I wear many hats, including graphic novel artist, or “cartoonist-auteur.” This year is significant for me since my plans are to attend Small Press Expo and debut my new graphic novel, George’s Run. At least, that remains the plan as we all monitor the Covid-19 crisis. Here, in its entirety, is an interview with Small Press Expo executive director Warren Bernard with The Comics Journal. This interview will be of interest not only to those in the comics community but also provides insight into the response to the current crisis as it relates to landmark events and business in general. Each day, in every way, we are integrating more and more into a virtual and digital world. On so many levels, life will never be quite the same again.
Warren Bernard is the executive director of the Small Press Expo, one of the largest festivals focused on comics art and the indie-comics scene in the U.S. Each year, SPX gathers together creators, retailers, and fans of alternative comics and illustration in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. SPX2020 is currently scheduled for Sept. 12-13 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Warren is also a comics fan and historian, who’s amassed a significant collection of artwork, publications and memorabilia extending back over a century to the early days of graphic storytelling. He’s also the co-author of Drawing Power and has written extensively about the 1950s juvenile delinquency/Senate Comic Book Hearings.
Recently, TCJ writer Michael O’Connell interviewed Warren about the status of SPX2020, in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. In the interest of safety and maintaining proper social distancing, this interview was conducted via Skype.
MICHAEL O’CONNELL: How has the coronavirus impacted SPX 2020 at this point?
WARREN BERNARD: There are a couple of things that it’s impacted. Let’s take them one at a time. The first one is the impact on the exhibitors room. Normally, we send out, we’ll call it an invite list. That’s like all the publishers that normally come. And then there’s a selection of people from the indie comics community on an individual creator basis that we also invite. That is put together with input from everybody in the executive committee. So that normally goes out and then we also start the lottery. We pushed things back to see what was going on. And one of the decisions we made was that normally by this time, by April, we’re collecting money from people.
Because we pushed everything back, we’re not going to have all the tables’ stuff done before most probably May. Normally, that’s like by March or April, all that stuff is done so we can push everything out to everybody saying, ‘OK, look, you’ve got a table, send us money.’ We’re not even going to think about collecting money from anybody until late May, early June. There were a couple of reasons for that. In the indie comics community, there are a lot of people out there that have lost their day jobs. They’ve lost any kind of gigs that they’ve got in terms of artwork, freelance gigs. So we don’t want to go ahead and have to force people to cough up money that they may not have right now.
The second reason is that there’s all this uncertainty out there. And by the way, there’s a semi-selfish reason. We didn’t want to have to go through the hassle of refunding people’s money if we had to go ahead and cancel. We also were going under the assumption that people who did need unemployment would be able to get onto unemployment by the time we asked for money, because we do need money to go ahead and run the show. We’re not going to make any decision about holding SPX until most probably somewhere in June.
The second thing we had to do is we had to change the Ignatz Awards. The problem there was all of the boxes go to Dan Stafford’s house. We didn’t want to run into the circumstance where someone sends a box, God only knows who packed it. Dan or someone may not get sick, but they’re a carrier and all of a sudden there’s a problem. Also, by not doing that, we’re saving people a lot of money because normally people would have to send six copies. There’s the price of the books. There’s the price of the postage. And so we decided to take that out of the equation. So we’re going digital. And we’ve already set up a process of how we’re doing that. We sent the email out and we’ve already got close to 200 submissions for the Ignatz Awards to the digital platform.
Is there an entry fee that goes with that?
No, there was no entry fee that ever goes with that.
So that saves them the money of copies and the saves them the money of shipping. That’s a plus.
Assuming SPX gets held, we are going to ask on an optional basis for people to send in one copy of their submission so that it can go into the SPX collection at the Library of Congress. All the submissions that get sent in, whether they’re nominated or not, the Library of Congress gets first crack at all of those books. So if they don’t have them in their holdings, they are donated. And on most years, that’s literally 98 percent of the stuff that’s sent in for submissions that the Library of Congress does not have.
It’s nice that you’re able to have that continuity and you’ve been able to adapt to it, doing what everybody else is doing, virtual stuff. And probably that June date is a good date. My day job, I’m an editor for Patch and one of the beats I cover is D.C, and I know they’re looking at a peak for coronavirus cases at the end of June.
Things may be going back to normal, but are they going to allow 4,000-5,000 people here in Montgomery County to get together? We don’t have a clue.
Things may start to ramp-up, but the people that you talked about who may have lost their jobs or lost hours and gigs, they may not be in a position to travel or do anything.
