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Zine Stealers 

The Alternative Press Expo offers lots to look at -- but little to read

Wednesday, Feb 25 2004
Standing outside the Alternative Press Expo on Feb. 21, I struck up a conversation with V. Vale, the founder of RE/Search, an alternative publisher based in North Beach. Vale was with his 8-year-old daughter, waiting for her mother to come pick her up (the girl had been with him since 9 that morning, he said, helping him set up). A friend brought him a sandwich, and he shared it with his daughter while we chatted about her leopard-print jumper (he told me her mother had made it) and about the show. Inside, Vale's booth carried such wild books as Modern Pagans and The RE/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, but outside he was just another dad taking care of his kid.

This dichotomy turned out to symbolize something for me with regards to APE (pronounced, affectionately, like the primate). The convention has been around for a decade -- it started in San Jose, moved to Fort Mason, and landed at the Concourse Exhibition Center in 2003 -- yet this year it still felt young. APE carries the trappings of a grown-up event, as befits the largest alternative press show in the country: pre-printed sign-in forms, an organized staff, a large venue (last year there were more than 200 exhibitors and 3,000 visitors), and structured panels featuring relatively famous cartoonists (Keith Knight and Carol Lay among them). But the signs of adolescence were there: The show seemed directed more toward the way things looked than toward what exhibitors had to say -- like a teenager who concentrates on his clothes to the detriment of his schoolwork. Vale, who's in his 50s, didn't seem to have a problem with the two apparent sides to the show, but I felt old.

(Before you tell me that I am old, consider that there were many attendees both older and younger than I. And judging from the glazed expressions I saw and conversations I overheard, many folks were just as confused as I was.)

This is not to say that APE wasn't exciting; it was. On Saturday, the Concourse's cavernous room was packed with gabbling people of every age and stripe pawing through piles of T-shirts, buttons, hats, toys, mugs, sweets, posters, stickers -- oh, and yes, zines, minicomics, and books. What I'm implying here is that it was visual overload, leaving visitors like kids in a candy store: There was so much to look at, so many pretty things to catch the eye, that I rarely found myself stopping to read. Presumably, the people behind the tables had traveled here from all over the country to sell things they'd drawn and written. If it were just a graphics show, call it the Alternative Illustrators' Expo, and be done with it.

The exhibitors didn't help. Over and over, I opened gorgeously packaged books and zines to read them, but was put off by crazy-busy graphics, tiny type, quick scenes that made no sense (except, maybe, to the writer), or personal tales that I just couldn't relate to. Many, perhaps most, of the publications read like illustrated teenage diaries or youthful fantasies -- a lot of dark, gothic, creepy images; a lot of naked chicks; a lot of suicide; a lot of aliens. Not a lot of adult stories. As Vale said when we were talking about the show, "Everything here is independent publishing." Unfortunately, "independent" usually translated to "unreadable."

I recognize that I sound like a scold. Very few of the exhibitors at APE make a living at what they do; they create their publications for pleasure, because they love to draw or feel they have a story to tell or just enjoy the community. I have no problem with that, and I wouldn't tell them to do any differently. I am not against freedom of expression. But when you put them all together in one room and tag it an expo, the implication is that the public will come and learn something. What I learned at APE is that most people like things that look cool, and that's about it. Don't we grow out of that?

Which is why I was pleased to find a few books that really struck me. They're oddballs -- some small, some perverse, almost all a bit obscure. The Arsenic Lullabies, for example, is a paperback compilation of various strips and earlier comics by Douglas Paszkiewicz of Milwaukee, with recurring characters and story lines. Its humor is very, very black, the ironies brutal but smart. In one two-panel strip, for example, the first image shows "Auschwitz 1945 A.D.," with Nazis bulldozing bodies into a pit. The next panel shows "Auschwitz 8051 A.D.," a futuristic scene in which construction workers (wearing hard hats with antennae) celebrate: "Hey! We struck oil." It's sick, yes, but also thought-provoking. Another series features the "Boogie Man" (in the form of a giant slab with horns and bat wings, and tentacles for legs) coming to visit Vick Johnson at the "Columbia Employment Agency." Seems the BM wants a real job -- he's tired of having to compete with girlie mags, Pokémon, video games, mixed families, perverted Boy Scout leaders, and other vagaries of modern life. Vick offers him "something third shift, away from the public," and the BM replies, "It's like you're readin' my mind." Final panel: the BM in a smock, standing in front of a conveyor belt in some warehouse, his co-worker saying, "There's mock chicken leg in the cafeteria tonight." The BM's answer: "Sweet." Even the Boogie Man has diminished expectations.

Little Elegy might be the exact opposite of The Arsenic Lullabies. There's no irony here, no bitterness. The miniature book (about 2 inches by 3 inches) bills itself as "a quarterly literary zine for works of tiny literature," and the new issue No. 2, "Melancholy Melodies on a Cotton Candy High," was for sale at APE. Colleen Marlow, the editor (from San Francisco), explained that the cover images -- what look like line drawings of models in '70s garb -- are Fashion Plates, an old Hasbro toy that let kids make rubbings of gals in stylish clothes. The innocence of the covers fits the simple insides: no illustrations, just extremely short stories. Here's the entirety of "July Fourth With Crazy Legs Miller," for example: "We used empty wine bottles to shoot fireworks at the sea. Our noses burning with sulfur as dull red bouquets sink beneath the waves. She leans against the rusted red newspaper coffin waving goodbye to the train. With the right music, it could be a scene out of a movie. Part of her knows it's for the last time. There are no more holidays to be had. No. Not now, not until December, and who knows where we will be. It's not a matter of what we want, there's a goodbye on every corner." Fewer than 100 words, yet it stayed with me.

There were others, too. San Francisco cartoonist Knight showed copies of his new book, Red, White, Black & Blue, which displays his usual sardonic wit and sharp observations. A title published by Drawn & Quarterly, an alternative house out of Montreal, also blew me away: Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown, a fat graphic novel, tells the story of a controversial Canadian rebel from the 19th century. Obscure, yes. Also engrossing. It's been on the hardcover best-seller lists in Canada and gotten numerous great reviews from mainstream publications like Booklist.

I also got some laughs, though fewer than I would have expected. (Yes, I know that comics don't have to be funny.) Death Takes a Holiday, for example, collects the strips of the same name showing the hooded character making his way in the everyday world. And illustrated panels from the forthcoming book Secrets of Hollywood (by the creator of the sophomoric but entertaining Bunnywith) tell juvenile (and probably libelous) stories about celebrities and their body parts. I also enjoyed How to Be a Man, which goes a little way toward explaining the male mind.

But I went to the show with cash to burn, thinking I'd find all kinds of clever, gorgeous titles, and ended up bringing home very little. Sure, I could have bought a cool hat or covered my tote bag with humorous buttons, but that's not why I was there. I admit I was hoping to discover a new Maus, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel from 1986, something that I'd feel compelled to pass around. Maybe that was asking too much.

Or maybe APE needs to grow up a little more. Cut back on the mugs and toys and ties with little creatures sewn on them. Concentrate on the books. Tell us what we're looking at -- add shelf talkers, those short descriptions of titles written by bookstore staffers. Consider grouping exhibitors by interest or subject matter or style. (I realize this would be difficult.) Hold a panel on writing, where authors discuss the stories they tell and how they tell them. In other words, make us do a little bit of homework first, and then let us go shopping.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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