Small Press Expo 2012

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This past weekend marked the annual Small Press Expo (SPX), one of the country’s premier independent comics conventions. Over 3000 people attended the event in Rockville, Maryland. This year’s line up of guests included Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, and a featured talk by the graphic novelist Chris Ware. You may know Mr. Ware from his Jimmy Corrigan comics or his New Yorker covers, including the September 17th back-to-school themed issue.

An audience member asked Mr. Ware about the interactive comic book app he designed for McSweeney’s, and what he saw for the future of digital comics. Mr. Ware politely contested the idea that an app is a more interactive medium than a printed graphic novel. “The best books change you from the inside, and I can’t think of anything more interactive than that,” he said, before apologizing for sounding cliché. (Mr. Ware speaks more humbly than you would think possible when asked to talk about his artistic achievements for a full hour). He went on to explain that he thinks print and paper help the best books achieve their transformative effects, as their content often deals with ethereal ideas that need a page and binding to lend them solidity.

Chris Ware at SPX 2012. Photo Credit: SPX.tumblr.com

Mr. Ware’s new Building Stories uses paper’s many forms as in integral part of the narrative. The story, contained in a box of 14 printed works ranging from books to fictional newspaper editions, follows characters living in a Chicago rowhouse. A diorama-set companion piece includes everything needed to construct a paper model of the building. As he explained his relationship to paper media, it was clear why attendees trekked out to a convention dedicated to comics: they are one of the only printed mediums where much of the narrative experience remains in physically interacting with the work.

Mr. Ware’s new book “Buildings”. Photo Credit: Pantheon Books.

The tactility of SPX came across fully when I left Mr. Ware’s talk to shop around the convention hall, where over 450 independent comic presses and self-published artists displayed their wares. These included postcards, flip books, hand drawn originals, and traditional books in all sizes. My friend had her copy of Ghost World signed by Daniel Clowes, and he, like many of the artists doing signings, drew a personalized doodle on the cover page. An author treating his publication like an unfinished canvas had me again appreciate the physicality of all the books laid out on tables. After all, you can’t doodle on an eBook.

I bought Blankets by Craig Thompson after eavesdropping on a couple discussing it reverently at the Top Shelf Productions table. At 582 pages, this was a committedly physical brick of paper. I took the book outside to read on the patio, and after a few minutes a women holding her own copy of Blankets sat down next to me. “I hope it’s good,” she said. “I splurged on the hardcover.”