Another Alternative Press Expo has come and gone. This was my 12th year at the show, which was launched by publisher Dan Vado (SLG) in 1994. This was probably my busiest show yet, too.
For the third year in a row, the APE organizers asked me to run some DIY workshops, so the convention really started back in August for me, when I began lining up cartoonists to conduct one-hour seminars on subjects ranging from building a webcomics audience to finding a collaborator to Watercolors 101. This one always requires a little bit of juggling, but we had a really enthusiastic group of teachers this year, and things went pretty smoothly by all accounts.
As for the hard work for the convention, that also started pretty early. It was two or three years ago that I realized we were approaching the 30th anniversary of celebrated indie comic Love and Rockets, and I mentioned that fact to Fantagraphics after another 2012 exhibition I was working on fell through. They were excited about it, so we made note of that and went on about our business. In the months leading up to APE, I made arrangements with the Hernandez brothers and some art collectors to borrow 60 really nice examples of their artwork for an exhibition, which I matted, framed and installed in the days leading up to the convention. Somewhere along the way, I wrote a 1500-word appreciation of Love and Rockets for the APE program book, as well as putting together additional text for the Cartoon Art Museum‘s exhibition.
This was all hot on the heels of installing two additional exhibitions over the past three weeks, Sketchtravel and The Art of ParaNorman, as well as a showcase of local artist Jonas Madden-Connor the same week as I was installing Love and Rockets. Really, all of that would have been enough for me to call it an October and take a break.
A little over a month ago, though, I committed to moderating four APE panels, and ended up running five of them. Here’s a brief recap of each one:
*Saturday, 12:45: Comics as Political Statement, with guests Eric Drooker, Ben Katchor, Miriam Libicki, and Stan Mack. I knew everyone but Stan Mack going into this panel, so I didn’t do very much prep. It takes very little effort no effort to get Eric Drooker talking about politics, and once I introduced everyone, it was just a matter of getting them all to talk to each other about free weeklies, the New York vs. California political scenes, and whether it’s possible to not make a political statement with your comics. Not my best panel ever, but solid, and pretty well attended.
*Saturday, 4:45: Using Childhood Experiences to Create Adult Stories, with guests Derek Kirk Kim, Miriam Libicki, Kraig Rasmussen, and Jim Woodring. Another one where I didn’t do much prep, since I knew everyone but Jim Woodring going into the panel. This was fun, in its own strange way, since everyone just talked about miserable childhood experiences that shaped them into the cartoonists they are today. Jim Woodring’s stories of his childhood were incredible, since he had stories about childhood hallucinations and struggling with mental illness. The stories that really stuck with me were Woodring seeing the Fleischer cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation” at age four and spending several years of his life trying to discover that world in our reality, and Derek’s story about seeing a slacker artist at his Korean grade school get smacked for lack of effort, which goes a long way toward explaining the effort that goes into each and every one of his drawings. I was getting into a good moderating groove by the end of this one, and it would have been my best panel of the day if not for:
*Saturday, 5:45: Spotlight on the Hernandez Brothers: 30 Years of Love and Rockets, with Mario, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. This was the high-pressure Saturday panel, since I knew it would have a big audience, and that most of the attendees were going to be huge Love and Rockets fans. I’ve read the vast majority of Love and Rockets (pretty far behind on Gilbert’s side projects, though) thanks to the big hardcover collections from Fantagraphics that caught me up to almost everything prior to the most recent series, but I decided to keep the conversation fairly general and accessible to anyone who just wanted to catch a discussion with this year’s featured guests. That’s my goal with every panel I moderate, actually, since I’ll typically have about 35 minutes of my own questions followed by 10-15 minutes of audience questions, and that’s never quite enough time to get into a really involved conversation about someone’s career.
I’ve chatted with Jaime and Gilbert a bit at conventions over the past couple of years, especially this past summer when it came time to start work on our 30th anniversary exhibition. I’ve known Mario for about five years, and in his day job as a contractor, he’s done a lot of work on my house dating back to 2010, so that helped to take the edge off for this one, which immediately followed the previous panel. And having three brothers on a panel also makes things easier for me, since it wasn’t going to take much to get them trading stories about growing up together or life in comics over the past 30-plus years.
Lots of cool stories about Oxnard, California, where Los Bros. grew up, and how it was this weird mix of Latino culture, surfers, migrant workers, rich and poor neighborhoods, and how music, pop culture and comic books shaped their lives. They loved all kinds of comics growing up except, oddly enough, romance comics, which boys just didn’t buy. Fun stories included submitting their first/only self-published Love and Rockets mag to The Comics Journal, since Los Bros. didn’t have an advertising budget and that seemed like the best way to get their names out there (along with drawing pinups for every major fanzine that would take them). Thirty years later, they’re still at it, and they expect to be doing this as long as audiences will support them.
*Saturday night was the Cartoon Art Museum’s annual APE party, and this was our most successful one in years. Having the Hernandez Brothers as guests, premiering our new exhibition that night, offering a limited edition 30th anniversary print courtesy of Fantagraphics, and the fact that there seemed to be a lot less competition for people’s Saturday night entertainment options this year resulted in a really nice turnout and a big fundraising opportunity for CAM.
