Wizard #50: Small Press Expo 1995

October 1995 (on sale date: August 1995)

Wizard made it to the big 5-0 and marked the occasion with a major design overhaul for the entire magazine. That meant a brand-new look for “Palmer’s Picks,” a graphics-heavy, dark-blue-background-with-white-text design that would end up being the layout for the rest of the column’s lifespan. In celebration of this milestone issue, “Palmer’s Picks” hit the road for a trip to the second annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland on June 23, 1995.

For the cover of Wizard #50, Todd McFarlane’s art from the cover of the first issue was recolored in the style of a Fleer trading card series.

To make things a little more special, I got an extra page for the column and also more guidance than usual. The Wizard editorial team gave me a rough outline of what they wanted to see addressed in my write-up of the show: “How are the small press publishers handling the current market? Supposedly the market has gotten better in recent times. Has it, in their opinion? What are their thoughts on the new distribution wars and how are they planning on getting their books to the masses?”

With my trusty tape recorder in tow, I dutifully spoke to a bunch of creators at the Expo to get their thoughts on the state of the business in ’95 and how they were dealing with all of the upheavals in distribution. Of course, after I wrote my draft and submitted it—being careful to address all of the questions posed in the original outline—the editorial department sent it back for a rewrite, claiming it was too “business-oriented.” Sigh.

Since the one-day Expo was obviously over, I had to make a few phone calls for follow-up interviews with Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer and the three Daves: Lapham, Mazzucchelli, and Sim. I was able to cobble together a revised draft that met with approval from the powers-that-be, but there’s one amusing quote that got left on the cutting room floor. It’s from Sim when I tried to get him to spill the beans on what was in store for Cerebus after issue 200:

I’ve been sitting on the surprises coming up in Cerebus for 17 years and I’m certainly not going to blow it by blabbing it all over Wizard. Maybe if they gave me a four- or five-page spread sometime like they did for Frank Miller…

One other thing to note about this article is that it featured Dorkin, Lapham, and Marc Hempel, three creators that inexplicably did not get their own “Palmer’s Picks” interviews in later columns. I don’t remember the exact reasons why, but I would just chalk it up to a mixture of bad judgment and bad timing.

The trip down to Bethesda for SPX was an easy one, just a few hours on Route 95. I asked my friend Matt Fanale (currently head idiot at industrial noise band Caustic) to tag along for moral support. The show itself was fairly small, a modest gathering of creators spread over a few conference rooms in a Ramada Inn, and only lasted around six hours. Once things had wrapped up, we got to attend the after-party in Sim’s hotel suite. Not too bad for a couple of lifelong comic book nerds.

SPX has grown over the years into a much larger festival that barely resembles the convention I attended, but it retains a few key aspects from those first iterations of the show. They still have a strict “no retailers” policy (only creators and publishers are allowed table space) and it remains closely associated with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. For an interesting time capsule of the mid-’90s alternative and self-published scene and the early days of a long-running festival, read on for my original “Palmer’s Picks” about SPX ’95.


From the “Palmer’s Picks” files: some promotional material for SPX 1995.

Cover of the program guide for SPX 1995.
Faxed press release announcing the second annual Small Press Expo. Did you know that fax paper fades over time?

Page two of the press release for the Small Press Expo, with driving and transit directions and a hand-drawn map.
Final page of the Small Press Expo 1995 press release. Note the inclusion of Steve Bissette, who did not attend the convention.

Palmer’s Picks

Meet The Press

By Tom Palmer Jr.

This ain’t no San Diego.That’s one thing for sure about the Small Press Expo, which was held in Bethesda, Md., in June. The second annual expo was a contrast to the usual large-scale comic book conventions.

No hype and glitz. No 20-foot character displays. No light shows or banks of TV screens. No fog machines. No retailers dealing comics in an adjoining room.

Just small press publishers interacting with their fans.

There was the king of the small press, Dave Sim, with his trusty partner-in-crime/background artist Gerhard, taking time out of their I995 World Tour to discuss Cerebus #200, due out later this year. Milk & Cheese creator Evan Dorkin held court in one of the more entertaining booths, cracking jokes and telling stories to fans. Marc Hempel talked up his newest project TUG & buster. Martin Wagner gave away free prints featuring a crossover of sorts between his Hepcats and Sim’s aardvark, and announced the premiere of his newest Hepcats storyline: Snowblind. Mark Wheatley proudly stood behind a color display of his relaunched book, Radical Dreamer.

Also getting up close and personal with their loyal legion of fans were David Mazzucchelli (Rubber Blanket), Sarah Dyer (Action Girl Comics) and David Lapham (Stray Bullets), among others.

