I’ve been told for years that I need to do the Alternative Press Expo, but it’s never worked out in previous years. However, between exhaustion with the goings on of the major publishers, a simple need to get out of town for a few days, and some leftover vacation days I had to use before they rolled over, this year turned out to be the ideal time to go. Dark Horse also has no institutional presence at the show (as far as I know I was the only person from DH there), so it was my first opportunity since interning at Top Shelf four years ago to spend a weekend steeped in comics without it being job related. I made a few connections and exchanged a few business cards, but most of the time I was just another fan.
The thing everyone told me about APE is that it’s like Portland’s Stumptown Comics Fest, which is both true and not. The energy is similar, with enthusiastic, friendly exhibitors and a strong DIY ethic. The mix of publishers, artists and academic exhibitors is a lot like Stumptown, though APE hasn’t gone in the “curation” direction that Stumptown has, so there’s a broader, more democratic range of people behind the tables.
At the same time, there are fewer special guests, and programming feels more centrally built around them than at Stumptown. This lead to some complaints that the show focused too much on the handful of featured artists and directed people away from everyone else. The Drawn and Quarterly booth was placed near the entrance and often had long lines for special guests like Dan Clowes, Kate Beaton and Adrian Tomine.
The most striking difference to me was how much bigger APE is than Stumptown, which moved just this year into the Portland Convention Center and only half-filled its hall. APE takes up two halls at San Francisco’s Concourse Exhibition Center, which is a beautiful space, with lots of wood paneling and natural light from ceiling windows.
San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum.
The only problem, and one of my few real criticisms of the show, is how difficult it is to navigate. Both halls and the different sections within them used a single numbering system for tables. The numbering system itself was confusing, with gaps in the numbering that started up again in other rooms, and no one I spoke to seemed to understand it. The numbers also didn’t appear on any of the tables, making situating oneself difficult. I spent a lot of time finding myself in the same spots over and over and am not entirely confident I made it everywhere.
What I did see was great, though. One thing that alternative shows have over the larger shows is that they are genuinely local. Rather than being anchored by DC, Marvel, et al., APE is anchored by the San Francisco comics scene, and the majority of the artists at each table are local, people I wouldn’t meet in other cities selling comics I wouldn’t find elsewhere. It was also identifiably a San Francisco scene, with books about the city and a preponderance of queer comics. There were surprisingly few people selling prints of DC and Marvel characters or other pop culture artifacts, which are common in the artist alleys of larger shows. Not that there was none of that, but the vast majority of what was on offer were original creations.
Slave Labor Graphics’ booth.
Panels largely focused on the show’s special guests, each of whom had a spotlight panel and most of whom appeared in another panel or two. The two that I made it to, both on Saturday, were “A Discussion with Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine” and “Drawing Inspiration: The Secrets of Comics Creativity.” Both were informal and funny, though both were difficult to hear at times, with an underpowered amplification system.
The Clowes/Tomine panel focused on the two artists’ experiences living in the Bay Area and the ways that different cities influence the kinds of stories people tell. Clowes in particular spoke about the ways that his work changed when he lived in different cities, noting that he only realized the people he drew while living in Chicago were specific to the area once he moved away.
“Drawing Inspiration” was a freewheeling panel featuring all of the show’s special guests (Beaton, Craig Thompson, Matthew Thurber and Shannon Wheeler) except Clowes and Tomine, plus cartoonist Tom Neely, for whom APE overlapped with a tour supporting his new book The Wolf. Questions centered on motivation to work, each artist felt about their work and what their goals were going forward. Wheeler spoke of writing as similar to the five stages of grief, outlining the steps of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and Beaton got the biggest reaction from the panel when beginning an answer with, “I’ve only been doing this three years and only been making a living at it for two,” a timeline that everyone else pointed out, with varying degrees of mock anger, was exceptionally quick.
It feels like the year of Shannon Wheeler. APE was The debut of both Grampa Won’t Wake Up from BOOM! Town and Oil and Water from Fantagraphics. Wheeler also had Dark Horse’s new Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus on hand and was previewing God is Disappointed in You from Top Shelf.
That panel ended the first day of the show, and after dinner with a mix of local and Portland comics people, the next stop was Isotope Comics Lounge for the APE after party. With its several reading areas and snazzy furniture, Isotope feels like a party space, though its small size meant that half of the party actually took place on the sidewalk outside.
