Monday, March 18, 2013

In Defense of SPX

This Sunday, there was a bit of a kerfluffle within the independent comic artist community.  SPX (The Small Press Expo), one of the two major independent comic conventions on the east coast, opened Artist Alley registration after weeks of retooling their site.  This online registration was a new thing for SPX, who previously had only accepted mail in registrations.

Unfortunately, all did not go as planned.  At 12:00, SPX's registration page was down for the count.  Hundreds of comic artists frantically slammed their F5 buttons, hoping to get in.  It seemed reminiscent of many anime convention registrations, from the petulate whining of 'established' artists on Twitter calling bullshit to the worried queries fired at SPX's Twitter.

A solution was desperately needed.  While SPX contacted their webhost for an increase in bandwidth to serve this massive crowd, they opened up PayPal registrations, promising to reserve half the tables available for those who chose to fill out a paper form and email it in.

I was one of those anxiously spamming my F5 button, but I was also one who'd jumped on the opportunity to Paypal SPX my money.  I'd lurked my Twitter account for SPX information and updates, and was sorely disappointed to see many of the artists I'd once respected behave like entitled teenagers.  Complaints that SPX should become a juried show, that this sort of mess was ridiculous, that SPX should value more established artists over student artists were bandied about in the heat of the moment.  While I believe that many were frustrated, I can assume that none were as frustrated as the SPX staff who'd been assured that this sort of mess would not have happened.

I do not know whether or not I have a table.  At this point, I do not care.  It does not affect my opinion of SPX or their staff.  I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I feel like the staff handled this situation CALMLY and with APLOMB.  They attempted to answer the myriad of quickfire questions in a timely manner, apologized profusely, and quickly came up with an alternate solution.  By opening up online registration, SPX was attempting a more egalitarian approach at serving their customer base.  In the past, SPX accepted mail in, faxed in, and walk in registration, leaving many of us in the cold.  Of course, this situation served repeat customers, as they were given a chance to register the year prior, and it served those in the local area, but those forced to mail in their registrations, particularly less established artists, were often denied.  Online registration offered a fair shot at getting a table based on patience and tenacity rather than pull of name or proximity, and the blanket-wipe of registration offered everyone a fresh start.  I believe that juried conventions have their place, but I do not feel that a small press convention should be juried, given the great variety of styles and skill levels present even in published works.  If merit need be proved, let it happen on a consumer level.

I've done a number of conventions in the past- Otakon, Anime South East, Mechacon, Interventioncon, MoCCA, FLUKE, Heroescon, and I can say that I prefer the blind-box method of doling out tables.  I'd registered for SPX last year, and was promised early registration, but that never came to fruititon, and I was happy to hover around my computer at 11:30 on a Sunday morning, just like everyone else.  And having done several anime conventions, I can say that web outages aren't particularly unusual, and that SPX's decision not to postpone registration further (further wasting customers' time) was not unwise nor unfair. SPX, or the Small Press Expo, is an opportunity for less established artists as well as established artists to sell their comics, be they garage prints from Kinkos or perfect-bound tomes from a publisher.  I feel that if more established artists have a problem jostling with the plebians for table space, they should consider applying to SPX as a guest.

I can also say that working with SPX's staff has been a pleasure.  Today I was sent an email regarding my registration and my Paypal receipt.  Because I used a different Paypal account, I'd forgotten to include my receipt with my paperwork, although I'd put my full name in on the comments section of my payment.  Instead of discarding my paperwork as many overwhelmed conventions would do, I was contacted by SPX staff to correct this problem.  This wasn't done because I'm a popular comic artist (I am not), but because it was the right thing to do, and I really appreciate that.

I constantly say that we are the community we participate in.  I've seen more established artists complain about MoCCA (another small press, independent comic artist convention that is similar in demographic)- they complain about student tables full of postcards instead of comics, they complain about MoCCA offering student awards, they complain that MoCCA isn't what it used to be, but they rarely do anything to fix things.  Instead of talking to the student artists who offend them, they walk by.  Having done a number of anime cons, I have diversified my offerings beyond just mini comics, because mini comics just don't sell at anime cons.  Thus, I have buttons and charms at my indie comic con table, because those help me to cover costs.  It takes far less time to design a set of charms than it does to create an 8 page mini, and for me, the charms still sell much better.  However, the vast majority of my day to day life is spent creating comics, and my true passion lies in comics, not knickknacks.  I've spent the past three years learning comic theory and practice at SCAD, and would love to discuss the nitpicky details with someone equally passionate, and ideally more experienced in the field.  If I've ever offended a more established comic artist by offering these things on my table (even though the focus is still clearly comics), I would prefer to be addressed, as it would provide an opportunity to learn and improve.  I see no reason why established artists should feel threatened about student awards- I may be a student, but I believe I'm not eligable for these awards as I'm not a student at SVA, but I still feel like this additional opportunity for exposure for less established artists is a positive thing.  Comics can be rough, and encouragement can be rare, particularly if one lacks a web presence.  I feel like there's a general disconnect between the artists who emerged online five years ago, and today's group of emerging artists, and I think that's a shame.  For many of these artists, we, the emerging artists, are their biggest customers, and to alienate us by complaining about us on Twitter (on accounts that we follow) is only harming their business.  Wouldn't it be more beneficial to reach out to one's customers, creating a far more loyal fanbase? 

The excitement over SPX's registration has really cast some personalities into relief, providing an opportunity for many artists to shine (those wonderful people who assured SPX staff that their efforts were appreciated, those reminding the community in general to be patient, those offering up solutions, web addresses, and download sites for registration materials).  Although as an artist and a consumer, I hope that all registration processes go smoothly, I appreciate this opportunity to get a glimpse at the people behind the convention, and I appreciate that they're attempting to upgrade their system to better suit their community.  I look forward to dealing with SPX staff for future conventions.