Wizard #79: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

March 1998 (on sale date: January 1998)

My final piece of non-“Palmer’s Picks” indie comics-related writing for Wizard was this short “Wizard News Special Report” about the 1997 edition of the Small Press Expo. I still had my name in the credits of subsequent issues of the magazine since I was also writing the monthly toy column in Wizard to go along with my duties as assistant editor at ToyFare. And I also wrote a bunch of “Staff Picks” for the price guide; short write-ups (around fifty words) of old comics that were an attempt to add content and keep readers from just skipping over the back third of the magazine. (I ain’t gonna post them on this blog…if you want to read them, hunt down some old copies of Wizard yourself!)

Chris Bachalo and inker Tim Townsend put together this rendition of the 1997 versions of the original X-men team members for the cover of Wizard #79.

As you might recall, I previously attended the Small Press Expo in 1995 for a special extra-length “Palmer’s Picks” in Wizard #50. This time my reporting was a little more focused: I was asked to follow Bone creator Jeff Smith around the show. To be honest, I really don’t remember too much about this one. Both the show and my writing of this news report are a blur to me. The one thing I do know is that I had to fabricate the ending since I left early on Sunday and did not attend the after-show softball game and pig roast. Maybe it was because of my irrational fear of organized sports and slow-cooked animals? Whatever the reason, I had to do a little follow-up reporting with Smith over the phone to get a few final quotes to wrap up this piece.

The one thing I definitely did not have to exaggerate was Smith’s generosity and positive attitude with his fans at the show. He really is as good-natured and kind as he comes across in this piece. I’m glad that it worked out for this to be my last scanned article on this blog so that things can end on a high note.

And with that, I’m finally able to wrap-up this archive of my old “Palmer’s Picks” columns and related writings from Wizard. It took a little over a year to put together these 75 blog posts, and there have been a lot of ups and downs along the way. Thank you to everyone who has stuck around from the beginning. And thanks also go to everyone who helped out with “Palmer’s Picks” way back when it was first published in Wizard: all of my various editors at the magazine, the support staff (especially the ones who made sure I got paid!), and an extra big thanks to all of the designers who worked on the column and made me look good!

I’ve been asked many times if this blog will continue with new content after I’ve reached the end of the old Wizard content. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I have a few ideas for ways to keep going with this website; it’s just a matter of finding the time to execute them. Stay tuned!


Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Wizard News Special Report

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Jeff Smith is the king of the small press. His self-published comic, Bone, is one of the best-known independent comics on the racks and has garnered raves from across the industry. Surprisingly, Smith takes this all in stride. Success has definitely not gone to his head. Case in point: How many industry bigwigs would even consider-going to something called the Small Press Expo? After hitting it big, many creators might think they were slumming at a convention that isn’t a Chicago ComiCon or San Diego Comic Con. Not Smith. He wears his status as a “small press” creator like a badge of honor.

Granted, this isn’t your typical comic convention. Taking place in the Washington D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md., there are no dealers at the SPX, no big flashy company displays. It’s just a whole mess of artists and writers ready to meet and greet their fans. Approximately 1,000 people showed up to see Smith and 200 small-press stalwarts like Colleen Doran, Dave Sim, Charles Vess, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt and Scott McCloud. Wizard was there too. Even though we’re not a small press star, we tagged along to see exactly what it’s like to be Jeff Smith, at least for a weekend.

Friday, September 19, 1997

7 p.m.

In honor of old-time cartoonists like his idol Walt Kelly (Pogo), Smith gives a “chalk talk”—a public instructional drawing class that Kelly had often done. Smith takes the stage (actually a small platform in the corner of a large meeting room) with marker in hand, ready to doodle on a giant sketchpad. Unfortunately, due to some strange planning, the chalk talk runs at the same time as the opening night reception, so the “talk” part of the presentation is drowned out by various party noises. Still, a sizable number of fans crowd around Smith as he scribbles the Bone cousins on the huge sketchpad, describing where he gets his inspiration from. Afterwards, Smith remarks, “I felt like a stand-up comedian. I’m not sure if everybody got what I was doing, but I think I reached a few fans.”