Known for scotch tastings as well as comics, Isotope is the kind of place I was unsurprised to learn has house cocktails, each named for something from comics and suggested by visiting writers or artists. I got the Gentleman Corpse, a recipe from Ben Templesmith containing both gin and absinthe, though my favorite name had to be the Chronovore (a time-stealing creature from All Star Superman), suggested by Frank Quitely, as it might as well be called “blackout juice.” These were all mixed by Istope’s Kirsten Baldock, and Top Shelf copublisher Brett Warnock was on hand to pour his signature margaritas.
Eventually everyone was called in from the sidewalk for the presentation of the Isotope Award, which goes to the store’s favorite minicomic of the year. This was the first year that the winner wasn’t alerted in advance, and when her name was announced Katie Longua looked truly surprised, quickly getting emotional as Isotope’s owner James Sime presented her with the award for her mini Rök, crying from the upper section of the store as the crowd below shouted, “speech!” Noticing the comic on the counter right next to me (in retrospect a hint that Rök would win), I bought both issues. It’s essentially Thor if Thor were a twenty-something woman and in a band, a huge improvement. Longua herself is a supporting character, offering to help save the world but told she can’t because she has too much homework. Overall a very fun, charming book with a touch of Scott Pilgrim but very much it’s own thing.
Needing to catch the last BART across the bay, I left around midnight, but reports the next day said that the party ran until nearly five and became a dance party around three.
The Comic Strip Club, a collective of a few local female artists. Left:
Kelly Martin, creator of Doctor Lollipop. Right: Katie Longua,
holding her newly won Isotope Award for Rök. I should have asked
the name of the woman in the middle.
Sunday I only visited the show for a few hours at the end of the day, spending the first half of the afternoon at SFMoMA before wandering down Market St. to the free shuttle to the Concourse (appreciated as it’s not very close to mass transit). The second day of the show was definitely quieter than the first, though by no means empty. All of my photos are from Sunday so imagine more people in them and that’s Saturday.
One thing I managed both days was massive overspending. The ability of so many tables to take credit cards is convenient but wreaked havoc with my usual convention budgeting method of bringing the amount of cash I plan to spend with me. Larger purchases included a smattering of D&Q books—Hark! A Vagrant, The Death Ray and Scenes From an Impending Marriage—bought while in line for signings; two of Shannon Wheeler’s new offerings, Grampa Won’t Wake Up and Oil and Water; and the first volume of Richard Starkings’s Elephantmen, but I also picked up a lot of minis. Some notables include The Rice Paddy Kid by Ben Costa, a side story to his Xeric-winning Pang the Wandering Shaolin Monk; Doctor Lollipop by Kelly Martin, about a unicorn doctor solving fairytale medical mysteries; several issues of John Marr’s zine Murder Can Be Fun; Kevin Woody’s beautifully painted The Space Mayor of Spacetown; two from Portland artist John C. Worsley, Never Let Go and The Edge of the World; and a few offerings from the California College of the Arts’s students, Outgrowing Plastic Dolls by Liz Mayorga-Amaya and Asexuality: A Public Service Announcement by Megan Yamanaka and Katie Bryant.
14-year-old cartoonist Emma T. Capps had one of the most
professional setups and sales pitches of the show.
My most surprising encounter of the weekend was with a 14-year-old named Emma T. Capps, who with her business card, buttons, postcards and order forms had one of the most professional setups of any exhibitor. Impressed by her sales pitch, I couldn’t help but buy her collection of webcomics entitled The Chapel Chronicles, and Capps threw in her minicomic Jam Days, for which she won a gold medal from Scholastic, an award she informed me is given at Carnegie Hall. I haven’t dug into Chapel yet, but Jam Days displays an impressive command of page layouts and camera angles for someone so young, and the story, while trifling, is entertainingly told.
Chris (left) and Shane (right) Houghton are the creators of Reed Gunther, a great
all-ages comic about a bear-riding cowboy.
Other people I was excited to meet included Reed Gunther’s Shane and Chris Houghton (I actually met them Friday at Fantastic Comics, but it was a pleasure to chat with them some more), the CBLDF’s Chris Brownstein, with whom I renewed my membership, new members of my high school friend Liz Conley’s Couscous Collective, the crew from BOOM! Town, Courtney Crumrin creator Ted Naifeh (at the Isotope party), and too many more to list.
Couscous Collective’s Lauren Davis, editor of
The Comic Book Guide to the Mission.
Overall a great weekend enjoying comics and taking in a different local scene than I normally move in. I can’t speak for the exhibiting experience, but as a fan the entire thing was energizing, with a huge number of things to see and a long list of new names to follow and books to read. I came home more excited about comics than I’ve felt in a while, which is the most you can say for something like APE.