I walk into the North Bethesda Hotel and Conference Center to excitedly collect my press pass for Small Press Expo. I love it instantly. Dangling from a pink lanyard is the pass, featuring a beautifully drawn blue girl with pink hair reading a yellow book. Like the expo itself, it’s fun, bright, and colorful.
Small Press Expo is Bethesda’s annual independent comic festival. Artists, writers, and publishers come together to celebrate each other’s work and show off their own. The center of the event is the exhibitor’s room in the hotel’s grand ballroom. Rows of booths line the space, while excited patrons of all ages fill their arms with graphic novels, comic anthologies, and illustration prints.
The convention is for everyone. Walking around the exhibitor’s room, I see and talk to folks from all walks of life. When I turn left, there’s a small child wearing a hat that looks like a shark eagerly dragging his father in and out of tables featuring prints of dragons and elves and witches. Looking to my right, I see a 20-something-year-old covered in tattoos stopping to flip through a comic about lesbians through history. Behind me, an older couple crowds around a shared table. One browses some cassette tapes and zines, while the other seems more interested in a thick graphic novel about historical Japanese woodblock printers.
Doing my own investigating of the different booths, I meet a fair share of local artists from all over the DMV—the District, Fairfax, and Fredericksburg to name a few—but I also met artists from Pittsburg, Denver, Plymouth, Oakland, and Chicago. I even participated in a delightful comic-making workshop led by an illustrator from Portugal.
Perhaps that’s why SPX feels so much like “a family reunion,” as “cartoonist, illusturator, and fanfic enthusiast” Shannon Wright sings out from behind her booth. “I get to see all the people I don’t normally get to see since we’re all over the place,” she follows up. “I don’t know, it just feels like home.” Wright makes comics that feature “a lot of black characters that are just in their element doing what they’re doing, going on space adventures, getting money for their allergy medicine, and exploring what it means to be a kid a lot of the time.”
She isn’t alone in feeling this way about SPX. “For my friends and I,” cartoonist and game designer Chris Kindred adds to Wright’s point, “[SPX] has become, not only a reunion, but a place where we can get together and celebrate each other’s work in a larger comics ecosystem. And that’s a really rare experience.” Year after year, exhibitors return to SPX because of its thoroughly warm and accepting community.
For example, Richie Pope, winner of the 2018 Outstanding Artist Ignatz Award for his book That Box We Sit On, tells me that he’s been attending SPX for the past four or five years. He likes the community because unlike more cooperate sides of illustration and cartooning, which might involve getting pieces approved and pleasing clients, people at SPX “just like that you make stuff.” In this way artists who attend SPX can feel uninhibited in the work they bring or create for the show.
And each exhibitor has something different to say, a different story to tell. Take Leila Abdelrazaq. Her graphic novel, Baddawi, is a biography of her dad’s childhood growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. She tells me, “I think it’s important—since Palestinian stories are erased very systematically, especially in the media—for us to use indie comic spaces to tell our own stories and our own narratives as told by us and not through somebody else’s lens.” While Abdelrazaq might have been talking specifically about Palestinian narratives and stories, her comment about using independent comics to tell an otherwise untold story is an incredibly poignant and universal concept. That’s part of what makes SPX so special and why artists are eager to travel from all over the globe to exhibit at the convention: Small Press Expo gives independent artists a major platform to express themselves.
The stories told at SPX are dynamic and eclectic. Megan James writes about “a group of door-to-door doomsday cultists that are trying to end the world but are really bad at it.” Lawrence Lindell creates content for “black women, black people, people of color, queer folks, and folks with mental health issues.” Jason Lutes spent fourteen years on an epic graphic novel about the history of Berlin. Carta Monir publishes her selfies in a zine. Despite their differences, at SPX, all of these artists come together in one room to share stories, listen to others, and make their voices heard.