"I don't really read comics, but..."
This, readers, was the most-overheard group of words at this weekend's Alternative Press Expo at the Concourse Exhibition Center. That's right -- one of the nation's foremost gatherings for small-press and alternative comics appeared to attract an alarming number of people uninterested in the medium. Were these people for real? Is it possible they were lying to avoid being known as a reader of comics -- even "among friends"?
The most memorable and mortifying such utterance came during Saturday's panel discussion with Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, Eightball) and Adrian Tomine (Shortcomings, Optic Nerve), easily the best-attended event of the day. During the Q&A session, a tall, rangy, Viking-like young man took to the mike and began with, "I really don't read comics..." Yet he did observe that Clowes is good at drawing "funny faces" -- faces that made him laugh, he said. Then the questioner blazed straight into his A-game: Flaunting a trade paperback of indeterminate origin, he announced that he was organizing an anthology comic in memory of a recently departed friend. Would Clowes and Tomine be interested in contributing a page?
Bemused nonreaction from the artists prompted the questioner to add, "Would you be willing to consider it?"
Clowes leaned forward and said, in a measured way, into his microphone, "I'll consider it."
Tomine had just explained he's not as anxious about being a cartoonist as before because the medium is taken more seriously these days. How ironic, then, that self-proclaimed nonreaders of comics populated this event in the Bay Area, a place that was a focal point during the underground comics (or comix) revolutions of the late '60s and '80s. The fact that the medium attracts those who claim to be uninvolved in it (or who at the very least have trouble admitting their interest) belies the bizarre and irrational cultural stigma that is still -- despite the best efforts of the mainstream media to cover it (even if they are sidetracked by such absurdities as the DC Universe "reboot") -- a very real obstacle to comics' "legitimacy."
Despite this dispiriting dose of apathy from certain attendees, APE was a lot of fun. It was an inspiring display of the depth and breadth of work being done in comics by creators working outside the mainstream focus on muscle-bound flying fortresses in Spandex. And it goes without saying that the majority of the people there appreciated that. A smorgasbord of talent was in evidence Saturday and Sunday, and even for the least patient among us, outstanding work was to be found at the tables of the artists in attendance -- much of it at extraordinarily affordable prices.
Berkeley artist Jen Oaks' table featured prints of her colorful collage-like illustrations, a lovely calendar of full-figured pinups, and a fantastic selection of pins depicting characters from Twin Peaks.
Writer-artist Mike Dawson, best known for the humor series Gabagool! and the autobiographical graphic novel Freddie & Me, sold his newest book-length work, Troop 142.
Dawson also hosts The Comics Journal's "TCJ Talkies" series, which applies the podcast format to the Journal's tradition of compiling in-depth profiles of comics creators.
A collaborative table offered work by three very different artists: A. Bamber, Eric Nichols (exhibiting as We Are Objects), and Julie West. Bamber's fanciful illustrations of animal characters and plush perogy signaled a unique, idiosyncratic talent. Meanwhile, Nichols debuted t-shirts and a new mini-comic featuring his signature Party Bot character, while West displayed lowbrow-flavored art with a penchant for beautifully patterned backgrounds.
An oddity: The proprietors of Nuclear Comics and Skate Shop from Laguna Niguel, a muscled partnership in blonde who offered mainstream trade paperbacks at as much as half off the usual cost. Their surf-culture look clashed with the surroundings in a wonderful way -- as if a rip in the space-time continuum had opened a portal to Venice Beach, circa 1984.
That comics may not be broadly considered as "legitimate" a form of creative expression as, say, movies or novels will not hinder the creative instinct in driven, talented individuals. And, of course, this dilemma is in no way unique to comics. It's endemic to a culture that habitually mistakes art for frivolity, and vice versa. Although professions of ignorance rang in our ears at APE, the event itself was vibrant and, above all, hopeful. APE is a showcase for the original work being done -- and a signal of new ideas to come -- in comics.