On September 19 and 20, the 21st annual Small Press Expo was held in Bethesda, Maryland. WWAC writers Kat Overland, Rebecca Henely, and Kayleigh Hearn attended and wrote about notable new comics from the convention. Read on!
Youth in Decline
With big Ignatz Award wins for “Sex Coven” and Sex Fantasy #4 (see below), this was a good year for indie comics with “sex” in the title. Jillian Tamaki’s “Sex Coven” has an irresistible premise: a mysterious song known only as “Sex Coven” is uploaded to the Internet and spreads like wildfire due to its almost supernatural ability to inspire “cascading feelings of dread, fear, love, and euphoria” in those who listen to it. The song is popular with young people, inspiring “coven crawls” and group sex, until finally its cult-like following develops into an actual cult.
With its “The Ring meets Napster” concept (with a bit of the ol’ Satanic Panic about hidden messages in songs along for good measure), “Sex Coven” has the kind of hook that found footage horror movies would kill for, but it’s not a horror story at all. Told in a semi-documentary style, it’s a fascinating examination of an inexplicable phenomenon. The second half of the comic falters a bit when it narrows its focus on Raven and Furbaby, a bickering couple living on a ranch for Sex Coven devotees. Neither woman is particularly interesting or likable, which may be a result of the comic’s short length, and the story ends on a weak note. But “Sex Coven” is worth a read for its concept alone and of course for Jillian Tamaki’s gorgeous artwork. The book’s two-tone black and blue coloring gives it a dreamy quality, and Tamaki does an excellent job at conveying sound in a visual medium, depicting Sex Coven as smoky, erotic tendrils of music. (Just look at that stunning cover, which may be my favorite comic cover of the year.) Frontier #7 is an excellent showcase for Tamaki’s talents, and “Sex Coven” is an intriguing story about the power music holds over us.
Content Warning: Bestiality, drug use, and foul language.
Gina is a lazy, nerdy slob. She spends her day eating, buying weed, looking at Tumblr, looking at porn, and looking on porn on Tumblr. If only Gina could be more like Lunar Princess, who had her talking cat Nebula to make her tough. As her 24th birthday approaches, Gina searches for a cat who will help her grow up and finds a group of four cats with creepy human faces. The results are disastrous and disgusting.
If there’s anything the Small Press Expo loves, it’s cats and Sailor Moon; the artist tables are always full of fanart for the beloved anime and slice-of-life comics about our feline companions. This Ignatz nominee combines both of these obsessions, plus a helping of self-deprecating girl-geek humor, into an awesome grotesquerie. Gross-out comedy has never quite gone away, but there’s something that feels fresh and simultaneously retro about this mini-comic, like the Foul Bachelorette Frog Meme by way of R. Crumb. Wynbrandt seems to delight in making her self-insert look as wretched as possible as she’s snapping a rat’s neck, doing a line of coke, or crying on all-fours in an alleyway. And as much as I’ve grown to adore my fiancee’s cats, looking at the four felines with human faces makes me shudder.
This is not a comic for everyone, if the content warnings above hadn’t already hinted. Still, I couldn’t help but be weirdly entranced by it. While I used to be a huge fan of transgressive humor, I lost my taste for it when I realized most of it was coming from white guys. It’s nice to see a woman get to be publicly, unabashedly gross for a change, and at nobody’s expense but herself, too.
Our Valued Comics
Like the heroine of “Big Pussy,” Andrew Brendan is a loathsome human being. Unlike Gina, though, we’re supposed to hate him. And why wouldn’t we? He’s everything we hate about the Internet and nerd culture in one convenient package: a selfish and self-important jerk who spends his time complaining about others (especially women) and the things he claims to love.
