SPX stands for Small Press Expo and occurs every year at the Marriot North in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s a comics convention for independent and underground artists to show their wares for two days. It began in 1994 and seems to grow every year. It’s an intense weekend of selling, networking, supporting and bonding for the independent comics writer and publisher.
This was my second time at the convention; the first was a road trip up from Kentucke with comic artist/drummer galore/pal for life Todd Dockery in 2009.
That’s a story for another day.
This trip at began at 7AM in Louisville, traversed through Lexington and eventually boggled down the road in a rental car through the wilds of West Virginia and Maryland. My traveling partner was Aoibheall, an artist/musician herself, as well as an all around gem of a human being. I can honestly say her conversation at many moments, both to and fro the convention, saved me from eating my own brain for brunch and/or pulling to the side of the road to cry or yell at my general whereabouts with a thin shaking fist. A good 10 hours of driving can do that to me.
I have visited West Virginia several times for various reasons and I still maintain it is one of the most beautiful states in the US. Its foliage reminds me of Kentucke’s, but as though it was punctured with even more nice big green plush trees and mountains. Aoibheall has the past experience of living in West Virginia, so was able to provide a semi-tour of certain areas as we drove, talked, drank coffee, cussed and listened to the radio. As usual, I brought 17,000 CDs of my favorites that she was forced to listen to.
We stopped several times to reload on caffeine, gas and whatever was needed to make life work. One such stop led us to the New Orleans Coffeehouse in Hurricane, WV. We entered the establishment in search of something of higher quality than the gas station coffee we had been killing our guts with. I was immediately wary based on the fact it required an ID to enter. It was a tiny dark room that opened to a small fully-stocked bar and a large man who ignored us initially to continue cleaning the restrooms. To the left was a row of video gambling machines that were jabbering at the hands of two or three bleary-eyed risk-takers.
“This ain’t no Starbucks,” the large man said to Aoibheall as she ordered two coffees.
“Whatever you have is fine.”
The New Orleans Coffeehouse had more personality than the coffee it made and served.
On we drove through Nitro, Morgantown, Mink Shoals, finally crossing into Maryland. We passed a forest of dead trees as we headed up and down both the Negro and Polish Mountains (which are both looking to be renamed by Senators in Maryland), passed Friendsville and finally into the history of Cumberland, a meeting place of Civil War importance, as well as Will’s Creek and the Potomac River.
|Aoibheall having a conversation with this iron child we found.|
We also made time to notice Sideling Hill, a road cut into the Alleghany Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The sign said 840 million years old. Seemed so.
Once we bounded into Bethesda, I hastily parked the car, confused about the parking situation and needing to relieve myself. I was warned by the security guard at the front door of the Marriott that I had to be quick; no cars allowed in front of the hotel this weekend. “It’s a 9/11 thing.”
Neither Aoibheall nor I had keys to rooms as we waited for the artists we knew to arrive at the hotel, so we parked and drug ourselves to the bar. After paying $320 for a Miller Lite, we sat in a confused state of exhaustion as comics-folks started streaming in, having celebrated the opening of SPX in Baltimore at Atomic Books. The first to walk up, introduce himself and welcome us from our journey was Tom Neely, the artist I was to share a room with during the weekend. Tom, who had flown in from LA and was most likely more tired than the two of us, made us feel at home immediately, washing away our shattered nerves and helping to provide us with our Ninth Wind. More on this man, later.
Tom was quickly followed by J. T. Dockery, as well as a host of other cartoonists I have met (or met at that moment) that are in some way connected to the Schulz Library and the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, including Caitlin McGurk, Jen Vaughn and Nomi Kane.
|Left to right: Caitlin McGurk & Nomi Kane|
My connection to this scene in Bethesda (described to me several times by several people as “a rich suburb of Washington DC”) stems from Mr. Dockery, who has played music and collaborated with me on several projects. Besides enjoying the overall experience of SPX, my artistic link lie in an anthology book being published by Caitlin, Nomi and Jen called “Lies Grown-Ups Told Me.” However, due to an error in the printing, it was decided just prior to last call at the hotel bar that the book would be previewed at the convention, and released at a later date.
We all scattered, re-convened, scattered again, re-convened. It’s how conventions work. I somehow ended that first night alone sucking on the bones of fried rabbit that my mother had made that week, spitting buckshot onto the parking lot pavement, and eventually getting to know my new roommate Tom over a beer in our room whilst listening to the subtle sounds of power metal beaming from his laptop.
