SPX 2022 was back – how many “[blank] is back!” stories have I written this year – but I mean it was really back.
Taking the bus down, I fretted a bit over whether there would be a lot of changes to the hotel or the setting but I honestly shouldn’t have worried. The big changes were in 2019, when the hotel switched from Aughts golden tones to charcoal gray walls and a neo-industrial look.
But all the important things were there:
- 400+ exhibitors and cartoonists who were there to love comics and each other
- 1000+ attendees who were there to buy these comics
- The outside patio where everyone hung out for joyful hours just being around our tribe.. New books, new jobs, newly revealed genders – so much to catch up on! (Friday I stood up for five hours straight, and my feet hurt,)
- Nearby restaurants and coffee that made meal planning a snap – and many many more just a short car drive away.
That’s the highlights. Before I drill down a bit, some news bites, from a conversation with showrunner Warren Bernard on Sunday afternoon.
- Attendance was steady all weekend but down from 2019 – but surely that was to be expected. Although the crowd was smaller, sales were high.
- Dates for the show are locked in for years and Bernard stated in no uncertain terms that “SPX is staying in its current location.” Some rumors of a move had circulated during the dark years, but Bernard points out that there is literally no other facility in the area that can handle the event. The North Bethesda Marriott offers just the right mix of space, amenities, and access to transportation. It really is an ideal venue and though it caps the size of the show, resulting in the high stakes exhibitor lottery, expansion isn’t really in the cards in the immediate post pandemic* years.
- One news note that IS happening: next year SPX and the Baltimore Comic Con will take place on the same dates. SPX had to move a week earlier to avoid a conflict with Rosh Hashanah, and will be held Sept. 9-10 – dates that coincide exactly with BCC. As Bernard pointed out, as SPX is the largest event held at this Marriott, they can guarantee dates. BCC has no such luxury with the Baltimore Convention Center, and it moves around various dates in September and October. Practically speaking, I doubt that this will cause too much problem as only a few people go to both. At best it will mean one fewer train trip – I imagine I’ll go down for Baltimore Thursday and Friday and SPX Saturday and Sunday. Problem solved!
Now to drill down a bit.
As I noted at TCAF, the crazy thing about 2022’s indie shows is that you are seeing THREE YEARS worth of amazing books – and it’s overwhelming. You want them all. I could have easily spent $1-2K just getting all the cool things I missed. Since I don’t have space for them all, digital copies may have to suffice. I did get a modest haul, though. (Reviews to come.)
The publishing line up changed a bit. Fantagraphics was there in fine form. Top Shelf was celebrating 25 years where it all began. Adhouse was celebrating the end of the trail with one last appearance – and a tell all panel. Secret Acres and Uncivilized were hanging in there.
Not there: Drawn & Quarterly. Some people had gone expecting to pick up Ducks, the biggest debut of the week, but surprise! It was not to be found. The reason is not hard feelings, D&Q is just switching to setting up at book shows, library shows, and touring authors – Ducks’ Beaton is going on a 10 stop tour, and Tom Gauld is out there as well. D&Q continues to support authors – Rumi Hara was at SPX – but with travel, shipping and printing costs all mounting, it’s a sound business decision for them.
Also missing: the big CBLDF booth. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has switched from setting up and selling books to a different format, and acting head Jeff Trexler has been busy winning landmark legal actions on behalf of Maia Kobabe and Gender Queer, a far more important activity than just selling books. Trexler was on hand to talk about the case and take some well deserved kudos for the Virginia decision.
The book of the show? There were dozens, although I should call out The Abolition of Man, published by Living the Line, though Brigid Alverson snagged the only copy. It’s billed as the first AI comic, with author Carson Grubaugh feeding lines from the C.S. Lewis book into an AI art generator and squishing the results into panels. The object is disturbing as hell; I have the feeling that AI generated art may be what NFTs pretended to be – a game changer that affects everything in its path.
As for other trends – well, Halloween is in the air, and there were so many comics about witches, and so many people dressed as witches, and really lots and lots of queer fantasy, queer horror, vampires, werewolves and the like.
I’m sure editors, publishers and cartoonists are rolling their eyes at my “revelation,” but SPX was the queerest comics show long before it was all the rage, and it remains queer and trans AF and what better to represent change and transformation than magical girls, magical boys, and magical enby. Identifying with “monsters” and finding out they are not so bad is a huge theme of today’s comics – including kids and YA.
And other changes – I was originally going to call this piece “From Adventure Time to Adventure Zone” to reflect the shift in focus. In olden days SPX was a job fair for Adventure Time and other magical adventure cartoons. With streaming in shambles, that pipeline seems to have dried up. Lockdowns led to pastimes which led to gaming and D&D and everyone is setting off into the forest with a party now.
Also, the Risograph Era may be over. I mentioned this to a few people and one of them confirmed that his Riso was broken and he can’t get parts – the technology was already obsolete and the machines can’t be serviced. Also, everyone starts out working digitally now, and digital printing is cheap and beautiful.
The Ignatzes were just as wonderful as ever, although with fewer winners in attendance, perhaps partly because of the switch from in person to online voting. This led to many more votes – more than 2000 – but also some unexpected winners, including comics published by Boom! (The Many Deaths of Laila Starr) and TKO (Djeliya by Juni Ba, one of the year’s best books for sure.) Other winners were SPX favorites, though, like Beatrix Urkowitz and Reimena Yee. And look, given the youth of indie comics, there is no way a book called “Pee Pee Poo Poo” was not going to win, just so everyone could say “pee pee poo poo” all night.
Other than that, the area around the conference center has built up in decent ways in the 15 years since SPX moved there. The Pike and Rose mall, only a few blocks away houses several nice restaurants – North Bethesda is a rich suburb and people demand decent food. I was especially happy with South Block, which sold excellent açai bowls and smoothies, a solid breakfast option after a night of yakking and standing.The little strip mall right around the corner from the hotel has a Vietnamese place, and just before I boarded the bus for the five hour ride home I got a very good banh mi and maybe the best mango slushie I ever had. All good!
And an area of lawn behind the parking garage has been turned into a “park” with picnic tables and a little bandstand. Coming back from dinner on Friday, a live salsa lesson and dance party was underway, and it was tempting to stay.
Other than that…the reunion was on. I had a wonderful time, connecting with roomies Brigid Alverson and Johanna Draper Carlson, and a Saturday dinner party of them, artist Janet Lee, raconteur Carla Speed McNeil and Living the Line publisher Sean Michael Robinson was the model of the con dinner. Just enough people for good conversation, a limpid late summer evening outside, and a giant sushi boat. Good, good times.
You can listen to Brigid, Johanna, Carla and I talking about the show here:
Three years is a significant amount of time. But the cartoonists at SPX 22 drew from every era from original exhibitors like Carla Speed McNeil, on to returning favorites (Megan Kelso, Tom Hart, Ariel Bordeaux) recent multimedia stars (Dash Shaw, Ron Wimberly), The New Guard (Tommi Parrish, Bianca Xunise) and even newer guards (your name here.) The message I heard from everyone was the same – joy to be with the community again, thrilled to see all the comics. SPX has always been inspiring, and everyone left all fired up to go and make more comics. We made it.
* I know the pandemic isn’t really over, but it is never going to be over. Covid is here to stay, and maintenance is learning to live with it.
And some photos: