In September 1997 I attended the fourth annual Small Press Expo here in Montgomery County, Maryland; this report was written almost immediately thereafter, though I've revised it slightly for the Web, and there are now a few additions updating it to May, 2000, indicated by this green text. (If it's not green on your browser, I'm afraid there's a compatibility problem.) Further updates in this shade of green are from 2008. And this is 2015.
By the way, if you click on any of the cover images you'll get a larger (and clearer) version.
In 1997 the SPX moved from a grouchy, uncomfortable hotel in Bethesda to a much nicer one in Silver Spring, and the number of exhibitors was noticeably higher. Overall attendance was up, as well, but that was less obvious in the larger, more spread-out facility. SPX 1998 was back in Bethesda and even bigger.
And the Small Press Expo is still going, a regular annual event.
The whole purpose of the SPX is to give readers a chance to see what cool stuff is out there that they hadn't found elsewhere. The web makes this less useful than it used to be. Here's what I found.
First, let me mention two titles that I was already buying, but which definitely deserve notice:
- RAGMOP, by Rob Walton, is very hard to describe. It's humorous polemic, sort of, going in several directions at any given time. The lead character (though it wasn't obvious she was the lead at first) is a woman who got so tired of being told that she was a bad girl because she wanted to live her own life that she decided to become a villain. She's now the hero of the story, having saved the world (at least temporarily) from a religious/political conspiracy to control an all-powerful artifact called the O-Ring. Her occasional sidekicks include three dinosaurs in a stolen spaceship. The villains include the Pope, the guy pretending to be God, a doctor who does icepick lobotomies on feminists to "cure" them...
I told you it was hard to describe. And by the way, I have no clue why it's called RAGMOP.
Be warned, if you go looking for it -- it's changed publishers and the numbering has started over, but the story hasn't. If you get the new #1, even if you read the summary inside the front cover, even though it says it's an origin issue, you're likely to be somewhat lost at first. Stick with it. It's worth it. It's one of the funniest things I've ever read. Sometimes the political stuff goes a bit too far over the top for my liking (even though I pretty much agree with Walton's politics), but it's a forgiveable flaw in a work this brilliant.
(It helps, by the way, if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of American pop culture (which I do); there are lots of references and in-jokes.)
Alas, RAGMOP is cancelled and gone. It never found the audience it deserved.
A complete collected and expanded version was published in trade paperback in November of 2006; with any luck you should be able to track down a copy. Ask at your local comic shop.
- RAGMOP is almost impossible to describe; WOLFF AND BYRD is easy. The premise is right there on the cover: "Beware the Creatures of the Night... they have LAWYERS! WOLFF & BYRD, COUNSELLORS OF THE MACABRE."
Yes, when Count Dracula has a property rights dispute over the ownership of an abandoned mansion, or a slime-trailing swamp monster is charged with littering, or the mother of the Anti-Christ sues the Devil for child support, who handles the case? Wolff & Byrd, attorneys at law. Alanna Wolff is the high-pressure courtroom star of the firm, Jeff Byrd the conciliatory dealmaker, and Mavis their long-suffering and indispensible secretary. (Mavis has a last name, but I don't remember it right now.)
I don't think I've ever laughed as hard at WOLFF AND BYRD as I have at the best parts of RAGMOP, but I definitely get plenty of smiles out of it. There's an air of authenticity to it -- creator Batton Lash is a real lawyer, I'm pretty sure. Confused clients, hostile judges, personal entanglements, inopportune interruptions all remind me of real life, even if the clients tend to be monsters. Most stories are complete in one issue (in fact, some issues include multiple stories), but there are ongoing subplots, including romantic entanglements for Byrd and Wolff (not with each other). (There's also an official Wolff and Byrd Website, by the way.) WOLFF AND BYRD is still going strong, but under a new title: SUPERNATURAL LAW.
Good stuff, both of 'em. Both come out pretty reliably and are into double digits for number of issues -- WOLFF AND BYRD also has collections of back issues available. Both feature nice, clean black-and-white art, somewhat cartoony without being silly. Lash is a good artist; Walton's better than good. Check 'em out.
