This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue #8, December 1997.
EAST COAST TOUR 1997 REPORT: THE SPX TOUR DIARY
When I was initially approached by Greg Bennett and Chris Oarr to fly over to the US for the 1997 Small Press Expo I almost declined outright. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase from my trip to San Diego! After a few cups of tea, and after getting my physical and spiritual body reunited, I started to like the idea of seeing a bit of the other side of America. When they set up a signing tour of the east coast with Paul “scary bastard” Grist and Chris “The Report” Staros, I was very much persuaded – and this is my diary of what transpired.
Wednesday 17 September
An hour late meeting Paul Grist at Heathrow Airport, but we make the plane on time and fly eight hours straight to Washington Dulles Airport, to be met by Chris Oarr (SPX organiser) and Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock. Before even cooling our heels, we check out Greg Bennett’s Big Planet store in Vienna, Virginia, where the Alternative Press guys (Jeff Mason, Stephen Weissman, Tom Hart and Jon Lewis) were doing a signing. We all went off together for a Thai meal and Greg did the honours ordering for the troops.
Meet up with Chris Staros at Chris Oarr’s house and go on to do our first signing at Jon Cohen’s Beyond Comics in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a bright, fresh, exciting store in a genuine shopping mall where we were joined by Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada (Wolff and Byrd), Rob Walton (Ragmop), Steve Darnall (Uncle Sam), and Greg Hyland, (Lethargic Lad). A great signing which turned out to be one of the best of the tour.
A few hours to do some sightseeing before SPX gets underway. Chris, Paul and I walked around a bit in the unseasonably hot and humid Washington sunshine, saw the tall pointy thing, the big beardy guy in the big chair, and a big white house – although I was moved by the impressive Vietnam War Memorial. We make our way across Washington’s cavernous, clean and remarkably unpopulated subway system to Silver Spring, Maryland for the opening night reception for this year’s Small Press Expo – and had a wonderful time meeting up with old pals, hearing James Kochalka (Superstar)’s band, discovering that Joe Chiapetta is a Star Trek fan, and listening to Mike Diana’s remarkable speech on how he became the only cartoonist in the USA to be convicted for obscenity.
Sales day at SPX , and my personal best single day’s retailing yet. Five rooms packed with the best in self published, independent and mini-comics. Chris and Greg made a fine job organising the day – a steady stream of punters kept us busy chatting, sketching and selling; got interviewed by Canadian TV’s Imagination Station and met up with more old friends – some for the first time face to face, like Oscar Stern (Wu Wei) and Barry Lyga. The evening was taken up with the inaugural Ignatz Awards – compered by Chris Oarr. I was honoured to be nominated for “Outstanding Series” (which was won by Chris Ware’s exceptional Acme Novelty Library), and the evening was as incredibly enjoyable one – the highlight for me was Dave Sim reading out my nomination, closely followed by being Chris Staros’ hysterical debut award presentation. During the following party, listened with awe to Dave Chaney of Brenner Printing’s entertaining anecdotes about restoring the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ disintegrating negatives back to full heath.
After a superb “Jewish breakfast” of toasted bagels, Philadelphia, yellow tomatoes, red capsicum and a fish paste (which I didn’t try), courtesy Joel Pollack, we all trolled off to the Small Press Summit. Highlight of which was Diamond Executive Bill Schanes’ keynote speech, who came across as a genuinely concerned, candid and intelligent speaker.
By far and away the most original part of the weekend was the SPX Pig Roast/Baseball game. The poor hog never stood a chance, but I was cheering on the “Ignatz Paddywacks” with the rest of the small press entourage against the Diamond Distributors’ team while Donna Barr (Desert Peach) explained the rules to me. Apparently we won 13-8 with Brian Biggs (Dear Julia) being our star hitter – although Diamond’s Glen Folland did well for the defeated side going 4 for 5 with a home run, one RBI and three runs scored (whatever that means). There was certainly something satisfying about watching the Vice President of Purchasing of the world’s largest English language comics distributor pitching to mini-comics publishers who sell mere handfuls of copies. The victory celebrations went on late into the night.
Wake up with what could’ve been a severe allergic reaction to Ragweed or was most probably a flu bug. Chris Staros picks up the “tour bus” for the remainder of the trip and we’re off to our next signing at Jim Kirkland’s Dreaming City Comics in Arlington, Virginia. Met the most interesting guy on the whole tour who stood and read all six issues of Strangehaven in sequence without buying any. When challenged by Chris to buy a copy, his response was “I’m still trying to figure out what it’s all about.” Hey, join the club. Jim treated us to a Tex-Mex which compensated.
Attempt to shrug off the flu by sleeping through till after lunchtime, and getting myself together in time to honour our commitments at Joel Pollack’s mightily impressive and spacious Big Planet store in Bethesda, Maryland. Broke sales records for all of us. Party on at Greg’s barbecue with Laura’s yellow potato soup.
Our first really big drive – five hours up the East Coast with Mr Staros at the controls and me navigating to the teeming metropolis that is New York, New York. Sadly, no time to pop up the Empire State Building, but straight to St. Marks Comics, in the unbearably trendy Village (open till 1 a.m. every day – no half day closing in the Big Apple). We met up with Batton and Jackie again for the signing and then off to a Cuban restaurant for plantation fritters. Chris Oarr joins Chris, Paul and me on the tour bus, and we get to see a breath-taking view of the New York skyline at night from the top of Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma) ’s apartment block.
Go north again into New England territory (which as the name suggests, is a lot more like home), to Cambridge, Massachusetts near Boston. There we are greeted by Tony Davis and Tom Devlin of the fabulous and famous Million Year Picnic, where prior to the signing we get a guided tour of Harvard University courtesy of ex-grad Tony and spend most of the rest of the evening checking out the delights of their store.
Take it easy in the morning before our short hop to Northampton, home of Kevin Eastman’s Words and Pictures Museum where we’re treated to a free tour by Tonya Talbot. Lots of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exhibits to see, but some interesting stuff too. Enormous ice creams all round (mine was chocolate and peanut butter flavour) and back to work signing, signing, signing. One guy even drove a two hour round trip just to see us. Got invited by Comics Journal and Kitchen Sink editor Robert Boyd to have Pizza over at living legend Dennis Kitchen’s house deep in a mountain forest. Even got to see a fraction of Dennis’s incredible collection of art and Nancy memorabilia. Mind-blowing.
The two Chris’s take shifts on the long return journey to Washington DC after a mere a few hours kip – and just about arriving on time for our final stop in Georgetown at the diverse Another Universe store. Mr Staros has trouble keeping our books on his trolley, but it’s all worthwhile as we enjoy our last signing and I celebrate with some great toasted cheese sandwiches, before the Staros guy totally cracks up.
Chris bids us farewell as he jets back to Atlanta after shipping our remaining stock back to the warehouse. Cool weather from the north brings heavy rain, and after watching a bit of American Football, get dropped off at the Airport by Mr. Oarr. Thanks to the rotation of the earth, we arrive back in the UK on Monday morning (and get to see the superb Fifth Element for a second time) and home to a fortnight’s worth of post, faxes, phone messages and e-mail and already two weeks behind schedule with issue #8.
Sometimes it was tough – a weekend convention and 7 signings, 1200 miles travelled, 7 states in 10 days is a hectic schedule for anybody. We had to sleep on floors, sofas, futons and occasionally even shared beds (and Chris Staros steals the covers) so it’s not surprising we all suffered from various minor ailments. And I thought my days of rock’n’roll tours were over.
Never again. Probably.
[PHOTOS TO COME]