This weekend the annual Small Press Expo takes place in Bethesda, Maryland. SPX, as it is commonly called, is the premier gathering of independent and self-published comic creators and cartoonists in the country. A highlight of the beginning of the end of the convention season, the expo is a beloved gathering of high profile creators (Gilbert Hernandez, Jillian Tamaki, and Nate Powell are guests this year), mainstay publishers like AdHouse, Koyama Press, and Fantagraphics, and up and coming creators, all united by the common purpose of exploring and celebrating the bounds of the medium and its diversity, the tie that binds star creators, publishers large or small, and new talents together.
Today I’m going to take a look at offerings available this weekend from two cartoonists you might not have heard of whose work is a good example of that breadth of material waiting to be discovered at SPX.
Dave Proch has two new books debuting at the expo. The Homecoming King is the first book in a four-part series, and it is unlike any book I’ve read. In an era of the memoir, where preciousness almost always sets in and the author usually goes off in pursuit of intellectualism or a shared humanity, Proch does neither. With this tale of a high school football star laid low, returning to his hometown years later after achieving a somewhat nebulous career as a cartoonist, Proch turns the sense of vanity and ego we all struggle with inside out, at once mocking and applauding the main character in a series of events that are both vicious and silly at the same time.
You could argue The Homecoming King is actually anti-intellectual and that its creator isn’t looking for anything except a good time while he reports from the banal and burnout fringes of gentle society and stoned out bums that collide in these pages. But there is a certain poignancy, intended or not, that creeps in once the “hero” of this story returns to his hometown at the last-minute request of some of his old teachers to speak to the struggling, going-nowhere-fast students of Sharon Hill High.
There is also a sense of horror here, a dread that can’t be dulled by drugs or routine. Proch reflects this malaise with hazy, tripped out colors that make little sense technically but provide a total immersion into the emotional landscape of the sadly typical American wasteland these characters inhabit.
One of the things that struck me when I finished reading is that this opening chapter of The Homecoming King is actually a classic comic book origin story, with the inane teenage savagery of high school cliques and blown expectations of youth forming our protagonist and bringing him full circle into the now, where the real story is set to begin. I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out and watching Proch develop as an artist, in particular.
I’ve mentioned his use of color already, and he has a gift for comic expression that plays well alongside his verbal knack for tossing off laugh-out-loud, quotable one-liners. With more pages under his belt and a closer eye on inconsistencies (there are common and repeated spelling errors and occasional structural lapses in the drawing) Proch has a chance to be one of the more unique voices on the current self-publishing scene.
Along with The Homecoming King, the fourth issue of Mango Lizard, Proch’s sporadically published ongoing anthology series, will also debut at the expo. The opening two short stories are solo works by the creator, and linked in a whimsical manner by a fire at sea and an ambitious penguin. Rounding out the collection is a foul-mouthed satirical collaboration between Proch and writer Swifty Lang (who’s also a columnist on this site with The Rewind).
Mike Sgier’s Edie Copperpot is a black-and-white fantasy tale that will be available in two initial volumes, a shorter first book introducing the eponymous title character and establishing her world, and book two, which is three times the length and expands on young Edie’s story and the city of Tiega in which she lives.
Book one is told almost exclusively in a series of four panel grids, lending the telling a reassuring and easily accessible rhythm which allows Sgier to get into the details of Edie’s seemingly mundane days and hint at her larger backstory, dripping with the sort of underlying intrigue any good fantasy story holds, without getting bogged down in exposition. Edie, a teenage orphan living in a benevolent temple, gets her name from the mostly harmless catcalls of the working men on the streets whom she serves water to from the copper pots she carries. She’s a feisty, take no guff little girl, and Sgier quickly establishes her character…
…but, as we soon learn, she isn’t just a hotheaded waif. Edie has a knack for knowing what she shouldn’t know, and for carrying her own secrets close, and book one ends with a poetic sequence culminating in a splash page that gives the reader just enough of the mystery of Edie’s past to send them on their way needing more.
Book two opens up with an extended flashback, a homey, warm scene between Edie and her father, and introduces a book that Edie cherishes and which clearly, by the end of this installment, is going to come to play a pivotal role in the unfolding saga. The book is a great conceit, a fantasy story within a fantasy story, and Sgier takes us inside Edie’s head when she is reading from it.
Where book one was largely rendered with clean, soft strokes and pristine black and white, here, particularly in the book-within-a-book sequences, chunky blacks and wispy crosshatching give the pages a phantasmal, horrific feel…
…while elsewhere mottled textures and the open play of white on black give the city, and Edie’s running around in it, a real sense of place.
Edie Copperpot is a gentle fantasy and a welcome antidote to all the screeching, sturm und drang material that seems to dominate the genre these days. It reminds me of BONE, and I highly recommend it to readers who enjoyed that classic series. Myself, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Edie’s story.
So, if you’re at SPX this weekend, you can find Dave and Mike tabling together, two creators whose work is the polar opposite of one another yet linked by an auteurship and individuality that is the hallmark of what makes the expo a special time and place on the comics landscape.
Find these books and more at SPX on September 16th, 11am-7pm, and September 17th, noon-6pm at the Marriott North Bethesda Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland.