good and what can sell, liked a work and some critic, man, he just didn’t see it the same way. But without that buffer? Then it’s just the creator who says, “Love me?” and me who says, “No.” That’s just too brutal and too discouraging. In my twenties I could do that. Not these days though. I get sick just thinking of the prospect.
And then even apart from all that, I’m becoming less and less enthusiastic about the idea of publishing reviews for books I’m not at least somewhat excited about. I want to promote the good and the great and the grand about comics. I want to direct people to books that they will like. There are already so many negative voices on the internet that I’m not sure I any longer want to be one. It’s something I’m still working through. but grateful and promised that if I liked them, I’d review them and let him know.
Shalek’s books were actually the last that I read from my SPX haul. I was nervous about them. I needn’t have been. They’re pretty hilarious. He’s got a great sense of humour. The issue of Falling Rock National Park he gave me opens with four pages of slash fiction between Creationism and Darwinism. It was funny and well crafted and I’m probably the only person who would describe it as slash. Shalek’s art is still developing, but even between Tomb and Falling Rock, there’s a noticeable shift in confidence. I’m not someone who collects single issues of books (I don’t have any sensible way to store and access them), but if Shalek collects Falling Rock into a bound volume, I’m certain to be interested in picking it up. I’ll leave off here because I hope to review Tomb of the Zombies in its own review in a month or two.
The Ferret’s a Foot
by Colleen AF Venable
I stopped by Zach Giallongo’s table to thank him once again for creating Broxo, which I loved. I did ask after the title’s pronunciation. I presumed Brock-So but wondered if I might be wrong and perhaps it could have been Broke-So. He affirmed the former and then mentioned that someone once thought it might be Bro-Ho. We laughed together and then I shrugged, Hm, yeah. I can see that. All this is to say that right next to Giallongo was Colleen AF Venable’s table.
Venable had guinea pig books all over her table. Glossy and slick. And they looked like they might be kids books. And they were! Unfamiliar with her work44Outside of the designwork and covers she’s done for First Second, that is. and still staggered by the glut of visual stimuli of the expo, I was not prepared to carefully investigate each item on her table. I needed a guide. So I asked: “These are… good for… kids?” She assured me that they were. A follow-up: “So if I had a daughter and wanted to get her a… book… where would I start?” She pointed me to Book 3 of her series, The Ferret’s a Foot, the one in which Sasspants really begins to own the role of detective. I thanked her and went on my way, as I wasn’t buying anything on the first day of the expo.55Since I wasn’t staying at the Marriott, I didn’t have any easy way to stash goods acquired at the expo. Basically, anything I got I would have to hike all over with and then take on a metro ride and then take on a twenty-minute busride into unfamiliar territory. So yeah, no thanks. I did end up picking up a couple things that first day—a signed copy of March (for friends) and Great Moments in Western Civilization: In the Beginning (just because I wanted a comic to read that night when I got home). Otherwise, all my purchases were on Day 2.
Ultimately, this was a bit of a mistake, as several of the books I took an interest in on Saturday were sold out by Noon on Sunday. In the future, I’ll probably try to stay in the hotel. A bigger expense, yeah, but the huge convenience of it might make it worth it. Also, I’d probably have an easier time networking if I spent more time on-site.
I did of course pick up Book 3 on Sunday, and when I got home, I did the ultimate test for a kid book. I read it to my daughter. She enjoyed it and Detective Pants will probably become a fond bit of story for her, especially once she’s able to read on her own in a year or so. She liked the idea of ferrets being snakes with beards. Also, the whole detective-solving-a-mystery bit was a good match for her since she’s currently a tremendous fan of Huckle and Lowly’s Busytown Mysteries. I’ll probably pick up more from the series for her for Xmas.
Fred Chao Sketchbook
by Fred Chao
I would normally not have much to say about a sketchbook, but Chao includes narrative pieces attached to several of his sketches. That livens up the book and gives me a tether to his subject. He does this for about 20% of the art. They are engaging enough that I wish he did it for all of the drawings.
Great Moments in Western Civilization
I’ve already covered Cass’ work in my review a few days ago but in case you didn’t see that, GMIWC ranks as my Discovery Of The Show. I had no idea it existed three weeks ago and now I can’t get enough. It’s a delightful evisceration of the folly of the human endeavor. It’s fun and lovely and educational and worth your time—if you have any interest in the historical realm (I give the same advice RE Kate Beaton stuff).
Anyway: HERE’S THE REVIEW
by Sam Alden
When I picked up Hawaii 1997 for purchase, I grabbed the copy on Sam Alden’s table that featured the silver Ignatz-winner seal. I didn’t know it was unique. Alden quietly asked if he could have it back. I apologized and we had a quiet talk about the chaos and exhaustion of the show and how tough it can be to be an introvert in such circumstances. It was a lovely conversation that sometimes was lost in the din of a room in which commerce is afoot.
