The Small Press Expo in Maryland is supposed to be the most super of all super indie comics events in the United States of Cartoons.
Having never really attended a super indie comics event, I have no basis for comparison, but SPX was certainly a mind blowing experience.
Walking into the main area where hundreds of Buddy-Holly-glasses and plaid-shirt wearing cartoonists ply their shiny paper wares at fold-out tables quite literally took my breath away.
I didn’t know what to do.
There were too many people. Too many colours. Too many amazing pieces of art work.
I freaked and went to check out the panels, in the process learning a lot about how to do a genuinely awful job of facilitating discussion between cartoonists.
Featuring the likes of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, the SPX panels could have offered great insight into the American indie comics industry.
They could have covered useful and entertaining information about how our favourite cartoonists work and what they’re doing right now.
They could have featured professionally and artfully structured interviews.
But in the SPX panels I attended, too often they went nowhere near the professed discussion topic and deteriorated into fan-boy-meets-his-hero awkwardness.
The first panel I went to was titled ‘British Comics: Does It Translate’.
A simple yet interesting question I thought, being an Australian cartoonist in America, and I foolishly imagined there might be something I could learn here.
Unfortunately the MC didn’t ask a single question to allow a comparison of British and American comics, instead pushing each shy and not-at-all-used-to-public-speaking cartoonist or publisher into a dull summary of their career and polite, painful, rebuttals of leading questions.
My Irish friend Luke Healy left after five minutes because he couldn’t bear to be in the room anymore.
Okay I admit it. I’m a journalist by trade. A BROADCAST journalist.
So sue me if I have problems with poorly constructed lines of questioning, a lack of flexibility to deal with inexperienced speakers on a panel AND badly thought out microphone set ups.
What they could have done better…
- There was absolutely no need to have a table in front of the panelists, I would have taken the table out and sat panelists around talk-show style in a semi-circle, so they could look at each other and respond to points the others had made. The ideal scenario is one in which panelists respond to each others points without prompting, entering a dynamic and spontaneous debate instead of dutifully trotting out answers to the MC’s questions.
- Stopped the MC asking leading questions: “I know that your work here says this and this and this, so what do you think about what I’ve just said?” because the cartoonist mostly responded with varying sentences translating into “you are totally wrong”, which is boring for the audience.
- Audiences aren’t always familiar with the panelists, but while it is important to explain their work when you’re introducing them, don’t invite them to rattle off a pre-rehearsed personal history. You have to push speakers to break out of their constructed self-narratives and asking them to do the introductions is not what audiences are there to listen to. Audiences want to hear the panelists’ thoughts on the discussion topic. Remember that thing we read in the program that led us to attend your freaking panel in the first place?
- Keep the responses and questions short and snappy. If a panelist starts to ramble, the MC needs to politely interject. It’s not hard, it’s not evil, it just prevents half the audience from going to sleep and the people in the back row leaving.
- Don’t close the door or make sure you have a quiet door. The noise of the doors opening and closing was distracting for both the audience and the speaker. If there are people outside making noise, a staff member should be assigned to stand by and say “hey guys, can you take your debate about auto-bio and the white American male psyche to the bar?”.
- Here’s an interesting observation: when you have female panelists (and I’ve seen this elsewhere) sharing a mic with a male panelist, the female panelist will not use the mic, the male panelist will. GIVE EVERYONE A MIC. Don’t have panels with more than the number of mics available. Gender. What.
- Don’t let fans run the conversation unless they are able to put their love of the cartoonist aside and actually ask decent questions that do not assume the audience also has an intense detailed knowledge of the cartoonists’ work. Gushing praise is off-putting and embarrassing to watch.
Many of the cartoonists/publishers were great speakers; Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Ellen Lindner, Francoise Mouly, Daniel Clowes and basically everyone on the ‘Drawing Energy’ and ‘Comics on Assignment’ panels were excellent.
BUT it is my personal opinion that a number of MCs were not up to scratch and that the set up was clearly designed by cartoonists (not broadcasters).
AND I had a great time at SPX; I bought a number of shiny comics and mini comics and had some fantastic conversations with many, many interesting people.
I will totally come again next year and hopefully say something intelligent to Adrian Tomine instead of waffling about how cool SPX is and not drop comics all over Josh Kramer or awkwardly tell MariNaomi how excellent I think she is.