Held on September 17-18 in Bethesda, Maryland, this year’s Small Press Expo was a fantastic showcase for indie comic creators and anyone looking for the latest mini-comics, zines, and small press graphic novels. WWAC writers Rebecca Henely and Kayleigh Hearn attended SPX and now share some of the most intriguing titles they picked up, including two Ignatz Award nominees.
Pranas T. Naujokaitis
Ghost Car Press
Mini-comics are probably SPX’s most plentiful resource, and in this market a creator will once in a while try to catch your eye on the basis of novelty. Naujokaitis’ is the most inventive I’ve seen yet with Ignatz nominee Laffy Meal. Sold in a white paper bag with the logo for Burger Crown, the restaurant where the comic takes place, the reader finds five small books inside with covers resembling different parts of a fast food meal. Each tells the story of a fateful family dinner from a different point of view: father Dan (the burger), mother Claire (the drink), elder son Ted (the fries), younger son Joe (the toy) and dog Sparky (the ketchup packet).
Naujokaitis’ drawings are simple and cartoony while still capturing the unhappy emotions of most of the characters. The story is solid slice of life, although it trucks a bit in stock family tropes—the prideful and angry dad, the surly teenager, the long-suffering mother. While Dan, Claire and Ted’s points of view are still strong, Joe and Sparky are clearly goofy afterthoughts. I happened to read the comic in the order described above and saw less and less surprises as I went. Still, I give the book points for being fun and clever, and hope more mini-comics looking to break the format mold follow its footsteps with stronger stories.
Jess Fink and Yuko Ota
If you’re a Stucky fan, 2016 has been your year, with Captain America: Civil War hitting theaters and the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtag rallying shippers and fans eager for more queer representation in media. Fanworks pairing Captain America with his time-displaced, occasionally brainwashed best friend Bucky/Winter Soldier are plentiful on the internet, but if you’re looking for the kind of lovingly made, hold-in-your-hands zine rarely found outside of Japanese doujinshi, What Makes You Happy is a must-have. Created by Jess Fink (Chester 5000) and Yuko Ota (Lucky Penny), the zine combines short, erotic comic strips with pin-ups, sketches, and even tiny, adorable stickers. Fink’s “The First Time” is a sepia toned ode to Steve and Bucky’s unspoken feelings for each other before World War II, while “The First and Last” catches up to the present day with a steamy bathroom encounter than earns every bit of that 18+ rating. The sex is tender and hot, but what really impressed me is Fink’s attention to detail—Wings, the silent film that Steve and Bucky watch, is considered to have the first kiss between men on screen. Yuko Ota’s illustrations cover a wide range of moods: Bucky sulking handsomely under his shaggy hair, a Snapchat joke about Steve’s ass, and even a funny comic about Steve, Bucky, Black Widow, and Falcon hanging out in Central Park. The title page promises “18+ Stucky Hell Fun Times,” and unquestionably delivers.
Content Warning: Suicide ideation.
Broke and without health insurance, writer/artist Gabby Schulz comes down with some type of super-flu that leaves him bedridden for 15 days. Unwilling to risk incurring debt at a hospital and too proud to ask for help, Schulz confronts the possibility of and eventually welcomes potentially dying in a fever-induced meditation on his personal failures and the cruelties of the world.
Sick was deservedly nominated for an Ignatz Award this year. On the back cover Schulz warns that his book is “not for children or the self-satisfied.” It features a dark, nihlistic take on life and humanity, rendered lovingly in arresting watercolors of primarily red, brown, yellow and black. As Schulz’s mindset plunges deeper into darkness, he portrays his own body with skeletal thinness, contorting with pain, the flesh often flayed in strips from his bones. Meanwhile the world is shown in cruel, heartless caricatures that stay in Schulz and the reader’s mind even when his sickness fades. Even if I don’t share Schulz’s atheism or his dark worldview, I applaud the way this comic shows how pain and the fear of death can lead the mind down nightmarish paths.