The strength of the small press is its closeness with its fans. And that bond—which the Small Press Expo only serves to reinforce—ensures its continued success.

“The small press is the strongest and best growing part of the comic book industry,” states Jon Cohen, organizer of the Small Press Expo. “People are picking them up and getting more out of them because the creators are putting more into them. I’m not saying it’s not going on in other places, but the small press is where it’s really happening, and fans and stores are starting to see it.”

Survival Instincts

What fans and stores are also starting to see is a change in the marketplace. With direct distribution deals being signed by major comic publishers (Marvel/Heroes World; DC, Dark Horse, Image/Diamond Comics Distributors), small press publishers are struggling to find their niche.

Many publishers fear that fans will have to make an extra effort to find already obscure titles, or that the small press could even get rubbed completely out of the mainstream mix.

The changing face of comic book distribution has become more of a challenge for Greg Hyland, whose Lethargic Comics was recently dropped by Diamond. Capital City Distributors is the only large distributor carrying his comic, so retailers will have to make an extra effort to order it. “Stores are lazy and they don’t want to go to several distributors for their books. They’re so used to the fact that in the past they only had to order their comics through one distributor, and now they have to use two, or maybe even three distributors.”

However, not all small press creators believe that the change in distribution is harmful.

“There’s nothing but optimism and excitement on our end of the business and a lot of desperation on the other end,” says Sim. “We’ve been eyeball to eyeball up until this point and the other guys just blinked. So now it’s time to push forward the only way we can—with our creativity—and just prove that we can do what we’ve been saying all along that we can do.”

Of course, Sim is in a more enviable position than many publishers, as he’s approaching issue #200 of Cerebus (see sidebar below).

Reaching an Audience

As the way comic publishers do business changes, the survival of the small press will be based on its ability to adapt. A major way that small press publishers remain viable is through the ability to deliver original and offbeat books—focusing on plots and characters that mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch. Titles that feature the hard-edged realism of Stray Bullets and the Known Associates Mystery Series, to the off-the-wall humor of Milk & Cheese and TUG & buster, to the imaginative fantasy and science-fiction of Radical Dreamer and Strange Attractors have carved a niche with readers. You’d be hard pressed to find this level of experimentation among mainstream companies.

While alternative comics are considered experimental and cutting-edge, most creators realize that their books must also remain accessible to new readers.

Sarah Dyer, editor and creator of Action Girl Comics, designed her comic to appeal to a large audience. Dyer’s anthology, which features work from a new breed of female cartoonists, is aimed towards all ages (and both sexes). “I wanted a book that reflected my generation and sensibilities, and I also wanted something that was accessible. I think anything that is accessible is going to do well because you’re not limiting your audience.”

Stray Bullets creator David Lapham is hoping to attract new readers by keeping his book simplistic and emphasizing clear storytelling over distracting visuals. “There are no weird panels, so you don’t have to be schooled in the comic book language to understand it,” he explains. “You can get the story.”

Joe Zabel, who has recently launched his Known Associates Mystery Series, agrees with Lapham’s approach. “In a lot of cases it’s very interesting to find a comic with a cliffhanger ending, but it’s just become a bit much. The whole concept of a story with a beginning, middle and end has just dissolved.” Zabel’s series puts another twist on accessibility by focusing on Raymond. Fish and Delphinia Morgan, two amateur detectives that star in a series of self-contained modern mystery stories.

Expanding the Market

Small press publishers are also following the lead of larger publishers, expanding into more mainstream venues—including non-comic related magazines, music stores, video games, toys, film and television.

David Mazzucchelli, who is preparing a new issue of his acclaimed Rubber Blanket, has had his work featured in many mainstream magazines, including the cover of The New Yorker. Mazzucchelli uses this outside work to free his Rubber Blanket anthology from economic concerns, but he realizes that comics must find a way into other areas. “It’s an ongoing problem to get these comics out in front of people who are going to be interested. The way to find fans who are not interested in mainstream comics is not necessarily in a comics store; it’s in other kinds of areas, like record stores.” Mazzucchelli sees the possibility of an overlap specifically between alternative music and alternative comics. “I think there’s a similarity in sensibility. I don’t have demographic figures in front of me, but the age of the audiences is probably very similar.”

Many small press artists are over-whelmed with offers from outside interests. One such creator is Radical Dreamer‘s Mark Wheatley. “Four different video game companies are talking to me about video games. MTV is talking about doing a project. I’ve had galleries approach me about framed prints. Toy companies have talked to me. The reception I’ve received from outside the field has been tremendous compared to what happened inside.” His comic has even appeared in the background on Roseanne (along with Dorkin’s Milk & Cheese) and was a plot point on an episode of Grace Under Fire.

