Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of DC. It was utterly unlike any comics convention I have ever been to, and, surprisingly, one of the highlights of the weekend was the 2017 Ignatz Awards ceremony on Saturday night.
The Ignatz Awards are named for one of the ill-tempered, brick-throwing mouse, Ignatz, from George Herriman’s classic Krazy Kat cartoon strip. In keeping with the spirit of Ignatz and Herriman, the award recognizes excellence in independent comics, with a focus on free-spirited works that exemplify what comics is capable of achieving as an art form.
The first sign that these awards were different came when I arrived at SPX and was given an Ignatz ballot. Unlike many comics awards, which are limited to comics creators and other industry insiders, anyone who attended SPX got to vote, and then the tallies were hurriedly completed before the awards ceremony. It was radically democratic change from the norm, and the audience’s participation and excitement really came through during the ceremony.
The books nominated—and the creators who made them—were also dramatically different than what we usually see in comics awards. The nominees were genuinely diverse, with books crossing multiple genres and creators that looked dramatically different from the sea of white men who dominate the Eisners.
It was truly refreshing to hear Ben Passmore joke that the brick Ignatz Award he won for Your Black Friend would have been handy at the March of the Jugaloes he had been at earlier that day. Or Emil Ferris, who won both Outstanding Graphic Novel and Outstanding Artist for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, talk about how neither she nor her book fit the model of what people expected them to look like. Amazingly, the Ignatz acceptance speeches by and large felt genuinely relevant.
In this, the Ignatz Awards were representative of SPX as a whole. I have been to a fair number of comic conventions, and I am used to shows where the floor is dominated by retailers selling comics and comics-adjacent merch, with the actual comics creators hidden away in Artists’ Alley.
Not SPX: almost every single booth was a creator, from people who made fanzines about Nick Cage to major names like Emil Ferris and Kate Leth. It was amazing. I made a point of talking to as many creators as I could, and by the end of the weekend my voice was hoarse and I felt like I had gotten my social quota for the rest of the year. There were so many amazing cartoonists making so many incredibly awesome comics and zines.
Here’s a small sample of the large stack of stuff I left the show with:
The few remaining booths were small press publishers such as Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, most of which also hosted creator signings and meet-and-greets. Totally missing from the show were booth-after-booth selling Funko POPs, pop culture t-shirts, or unlicensed art prints. There were no long lines for autographs from the celebrity du jour. SPX was truly comics all the way down.
Comics creators were also at the center of SPX’s social functions, which culminated in a post-Ignatz Awards reception and “prom” (which this year had a slumber party theme). And, in keeping in the spirit of the show, everyone was invited, without the need to pay extra for a special VIP pass to mingle with the creators.
Altogether, it was a radically different convention-going experience than I am used to, and I cannot wait for next year to go again.
In the meantime, I’m going to have to catch up on this year’s list of winners, of which I have read shockingly few:
Outstanding Story: Diana’s Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak
Outstanding Minicomic: Tender-Hearted by Hazel Newlevant
Outstanding Anthology: Elements: Fire—An Anthology by Creators of Color, edited by Taneka Stotts
Outstanding Series: Chester 5000 by Jess Fink
Outstanding Online Comic: The Meek by Der-Shing Helmer
Promising New Talent: Blanca Xunise for Say Her Name
Outstanding Comic: Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore
Outstanding Graphic Novel: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
Outstanding Artist: Emil Ferris for My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
Outstanding Collection: Our Cats Are More Famous Than Us: A Johnny Wander Collection by Ananth Hirsh & Yuko Ota