Chamberlain has made a name for himself with his webcomic Our Valued Customers, a one-panel strip portraying customers that came into the comic shop where he worked and some of the more offensive/hypocritical/funny things they said. While the more negative strips have always been fun in a “Can you believe that a real person said this?” way, I don’t think the concept works as well with a fictional character. The things that Brendan says and does may be true to life, but with the “negative” Our Valued Customers strips the reader was invited to gawk, wince, and then go on to read the next panel. Stretched out into a full comic that turns all of those bad moments from comic bookstores and the Internet into an actual character, we start to wonder why we should keep watching and caring about this guy when even his “friends” clearly loathe him. Comedy with terrible main characters can be done, but it’s hard to care about a guy the narrative wants you to hate. I’ve enjoyed Chamberlain’s stuff in the past, but unless he radically changes the formula in the next issue I’m going to skip this one and stick to the net in the future.
Selkies. Ghosts. Mysterious lands behind a cellar door. And, of course, live-action roleplaying. In this mini-comic, Ostertag explores four stories in which young women walk along the intersection of reality and fantasy and find everything from love to freedom to a sense of self.
Tumblr can be a frustrating place for artists, especially when their art goes viral without their name on it. I didn’t remember Ostertag’s name when I saw her story about a girl falling in love with a female selkie, but as soon as I saw it in this collection I bought a copy of almost everything on Ostertag’s table. I’ve only had the chance to read this mini-comic so far, but I wasn’t disappointed. I love fairy tales, and I love how Ostertag puts very real world, sometimes even dark elements into her stories while still maintaining the genre’s hopeful, wondrous quality.
I also really enjoy Ostertag’s art. Her character designs are cute with simple, clear lines, and yet they’re diverse not only in race, but also facial structure. When characters age, sometimes only over the course of a few panels, the aging is distinct even while the design remains consistent. In addition to the cute stories, the pin-ups in the back of the book are great, especially the Marceline/Princess Bubblegum fanart and the black witch riding a roomba. I’m looking forward to reading her other mini-comic “Bacchanalia” and her webcomic collection with Brennan Lee Mulligan Strong Female Protagonist, but if she ever wants to make more of these I’d buy them in a second.
Noah van Sciver
This is a thirty-day diary comic, where Noah van Sciver tries to kickstart his creative juices by journaling his days for four weeks. He kicks off on February 24, 2014, starting the book with:
“I woke up in the middle of the night with a sudden realization: I really hate myself.”
It’s a grim, but somewhat relatable opening, if you’re nearing your 30s, in a dead-end job, looking for some direction. Van Sciver works at Panera and spends his time sleeping, drawing, and generally being irritated with the world around. He’s not afraid for his diary comics to make him look like kind of a dick, but you still kind of feel for him.
What sets this slightly apart from other diary comics collections is that there’s a narrative arc. After a blind date, van Sciver starts falling rapidly in love. It’s like watching a crush evolve in real time and is actually pretty adorable. The real time aspect of daily drawings shows a progression of their relationship and how his mood changes with it.
The art is sketchy—these are journal comics, after all—but it’s charming. Van Sciver draws himself a little goofy, more exaggerated when he’s mad. A second look at his coloring choices belies its initial crudeness—the palette is chosen with care and really brings helps draw the reader into van Sciver’s mood.
If you like diary comics, this is an especially nice one, filled with both the day-to-day mundane and a sweet love story.
Sex Fantasy #4
Sophia Foster-Dimino took home three Ignatz awards this year for Promising New Talent, Outstanding Series (Sex Fantasy), and Outstanding Mini-Comic for this particular issue of Sex Fantasy.
Sex Fantasy #4 is the first in the series to break away from the similar rhythms of the first three, moving from multiple characters and statements to two constant figures. This one is more linear, although it’s less of a story you tell other people than one you might constantly be telling yourself. Two women sit, one spilling the other’s darkest worries into her ear. Your heart might ache.
Foster-Dimino’s is clean and measured, a master use of nothing but blacks and negative space. Without gray tones, her comic is stark, but the tone never teeters into being overly grim. Right when your chest clenches at, “your lover is a deep dark delicious well & you’re nothing but a bucket,” the next panel reads, “not even a cool bucket.”
Reading the accusations of Sex Fantasy #4 is more harrowing than I expected when I picked it up, the cute cover not hinting at how cutting the interior would be. If you have a voice that knows all of your doubts, you’ll no doubt recognize some part of you inside it too.