Evan Dorkin, creator of the notorious Milk & Cheese, is finding more opportunities for work outside of the industry because of the popularity of his comic books. He is scripting episodes of the Space Ghost Coast to Coast talk show (along with Sarah Dyer), and is flooded with offers for Milk & Cheese spin-offs. However, he is hesitant to approve any adaptations. “I didn’t mean to have my comics be a stepping stone to other work, but it’s working out that way,” he explains. “It’s kind of flattering, but also kind of a joke. Everybody has such a ridiculous idea of how to do these characters for film or television. They see this strip that runs for two pages at a pop and they want to make a half-hour show out of it with alcoholic dairy products that blaspheme, beat people over the head, watch television, and spout junk culture and threats.”

Dorkin’s new work provides him with an opportunity to reach more people. “I’d like to see how my material goes over to the general public. Not that the general public is any smarter than the comics public, but the comic book field is just a niche.”

Some creators seeking ways to expand their audience and increase profitability are turning to different forms of publishing.

Martin Wagner, creator of Hepcats, used the expo as the premiere for Hepcats: Snowblind Part One, a compilation of his eight-issue Hepcats storyline. Wagner is considering dropping his comic series in favor of lengthy graphic novels. “It just seems to me to be something that is easier to afford and it works better in terms of my own personality. The fans will be happier with me because I won’t have to break any schedule promises. I can just apply myself with getting these books out.”

Fans at the expo were surprised to see the graphic novel, and Wagner hopes this excitement will translate into more opportunities for his work. Wagner has one opportunity that not many small press artists have: the possibility of bookstore distribution. “I have Barnes & Noble interested in the book now and I’ve designed Snowblind with book distribution in mind.”

While the creators at the Small Press Expo may have very different approaches and philosophies on how to do better business, they were extremely optimistic that the readership for their work will continue to expand. The spirit at the expo can perhaps best be summed up by an observation made by Marc Hempel.

“What the comic industry really needs is this big influx of new energy. Whatever the next big thing is, you can bet on the fact that it’s not going to come from big publishers like Marvel or Image or DC. It’s going to come from somebody who has a different thought or idea or concept, and it’s going to come from the self-publishers and the independents.”

Tom Palmer Jr. has decided to self-publish his own comic series about the trials and tribulations of a rock.

Sim City 200

“I probably know Cerebus better than I know anybody else in my life,” says self-publishing guru Dave Sim as he approaches the 200th issue of Cerebus. “As I’m sure many married couples have found out, that kind of familiarity doesn’t necessarily help matters. Just because you know the other person doesn’t mean you can make anything of them other than what they are.”

Not many people could have predicted that writer/artist Sim would become so familiar with Cerebus when he launched the comic in late 1977. When Cerebus hits #200 this November, Sim (along with background artist Gerhard) will still have a third of the way left in the ambitious 300-issue series that chronicles the life (including all the ups and downs) of a short, ill-tempered, anthropomorphic aardvark.

Cerebus embodies qualities that Sim sees in many people. “The willful urge towards self-destruction. The relentless urge to place blame for your life on everyone else. I think everyone goes through that at one time or another in their life and they either learn to put the blame where it belongs, with themselves, or they just become tedious people to talk to after a while.”

Leading into the next storyline called “Guys,” the current Cerebus storyline, “Minds,” serves as both the conclusion of the 50-issue “Mothers & Daughters” opus, and as a journey of self-discovery for Cerebus. “I’m not sure if it’s going to represent a change in his character. We’ll have to wait for the last 100 issues to find that out. As Cerebus’ creator, I’m certainly giving it the old college try to find some sort of spark of life underneath that gray, obnoxious exterior, and see if he can’t become a better character for it”

Giving a Tug

Writer/artist Marc Hempel, perhaps best known for drawing “The Kindly Ones” story arc in Vertigo’s Sandman, is taking the plunge into self-publishing with TUG & buster. He used the Small Press Expo to offer a sneak preview of the book which will debut this fall.

“The comic is about Tug, who’s a big guy, and Buster, who’s a little guy. Buster worships Tug and devotes his entire life to being like Tug even though Tug is a big moron who doesn’t say or do anything. It’s a parody of heroes and the people that worship them. It makes fun of the American male ideal and it’s filled with a bunch of lovable, pathetic loser characters that I really enjoy expressing.”

Hempel, like many of his small press compatriots, wants to attract new readers, and he believes TUG will go over well with a wide audience. “It’s accessible to a larger segment of the public. It should appeal to women because it makes fun of men and it should appeal to men because it makes fun of men. I think everybody should get something out of it.”

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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