I will say I don’t think it’s as good as Monsters, Schulz’s earlier book written under the pseudonym “Ken Dahl,” which goes into his experience with herpes. There was also one part of the book that really alienated me—without completely derailing this review or defending any of Israel’s current policies, calling the concept of Zionism one of the great evils of the world given the multiple meanings that word has to multiple Jews when you’re not Jewish or Palestinian yourself is at best really reductive. Still, the art is mesmerizing and at a brief 84 pages this grotesque graphic novel is well worth your time and attention.
Eric Gordon (Editor and Production), Sara Gordon (Assistant Editor)
Keep an eye out for pop culture fanzines at SPX; this year alone I encountered tongue-in-cheek zines about Nicholas Cage, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and even saw a flyer for an upcoming zine about artistic interpretations of Fraiser‘s oft-mentioned but never seen Maris (this is, incidentally, the best zine idea I’ve ever seen). When I saw Thank You for Your Cooperation’s icy blue cover with Robocop’s grim visage embellished with silver marker, I knew that, dead or alive, it was coming with me. A film ripe with ultraviolent satire, Christ symbolism, and two sneering, coked-up Twin Peaks cast members, Robocop is perfect fanzine material. Thank You for Your Cooperation works as a deranged activity book the shitty gangster kid in Robocop 2 would have liked, featuring pin-ups (“Murphy, it’s you!” coos a midriff-baring Officer Lewis), fake obituaries, and in my favorite page by artist Kendra Kountz, a McDonald’s placemat-like maze inside Robocop’s torso to find Murphy’s heart. As with many anthologies, however, some contributions fall flat, relying on easy “How does Robocop pee?” jokes and comic pages that are just straight recreations of scenes from the movie. Robocop is a bold, audacious, and darkly funny film, and not every page in Thank You for Your Consideration rises to its level.
Ten Speed Press
While the comic book world has seen a few graphic novel cookbooks in recent years like Relish and Dirt Candy, Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! makes a strong argument for these curiosities to become a full-blown trend. Based on Ha’s popular webcomic/Tumblr Banchan in 2 Pages, the graphic novel presents a myriad of Korean recipes from staples like kimchi and barbecue to fun cocktails and Korean fusion. These recipes are illustrated with adorable and eye-poppingly colorful pictures of vegetables, seafood and the occasional anthropomorphized cow or slice of tofu, while Ha’s mascot—the hanbok-clad Dengki—gently guides the reader through the process. Ha supplements these recipes with bits of Korean food history or culture (did you know Korean spices originally came from Portugal?), as well as her own history in learning how to cook with her mother.
While I haven’t yet had the chance to make any recipes yet (my digestive system has been epically messed up lately), and there are few dishes that don’t require a trip to an Asian market, I have to commend Ha for making a cuisine that most Westerners have only experienced in restaurants more accessible in such a fun way. I’m looking forward to trying my hand at a few when I do get better—although I’ll definitely worry about getting the stray fleck of gochujang (chili paste) on such a beautiful book in the process!
Floating World Comics
In 2009, artist Tim Goodyear turned his sketchbook into a video diary, redrawing the box art of the VHS tapes and DVDs he watched and substituting the text with his own short, pithy reviews. The published collection Video Tonfa is a hefty 600-page tome, printed on the same tawdry yellow paper that gave giallo films their name. The book is dedicated mostly to cult films and schlock obscurities like Hell Comes to Frogtown and Critters 4, though occasionally a Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick movie sneaks in just to keep us on our toes. Goodyear’s loose, sketchy pen and ink drawings aren’t concerned with delicacy or proportions, but are fascinating reconstructions of the increasingly lost art of the video box. The accompanying reviews are pure, unfiltered reactions to cinema. My favorite line comes from Goodyear’s review of The Care Bears Movie: “[It] does send some mix’d messages about magic & the occult. But that’s O.K.”