Hawaii 1997 took me a bit by surprise. It took a couple pages for me to adjust to the looseness of his art for the volume. I had read the two available chapters of Haunter and this was not remotely similar in stylistic terms. After a few moments though, I fell into the piece. Then, in the book’s climax, there was a line spoken and it made me sit back and think: Daaaaaaaaaamn. It was one of those surrealistic moments that actually rings more true than most actual experiences we have. It was something I could get behind, something I could relate to, something I could taste. It was perfect.
In the Sounds of the Sea
by Marnie Galloway
Galloway’s short book, In the Sounds of the Sea, is one of the most beautiful books that was at this year’s SPX. The first half, a creation myth of sorts, is the strongest portion of the work. Galloway has three women sitting around a campfire, singing. As each raises her voice, creatures emanate in a torrential stream, rising to the sky. One woman sings forth birds, another fish, and the other rabbits. The three streams twine and braid, becoming one and blending together eventually into an Escher-esque sea of life. It’s entirely gorgeous and worthy to fill a living room wall—or perhaps swaddle an adventurous tattooed torso.
Unfortunately, the beginning is so strong that the rest cannot hope to match it. There’re definitely some great scenes later on (such as a series of whale skeletons visually compared to some boat ribbing), but the opening is definitely the climax. Still, another volume is on its way, so that’s exciting and something to look forward to.
The Isle of Voices
by Andrea Kalfas
The Isle of Voices is one of the mini-booklets produced by Scout Books, which publishes short stories with cool accompanying illustrations. Kalfas here complements a Robert Louis Stevenson short with her work. Her illustrations are pretty and fitting, though I would have preferred MORE OF THEM. Really, I just enjoy her art. Lots.
by Cathy G. Johnson
This is a very pretty little book. The pages feature heavy, often oppressive watercolours. It’s a mysterious story and one I will review at another time. I think it’s good but I’m going to have to think about it more. It was uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing.
March: Book One
by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
I had already read and reviewed the book by the time I hit SPX, but I decided to get a copy signed by all three authors as a Thank You for the couple who let me stay with them in Gaithersburg. It’s a good book and probably even a great book, and one I pretty much recommend for anyone with any kind of a bent toward the wilds of twentieth century history or who cares about one of the most important social issues governing the twenty-first century.
by Lena H. Chandhok
The first book I picked up from Lena Chandhok was Abominable. It was pretty adorable, but I’m glad I picked up Pony Tale because it was much more satisfying. Pony Tale's about a girl who’s half-human (on her dad’s side) and half-centaur (on her mom’s side). Sadly (for her), she’s only inherited her mother’s top half. Because she looks totally human, there’s no visual identifier for her to display her connection to her mother’s people and/or culture. The short book charts some of her struggles and it’s rather engaging. High fives to Chandbok for making something so fun.
by Lucy Knisley
Before she did French Milk and Relish, Lucy Knisley was a comics illustration student. While she studied and prepared to be the awesome cartoonist we see in those books, she drew like a million short comics. These are them.
The quality is ranging and the style moves from place to place (as I imagine she experimented a bit before settling into her current method). That most stories are one or two pages long makes for plenty of instantaneous, no-guilt stopping places. Some of the episodes are merely amusing or enjoyable, but a couple standouts really make the book worth more than just the anthropological study of Knisley’s evolution as a mangaka I had expected. I especially enjoyed “Bookshop” (about a woman who gives books to people secretly), “The Boys’ Dorm” (about a couple girls sneaking into Dun Dun DUHN the boys’ dorm), and one with a deaf boy that I don’t think had a title.
Here is the story of my favourite, saddest anecdote associated with the book’s place at SPX. I had purchased the book myself but had not yet looked through it. I was sitting on a bench to rest when a family came over to monopolize the rest of the bench (as was their right!). It was a girl (maybe 12 years old?), a mother and father, and a grandmother. They all had attendee badges. The grandmother was flipping through some of the girl’s haul and was asking her about each book, what she liked about it, what made her purchase that book as opposed to others. She was looking for a methodology. This discussion got the mother flipping through some of the girl’s haul as well. She got to Radiator Days, popped it open, and goggled: “This book has the eff-word!” The girl looked sheepish and shrugged in that way you do. The mother said, “Hm, well. I’m going to keep this one aside and your father and I will look through it and see what we think.” The girl was upset of course and I didn’t know at the time that this poor girl would never see Radiator Days again. That’s because I hadn’t yet come to the NSFW Johnny Depp/Orlando Bloom slash fiction about two-thirds through. I laughed and laughed and laughed at the mom getting there, gasping, and maybe squirreling the book away forever. And then I felt a little bad for the girl. I remember having awesome stuff confiscated. But then I thought, Don’t worry little girl, one day you’ll grow up to draw your own slash fiction.
by Jamie Tanner
With my purchase of The Black Well, Tanner threw in his minicomic The Retreat. It’s very brief but wonderfully atmospheric. Tanner’s got this narrator speaking directly to the reader, welcoming that reader to the lodging, and as the pages and panels travel from room to room, the narrator describes their use or purpose. Sometimes obliquely. As an invitation, it all sounds a bit sinister but maybe that’s just our imaginations or maybe it’s sinister after all. One of my favourite minis of the show.
