Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Doing DiNK 2018: Chase Magnett and Daniel Elkin Take A Look Back At The Denver Independent Comics And Art Expo

The third Denver Independent Comics and Art Expo (DiNK) took place on April 14-15th. Located on all three floors of the McNichols Civic Center. The expo filled the top two with artists from every stripe of the comics industry in North America and the bottommost floor with panels and special exhibitions. Chase Magnett and Daniel Elkin, longtime convention buddies, comics fans, and critics of small press and self-published comics, were in attendance for their first time. After a long weekend of great comics, food, and friends, they’re finally prepared to debrief their DiNK experience. 
Chase Magnett: I’ve begun to divide comics conventions into two distinct categories: work conventions and self-care conventions. The former are ones I attend primarily to provide coverage and collect interviews. They’re ones that tend to attract publishers, big announcements, and large crowds—the San Diego’s and New York’s of the world. The latter are the ones I attend to remind myself why I love comics. They remain focused on the art and craft of comics and seem to attract a much more eclectic set of creators. Neither version is bad; they both tend to be busy, packed with socializing, and offer opportunities. I enjoy both styles of convention for different reasons, but I’m so glad that DiNK fell firmly into the category of self-care. 

Over the past four months, I have fallen down a rabbit hole after making comics writing my only source of income. I really love the work I do for big entertainment sites, but it’s easy to lose perspective in the weekly flurry of pitches, reviews, and interviews along with the neverending news cycle of new comics and superhero movies. A couple of days in Denver allowed me to step back and remember why I started working in comics in the first place. 

Comics are an artform that we can still touch and interact with on a human level in the United States. All you need to do is attend one of those work conventions to realize that even television shows or movies with minor followings are impossibly obfuscated from the public eye. Stars and writers are goods, packaged into photo sessions and carefully planned panels. They are not artists most people can interact with as much as they are commodities. That might be true for a handful of creators in comics, but they’re the exception to the rule. 

There was no one person at DiNK who you could not have a conversation with, and the convention possessed some real star power. Joe Kelly wrote the film adaptation of the recently released I Kill Giants, but he made time to engage with everyone that swung by his table. It’s clear that he’s still firmly grounded in this weird, niche of an artform we love and that has kept him grounded as a human being. 

Our friend Jason Sacks is likely to give me some side-eye for not conducting any interviews, but it was super nice to wander and make chit chat without any agenda. The range of talent on display was truly remarkable and I want to dig into some of the people we met or reconnected with later. Right here I just want to note what a unique opportunity it is to meet the creators of your favorite indie strip right alongside some impressive names from the biggest American comics publishers. We might have had press badges, but we certainly didn’t need them to take advantage of the intimate nature of DiNK. 

That’s my big picture take away from the weekend. I have a lot of stories and moments still rattling around in my brain, but first I want to hear what you thought of DiNK. 
Friday Night in Denver before DiNK begins
Left to Right: Mark O. Stack, Leda Zawacki, Andrea Shockling, Alex Magnett, Daniel Elkin, and Chase Magnett
Daniel Elkin: DiNK was a self-care convention for me as well, Chase, though, perhaps, for slightly different reasons than it was for you. The small puddle in the larger lake of comics that is the small press and self-publishing niche is all about humanity and connecting the artist to the work and the work to you. DiNK was not about shepherding corporate IPs or huckstering plastic baubles and gewgaws or high-priced photo ops with hungover has-beens who still can’t believe that this is their lives now (though John Leguizamo was there?). Up and down the aisles of DiNK there were the myriad of soft souls offering up their work which was themselves, which was you, and me, and all of us. 

When you have just let go of something precious, you need to find something real to hold on to. 

These small press conventions give those of us in the know the opportunity to band together in that which we love. They also give access to the outsiders to come on in and join the jubilee. It’s all about the positive, the moment of linkage, the aesthetic saturnalia that occurs when groups gather around a common connection to art. 

Because it is art first at DiNK. Yes, money exchanges hands from audience to artist, creators gotta eat after all, and, sure, cash is a motivating factor for standing behind a table all day as people casually stroll past making personal judgments on your merit. But I like to think that the true purpose of a show like DiNK is to reinforce community — to gather, to share, to experience, and to celebrate. 