There are so many different variables right now that anyone who says they think they know what’s going to happen is a liar. Like I said, there’s this whole safety thing. For all I know, they may want to go ahead and reopen stores and stuff like that, but large congregations of people, they may put the kibosh on that for a while. We don’t know. No one knows. So all we’re going to do is take these incremental steps.
Do you have a drop dead date? Is there a point of no return where if you don’t do certain things by like July 15, then that’s it?
I haven’t thought about that yet because in all honesty, I want to get to the first road mark, which is May-June. Every big show has a contract with the hotel for a certain number of room nights. And if you don’t book those room nights, you get penalized. The next step is going to be once we see the lay of the land on a practical basis. Is Amtrak running to bring people down from New York and Philadelphia? Are the planes flying? There are all these other variables that are going to come in besides whether or not SPX can physically hold it here in Montgomery County.
Is there a way to do a smaller show for 2020?
The problem with the smaller show is that we’ve already got a contract with guarantees in it. There are penalty clauses and all kinds of other stuff like that. I don’t want to get into the legal aspects of it. But, the bottom line is, if Montgomery County or the state of Maryland doesn’t want groups of 250 or more, 500 or more or 2,000 or more to get together, it’s not going to make much sense for us to even do a reduced show. Because then you have the whole problem of, in this reduced show, let’s say I do cut it back. We have about 280 tables in the room. Let’s say I cut it back to a quarter of that. We’ll use a quarter of the ballrooms, that’s 70 tables, who do I choose? So there’s this other operational thing that says, ‘OK, if we’re going to reduce the show, who are we going to have? What special guests are we going to have?’ There’s this other thing that says if I do cut it down, what do I cut it down to? And then how do you make those decisions? And I don’t have an answer for that at all.
Let’s talk about the show as if it were going to happen. What is it you’re hoping to do this year?
Because of the coronavirus situation, I’m not going to get into names that can be special guests, but one of the things that we’re doing is we’re going to bring in political cartoonists and people who do graphic journalism, because of the importance of the 2020 election. We started this back in 2008 for Obama’s first term and, so we brought down Tom Tomorrow, Jen Sorensen came, Ken Fisher/Ruben Bolling came, a bunch of people from the alt-weekly world came down, back when they were alt-weekly newspapers. We’re going to do a similar thing as that for this year. In 2012, the AAEC (American Association of Editorial Cartoonists) actually came in at the same time as SPX and had their convention here.
Not to name names and possibly people coming, who do you think is doing good political cartooning right now?
I’ve been a subscriber to Matt Bors’ The Nib since day one. And I think that they’re doing, between people like, Ben Passmore and Matt and Jen (Sorensen) and everybody like that, I think that’s the place to go for both graphic journalism and political cartoons these days. I have been actually somewhat surprised, do you know this political cartoon newsfeed called Counterpoint?
Yes, I do.
I subscribe to them also. As opposed to the understandable left-wing view of Matt Bors, Counterpoint, tries to present many more perspectives. Besides that, I subscribe to Jen. I get Tom Tomorrow’s work. I get Ken Fisher/Ruben Bolling. I’ve been an Inner Hive Patreon member for all those. Keith Knight is another one that I pay attention to.
You’re a collector of comic art and know much about comics history. Is there a political artist that is one of your favorites?
Pick one. You can only pick one.
I can only pick one, fuck.
You can pick two.
David Lowe would be one of them, the British cartoonist. He saw the Nazis coming early on and actually was on the list of people to be killed if the Germans took over Britain. There was a hit list. He was on the hit list. In terms of American political cartoonists, I’ll show my bias. I was a big Herblock fan. I worked on his book. He’s another one for the 20th century. The third one, you have to go ahead and say Thomas Nast. There’s a bunch of other guys in there, like Robert Minor. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him or not. He was at one time the highest paid political cartoonist in the country and left it to become an avid member of the American Communist Party. Some of his cartoons were some of the best that came out in the teens and ’20s. Off the top of my head, those are probably my four faves.
OK, I’ll give you four. What do you think of the current state of the comics industry right now? I know there’s been a lot of worry, you mentioned the alternative press. I’ve seen a lot of people talking and being concerned about when Diamond announces it’s not going to distribute stuff and there are a lot of comic shops that are facing really tough times because of this. What are your thoughts about where we’re at right at this moment?
I think that all of this stuff that’s going on is really going to hit the retail comic shop industry pretty bad. There are going to be a number of bankruptcies. There are going to be a number of shops that aren’t going to come back.
I’m going to bifurcate this for a second.
