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Editorial Mandate: Why I love Small Press Comics

Written by Christian on Tuesday, April 08 2014 and posted in Features

Editorial Mandate: Why I love Small Press Comics

In which Christian Hoffer rambles a bit about small press comics.

The comic I've been looking forward to the most in 2014 isn't some big event comic from the Big Two. It isn't an issue of one Image's many critically acclaimed darlings, or the next installment of Battling Boy or Darwyn Cooke's Parker series or the next volume of Congressman John Lewis' March graphic novel.  It's a $5 20 page comic called Pictures of Pitchers by an Ohio artist named Katherine Wirick, which of baseball pitchers.  

Wirick is one of the most talented comic artists I know. Her best work is probably a 36' x 38' poster entitled No One is Safe, which views the infamous Kent State Shootings of 1970 from her father's viewpoint, interlaced with her own interactions with her father.  It's a powerful, touching piece of artwork, filled with raw emotion that pours out of every caption and panel.  It's an amazing comic, one that eschews the traditional structure of what a comic is, and is indicative of everything I love about the wild and wooly world of "small press" comics.

Small press comics operate in an almost entirely separate world from their mainstream cousins. While geeking out about the latest Captain America movie with an acquaintance, I mentioned the upcoming Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) taking place next weekend here in Columbus.  The acquaintance didn't even know that self-published comics were a thing that existed, despite making weekly sojourns to the local comic book store, who has a large shelf of locally produced comics right by the entrance. 

I recently spoke about how the Outhouse and many other comic sites struggle to cover the world of small press comics.  I think it's because small press comics are by their very nature nearly impossible to cover.  There are thousands of self-published comics released every years, most of which only have a print run of a few hundred copies.  Unlike comics published by even the smallest of comic publishers, most small press comics can only be found at a few stores and have a relatively limited geographic footprint.   In a way, that's part of the appeal of small press comics.  You're reading comics that only a few people know about, a hidden little treasure shared by an exclusive crowd. 

It's not that the small press scene is an "exclusive scene", one reserved for hipsters, faux-academics and comic snobs who detach themselves from a fanbase the moment a comic becomes popular.  In fact, small press comics are quite inclusive, filled with friendly creators from all walks of life.  Walking down the aisles of a small press comic convention (which can be found in just about every major metropolitan city in America), you'll find faded rockers, traditional comic nerds, graphic designers, and everyday Joes sitting side by side, all wanting to share their creations to you.  Each sale is a personal experience for the creator and the buyer, each discussion about their comic doubles as a discussion about themselves.  I've found that going to a small press convention is the easiest way to make friends in the comic world.  

The people at small press conventions aren't the only part of the small press scene that's inclusive.  The breadth of topics covered by small press comics are endless.  From historical pieces to autobiographies to horror to sci-fi to folktales, no genre is unrepresented in small press comics.  In the last year, I've picked up comics about coffee, Native American folktales, rock n' roll, sharks and burning buildings.  As long as someone is passionate about a subject, you'll find an alternative press comic about it. 

That's actually why I'm looking forward to Katherine Wirick's Pictures of Pitchers so much.  When she tweeted some early sketches from the book, it reminded me of how obsessed I was with old baseball players as a kid.  I was obsessed with the old days of baseball, from Ty Cobb to Nap Lajoie to Honus Wagner to Bob Feller.   Seeing Pictures of Pitchers brought that long dormant passion back to life.  Similarly, a copy of A Comic Guide to Brewing by Lara Antal, about the techniques of brewing coffee, drove a friend of mine to start roasting and brewing his own coffee brands.  A copy of that comic, complete with a fake coffee sleeve that wraps around it, sits on his desk at work.   Small press comics have a way of stoking passions and driving others to create their own comics or discover new interests.  

A popular complaint I've heard about the small press scene is the disparity in quality between self-published books and their cousins produced by Marvel and DC.  I'm not going to pretend that every self-published comic is a Nobel Prize winning piece of work, nor am I going to say that small press comics are somehow better than those produced by multimillion dollar companies with hundreds of staff members whose sole job is to polish a script and artwork into something that thousands of people will read.  Most small press comics are a collaboration between a few people, a writer and an artist perhaps, and sometimes a letterer or an editor.  Most small press comics are simply rawer than their mainstream counterparts.  It's the difference between seeing a local production of a musical and watching its film adaptation. One obviously has a lot more money behind it, but viewers of both can see the passion and talent in both versions. 

The next time you go into your comic book store, ask if they carry any books by local creators.  Maybe you'll find one that you enjoy.  If you have an opportunity to go to a small press convention, spend the $5 entrance fee and spend a few hours walking the aisles.  You'll probably be surprised by how many books (and emails) you leave with.  And if you'll be in Columbus this weekend for SPACE, hunt down the quiet kid in the Yuengling jean jacket.  I'll be happy to have a beer and talk comics with you, small press, superhero, genre, or otherwise.  


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