SPX is not a ticker symbol. Well, it might be. But as far as we’re concerned, SPX stands for Small Press Expo, the annual independent comic arts festival in Bethesda, Maryland. Do not be mislead: SPX is actually one of the biggest and most influential names in the industry.
With over 4,000 exhibitors and enthusiasts, SPX transforms North Bethesda’s Marriot Hotel and Conference Center into a comic lover’s candyland. From September 15 to 16, almost every inch of the center’s vast ballroom will be lined with foldout tables piled high with illustrations, comic books, and graphic novels. And it’s not just the ballroom. SPX quite literally takes over the entire center. It’s one of the things that makes the expo so unique: unlike other indie comic conventions (of which there are few) SPX is all centered in one location. People sleep where they workshop and network and party. Warren Bernard, executive director of the festival and comic historian, calls it, “Camp Comics” and says that it helps to keep attendees completely immersed in the festival.
Originally founded to promote diversity in the comic arts—both in terms of content and creators—Small Press Expo boasts an open door policy. Instead of an entirely curated event, SPX saves over half of its available booths to be distributed through a lottery system that any writer, artist, or publisher may enter, regardless of experience and prestige.
According to Bernard, “SPX has always, to a very great degree, been about total randomness.” In the early days, tables at SPX were assigned according to the postage on checks that were mailed in by artists and publishers hoping to secure spots. Since then, the expo has grown significantly, and they’ve had to modify their system in order to accommodate notable publishers, like Fantagraphics, and artists with long established relationships with the festival. But organizers of the event are still committed to, “maintaining the long tradition of randomness,” which is where the current online lottery system fits in. “We like the lottery because it means that we are not introducing any sense of aesthetic bias about people getting into the show. SPX has always been about giving people new opportunities.”
And the lottery system is incredible effective in doing exactly that. When I was much younger, attending SPX as a casual comic fan, I met an artist from India who produced minicomics inspired by her Gujrati heritage. When I expressed my admiration for her work she was so touched that she gave me one of her minicomic booklets for free with a lovely message inscribed inside. I still have that booklet from all those years ago. Wandering around that big ballroom full of friendly faces and inspiring illustrations, it’s hard not to connect to an artist you’ve never heard of before. Such experiences are fostered both by the lottery system and the fact that SPX’s open door policy doesn’t extend to retailers.
Since 1994, SPX has distinguished itself by only giving space to content creators and publishers. If retailers want to be a part of the experience they have to buy tickets and attend as general members of the public. This helps the expo stay true to its mission of showcasing, empowering, and educating emerging independent artists.
“It’s about the indie comics community,” Bernard explains. “The exhibitors room is about the art being created and who’s creating it.” In turn, the environment of the ballroom and the relationship between artists and fans feels much more personal than at huge, sales-driven conventions, and those moments of intimacy that occurs between a young artist and someone discovering their work for the first time are what make SPX so special.
Of course, SPX is still very much a networking opportunity for those in the industry, where writers and artists meet not just each other, but also potential publishers, readers, and those booth-less buyers scoping out the event. The first time I attended SPX, I returned home with fistfuls of beautifully designed business cards, many of which are still plastered on my childhood bedroom’s walls. But it’s also primarily a celebration of the independent comic community and the artists that make it what it is. At SPX, “whether you’re a publisher or creator,” Bernard adds, “you always have a place that you can call home.”
SPX also explicitly honors artists of all backgrounds with their Ignatz Awards, one of the only awards to recognize indie comic works. Winners are voted by festival attendees from a ballot of nominees decided upon by a special panel of judges. In addition to several categories acknowledging outstanding works by anyone in the field, one award each year goes out to a “Promising New Talent.” Like the lottery system, this category aligns with SPX’s longstanding reputation as a platform for emerging artists.
The Ignatz have become one of the most prestigious and influential awards in the comics industry and have certainly left their mark, paving a path of further success for all its recipients. Take the brilliant 21-year-old cartoonist Tillie Walden. In 2016, she won Ignatz Awards in both the “Outstanding Artist” and the “Promising New Talent” categories beating big names like Daniel Clowes. This year, Walden became the youngest person to win an Eisner Award, the comic equivalent of the Oscars, for her graphic novel Spinning.
Even as SPX has evolved over the years, its commitment to the mission of welcoming new and diverse artists has only grown stronger. “One of the things we started to do a couple years ago,” Bernard tells me, “was to use the stage of SPX to make people special guests that most people wouldn’t think of because they’re very young in their careers.”
He brings up the example of Lawrence Lindell, author of From Black Boy With Love and Couldn’t Afford Therapy, so I Made This. Lindell, whose work is dynamic and relevant, hasn’t been featured at the festival before. His portfolio is still growing compared to some of the other guests, but this year he’ll get the opportunity to lead discussions right alongside names like Rebecca Sugar (creator of Steven Universe), Jules Feiffer (Village Voice cartooning legend with both Oscar and a Pulitzer under his belt), and Ngozi Ukazu (author of hit webcomic, Check, Please!). Despite varying levels of fame, each special guest is as anticipated as the next. “It’s like choosing among your favorite children,” Bernard laughs when I ask him which guests he’s most looking forward to seeing.
Don’t miss Lindell’s panel, “Writing About Bipolar.” It’s one of the many programs scheduled for the weekend ranging all the way from discussion sessions like Lindell’s to a film screening about growing up with Jeffrey Dahmer to comic and sculpting workshops to a Beatles sing-along. In addition to “Writing About Bipolar,” there are also panels on feminism, trauma, and transness. Such social issues have always been spotlighted at the convention according to Bernard. “It’s important to the community, and people are doing works on it,” he continues. “To not acknowledge that that is part of what’s happening in the comics community is a detriment to all parties involved.”
Although you won’t find classic superheroes or cosplay there, SPX’s commitment to showcasing content and creators from all walks of life, ensures that there’s truly something for everyone. There’s something fun, something nostalgic, something heartbreaking, something thoughtful, even something that’s all of the above.
Small Press Expo takes place September 15th and 16th at the Marriot North Bethesda Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets can be purchased online in advance or on the dates at the door.