The Rise and Fall of Studly Pete
by Renee Lott
Unfortunately, as fun as this slim introduction to Pete is, we never get to either his rise or his fall—or actually even to his studliness. That’s okay because this mini functions mostly as an extended preview for the Studly Pete website—a site that I hope will be frequently and conscientiously updated. The story looks fun but the site is only four pages ahead of the mini and was last updated with new pages at the end of May 2012. There is an SPX 2013 note on the site from a couple weeks ago that promises new pages soon, and I hope this is true because now I’m interested in Studly Pete. My wife too!
The Silence of Our Friends
by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell
Though I got March earlier and had it signed by its trio of creators (including Powell), the queue for that was rather assembly line style—as one would expect. So, I did what any Real Fan would do and visited his personal table later in the day when he wasn’t being harried by a line a mile long. We chatted briefly because I’m pretty much useless when starstruck and I noticed a book on his table I’d never seen before: The Silence of Our Friends. I’ll review this in full later, but it’s a non-fictional recapitulation of a particular civil rights story set in Houston, 1968. As great as March is, I think that this might have been better. Using the vantage of children, the story seems larger than March‘s and Powell is firing on all cylinders on art chores.
The Snapdragon Queen
by Carey Pietsch (Peach!)
Let’s be plain from the start. Me and verse don’t get along. I am not any kind of fan of poetry. I don’t like rhymes. I don’t like lyricality. It just doesn’t fit my idiom. That said: I really truly enjoyed The Snapdragon Queen. Pietsch doesn’t allow her lines to get in the way of her story and she’s an able enough writer that I didn’t have time to get offended by her poetry. The faery tale told is enjoyable enough and Pietsch’s illustration is delightful. I cannot wait to see more work from her. With a touch more polish, I could easily see her work sitting handsomely in the next volume of Spera. Or the next.
Summit of the Gods, vols 1 and 2
by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi
This was pretty easily best-of-show for me. I knew it would be good, but I didn’t know it would be this good. It kills me deep in my heart that I’ll have to wait a whole year for the final volume. I won’t go into it much because this will be a pleasure to review on its own, but this is one of the best graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy. At least in the first two volumes it is. I read them breathlessly on the plane back from DC. I have volume 3 coming in the mail right now. The books traffic in the standard illustrated beauty we’ve come to expect from Taniguchi, but even beyond that, the story is tense and exciting. It’s got mystery and danger and takes an activity that doesn’t remotely interest me (mountain-climbing) and invests in it a luscious sort of desirability. If I weren’t feeling my age so much, I’d probably at least make tacit inquiries into how one might start such a hobby.
Unfortunate Mishaps in Aviation History
As I traveled the floor at SPX, my eye kept catching on a tote bag handsomely displayed on a table somewhere near the middle of the world. I referred to it as the Sad Balloon Bag because it featured a capsized hot air balloon. One of the titular unfortunate mishaps. Amused, I picked up the associated volume, a slim devotion to two of the aforementioned mishaps. The sad balloon adventure fills the bulk of the issue and is prefaced by a terrible event that I’ve actually seen video footage of: the “flying” tailor of the Eiffel Tower. Catch the scare quotes there? Grim business, that. An engaging read, I hope to fine more issues—or better, a collected volume. Right up my alley just as Great Moments in Western Civ was!
A Voyage to Panjikant
by Marguerite Dabaie
Cool little story taking place along the silk road. Really just prologue for whatever comes next, but enough to spark my interest. Different region, but still reminiscent of A Bride’s Story.
Wizards, Sorcery, and Familiars Arcane
by Andrea Kalfas
Andrea Kalfas’ book is more a collection of related illustrations than it is a story. They’re fun and whimsical and I’m glad I got it. Only: I don’t really have the vocabulary to review a book of drawings.
by Erica Henderson
This isn’t a comic but more an encyclopedia of mythic creatures from cultures across the world. I adored these books when I was small (say, seven years old). But those books were largely focused on either Greek or Norse myths. Occasionally I’d find a book of Egyptian gods or Japanese fables. That’s why I love this book so much. It’s filled with both the familiar and the alien. I bought this for my children four years from now. An investment. Hopefully, its hardcover binding will prove sturdy enough to last ‘til then and well beyond.
The Worm Troll
by Sam Alden
A short mini by Sam Alden that packs a decisive final panel punch. One of those game-changing, Sixth Sense type things. Only not quite so on-the-nose. The Worm Troll is an interesting comparison to Hawaii 1997 because in this volume the art is crisp and careful whereas Hawaii 1997's art was loose and, for lack of a better term, messy. Great little book with a gorgeous cover. High production value.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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