On the superhero side, the Image, D.C., Marvel-type comics, I could see the day when those people just go digital only. Yeah. I think that someone took a poll that the average age of the person coming in to buy their comics in a comic shop, I think it’s in their late 40s. So, those are the people that have most of the boxes and stuff like that. I think there’s a sea change coming anyway, as it is with the whole retail business. This has just seriously accelerated that.
Now let me go to the other side, which is a smaller but nonetheless just as artistically important. That’s the indie comic side. … So when it comes to somebody like a Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or Top Shelf, their main issue is getting their product out and getting it distributed. Plus they also rely upon these festivals, whether it’s a book festival or an indie comics festival, Brooklyn Book Fair or SPX as two examples, to help promote their work, along with book signings. They’re going to see a certain amount of a hit also. And I’m going to be curious to see what that’s going to do because their stuff doesn’t go through Diamond.
Right. But the other thing about them is that they’re also dealing with a specialized audience. There are people who are paying for reprints of, you know, Little Orphan Annie. They’re in big bookstores, but they’re not necessarily reaching a wide audience or they’re not targeting as wide an audience.
Right. But it’s still going to impact them, whether it’s D&Q or for Fantagraphics, I think that they’re going to have a tough time because these festivals aren’t going to be around. That because San Diego isn’t there, because SPX may not be there, or Brooklyn Book Fest, most of them sell lots of books at these festivals. So, yeah, on the reprint side, let’s say IDW, their reprint side, someone like me, if I want something, I’ll go out to their website and just buy it. But the other ones where they’ll bring in people to an SPX, I think that they are going to see cash crunches also. It’s going to be a different manifestation than the superheroes side and a different impact because the business model is different.
As scary as the coronavirus is, I think the economic recovery is going to be pretty scary as well.
In times when people don’t have a lot of money, they cut out things, the frills. And for a lot of people the frills are books, comic books, movies, things like that. So even though right now they’re taking a big hit, during the recovery, who knows how long this downturn is going to go on?
On exactly that point, floating back to SPX and this coronavirus thing, without getting into internal details, we have gone ahead and taken a look at our expenses and have cut a whole bunch of stuff. And by cutting a whole bunch of stuff, we are anticipating a 20-25 percent drop in attendance. Assuming we do hold it, we’re going to try, as we get further into the year and if it becomes viable, we’re going to have to see about cutting more stuff. Because, we have no idea who’s going to be able to come through the front door. Even if we do get all these people in as special guests and we can do all the programming that we want to do. So we’re even doing things that, like I said, there’s a whole bunch of different areas that we’re cutting that then impacts people who were depending on us to go ahead and whatever little revenue we were going to throw them, we’re now not going to throw it to anybody.
There’s so many different levels that you’ve got to look at this. You’ve got to look at your own business side of can we afford these contracts that we have to maintain? Are we going to be able to get the people that are going to draw audiences in? And then is the audience even going to be financially able to come?
Not just financially able. I don’t know how much you listen to business news. I read the Wall Street Journal. I watch a lot of business news, and one of the things that some people are beginning to talk about is, let’s say for sake of argument, July 1 you open up the restaurants, you open up the movie theaters. On a real basis, how many people are really going to go? Forget about money. Forget about the ability to afford it. But particularly people who have diabetes or have high blood pressure, have those extra things. The mortality rates for people with those kinds of things who may want to go to a show just make it really risky to go ahead and go out into large crowds. I think Baltimore Comic Con is going to have a similar problem. Let’s say everybody did have a job. Let’s say everything does open up. Are people really going want to go?
It’s going to take some time.
What would you say to the retailers, to the people who are going to want booths, and also the the people that may be coming to do panels and things? What would you say to them? And then also, what would you say to other people who want to attend?
I would say do what you feel safe doing. It’s the only thing that you can do. I’m not going to get up here and plead with people to come and ask them to go against their own self-health interest. By the way, if it comes down to that we have to cancel SPX because of strictly health reasons, then that’s something that we’re going to have to do.
So, to those people that are thinking about coming, everyone’s got to assess their own circumstance and everyone’s got to feel safe in terms of not only getting here, but staying here and then being in a room with however many people are going to be allowed in the room. For instance, what if they go ahead and they say, ‘Ok, you can hold it, but you have to maintain the six-foot distance.” How would that even work in an SPX situation? Here in Montgomery County, they’ve basically told all the stores, ‘Look, you have to enforce the six-foot rule. You have to have someone out front to control the number of people coming into your stores.’ So all of this gets back to everyone has to feel safe in what it is that they’re doing. That’s the message that I think everybody needs to have.