Saturday, September 20

10:30 a.m.

The convention starts slowly, and the fans haven’t located Smith’s table yet. “Sounds like a good chance to grab breakfast,” he says, unloading a stack of Bone hardcovers at his table. Being a well-known cartoonist has its advantages, and this is one of them—it’s not hard for Smith to find breakfast companions.

Smith, along with the gang from The Million Year Picnic, one of Boston’s biggest independent-comic-friendly comic shops, heads outside to a diner. Downing a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs, Smith picks the Picnic staff’s collective brain for up-and-coming cartoonists. “You really oughta pick up Coober Skeber,” says one of the staff. This anthology stirred up a lot of buzz at the San Diego Comic Con because it featured a number of mini-comic and alternative cartoonists doing unauthorized and totally bizarre rip-offs of Marvel characters. Smith is intrigued, and makes it his first priority to hunt down a copy.

Noon

Back at the con, Smith is comfortably plopped at the Cartoon Books table, signing away. The fans have tracked him down, and he’s working on a line of people that never seems to end. He shakes hands with each person in line and makes a point to get the name of every fan who comes to the table. When he’s presented with a hardcover Bone collection to sign, he always doodles a small, personalized sketch.

All this is in sharp contrast to most artists, who make it appear as if they’re being held at gunpoint to stay at their table. Funny thing is, fan attention is just natural to Smith. “A lot of people comment about my ‘convention attitude,’ but I don’t know how you could do it any other way,” he says to one inquisitive fan, taking a second to look up from a sketch of Thorn and Bone. “You guys made Bone what it is. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

1:30 p.m.

All through the day, fans come by Smith’s table and drop off self-published comics, ranging from photocopied mini-comics to professional-quality stuff. Rookie creator Rick Henn presents Smith with ashcans for the first two issues of Time Spell, his venture into self-publishing. “You’re the inspiration for me to do this,” Henn says, handing his comics to Smith. “If I hadn’t read Bone, I don’t think I would be going ahead with this.”

Smith adds the comics to an already sizable stack of reading material. “Man, it’s rough out there!” he cautions. “It’s a lot different from when I started, so you’re going to have to tough it out if you want to succeed, no matter how good your book is.”

2:30 p.m.

Smith takes a break from the table to wander around the Expo and check out some of the other artists, but before he can even get two feet from the table, he’s intercepted by Mark Askwith, a journalist from a Canadian sci-fi TV station called Space: The Imagination Station. Askwith and his cameraman lead Smith to a nearby park for a quick interview under the shade of a tree. The unseasonably warm air and sunny weather must be a relief to Smith, as he comes alive once the camera rolls. He gleefully and animatedly answers every question, a few of which are of the requisite “What is Bone about?” variety that he’s surely answered 1,000 times before. He sticks his face in the camera, talks with his hands and never gives a dry answer. “Wow, you’re such a natural,” Askwith remarks afterwards. “Yeah, maybe I missed my calling,” Smith replies with a laugh.

3:50 p.m.

Back at the table, Smith chats with fans, while a middle-aged Bone fan stops by with his daughter. He grabs Smith’s attention and politely asks if his daughter can stand behind the table to watch Smith sketch. “Of course,” he says. “You didn’t even have to ask.” The girl, whose name is Cindy, can’t be any more than five years old and is barely able to peek over the table. She stands silently to Smith’s left, her eyes as wide as saucers as she stares at his sketching hand, almost until the show ends at five.

Sunday, September 21

3 p.m.

After the convention hubbub is over, the fun still continues. At a nearby baseball field, Smith (starting in left field) and a handful of other cartoonists take on Diamond Distribution’s softball team in a knock-down, drag-out game. Much to everybody’s surprise, the SPX gang pulls out a 13-8 victory. Not bad for a bunch of cranky artists who’ve never played together before. Once the game’s over, it’s time to fire up a nice, big, juicy roast pig—something of a tradition at the Expo. For Smith, this is just the end to a truly great weekend. “This has honestly been one of the best shows I’ve been to. Ever,” Smith says afterwards. “I know they’re planning next year’s show, and man, I’m already there!”

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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