Tom Neely gained an immeasurable amount of respect from me during the course of weekend. I had heard of him through Dockery and had seen previews of his art from 2009. Not knowing me from Beelzebub, Tom gladly accepted me as his room pal, helped me carry luggage, and made me feel as welcome and comfortable as humanly possible. We both share a love of older metal and noisy music, creativity and, well, yeah, comics. These conventions seem to follow a pattern that is framed by small hours of sleep and high amounts of social interaction and work, and can be both exhausting and stressful. Based on unbelievable circumstances that eventually occurred during the weekend that were more personal and less-connected to the overall regular stresses of the days, all I can say is thanks to him for being such a warm person to someone he has never met. And I wanted to thank Todd Dockery for introducing me to Tom.
|Left to right: JT Dockery & Tom Neely|
Tom has a plethora of books that everyone should buy and read. I'll go ahead and personally recommend "Brilliantly Ham-Fisted," "Your Disease Spread Quick," "The Blot" and "Henry & Glenn Forever" (a favorite of the employees of Wild & Woolly Video). His latest book, "The Wolf," forfeits my ability to review and describe art. It stands as one of the most incredible books I have ever owned and everyone in America and the world should buy it now.
That being, said, you should also purchase JT Dockery's "In Tongues" and "Spud Crazy" if you don't mind losing your sanity and peeling your eyes out of your head with its imagery.
A table with these tomes resting on them was kind of an intense place to be for the weekend.
While I seem to share the company of many cartoonists, I’m in fact unable to fashion the wherewithal to even correctly draw a stick figure these days. I do, however, share a love for any art that lives in the DIY world of thought, and SPX is a gathering of humans who exist in this style. Bypassing market censorship and control of any type, the artists and comics creators at SPX find a way to focus their hearts and minds onto the drawn page. This isn’t to say there’s not a bit of business involved at all at the convention, but like underground/independent music and literary landscapes (scenes which I know much more about), it’s about DOING it, showing your expression, and revealing it on your own terms, whether that’s a small press literary magazine, a punk rock show at a leftover dive bar in a dirty section of town, or a putting something on a shelf in an independent bookstore. Conventions like SPX, in my mind, are nothing but a big bowl of inspiration for anyone who has something to say artistically in any form. It’s a gathering of support among friends and new acquaintances that reminds you to continue on, strive high, and to be cliché and blunt: never give up.
This leads me to Dylan Williams.
As I just mentioned, I am a periphery member of this scene. The table Aoibheall and I were helping to maintain in the convention hall featured the works of Tom Neely, J Todd Dockery and Sparkplug Comic Books; a three-tiered wallop of amazing comics and art. Our job seemed to mostly consist of aiding, assisting and manning the table if either Todd or Tom needed breaks. As I sat, I learned more about the clout and importance of Sparkplug Comics, a company I had heard of but was not completely familiar with.
Sparkplug published work hand-picked by its founder Dylan Williams (based in Portland, Oregon). Williams seemed to embody the spirit of creativity, diversity and independence that drives the existence and even creation of an event like SPX. I don’t feel qualified to give a biography of this man, much less analyze the work; again: I’m a moron in some respects to independent comics. I know what I like; I read what I like. But I support everything about the movements that seem to thrive in the scene, and Williams seemed to paint an honest corner of goodwill towards talent and deserving ideas in comics. From the conversations I had and heard throughout the weekend, it’s obvious that because of people like Williams and Sparkplug, art, in whatever form, continues to survive, thrive, and grow. In my head, people like this are the saints that help make life worthwhile.
It was a tumble of information that eventually revealed Mr. Williams had passed away Saturday, September 10. The news seemed to crack through the convention throughout the evening after the first day of SPX ended and the news bounded the edges of the convention on Sunday. Tears and memories were given to pretty freely. As an underground scene is held together by strong adhesives in triumph, survival and hard work, I feel like it also became glued together in efforts to process this tragedy. My condolences to Tom Neely, Mr. Williams’ family, and everyone that has ever known him or his works.
When the closing bell of SPX rang through the hall on Sunday, there was a mix of hugs and boxes of books to be carried to cars and rooms. The weekend was summarized and analyzed on the patio and eventually at the bar. Todd, Tom, Aoibheall and I drank orange beers and red wines and laughed and gave each other the finger. We discussed the need to continue pursuing the various forms of art that we pursue, and to never give up on hacking through the difficulties that exist in releasing comics, stories, music, paintings, ideas, sounds and souls.
|JT Dockery with another big orange beer.|
|Robyn Chapman, Tom Neely, Julia Wertz|
|Aoibheall and Todd, near the end of said evening.|
There were last minute hugs at elevator doors, late night bar tab payments, shadow boxing, arguments, the ripping of bedside radio-clocks from the wall, a few hours of drunken sleep, a walk to the subway, and a drive back to the highway. Bethesda was vacated. Cards and contacts had been exchanged. Aoibheall kept me alive as I struggled with my own demons to get us home. I slept in a suitcase at a rest area for ten minutes; we were confused by the menu at a deli in Morgantown; we waved at Sideling Hill and Cumberland; we swayed to the sounds of Ennio Morricone as the Alleghany Mountains eventually faded to Kentucke, making light math of the miles and discussing everything about everything eventually.
Til next year.