Monday, November 7, 2011

MIX

I’m really glad that you weren’t at Big Brain Comics last Sunday, because if you were you would have seen Zak Sally, Tom Neely, Noah Van Sciver, Jim Rugg and I devolve into 12-year-olds as we descended on a long box of underground comics and then sat in a circle on the floor gasping about our loot. That’s just one of dozens of moments that made me think that MIX is an exciting new addition to the comics culture that deserves to stick around.

Organized by extremely capable Sarah Morean and a small team of local volunteers, MIX reminded me of the really early days of SPX when Greg Bennett and Chris Oarr were twisting comics arms all over the country to come hang out at the show and enjoy the local hospitality. The Minneapolis hospitality was just as solid, and included a well-rounded exhibit floor that brought in hungry readers, a nightlife packed with community events, and locals going out of their way to help those of us visiting from out of town.

People were very generous to me, and I’m grateful. Sarah really wanted to have a CBLDF person come to the show, and she went out of her way to make sure that we’d be able to raise enough money to justify sending a staffer – and we did do that. Zak Sally connected me with two of his cartooning students, George Folz and Carl Thompson, who did a great job working the CBLDF table. Michael Drivas held onto our homebound freight at Big Brain Comics, and when I was on the phone calling a cab to take it there, Adam Hansen, a local creator I’d just met the night before, offered to drive me and my stuff to the store rather than deal with the cab service. I’m not gonna make the “Minnesota nice” remark. This is old fashioned comics community kindness, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t get talked about as much as sales figures and story developments, but it should, because it’s the true heart of what we do.

I bought a lot of comics. Sparkplug had stuff I’d never seen before from Yumi Sakugawa, and Gazeta, a 2010 anthology of world comics that includes a short but breathtaking piece from Dylan Horrocks about how all countries are constructs and love is just as vital an organizing principal as nationality. Gazeta also has a beautiful new philosophical piece from Ron Rege, Jr. and a lot more. I picked up everything Ursula Murray Husted had. Her work is extremely charming. I read “Drawing On Myself” on the plane home, and enjoyed how it captures the earnest yearnings of young people in a way that’s honestly observed. Sara Turner’s handmade books of ghost stories use a very interesting technique of employing vellum overlays to convey the supernatural elements of her pieces. They’re fun reads, and would make good gifts for teens who like Jill Thompson’s brand of spooky fun. Sam Hiti gave me his two volumes of Ghoulash, collecting his sketch work. That guy draws really pretty ladies and oddly creepy monsters. He’s one to watch. Zak Sally’s Sammy the Mouse collection takes self-publishing to a new plain. Every copy of this beautiful book was hand made by the author, and reflects great care. Everything from the paper stock to the color process to the lines on the page make this a beautiful object. It wouldn’t do justice to describe the content in this short space, except to say that it’s a terrifying meditation on alcoholism that’s worth spending serious time with. Annie Koyama had “Outta This Comes The Crazy” a Rina Ayuyang piece that was new to me. I finally bought a copy of MariNaomi’s Kiss & Tell, which I loved as a mini comic and will surely enjoy in this new form. Lale Westvind’s “Hyperspeed to Nowhere” looks like what would have happened if Gary Panter contributed to Heavy Metal in the early 80s. There’s a lot more, but it’s in my checked bag. I’m gonna try to spend the winter writing about the small press work I’m reading, so I’ll go into the length later. MIX definitely made a big contribution to how I’m going to spend my free time in the cold months.

I had a lot of great conversations. The Minneapolis community has always been incredibly kind to CBLDF, so it was excellent to spend time with them. CBLDF’s co-founder Greg Ketter came by and told me that he’s shuttering Dream Haven as a storefront and will be doing his bookselling on the road, online, and as special events in the current location. I met Frenchy Lunning for the first time, and we wound each other up about the horrible outcome of the Chris Handley case. Frenchy did a lot of work to provide expert arguments in that case, and we’re going to be working together to make tools that will hopefully help future cases. Diana Green and I spent time talking about the limits of free expression, and never did come to agreement, but definitely came to a consensus view that the dialogue is important and we’ve all got to do better work getting the next generation of readers invested in the conversation. I met Robert Kirby and David Kelly, and we had a terrific conversation about queer comics, their underrepresentation in the art comics world, and the powerful connection with the censorship issues the Fund addresses. That’s a community I want to spend a lot more time interacting with. He also showed me the cover of the next Three – Ed Luce did a killer job. All these conversations filled me with fire for delivering the Censorship Then & Now talk on Sunday afternoon where a full house came out and asked smart questions.

