ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to go now to a comics convention for the unconventional. It's the Small Press Expo, or SPX, held every year just outside Washington, D.C. Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast has attended SPX for the last 10 years. This year he asked attendees to tell him why SPX was different from the many other larger comic cons that have been popping up across the country.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: It sounds like any other comics convention, but it doesn't really look or feel like any other convention. It's smaller for one thing. Unlike the shows in San Diego and New York which take up whole city blocks, SPX fills one hotel ballroom in North Bethesda. Md.
There are no massive booths that tower over you with video screens hawking comics-adjacent stuff like toys, games, statues and T-shirts. Everything at SPX is at eye level - hip level, technically, as it's just rows and rows of folding tables piled with comics and artwork.
WHIT TAYLOR: It's not just, like, a way to, you know, sell comics or buy comics. It's also a social event. So it's, you know, just a chance to catch up with people and meet new people both during the show and after the show. And that's kind of the most meaningful part.
WELDON: That's Whit Taylor from New York City. She's here for the comics, but she's also here to connect with the people who make them. And SPX is built around making that happen. It's a convention for independent comics. People define independent comics differently, but basically it means not Marvel, not DC.
TAYLOR: I like that it kind of sticks to just comics because that's how it started out. I'm happy to see merch here and there, but, like, I like that it's really just about, like, independent artists or small presses.
WELDON: Mostly SPX is a few hundred men and women sitting or standing behind their tables, grinning earnestly at passersby to get them to stop and sample their work. That work could be a handsomely bound graphic novel, a print or, in many cases, a mini comic that they've drawn and copied and stapled together themselves, circumventing the gatekeepers at the major comics publishers. And that's something that matters to Sarah Elizabeth who drove up from Williamsburg, Va.
SARAH ELIZABETH: What I really like about this one so far is there's a lot more queer comics, a lot more comics by women here, specifically women of color. That's what stuck out to me the most.
WELDON: Liz Hathaway from Philadelphia is here to support the creators.
LIZ HATHAWAY: You know, I give a lot of credit to a lot of these artists because they really believe in what they're doing. They have a passion for it. They're spending a lot of their own money and resources to promote themselves.
WELDON: But Liz is also here for a more practical reason.
HATHAWAY: I have a comic book called "The Hellwood Kids," and it's coming out next year. So I'm trying to get a feel of how to - you know, they lay out everything, and they show their comics.
WELDON: It turns out that Liz and Whit Taylor and most of the attendees I talked to make comics themselves. That's something else that sets SPX apart and has since that began in 1994. Artists like Rebecca Sugar who created the Cartoon Network show "Steven Universe" and Lisa Hanawalt, whose character designs can be seen on the Netflix series "Bojack Horseman" - both did time behind an SPX table back in the day.
Now, SPX isn't completely unlike other conventions. You'll likely leave having dropped a healthy chunk of change. But people like Bailey Kung, who started coming to SPX as a volunteer and is now a member of the executive board, leave with something else as well.
BAILEY KUNG: It's definitely inspiring to be here. Everybody is making such awesome work, and it does make me want to go home and draw something.
WELDON: And given that animation studios like Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon now send people to SPX every year to scout for new talent, there's always a chance - a slim one - that the inspiration an artist gets here will ultimately come with a paycheck. I'm Glen Weldon.