10 Thoughts About SPX99
With the Small Press Expo in full swing this weekend in Bethesda, MD, I thought it would be fun to turn back the clock a decade and re-read the old SPX anthology from 1999.
1. The Jay and Silent Bob cover by Matt Wagner is a reminder of just how big a deal Kevin Smith once was to comics fans, and how much that has changed in the subsequent decade. I don't think most comics fans have had any real kind of emotional investment in Smith's movies since Chasing Amy, and Smith's few forays into writing comics have either been mired by ridiculous delays or simply underwhelming stories.
2. "The Worst Gig I Ever Had," the opening story written by Top Shelf publisher Chris Staros and illustrated by Rich Tommaso was a funny little piece which I assume is autobiographical. In high school, Staros and his bandmates inadvertently get roped into a playing a gig for a bunch of drugged out biker dudes out in the woods somewhere and live to tell the tale. Tommaso will go on to do much better art later on, but at this point, his facial expressions were still a little rough. His figure posing, overall panel designs and storytelling instincts are all strong, though, and for an early effort, it's not bad at all.
3. The anthology contains one true masterpiece, a forgotten gem that, if you have the book on your shelves, you should go and re-read right now. That piece is Jordan Crane's "Only A Movie." I won't spoil it in case you want to go back and read it, but it's a dark little tale-within-a-tale with some truly masterful linework and use of shadows and light. I love pretty much everything Crane has ever done, but I totally forgot this story even existed.
4. Another highlight is "Big Trouble," Brian Ralph's silent story about a caveman and a giant robot saving a monkey. That's pretty much it plotwise but Ralph's distinctive character designs and meticulously textured brushwork, particularly in his landscapes and backgrounds, makes the story very pleasurable to look at.
5. Some other odds and ends that I enjoyed include: Eric Reynolds' silent one-page strip of a baby dancing while the world explodes, likely inspired by the Y2K craze that briefly consumed the world, but also could have been inspired by REM's "It's the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)." I also really liked Bruce Mutard's "When Hitler Was an Artist." His art in this piece reminds me a combination between Rick Geary and Jason Lutes, and the story, which will no doubt resonate with any artist whose ever felt rejected after showing his/her portfolio to an editor, carries the obvious added emotional weight of what might have been avoided if only Hitler had been admitted to the academy. I remember enjoying Mutard's first graphic novel, The Bunker, but I barely remember anything about it now and I haven't read his more recent graphic novels. The final story in the book is a great two-page Astounding Space Thrills tale by Steve Conley about sun spots. It's fiction, rather than the science documentary style of his later works, but Conley's art in this piece is really stunning.
6. There's also a number of enjoyable early short stories by artists who went on to become well-known on the indy comic scene, including Nick Bertozzi's Incredible Drinkin' Buddies (this comic kind of freaked me out back when I first saw it, especially the weird old man in the fetish leather straps, but reading it now, it's just kind of goofy), Jason Little's Bee (this is actually an early three-page excerpt from what would eventually be collected as Shutterbug Follies. Little's a hugely talented artist, with a great sense of color, and Shutterbug is one of those underrated books that deserves more credit and attention than it gets). There's also an excerpt from Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison, which eventually became the artist's widely acclaimed first graphic novel.
7. Whatever happened to Joe Zabel? I used to love his old Trespassers mystery one-shots.
8. Although I wasn't familiar with the artist, I really liked Chris Shadoian's art in "This Little Piggy" (written by Chris Bleistein), so I googled him and discovered this great webcomic called "Popcorn Picnic" that he's doing now. Check it out, it's really good.
9. Rich Koslowski contributed a funny little five-page spoof on the CBLDF. I remember meeting Koslowski at the Heroes Con in Charlotte back in 97, I think, and he was such a nice guy; I still have my autographed copy of the first Three Geeks Special with a little sketch in it. I also remember thinking at the time that Koslowski was destined for great things in the comics industry, but to be honest, I haven't read any of his graphic novels since then, though they've been generally well-received.
10. Overall, the anthology is better than I remembered, and while not every piece withstands the test of time, more than half do which is pretty good for this kind of book. Although I haven't read them in years, I remember thinking that the 2001 and 2002 anthologies were the best of all of the SPX collections I have (for some reason, I only bought up through 2006), so who knows, maybe I'll do this again next year.