A big test of an art comics show is what happens after hours. That’s as important as the sales people have, because those interactions help provide the fuel to go back into the quiet solitude that making comics requires. It looked like MIX hit on that level. The opening party at Pink Hobo had a jumping Drink & Draw and a super cool exhibit of art from Yo Gabba Gabba. I spent a lot of time catching up with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock, then went out for a burger with Michael Drivas from Big Brain Comics, Sam Hiti, and his editor Joe Midthun.

The following night’s Mix Mixer was another full house, and it raised $700 for the CBLDF. I got to give a short talk where I thanked Sarah and talked about how the art comics community is making truly unfettered free expression, and how much I think that’s worth celebrating. Afterwards Tom Neely & I talked about Moby Dick and went to Zak Sally’s house, which was basically like an issue of The Best American Comics come to life. Zak, Anders Nilsson, Kevin Huizenga, Sarah Glidden, Dustin Harbin & I were drinking tea and drooling over Tom’s stack of undergrounds he picked up from Drivas. That dude picked up a copy of Air Pirates there. I was jealous.

The next night we set out to plunder whatever Michael had left. Michael opened the store after his Packers game to cherry pick the comics that the out of towners didn’t sell at the show. I’d never been to Big Brain before, but it instantly became my favorite store in the country. The first comic book store I loved was Comic Relief of Berkeley, largely because its unwieldy inventory reflected the lovably passionate mess that was its charismatic owner Rory Root. Big Brain is definitely a relative of that deeply missed institution. Its owner is just as passionate, but way more sensible about what it means to have a full-service shop. Even if his definition of sensible would horrify most store owners working in the modern climate. Big Brain is a giant long room with high bookshelves stacked with comics and books. I really like how Michael racks comics and books side by side, spine out – alpha by title on the superhero side, alpha by author on the fiction and lit side. This place is magic in the way it gathers the whole history of comics into one densely packed shop and promises that you’re going to find treasure if you go looking.

And, yeah, I was looking for treasure. You ever hear that Velvet Underground song “Waiting For The Man?” That was Zak and Jim and Noah and I standing around, holding back from buying things off the store’s overstuffed shelves, and waiting, as patiently as possible, for Michael to get around to opening the box. When he did, it was savage. Zak stood his ground in the center, Jim flanked his left, Noah his right, and I looked over Zak’s shoulder as he flipped past. Arcade, Weirdo, Fantagor, Slow Death, Deviant Slice, Grim Wit, Rowlf, Death Rattle, Dirty Duck, The Barn of Fear, Black & White, Mom’s Homemade, Hup, Junkwaffel, Smile, Dan O’Neill’s Comics & Stories, O.K., Mondo Snarfo, God Nose, Harold Hedd. I grabbed all the Corben I could, but Zak was there first and had dibs, and he plundered that box. When we got to the back, Zak and Jim retreated to assess their pulls and I went back for what wasn’t picked clean, then joined the circle. Zak claimed the biggest prize, Light, a Greg Irons color book that has a drawing that probably would have to claim paternity for Tom Neely in a court of law. We were kids, freaking out on the insane displays of craft, the raw sexual drawings that look like guitar distortion brought to visual life, the confrontational exaggerations of body and environment, the psychedelic colors achieved by making printing presses do things that they weren’t intended for. It was fucking glorious. Afterwards everyone at Big Brain joined the afterparty at Red Stag where everyone else that was still in town was sharing craft beer and bonhomie.

Overall, MIX is a show with a lot of heart and a lot of promise. Morean spoke openly of being burnt out during an interview with Comics Reporter before the show, so one of the big topics of the weekend was whether or not there’d ever be another one. I think there should be, but that’s really up to the Minneapolis community and Morean. The team she had did a lot with what they had, which wasn’t much. Table costs were too cheap to allow much space for the organizers to get onsite logistics help or advertise, although they did do a terrific job getting the word out through their public relations efforts. Being free to attendees is a nice gambit, and although the attendance was fairly steady, it was never crazy. There’s a lot of room to grow, but to do that, the show needs to be rethought from the ground up. And on Sunday night it sounded like that process was starting.

I hope MIX keeps going, and that Sarah can recruit the help she needs to turn it into a long-running institution. With so much uncertainty in the macro and micro economies effecting comics, having more shows focused on creating marketplaces for art comics is important. Minneapolis is a great city with a terrific local population of artists, retailers, educators, and readers. It has two terrific mainstream facing shows in FallCon and SpringCon. It should be able to maintain a great independent facing show in MIX. I hope that happens, for all the pragmatic business reasons and idealistic content reasons I have for supporting the independent comics world. And because I want to go back to Big Brain and get in line ahead of Zak Sally the next time Michael buys an underground comics collection.