Alternative Press Expo 2011

Danielle Alojado/Staff

You won’t find many superheroes at the Alternative Press Expo, a yearly comic book convention in San Francisco. And if you do, they’re probably not the sort that the city deserves — big publishers don’t show up to showcase the latest Batman or Superman offerings, nor would you see much X-Men or Fantastic Four. Rather, the ‘con serves those writers, artists and publishing companies that might be the future of pop culture — the Scott Pilgrims and Ghost Worlds of tomorrow — and those cartoonists that want their work to remain at the fringes of mainstream.

It represents everything good about San Diego Comic-Con, another event administered by the same nonprofit. At APE, you won’t find the same big film studios and peddlers of mass culture that you do at its big brother in the Southland, and the crowds it brings  aren’t of the same sort, either.
Geeky though they may be, the crowd of con-goers at APE are more than slightly hip enthusiasts. Here, the fans, exhibitors and special guests are all of the same ilk — people driven by an unmodest passion for the art they lovingly produce and consume.

— Nick Myers

Independent publishers on the West Coast

If you were wondering where all the thriving young artists and writers of our generation are hiding, they are most likely in someone’s basement hand sewing their newest comic book. The word “comic” makes most people think of Superman, Batman or maybe Charlie Brown. To them, a comic collector is some nerd who goes around to garage sales searching for vintage issues of “The Hulk.” Those people don’t realize that independent presses across the West Coast are a growing medium for budding artists to get their illustrations seen — and none of them resemble DC.

By devoting themselves to printing the indie underdog’s work, publishers like Chance Press rally a diverse membership that promises an interesting read. Some of the El Cerrito based publisher’s solely hand-made books include “The Daily Forlorn,” “Furlqump” and “Acontextual Drawings.” Blurring the line between comics, poetry, fine art and doodles, the art is sometimes abstract, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes spectacularly beautiful.  And if Chance ain’t enough, Never Press of Pasadena and Revival Press of Portland and L.A. probably wouldn’t mind your attention either.

— Sarah Burke

Inhae Lee

Never before have molar teeth ignited such fan devotion. Eliciting squeals of “cute!” and “adorable!” from passerby, Inhae Lee’s APE booth showcased merchandise of ickle and Lardee, the stars of “My Milk Toof.” The medium is difficult to categorize — is it a photo blog, web comic, or pop art? Perhaps the most unique, genre-fluid work at APE, “My Milk Toof” is best described as all of the above.

Episodes feature two molars, or “toofs,” hand-sculpted in resin with babyish eyes and abnormally large mouths. The concept may initially sound creepy (yes, the molars have teeth in their mouths), but the actual sight of the toof pair is arrestingly endearing. Like Wallace and Gromit, the faces are expressive and have distinct personalities: ickle is curious and intelligent, and Lardee is a rotund, dimwitted bloke with an insatiable appetite.
Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the toofs exist in beautiful miniature universes painstakingly handcrafted by Lee. While larger plot development is sacrificed for short, quiet moments, Lee’s remarkable attention to detail makes this web-based curio irresistible to both children and adults.

— Deanne Chen

Kate Beaton

Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton has been writing a webcomic about history and literature for four years. And already, “Hark! A Vagrant,” has soared in popularity, prompting Drawn and Quarterly to publish a hardbound collection of her work, released on Sept. 27. As part of the book’s tour, Beaton appeared at D+Q’s table during APE, and was held as one of the convention’s guests of honor.

Partly inspired by an older, pithy humor rarely seen since the 1920s and ’30s, Beaton said she strives to appeal to both those that know everything about history and those that know nothing. It’s a a brand of comedy that “never talks down” to its audience while always remaning smart — the same style Beaton read in titles like W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s “1066 and All That.”

The comic is charming and educated, and keeps its historical subject matter alive in both substance and style. After all, if not for “Hark!,” we may have forgotten just how creepy we Americans thought the French Revolution was, or how manly Lady Macbeth could have been — if only she could get a boner.

— Nick Myers

Traci Hui

There is an indescribable pleasure derived from looking at pictures of food. Beyond filling the appetites of Food Network junkies, there is a visual satisfaction evoked by the basic depiction of the various forms through which we consume sustenance. This enjoyment is the reaction to the work of the small number of cartoonists who focus on illustrating food. Perusing the Alternative Press Expo, it would have been difficult not to stop and admire the contour sketches of falafels, parfaits, hamburgers and so on — the 21st-century responses to both the Renaissance still life and Warhol’s can of soup.

Traci Hui is one illustrator whose deliciously cute artwork stood out this weekend at the Expo in San Francisco. Illustrating tiramisu like a science diagram, her drawing displays a line running from each layer of sugary goodness to a side illustration of how it’s prepared. Tiny sketches of a cracked egg, a whisk, and all those little lady fingers endow an endearing simplicity to a decadent dessert. Whether it’s just another form of food porn or a new artistic way to appreciate the culinary arts, it’s hard to deny that it’s just nice to look at.

— Sarah Burke

Shannon Wheeler

Jittery doses of caffeine and multiple levels of satire propel Shannon Wheeler’s best-known comic, “Too Much Coffee Man” (TMCM). The titular superhero of TMCM is an affable, emotional layman with a coffee mug head, clad in skin-tight long johns. Yet TMCM is more than off-beat nuttiness, as Wheeler’s keen sense of social commentary demonstrates in existential, self-referencing layers of storyline.

Wheeler portrays himself in TMCM as a Neanderthal-like cartoonist plagued by self-doubt, but (in real life) he has garnered considerable success in the last two decades. A Cal alumnus who got his start in cartooning at this newspaper, Wheeler is a two-time Eisner Award-winner and contributes to The New Yorker and The Onion. At APE, Wheeler promoted two new publications: “Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus,” which repackages previously published books from his underground hit, and “Oil and Water,” an ambitious collaboration with Steve Duin from The Oregonian on the BP oil spill. While the former introspects Wheeler’s past work, the latter offers a glimpse of his potential future interests: merging the genres of disaster documentation and graphic novel.

— Deanne Chen

Matt Sundstrom

Portland-based illustrator-designer Matt Sundstrom draws stories without words. Well, not always, but the majority of his work — released by his own studio Fantom Forest — lacks dialogue while still evoking something genuine, unpretentious and sentimental.

His most recently published work, “Punkin and Boo,” debuted at Fantom Forest’s APE booth, and follows the titular characters — a ghost and jack-o-lantern — on an adventurous trek to a forest Halloween party. But the comic first showed up last year on the Twitter account @punkinandboo, as what Sundstrom called an “experiment in social media.”

The choice to not include dialogue is a conscious one, a constraint Sundstrom said was partly inspired by early silent films. And although the movies that lend to his current style are no longer made, he said that comics still have the opportunity to create a broader appeal. Sundstrom draws journeys, and without speech, the images in each moment is all the more meaningful — words would only clutter the stories he tells.

— Nick Myers