Comic book expo is a convention for the unconventional

Alternative Press Expo/Courtesy

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“In independent comics, you just have to go for it … you get lucky by doing the work.” So said Dan Vado, co-founder of Slave Labor Graphics.

“You do comics because it’s just something you have to do … it doesn’t have to be good, but at least it’s real.”

Vado is also the founder of the Alternative Press Expo, an inherently Bay Area convention that took place last weekend at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. As its name suggests, the event is a bastion of everything alternative in the world of comics and art.

We live in a great place for independent press; the amount of freelance artistry and small-scale publishing is amazing, and the feeling of sincerity draws you in because you’d never know about it otherwise. Visually, many of the artists had work that was like nothing I had ever seen. I was also astounded by the number of local creators who attended, which speaks volumes about our culturally rich part of California.

Alternative comics have been a staple of American culture for as long as there have been comic books, but underground comics as we know them were really born in the Bay Area. They’re a product of the ’60s and a response to the harsh regulations of the Comics Code Authority, which forbade anything outside of the stuffy culture of the ’50s. The CCA was a response to psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent,” which blamed comics for juvenile delinquency, homosexuality in teenagers and an overall decline in American morals. Underground press was the perfect antithesis to a highly restrictive industry.

Over the last 40 years, alternative comics have expanded from their solely countercultural origins to tell stories about everything under the sun. Many are intensely autobiographical, others lighthearted satire of the superhero craze of Marvel and DC; they “fly in the face of logic,” as Ron Turner, founder of Last Gasp, a publisher based in San Francisco, put it.

Turner talked at one panel about printing several thousands of copies of comics he and his friends made and distributing them “where people were — at protests in Berkeley, in beauty salons, small bookstores — and we would travel across the country playing Johnny Comicbook.” Vado started SLG in the mid 1980s in San Jose out of making comics with his friends and attracting other artists and writers, who asked him to print their creations. In the ’90s, Jhonen Vasquez, creator of the cartoon “Invader Zim,” began publishing his comic “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac,” and since then SLG has seen many other titles rise in popularity. However, the takeaway remained the same — with independent comics, you have to take chances and hope they work out.

Historical and personal relevance aside, alternative art and comics thrive in the Bay Area because the Bay is pretty interesting. The East Bay in particular is full of landmarks and historical bits, which have been celebrated in art and comic form. A well-known example of the East Bay in comic form is Adrian Tomine’s “Shortcomings,” but one exhibitor this year really stood out: Shane Donahue, whose “Prints From Places I Love” celebrates well-known Oakland landmarks such as the Fox Theater and the Oakland Zoo, as well as local spots throughout the city. It speaks to a love of a lively and culturally rich region and depicts it in the most direct and beautiful manner.

The artists I saw and spoke to were generally not doing this because they were getting paid a lot for it. They don’t work for Marvel or DC, and their creations usually get around via word-of-mouth or on the Internet.

Ben Zaehringer, of the hilarious webcomic Berkeley Mews (and former member of Casa Zimbabwe) describes creating independent comics as “feeding the soul.” Zaehringer has a full-time job, so he must relegate his comic-making to at night and on weekends. He sees it as a “labor of love,” so he wants to keep creating. He and other creators make comics and art because it’s something worth doing to them, and it shows in their creations’ popularity. In fact, most of his readership comes from online views of his comic.

Webcomics are a hit — there are thousands scattered across the Internet, and it can be overwhelming to find ones that click. The most popular — xkcd, Dinosaur Comics, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal — cater to a niche population of geeks and science nerds but have gained widespread recognition.

Tapastic, started by Cal alumni, is a site that allows aspiring creators to publish their comics online, bringing them to thousands who are looking for something new to read. Director of Content Michael Son said at the Tapastic table that the company has grown immensely, from just a few comics by eight or so people to several full-time creators on the team. We’re all aware of the Internet’s presence in our lives, and it makes sense for creators to utilize it as a platform for work they pour their lives into.

During one panel talk, Turner said that “APE brings people together.” You’d expect a special guest at a convention to say something like that, but this wasn’t a massive, sprawling hydra of a show. You’re not going to meet big celebrities here; Marvel or DC aren’t telling you about the next big thing. You will, however, meet people who love comics, whose art is their life and who want you to know about what they’ve created. They’re Bay Area natives, producing content that reflects their experiences and begs to be seen or read. Take a chance, damn it. It might be the next big thing.

Contact Youssef Shokry at [email protected].