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Comics festival Small Press Expo returns to North Bethesda

SPXO 170917 068 Keith KnightCartoonist Keith Knight showcases collections of his work for attendees at the 2017 Small Press Expo at the Marriott Conference Center in North Bethesda. COURTESY PHOTO  The Small Press Expo returned to the Marriott Conference Center in North Bethesda, on Sept. 16 and 17. SPX, as it is known, is a 501©(3) nonprofit founded in 1994 to promote artists and publishers who produce independent comics. The annual event attracts hundreds of cartoonists, publishers and large crowds.

This year, the Expo’s roster of special guests included: Canadian illustrator and cartoonist Jillian Tamaki, who provided art for the graphic novels “Skim,” and “This One Summer:” Gilbert Hernandez, who is best known for his Palomar/Heartbreak Soup stories in the alternative comic book series “Love & Rockets,” which he shares with brothers Jaime and Mario; Finnish cartoonist Tommi Musturi, creator of “The Book of Hope;” and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes, whose work appears in various newspapers across the country such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and international newspapers like Le Monde while animated editorial cartoons are regularly featured on The Washington Post’s website.

Previous expos have featured cartooning legends such as Roz Chast of The New Yorker, and the iconic Jules Feiffer as well as relative newcomers like Congressman John Lewis, who appeared last year to promote his three-part graphic novel series called “The March.”

The event also offered informal discussions and interviews open to attendees, as well as off-site events during the week of the Expo, including academic seminars, book signings, and school outreach programs.

The center’s Grand Ballroom was filled with exhibitors: cartoonists, writers and publishers, who sat behind personalized display tables featuring various collections of cartoons and comic books as crowds of attendees filed past. This year, exhibitors included Indy World, Claire Connelly, Jim Rugg and The New York Review of Books.

One display table featured the work of award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight.

Knight has been drawing cartoons since elementary school; he even got better grades in most classes when he included them.

“I always knew I’d be a cartoonist and kept doing it through high school and college,” said the North Carolina resident.

When one of his American literature professors in college included such authors as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou in the syllabus, it inspired Knight to start his now 25-year-old signature strip, “The K Chronicles.”

The strip reflects the life of a young African-American male, representing him as a hip-hop fan, “who happens to be smart and nerdy and likes other kinds of music.”

After publishing on e-zines, Knight went on to self-syndicating his cartoons in newspapers. In addition to “The K Chronicles,” Knight has created the comic strips “(Th)ink” and “The Knight Life,” as well as poster art featuring quotes from notable figures in African-American history. Knight is also the artist for "Father O'Flannity's Hot Tub Confessions" and "Bully Baby," two strips that regularly appear in “Mad Magazine.”

Knight’s comics can be viewed on his website at keithknightcartoonist.com.

Spike Trotman, a resident of Potomac, also has been interested in comics since she was a little kid, reading them in The Washington Post. “I used to make minicomics on the Xerox,” she said.

She moved onto web comics, creating “Templar Arizona” and began to self-publish – a process she taught herself.

“Then I started using Kickstarter, which prefunds works so that you always go to press in the black,” Trotman explained.

In 2007, Trotman established her own company, Iron Circus Comics, which features comic books from other artists. The various comics can be viewed at ironcircus.com.

At one time, women were scarce in the cartooning world. That is no longer the case, as reflected by the high percentage of creators at the Expo who were female.

Carla Speed McNeil, who now lives in Bowie, started out wanting to do animation. But when she realized what animators “actually do," cartooning became more appealing.

“I enjoy collaborations, but I wanted to tell the story myself,” she said.

Speed McNeil has created 10 volumes of her award-winning, ongoing comic book series “Finder” – which Speed McNeil describes as “aboriginal science fiction.” While the series focuses on various characters in different storylines, the central character is a “sin-eater” known as Jaeger, who wanders across Earth in the far-future, encountering various cultures. Speed McNeil’s work also includes more personal stories, teenage drama, and children’s books.

Self-publishing “Finder” since 1996, McNeil turned to comic book publisher Dark Horse in 2011 to continue to make her series available in eight-page installments of the monthly anthology comic book “Dark Horse Presents” as well as trade paperback collections. Installments of the series can be viewed for free at carlaspeedmcneil.com.

Creators traveled from around the country and several foreign countries to attend the Expo.

Kelsey Short, of Queens, N.Y., was one of them. She does comics and illustrations of “different styles,” some of them “spooky,” she said.

Most of the Expo attendees were young and enthusiastic; identifying with the various comics and cartoons showcased at the Expo and the topics they address.

“A lot of comics are very personal,” said Warren Bernard, SPX executive director. “They reflect many different interests, whether it’s metal rock, LGBT, black, Hispanic, or teen drama.

“SPX is now in its 21st year,” he continues. “The proceeds from our annual festival go to support the Comic Legal Defense Fund, which supports the rights of cartoonists and offers educational programs.”

The Expo prides itself on maintaining an open (rather than curated) registration policy and open access among attendees, exhibitors, and volunteers, Bernard said. Moreover, it is “unique among comic book exhibitions in not allowing retailers to have a formal presence. Only creators and publishers may exhibit.”

Initially, the Expo was one of only two independent comic festivals, but served as the prototype for many, according to Bernard.

“There are super hero festivals,” he said. “And we are everything else.”

For information about the Small Press Expo, visit: www.smallpressexpo.com

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