Dispatches from the Small Press Expo

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for Dispatches from the Small Press Expo

The 2009 Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. As in years past, the conference was a treasure-trove for the comics fan and comics producer alike, with full slate of panels and more than 450 exhibitors of comic art. Turns out, you can overdose on comics. And on the free candy and cookies made available by the friendlier exhibitors. Here, an entirely subjective selection of highlights.

Cover of Monsters, by Ken Dahl (Secret Acres Publishing)

Monsters is possibly the funniest, most heartbreakingly honest herpes memoir ever committed to print. Dahl’s penwork is lyrical, at once detailed and light, never weighing down the humor—no easy feat. He’s brutally (and graphically) honest about the affliction without working the gross-out factor too much. (Though to be fair, it’s just oral herpes. C’mon, lightweight.) The laughter he inspires is the sort of groaning, been-there chuckle of anyone who’s ever felt like a leper, for any reason. All that, and he manages to anthropomorphize the disease into something… almost… cute. Bonus: the little herpes temporary tattoos given out at his table. Nice.

 Spread from The Baby Is Disappointing, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

Spread from The Baby Is Disappointing, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

Charming, attractive married couple Matthew Swanson (writer) and Robbi Behr (illustrator) offer a subscription service to their self-published, spiral-bound books (they also indulge in letterpress, but it costs more. Lead’s not free, pal). The funniest selection: The Baby is Disappointing, a lament of dashed expectations: “It’s worse than last year’s bankruptcy, this baby. It’s worse than when the basement flooded. Our shame is blazoned on our brows, chronicled in our ravaged check register.” The thread of Swanson’s black humor and Behr’s delightfully scribbly work runs through all the couple’s output, including, one hopes, their own disappointing baby (Ms. Behr is expecting another. Hope springs eternal).

Cover of I Want You, by Lisa Hanawalt

Cover of I Want You, by Lisa Hanawalt

Lisa Hanawalt‘s bizarre, hilarious, dark, gross, and beautifully drawn comics are representative of a truly new and interesting voice. Her drawings are eerie and obsessive: worms, sores, animals, and bugs all play prominent roles. People with animal heads (or animals with people bodies) are not an uncommon sight in comics and underground art these days, but Hanawalt’s humor and skill bring it to a whole new level. That humor is often filthy, and not of the “cute girl says off color stuff, huge laughs” variety. These are not for children or old people, or anyone likely to be offended by anything, ever. She’s like a girl Mike Diana with a thing for ponies.

Cover of The Ganzfeld 7, art directed by Ben Jones

Visual culture purveyors Picturebox had a table that was a cheerful mish-mash of talent, featuring everything from the 7th and final issue of their omnibus The Ganzfeld—an extravaganza that boasts a DVD, posters, pamphlets, and zines to go with the book itself—to Real Deal Magazine, an oversized newsprint comic from Los Angeles printed in the late 80’s and recently rediscovered by Picturebox founder Dan Nadel. The former features a lovely and informative essay about illustrator Erik Blegvad by his son, cartonist and musician Peter Blegvad. The latter features a lot of guns, tits, and wrestling monsters.

Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak

Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly continue to earn their belts as the heavyweights of the comics industry. Montreal-based D+Q’s roster includes such monster talents as R. Sikoryak, whose “Masterpiece Comics,” which adapts literary classics using “the most iconic visual idioms of 20th century comics,” has been earning plaudits from reviewers and fans worldwide. The outfit has also done the world a favor by reprinting the inimitable Tove Jansson’s Moomin strips. The strips have been collected into 4 volumes featuring the lovable, roly-poly characters that comes out this fall.

Box set of the work of Gahan Wilson, designed by Jacob Covey

The Fantagraphics table was a similar embarrassment of riches—the publisher is home to a who’s-who of contemporary comics geniuses such as Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, and a stop by their table inspires nothing so much as a deep longing for piles of ready cash and a handcart. I lacked both. Maybe next time.