Con Diaries: Small Press Expo 2018

small press expo

As corny as it sounds, SPX feels more like a community than a convention. Held on September 15 to 16 in Bethesda, Maryland, Small Press Expo is, as the name implies, dedicated to independent and self-published comic books and zines. SPX feels like a unique con experience as soon as you enter the exhibit hall, not the least because it’s still held in a Marriott rather than a cavernous convention center, but because it’s one of the few comic shows still dedicated to comics as an art form, instead of the latest MCU blockbuster or walls of Funko Pops.


Small Press Expo is the kind of show where you’ll find Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Jules Feiffer at one table, and Instagram darling Aminder Dhaliwal at another. But the star (har har) I was most looking forward to was very special guest Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe. Before Steven, Sugar was an indie comic artist who attended SPX, so this was quite the celebrated homecoming for her. The line for her book signing began coiling around the exhibition hall as soon as the doors opened, but the long wait was worth it for the experience of meeting the mind behind one of my favorite shows. (And she complimented my dinosaur dress! Sorry, had to sneak that brag in there.) My eyes will turn into cartoon stars whenever I look at the Pearl sketch now adorning my Steven Universe: Art & Origins book.

steven universe
“Annnnnd Pearl!”

My first panel of the convention was “Feminist Futurism & Fantasy,” moderated by Francesca Lyn and featuring the panelists Emma Rios, Carolyn Nowak, Aminder Dhaliwar, and Fiona Smyth. The panelists acknowledged the necessity of dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale, but that they also wanted to see futurism used to tell positive stories about women’s lives. (For example, Dhaliwar’s Woman World was inspired by the 2017 Women’s March and the humorous signs she saw there.) The creators discussed their influences—Star Trek! Kazuo Ishiguro! Captain Harlock!—and the feminism at the core of their works. “Science fiction gives you the perfect metaphor for life,” said Rios. Oh, and there was much dragging of Y: The Last Man.

My second panel was possibly the most anticipated at SPX, “The Universes of Rebecca Sugar.” Interest was so high that SPX distributed pink wristbands for admittance, a first (to my knowledge) in the four years I’ve attended SPX. Interviewed by Youth in Decline publisher Ryan Sands, Sugar was personable and charming as she discussed the process of making Steven Universe, its possible conclusion (an eventual ending is in mind, but it’s evolved a lot), and the sense of relief when major plot elements, such as Garnet being a fusion, are revealed to the audience. She also talked about her roots in indie comics, and how her book, Pug Davis, inspired her show’s “Lars of the Stars” storyline. But perhaps the most affecting moments of the panel came when Sugar discussed the groundbreaking Ruby/Sapphire wedding on Steven Universe, and the importance of creating characters and relationships that LGBTQ kids can see themselves in. (Which became even more pertinent just a week later, when people started shooting green fire out of their eyes over the thought of Bert and Ernie being gay.) The final words of her panel, directed at all the fans, artists, and creators in the room, was “Please don’t stop.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent roaming the exhibition hall, picking up books/zines such as Woman World, Girl Town (no relation), Welcome to Pin Hell, Knife Cats, and Hot Pics of Steve Buscemi. (Don’t laugh, you know you want it.) We heard the sounds of Fab 4 Mania artist Carol Tyler singing Beatles karaoke with live musical accompaniment as we drifted through the hallways.

And then … the Ignatz Awards. Things started a little heavy (get it, because the awards are literal bricks?), with an introductory speech about SPX’s “Defend the 11” legal fund, which was established to help pay the legal costs for eleven independent comics artists who were hit by a defamation lawsuit for discussing another creator’s alleged history of sexual misconduct. Then Carol Tyler took the stage, hosting the awards with a “drunk aunt at the wedding” looseness that lost me by the time she took her bra off under her dress. But it certainly wasn’t boring.

The Ignatz Awards would later generate some online controversy when it was reported that audience booed the name of underground comix pioneer
R. Crumb (they did, and it was awesome). This raised the usual complaints about “satire” and millennials not respecting their elders, and it’s not the first time that the old guard of white middle-aged cartoonists has butted heads with the reality that the SPX audience is increasingly younger, queerer, and more racially diverse. Why wouldn’t they boo Crumb and his catalog of racist, misogynist caricatures? Crumb’s name was first mentioned as a part of a joking comment by presenter Ben Passmore as part of a larger point that establishing a vibrant and diverse comics community also means rooting out the creeps and apologists.

The full list of Ignatz Award winners can be read here. As no one book swept the awards, it was quite the showcase for new and established indie creators, showing just how fresh and vibrant the industry is. All in all, my favorite brick-laying ceremony.


The second day of SPX is always a little more chill than Saturday, with a more distinct hang-out vibe. There was still plenty to do, of course. The day began with a small meet-up of comics critics hosted by Rob Clough, where I heard stories of past expos. (Did you know that Frank Cho was an Ignatz juror in 1999? And it was a total disaster?) This was followed by more browsing around the Exhibition Hall, and running into WWAC’s own Zora Gilbert tabling for Margins Publishing.

Emma Rios signed books at a table hosted by the CBLDF. On Monday, when Con Crud was digging its claws into me, I was happy to remember chatting with Emma Rios about Captain Harlock while she sketched in my Girls Comics trade and, no, it wasn’t a NyQuil-induced hallucination.

My first Sunday panel was “The Practice of Diary Comics,” featuring Summer Pierre, Glynnis Fawkes, Kevin Budnik, and Dustin Harbin. This was a particularly fascinating panel because diary comics are inherently personal, and no panelists approached them in exactly the same way. They discussed the difference between diary comics and memoirs (diary comics are more immediate, and more in touch with current tech, i.e, social media) and the effects their mental health could have on their comics, and vice versa. The topic I found most illuminating was about personal boundaries, and how the artists navigated them with friends and family members—how much do you reveal? And what happens when your kid gets embarrassed by a comic you post on Facebook? Summer Pierre put it succinctly when she talked about no longer depicting her son in her public work: “I didn’t have a right to his narrative.” But maybe the biggest takeaway was that Dustin Harbin likes sriracha on his sandwiches.

The final panel at Small Press Expo was proof that just because a con is winding down, it doesn’t mean the audience is, as there was a long and excited line waiting to hear about “Queer Romance.” The featured panelists included Ed Luce, Shauna J. Grant, Archie Bongiovanni, and 2018 Ignatz Award-winners Carta Monir and Hazel Newlevant. The introductions included the panelists’ pronouns, and the quick rundowns of their work illustrated the broad spectrum of genres and ratings that can include queer romance, from the erotic watersports in Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, to the all-ages magical girl fantasy of Grant’s Princess Love Pon. They discussed the need for good representation of LGBTQ characters and being “emissaries” for certain relationship ideas for straight audiences while still telling the stories they want to see, or maybe didn’t have growing up. (Grant: “Black girls can be cute and vulnerable and still powerful.”) The panel was lively and funny, and unlike Batman, Wuvable Oaf’s dick will have to remain a mystery … for now.

And that was my SPX! Now, to collapse in a heap and recover from Con Crud … and read some comics, of course.

Kayleigh Hearn

Kayleigh Hearn

Still waiting for her Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters acceptance letter. Bylines also at Deadshirt, Ms-En-Scene, The MNT, PanelxPanel, and Talk Film Society.