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October 12, 2015

Alternative Press Expo 2015: There’s No Place Like Home

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Like Dorothy says, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” but when she touched down in Oz I bet she didn’t think it would take over a decade to get back to her roots. Dan Vado knows what it’s like. The owner of Slave Labor Graphics (SLG) and creator of the Alternative Press Expo (APE) returned to San Jose, California, October 3rd and 4th for an outstanding expo showcasing independent artists, creators and publishers.

Vado created APE in 1994 when he noticed there weren’t any conventions devoted to underground and alternative comics like the ones he was publishing at SLG. In 2000, APE moved to San Francisco where it remained until 2014. Somewhere along the yellow brick road, APE came under the auspices of San Diego Comic Con, but this year the great APE clicked its heels and found itself home at the San Jose Convention Center.

And what a congenial homecoming! This is THE show for new talent. Seriously, who needs to plug Jim Lee or John Romita, Jr.’s latest work? Don’t get me wrong, their stuff is great, but there are so many fantastic up-and-coming artists to meet and so many new works to enjoy --- and at APE it seems like they are all gathered under one roof making a stroll through the aisles last all day. Oh, and talk about friendly. These creators are more than willing to chat for a few minutes about their works, their process and their inspiration. Lots of books and bills were changing hands, making this show successful for artists, creators and authors, some driving 10 hours in barely-there autos. Hats off to you!

APE did something this con attendee has never seen before. They let all teachers and librarians in gratis and gave them a bunch of free stuff...and not just stickers. SLG Publishing offered REX LIBRIS: BOOK OF MONSTERS (Volume 2) by James Turner, who presents the story of the world’s favorite butt-kicking, sesquipedalian librarian whose “primary mission is to acquire, prioritize, classify, organize, and disseminate information.” Kicking alien ass is just incidental. It doesn’t take long for Rex to get sucked into the Book of Monsters as he battles Krakens and Zombies and Nazis and other bad guys. The black-and-white artwork is done in an updated retro-deco geometric style, while the protagonist talks in a tough-guy brogue reminiscent of noir film. BOOK OF MONSTERS is a fun journey that will exercise your little gray cells as you read your way through a book about a book within a library.

Kymera Press is run by women and publishes stories about women, created, drawn and written by women. GATES OF MIDNIGHT features Raven Moon, a combat medic recently returned from Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD. She soon has to face the monsters who killed her father with the help of a mysterious stranger, a stranger that can help her fight the monsters coming through a rogue gate. Sepia tones lend a dark tenor to this supernatural thriller that pits Raven against monsters from another time and space.

Andy Warner, Cartoonist, Journalist and Illustrator, is a comics journalist whose work has been published by KQED, the United Nations Human Rights Council, Slate and many others. He is a teacher at Stanford’s Comics Journalism School and has created comics on the Syrian crisis, Beirut and the invention of the Slinky. Yes, that’s right, the Slinky, a certain generations's favorite toy. The Slinky chapter is one of the entries found in BRIEF HISTORIES OF EVERYDAY OBJECTS. Warner’s style is reminiscent of Will Eisner with its thick blacks and hand-lettered text, while his storytelling is engaging and precise. Who’d a thunk the Slinky would walk its way into a toy empire?

TRANSCAT was at APE flexing superhero muscles to fight crime in a magic cat hat that allows her to change genders at will. Claiming to be the first transgender superhero, Knave Murdok’s protagonist heads off voyeuristic up-skirt photographers at her local comic convention as she grapples with the evils of society in a funny way. The black-and-white pencil sketch style enhances the reading experience with its clean look and smart text.

Debbie Huey showed off BUMPERBOY, a sweet young kid and his pup. Together the rubber-suited Bumberboy and Bumperpup bounce through different adventures that are fun for all ages. The stories are sweet but won’t give you a toothache. The slightly seedy Onomatopeople can’t do much harm because they have friends that are always there to calm them down. The artwork is clean, strong and evokes an innocence that feels a bit anime in style, like Winnie-the-Pooh meets Astro Boy. Huey is also organizing Comics Arts Fest for the San Mateo County Library held throughout October and featuring Mariko Tamaki (SKIN, THIS ONE SUMMER), Alex Fajardo (KID BEOWULF!), Mario Hernandez (LOVE & ROCKETS), Raina Telgemeier (SMILE, SISTERS) and inker Steve Leialoha (FABLES, IRON MAN, THE X-MEN).

Ajuan Mance’s 1001 BLACK MEN is a sketchbook project recording, like the title says, African American men. In a recent interview, Mance remarked, “I have only positive associations with Black men, based on the first Black men I knew. I always have the privilege of seeing anything that doesn’t feel nurturing and loving and affirming as an outlier. But that is not even how all Black people experience representation of Black men.” Her style is Sharpie-thick line in stain-glass style panels with a modern graphic art aesthetic. Really beautiful stuff, and the sketch book is revealing in what surprises this urban professor.

Have you ever wondered where young monsters go to school? MONSTER ELEMENTARY, of course. These little fiends have to learn the proper etiquette for eating humans or committing random acts of violence, or the proper use of guano bombs. The 2015 Gold Medal Independent Best Humor Graphic Novel is a great read for all ages, offering enough gross-outs for kids and some delightful tidbits for adults. There is a good balance of text to graphic, and the full-color artwork is clean and Nickelodeonesque. Don’t take my word for it, read MONSTER ELEMENTARY and find out what happens when the FBI raids ME, forcing all the monsterettes to experience the horror of growing up in public school.

Jason Shiga, the newest member of the First Second (:30) publishing family was showing off DEMON. But wait, who is that helping out? It’s Thien Pham (LEVEL UP, SUMO) swiping cards and bagging books. Shiga’s DEMON will be published in four volumes beginning fall 2016. DEMON began as a pencil project and then, as desperation hit, a web comic where it finally took off. Jimmy Yee, the main character, has traversed the gutter moving from one work, MEANWHILE, a create-your-own-story work any kid would love, to the adult side of the street in DEMON. There is an autobiographical vein running through DEMON, but I hope that doesn’t apply to the first few pages. DEMON is fully available online where it will remain even after printing. The killer style emulates newspaper daily cartoons with a few deep, rich colors to reinforce the mood.

Teachers and librarians were not only welcomed at APE, but could learn a lot from the many panels aimed at them. “’Where Are Your Comic Books?’ Getting Graphic Novels in Your Stacks and Classrooms” discussed the serious ins, outs and vagaries of comics curation. At a school where I teach, librarians argue about whether comics/graphic novels should be shelved separately or in the stacks. Quite the controversy. “Make Read Write Draw: Enhancing Library Programming and Classroom Activities with Comics” featured success stories, tips and resources for hosting fabulous events while building partnerships with your local comics’ community. There was even “Advanced Topics in Graphic Novels: Comics and Critical Reading,” which shared how to read between the lines of graphic novels and comics to provoke readers into deeper thought and higher levels of learning. Choosing between panels and browsing the aisles wasn’t easy.

Going through my goody bag of temporary tattoos, books, prints, postcards, comics, business cards, graphic novels, flyers and books, this professor is ecstatic to discover new works to add to the shelf. I look forward to sharing these books with classes who often times know way more than me about big-market superheroes, but need a more thorough grounding in independents. What is it about comics and graphic novels that so many find attractive? Partly it is the ability to slow down and savor a work rather than have a tornado of video spit at you demanding your attention RIGHT NOW! Wandering the aisles at APE allows people to have a brief conversation with creative people who believe in a good, beautifully rendered story, and we all can use the benefits that come from a good story in our lives.