Arts Desk

Meet a Local Con Organizer: A Chat with Small Press Expo’s Jeff Alexander

For 16 years, the Small Press Expo has attracted people who are interested in making or buying comic books that the major publishers weren't involved in, and the show is on again in two weeks. The convention's survived moving from Bethesda to Silver Spring and back, and then to Rockville (don't believe the North Bethesda address); hurricanes and sniper fear; commingling and then splitting permanently with the academic International Comic Arts Festival; and an ill-fated renaming as The Expo. Throughout the whole of this, it's been run by volunteers, and has had some truly great cartoonists as guests including Joost Swarte, Harvey Pekar, Gahan Wilson, Jeff Smith, Frank Miller, Peter Kuper, Kim Deitch... and too many more to list. Many indy and alternate cartoonists have gotten a big push at the show, including this year's guest Kate Beaton, who had amazingly long lines to buy her book last year. Executive Director Jeff Alexander took some time out to answer questions about this year's con for us.

Washington City Paper: How’d you personally get into comics?

Jeff Alexander: I got into comics first as a reader at a young age and then later tried my hand at creating comics. At first my goal was to become a syndicated cartoonist, but I shifted to self-publishing after one of the numerous rejection letters I received had a hand written note saying, "This would read better as a comic."

WCP: How is SPX different than a standard comics con?

JA: Initially, the first thing you notice is the absence of retailers found at a standard comics con. This absence places the entire focus of the show on the creators and their comics. The standard comics cons do have "artist alleys," but the exhibitors there have to compete for the attendees' attention. At SPX, there is no competition for the attendees attention. The attendees are readers of comics and graphic novels and they come to specifically to meet the creators of their favorite stories and hopefully discover new favorites.

WCP: SPX has traditionally raised funds for the free speech group, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. How much money does it usually raise for CBLDF?

JA: That tends to fluctuate. The operating costs for the show comes from the table sales, while the income from door receipts are donated to the CBLDF.  Traditionally this has been around $7000-8000, not including the gratis tables where the CBLDF sells books and then there's an additional check from any table sales income not needed to run next year's show. I'm hoping that this year we will surpass that amount.

We also try to do other things to raise additional funds for the CBLDF. In the past we published an anthology of comics. This year we will continue the project of auctioning a working guitar that has been painted by a comics artist. This year the guitar has been painted by the creator of Finder, Carla Speed McNeil.

WCP: How many years has it run, and how many years have you been a part of it?

JA: Oh my, you're going to make me do math. SPX began in 1994 and I became a member in 1995 ... so that would be 15 years.

WCP: How many people are you expecting?

JA: We will have over 300 exhibitors and expect to have 2500-3000 attendees. Although, we would love to be underestimating the number of attendees.

WCP: How come you and the webcomics con Intervention are on the same weekend? Do you think the shows will help each other's audience, cannibalize each other, or not matter?

JA: That conflict arose from a lack of communication between the two shows. We both share the same goal of promoting comics as an art form, so I hope that being less than a mile apart and on the same weekend will create cross-traffic that will benefit both of our shows.

WCP: Any cartoonists you are particularly proud of having come this year? Favorite guests of past years?

JA: That's a tough question, as  there are so many talented artists at this year's show.  If I have to chose just one, I would have to say it's James Sturm. His art and storytelling blend seamlessly and I am envious of his use of color to create the perfect mood for the story. My favorites from past years is another tough question. The first that come to mind would be Harvey Pekar and Will Eisner. I feel privileged to have had the chance to meet them while they were still among us. Other guests from past years that stand out in my mind would be Neil Gaiman, Gahan Wilson, Art Speigelman, Joost Swarte, Jeff Smith, Bill Griffith, and Stan Sakai (with apologies to the many that I left out).

WCP: How fast did the tables sell out? Are you sold out?

JA: Normally, our tables sell out within the first few months of becoming available. This year we set a record by selling out within the first few weeks. I suspect the economy spurred more exhibitors to take advantage of our "early bird" discounted rate.

WCP: Is there anything special about this year not mentioned yet?

JA: In the hope of the show eventually encompassing all forms of comics and cartooning arts, this year we have a new addition to SPX – the Animation Showcase. The Showcase will feature works by independent animators and include traditional and abstract storytelling in a variety of styles. The animations being shown have been selected by a panel of industry professionals and there will be an Audience Favorite ballot, with the award to be presented at the Ignatz Award ceremony on Saturday.

Additionally, future Executive Director Warren Bernard has been working with the Library of Congress to create an SPX Collection of alternative/independent comics. To our knowledge this will be the first collection of its kind.

The Small Press Expo is at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on Sept. 11 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sept. 12 noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $10 for one day, or $15 for both. I will be interviewing local cartoonist Richard Thompson along with Keith Knight and Marguerite Dabaie about comic strips on Sunday afternoon, and there's a lot of other good programming.

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