May 2006

Liz Miller


Scenes from the 2006 Alternative Press Expo

Ever wondered if it were possible to spend a weekend celebrating a subgenre of a subculture? Unlike Comic-Con, the Alternative Press Expo action happens in the exhibition hall, not the panels. The big dogs are the small-press publishers, the big names recognizable only to a select few. Everyone has a book, everyone is there to promote. It's a cocktail party with mini-comics and business cards; low-stress, well-lubricated discussion of current favorites and how to succeed in an industry where winning big is breaking even.

Creators sit behind tables, smiling at those passing by, hoping one of them will pause long enough to pick up an ashcan, read a comic, crack a smile. They run out of stuff to give away, they knock down prices, they sell what they can. They count their dollars, plot their purchases, try to save what they can for gas and Slurpees on the way home.

No one's getting famous, no one's getting rich. They go to APE for the love of it.

The Concourse Pavilion is pretty much one open room, the size of a small airplane hanger (and thus, aptly named). Dark wood, soft, elegant spotlights. Walk up the stairs, and you feel like you're going on stage. While the big names (the Bay Area comic book stores, the art book publishers, the ubiquitous Too Much Coffee Man) dominate the lower level, there are so many smaller groups that they spill out from the wings, a dense infestation of creativity, artistry, and free buttons. Unlike Comic-Con, which quarantines indie comics into a few back rows of the floor, this invasion is not just welcome, but essential.

The variety of goods is truly astounding. I've tagged along with friends who have pooled their money and their wares to craft one of the more eclectic but entertaining tables on the floor. Miniature sculptures of bunnies and squids in formal wear, instruction manuals on lesbian sex, art by the Internet's hottest provider of ponies-eating-cake porn, compilations of web comics, and How to Tie a Tie, for sale or for free, just come please.

But beyond their little corner of con floor, there are painted matchboxes, hand-knit hoods spiky with wire mohawks, anatomically correct sock monkeys. I buy a zine covering the
stand-up comedy scene
, five mystery comics from SLG Publishing, and an official Space Marine patch, which I will sew onto my most favorite ratty hoodie when I get a chance. I also pick up some brutally honest freebie minis from Phillippe Van Lieu -- the art is crude, but the self-deprecation refreshing. He pitches his main series, Moose River, as "a comic about a guy and his friends... which describes half the webcomics in here, I know." He's also giving away some minis, including a mini called Space, which the Sharpie-ed label refers to as "a stupid love story in space." I am helpless in the face of such honesty.

Extroverts are the successful ones at APE. You have to shout to be heard over the ever-present hum of self-promotion. I get into several conversations with people who lose interest when they realize that I'm empty-handed and that there's no room in my jeans for a wallet; the friendly hassle is the name of the game. But people also stop talking to me when they find out I'm not an artist. Networking is just as essential as promoting, after all, but no one needs another writer hanging around. There's a man recruiting for the Cartoonist Conspiracy, a group of San Francisco-local artists who co-create mini-comics and plot world domination. One step at a time, after all. He asks if I'm a local artist. "Nope," I reply, "I'm a two-time loser."

While I'm trying to decide if I want to buy my Space Marine patch, I keep getting handed fliers by a booth babe who knows just enough English to tell me that the comic about Space Marines is based on Jason and the Argonauts. The comic appears to consist of posed photographs, rather than actual art, which just brings to mind that incredibly catty Oscar Wilde quote about photography being the art of the untalented. But hey, Space Marines: Everything's better in space.

The back room, where all the panels are held, is quiet and dark -- the best place to find peace, quiet, and empty chairs. I have a great time listening to SF Chronicle cartoonist Keith Knight perform some of his favorite comics with a slide projector and a microphone. Things I learned from Keith Knight: Marin County will censor you before Salt Lake City will, alleged witches of the Middle Ages were often left-handed, and if you have "God" write the forward to your fourth collection, then Amazon will list God as a co-author for a short time.

I'm waiting in line to buy the first trade of Brian K. Vaughn's Ex Machina (which has been perennially sold out at my local shop) when into the air behind me floats a snippet of conversation: "I'm gonna smack her like Sue Dibny." Classy.

When the con shuts down on Saturday night, it just kicks off the next phase of action. The various cliques cram into local SF restaurants for dinner, taking endless photos of their fellow creators waiting for entrees, which later find wide circulation on Flickr. Post-con Internet discussion is dominated by not by what you did there, but who you ate with afterwards.

There are plenty of post-con parties, listed in the official APE program and plugged heavily at respective booths. But most of them are either impossible to find or charge an entry fee, which is why the Isotope Comics party is such a sardine can of a good time. We meet Danica Novgorodoff after she's claimed her award for Best Mini-Comic and donned the excellent wicked queen cape normally borne by a mannequin; A Late Freeze, her award-winning work, is the adorable story of a robot and a bear in love. A friend of mine, smitten, proposes marriage; she is demure and does not accept. But the future might yet hold wonders.

Lunchtime, Day 2. Convention Exhaustion and Convention Boredom begin to set in. Popping into the back room to sit in a chair and write up some notes, I find myself in the middle of a sign-language sing-a-long, just like in camp. Two dozen people singing along with hippie folk songs about inspiration: "Welcome to the land of your muse; stand in your truth." I can't bring myself to participate. When I write, I like to tell lies.

I wander the aisles with my tie-tying artist friend, who mourns the fact that robots are no longer cool; they're "done." No telling when robots will go back to being ironic and edgy; the best we can hope for is robot love stories and informative comics on how the word Robot originated. Zombies are also done. Pirates, too. Maybe in a few years, the vampire will be able to make a comeback.

Tired of wandering, I sit in a corner and read a stupid love story in space. In the end, it turns out to have all been a dream, but when the boy wakes up from his dream, nothing's any better than it was before he fell asleep. No lesson learned, no life changed. Because it turns out that you can't fix your problems with three REM cycles. No matter how much you might hope.