The Museum used to have a lock on APE Saturday, but 5-7 years ago other parties and events sprang up like wildfire. Since people are still getting into town on Friday (the night of the annual Last Gasp pre-registration party) and are either exhausted or leaving town on Sunday, Saturday’s the night everyone’s vying for attention. Our usual big competition is the party at Isotope, The Comics Lounge, which apparently gets so many people that the party has to spill out onto the streets, since one comic shop can’t contain the whole thing. I’d much rather be at a party where you can relax, casually talk to artists and friends, and never wait more than a couple of minutes for a drink, so it’s probably for the best that we generally host the kind of parties I’d like to attend.
*Sunday, 1:30: Spotlight on Miriam Libicki. This one was a late addition to my schedule. I’ve known Miriam for a few years now, and this year she was an invited guest of the convention, which means that she gets a spotlight panel at APE. Since she didn’t have time to prepare a slideshow or lecture (having a baby can wreak havoc with your schedule, I’ve heard), she asked me Saturday morning if I’d mind moderating a discussion with her. What’s one more panel between friends?
This one went really well, and it helps that I know Miriam but don’t know absolutely everything about her and her career, so I just sat down and asked about any aspect of her cartooning that I wanted to know more about. Most mindblowing to me is that she’s got a five-month old baby who’s already been to five comic conventions. You can order her comics (including the must-read series Jobnik!) at her website: http://realgonegirl.com/ It hasn’t been updated in a while, but she’s been busy. Another really good panel all around, since it was just a casual Sunday afternoon conversation between friends.
*Sunday, 4:45: Bay Area Comics: Past, Present, and Future, with Shaenon K. Garrity, Justin Hall, Alec Longstreth, Thien Pham, Jason Shiga, and Jason Thompson. This was the last panel of the convention, and it was basically just a free-for-all initiated by me and Thien Pham. The program book description mentioned that we’d be talking with Oakland native Jason Shiga and past, present and future Bay Area cartoonists, so we filled out the roster with Jason Thompson (who grew up here, but moved to Seattle a few years ago), recent transplant Alec Longstreth, Justin Hall (who’s been here since the late 1990s or early 2000s), and my wife, Shaenon Garrity, who moved here from Ohio in 2000 (just like me, coincidentally). Rina Ayuyang was going to be on the panel but had to drop out when she couldn’t get anyone to watch her table, which is unfortunate, since she’s probably one of the best people on earth when it comes to scrapping with Thien.
Thien kicked things off by delivering a long monologue about his earliest childhood memories, which involved a treacherous boat tide to the United States and an attack by pirates. He started in about two minutes before the microphone was switched on, then kept going without interruption for several minutes after the AV crew activated it. We all just sat there, listening politely and waiting for Jason Shiga, and I half regret that we eventually interrupted and started talking about comics. There’s an alternate universe where we never stopped Thien and he’s still narrating his life story to whomever’s in that room at the Concourse.
This was another fun, casual conversation panel, with all of us talking about the good and bad aspects of making comics in general, and in making comics in the Bay Area. We all agreed that San Francisco and its surrounding areas have incredible resources (Shaenon made an impassioned plea for everyone to visit and support the Cartoon Art Museum, which scored her some not-really-needed bonus points), and the strong and active comics community is a big part of why people come here and stay here. I think that 90% of the people in my address book are there because of comics, which is something I couldn’t have imagined back when I was in college, even if I’d gone into comics professionally.
Sales at this year’s convention were pretty decent. Shaenon has a new book or two almost every year, so she’s guaranteed at least some sales because of that. Our cartooning group, The Couscous Collective, had a new anthology available, called KITTIES!, and we moved at least a few copies over the weekend (and it’s been selling steadily since we started selling it online the following week). We started doing anthologies twice a year not long after we started our group, and that’s a way to keep those of us without regular projects knocking out at least six pages a couple of times a year. I haven’t made any new mini-comics or updated a webcomic in a while, so it’s nice to have something new on the table in front of me.
I sold three copies of The Looney Tunes Treasury to families with kids, which made for an above-average weekend on that front. Shaenon sold enough original art to justify spending some cash on a hula girl commission from the legendary Sergio Aragones of MAD Magazine fame, and sold enough other stuff to justify buying a Story Minute original from Carol Lay (not that we needed to spend much effort “justifying” either one. Both were excellent purchases).
Conventions are a lot less stressful now that we’ve got a group of talented cartoonists tabling with us. We do between two and five conventions a year, and most of our costs are covered by annual dues that all of us are paying. A one-time moderate-sized payment each year makes it easier to relax at a convention and not obsess over how much money you’ve got to make back at any given show. That’s a really nice change from going to APE or Stumptown, making $20 off of my mini-comics, and realizing that Shaenon’s sales were going to make or break the show for us, since I was barely going to cover two days’ worth of convention lunches.
The economy’s never totally bounced back from…9-11? Actually, I’m not sure when sales have ever been hand-over-fist at APE. Big publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly always have new, great books each year and one or two really popular guests signing for them, artists selling prints (an ever-increasing portion of exhibitors) seem to do really well, a few craftmakers always sell like gangbusters (there’s always someone with some knitted thing, or a t-shirt with a Dr. Who/something-else-mashup, or someone with toys or little sculptures who’s probably out-earning 95% of the cartoonists on the floor), but most cartoonists seem to do something in the vicinity of “okay” or “I don’t wanna talk about it” at APE.
Still, I always have at least a good enough time to sign on for another year, and I’m looking ahead to #13 next year.