Now for the new stuff:
- STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF SLEEP #1, by Cliff Chiang, from Life of Grime Press. To quote the inside front cover of this small-sized zine, "All of the stories in this series of comics will have their origins in the space between the sleeping and waking mind." So far only the first issue is available; the story therein is entitled "Clockwork Heart," and is about a clockwork woman; it's sweet and sad, beautifully drawn, with minimal dialogue. Only $1.00. If you can find it, buy it.
Alas, there never was a second issue, but creator Cliff Chiang went on to a successful career at DC Comics.
FORTY WINKS #1, by Vincent Sneed and John Peters, published by Odd Jobs Limited. Pandora Spocks (her punnish name is the worst part of the whole thing so far) is a ten-year-old girl who dreams a little too well. Very appealing and distinctive art, and Panda is an easy character to like. I'm not sure where the story's going; the mood in the first issue (the second is scheduled for December) veers fiercely between light and dark, as Panda's happy dreams turn to nightmares and leak out into the waking world, and there are hints of bad things in the past as well. I don't know if the series will hold up, but I'm sure gonna buy the next issue. A four-page preview was available at the Expo; let me just quote the last line: "Looks like somebody threw away a perfectly good little girl."
Incidentally, I've just discovered the Official Forty Winks Website.
The original FORTY WINKS series wrapped up, but spin-offs are still promised, and one mini-series has appeared.
Other spin-offs have followed. Check out the Forty Winks website.
- MURDER CAN BE FUN #4, various artists, created by John Marr, edited by Craig Pape, published by Slave Labor Graphics. "Bizarre Murderers Issue." Okay, I'm a sicko degenerate -- I'm fascinated by serial killers and mass murderers and other such grotesqueries, and I admit it. I can tell you all sorts of things you probably don't want to know about Ed Gein, Herman Mudgett, Albert Fish, and their jolly cohorts. So can John Marr, apparently, and there would seem to be enough other sickos out there to keep this title going. In fact, besides the comics, Murder Can Be Fun exists as a fanzine and as a feature on the Dispatches Website.
Well, no, that website is gone, but the Murder Can Be Fun Library was still there last I looked.
If you aren't a fan of true crime stories, this is not for you. Skip ahead to my next mini-review; you don't want this.
On the other hand, if you do find an awful fascination in tales of death and dismemberment, check it out. We have here the true-life tales of Ed Kemper (at least nine murders; still alive, serving multiple life sentences), John Frazier (sentenced to death on five counts of murder, but commuted to life; still alive), Herbert Mullin (killed thirteen; also serving life in prison), Theodore Durrant (murdered two girls; hanged 1898), Gertrude Baniszewski (only killed one, but under circumstances that made her crime the basis of one of the most intense horror novels ever written; served twenty years and is now alive and free), and William Herbert Wallace (almost certainly murdered his wife, but was acquitted; died of kidney failure shortly after, though). The presentation varies -- straight comics, illustrated prose, illustrated verse (!). For Wallace we have two parallel versions of the story -- one telling it as if he were innocent, the other as if he did in fact kill her. It's clever, mostly well-done, with a sort of deadpan sardonicism I find very appropriate for something like this. It's not great art, but it's an amusement and I don't regret buying it.
But I'm a sicko.
ETERNAL ROMANCE #1 and #2, by Janet L. Hetherington, published by Best Destiny. Remember romance comics? Well, that's what these are, good old-fashioned romance comics, but with a kink to them -- the title is meant literally, as each story involves some sort of supernatural being (usually a vampire) and a love that will outlast death. I'm not sure why I find these as funny as I do (and as I'm pretty sure they're intended); they're played straight. I think it's gotta be a specialized taste, but I like 'em. The art is... well, it's love comic art. About three stories per issue.
I really wanted to link to a Website about these, or to provide a maillink to Hetherington, but couldn't find much -- apparently she's not online.
She is now -- check it out. ...and she appears to be gone again, but you can find Eternally Yours: Illustrated Stories of Eternal Romance, a collection of the stories, as well as some other stuff on Amazon.
- LETHARGIC COMICS: THE LAD WORE RED, by Greg Hyland and others, published by Alpha Productions. Superhero parody. I bought this mostly because I couldn't resist the table display -- about a dozen issues of LETHARGIC COMICS and LETHARGIC LAD, each with a dead-perfect parody of a famous comic book cover. I bought the one I did because it seemed like the best buy for the money.
It turns out to contain a parody of the "death of Superman" sequence from a couple of years back. What this means is that I bought a Lethargic Lad trade paperback in which Lethargic Lad himself is presumed dead for all but three pages...
It's funny anyway. A lot of the humor depends upon familiarity with superhero comics, including familiarity with the specific story being parodied, but it is funny.
And it's not just Lethargic Lad (a superhero who doesn't actually do anything; the stories depend on other characters reacting to him). There's also Guy-With-A-Gun (as introduced by Hay-Man), the Zit, the Grad (a Crow parody), and Him. I think Hay-Man's intro may be the single funniest page, but there's a lot of giggles here. There are also pages that fall flat, gags that don't work... but hey, it's fun. The gang of supervillains where one of them is slow picking up his cue is a classic gag.
You can get a taste from the Lethargic Web Page.
And that's the lot.
You may notice these reviews are all positive. Well, yeah -- I didn't buy anything unless I was pretty sure I was going to like it. And if I had, I might not mention it here -- why make life difficult for some poor guy who's trying to pursue his dream? Small press comics don't make much money for anyone; they're labors of love. I'm not going to fault someone for doing something he loves, even if it's not to my taste.
So the stuff above is what I considered the cream of the crop. Check 'em out.
Addendum: December 5, 1997:
The above was written shortly after the SPX; in preparing it for this Webpage, though, I came across a few other items that I want to mention:
- First off, I did pick up one other comic at the Expo. I'm not sure why I didn't include it in the reviews. It's DREAMING CITY TALES, a collection of Jim Kirkland's horror stories, illustrated by various artists and published by Dreaming City Comics. Very classy production values, gorgeous cover, some nice interior art, and the stories don't suck. Kirkland's got some clever story ideas; execution isn't always all it could be, though.
- And it wasn't available at the '97 SPX, but if you like the stuff I reviewed above, you really ought to check out KISS AND TELL Vol. 2 No. 1, written by Patty Breen, illustrated by various artists, published by Sirius Entertainment under their Dog Star Press imprint. This is apparently a continuation of a previous series I missed completely. It's slice-of-life fiction -- three autobiographical stories and one fictional one, with a "Night Gallery"-style framing sequence. I found it all charming -- good stories, delightful art. Highly recommended.
The theme for this particular issue, by the way, is snakes -- two of the four stories involve our scaly friends. Hence the cover. And I should probably mention that while some parents might have reservations (there is a one-panel scene on the set of a porno movie), my (then) thirteen-year-old daughter liked this comic a lot.
And finally, there's SMALL PRESS EXPO '97: The Comic. This was put out in August to publicize the SPX, with all proceeds going to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It's 128 pages and jammed full of short pieces by artists who were at SPX '97. Two front covers, no back.
Naturally, with something that size they aren't all winners, but there's a lot of very cool stuff in here, and it's definitely worth a look. It was available at comics shops all over North America, and you may still be able to find it at one in your area.
Well, you probably can't find it now, except as a back issue somewhere.
And that's it for comics reviews; there's a lot of nifty stuff being done in comics these days that's neither the tedious rehashing of super-powered battles nor the lurid absurdity of the old undergrounds, but partaking of the best of both worlds. You can find this stuff at the better comic book shops. There's a lot of information on line, too -- I'm only going to provide one link for now, as a starter, but seek and ye shall find.
For those who somehow stumbled in here by accident -- hi! I'm Lawrence Watt-Evans. I'm the author of more than three dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, as well as innumerable articles, comic scripts, poems, and other miscellany. This is my personal website, the Misenchanted Page; the name is a reference to my bestselling novel The Misenchanted Sword.
That's it; here's your list of handy exits:
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