Comics tends to be a culture that exists in isolation. Books leave their creators and float into the vapor, only to land later in the small rooms of the houses of others, consumed alone. The bridge that this art constructs is long and the wind drowns out the calls from other side. An occasion like DiNK turns that expanse into a handshake and eye contact and the free flow of words. The connection can become a conversation, and the art is there to envelop us all. 

Oftentimes, when speaking about these types of self-care conventions, I feel obligated to quote one of my favorite comics critics out there, Keith Silva, who said of SPX 2015 “People over product, always.” It is what I love the most about these things. 
"Sex Muppet Burt Reynolds" colored by Chase Magnett
Chase Magnett: Let me just start by defending John Leguizamo, who was there with a comic he created. While he stood out as the celebrity presence of the weekend, he didn’t arrive just to sign off autographs. I’m giving DiNK a big thumbs up for requiring even a movie star to bring their own comics. 

What you were saying about our unique place in comics, often inter-mingled with fandom, media, and creation, makes me think about the experience outside of our heads. We’re veterans at this sort of thing who can quote favorite observations from friends and sort conventions into categories like work and self-care. I don’t think we’re pretentious, but we’re certainly at risk of crossing that line if we don’t remain self-aware. As much as I love the opportunities that any comics convention, but especially a convention like DiNK, affords us, I’m much more interested in how those outside of the industry engage with it. At the end of the day, the two of us can e-mail a publisher or creator for copies of these comics or an interview, but for many individuals this is a unique opportunity to engage with the form.

That’s what made observing the evolution of my wife’s sketchbook over the weekend such a thrill. Alex has been going to conventions with me for many years now, but comics remain my thing as much as video games are hers. There’s some overlap, but she has no interest in the sort of work we do. Conventions are as much of an excuse to take a small vacation when we go together as anything else. This year she decided to start her own sketchbook to meet more artists and essentially craft her own scavenger hunt for these weekends. It’s themed around our dog, Tetra (who is an angel), with artists drawing their interpretation based on Instagram photos. 
Tetra by Morgan Beem
She collected a really stunning set of new sketches from artists Morgan Beem, Box Brown, Chuck Forsman, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Jim Mahfood, Sarah Stern, and Leda Zawacki. I honestly tried to narrow the list down to three examples, but it felt wrong to exclude any one of those individuals. Together they represent such a large range of talent covering the largest publishers in American comics to some of the most impressive self-published comics of today. It is already a very impressive looking little book, but what struck me more was the consistently positive experiences Alex had talking to artists she had never met. 
Tetra by Box Brown
Every creator she approached was friendly, happy to share their time, and interested in discussing dogs. I’ve interviewed some of them before, like Brown and Lemire, but was often busy with other things when Alex went seeking these sketches. She recounted a story to me about the sketch Lemire had done and followed up by asking if any of his comics might appeal to her. We’ll see how Sweet Tooth goes over (pitched as The Road, but slightly less depressing and with more animals), but the thing that struck me from this and many other interactions was how they created additional interest in comics art. 
Tetra by Jim Mahfood
It goes to the heart of why these conventions exist? Outside of the purely capitalist answers behind autograph mills, it feels like there has to be a bigger reason behind so many people getting together to share their time and energy, especially when most of us are out money by the end of the weekend. I think it boils down to the human connection. Comics can be an all-consuming career where everyone you interact with, editors, co-creators, friends, and, sometimes even, family, are also engaged with comics. A comics convention can ironically be a place to put some perspective on that placement. The people who come to meet new and favorite artists are inspired by their work for reasons outside of the medium itself. These creations have the power to do something as simple as remind us of our love for dogs or get us through the most difficult periods in life. There’s a symbiotic value in recognizing that connection between artist and reader, providing the former with understanding of their work’s impact and the latter with chances to reaffirm that impact and discover new opportunities. 

Daniel Elkin: Well said, Chase, and, yes, Tetra is a wonderful dog. I, too, loved seeing how all the sketches that Alex collected over the weekend not only brought out all that was Tetra about Tetra, but also displayed the range of possibilities that each artist brought to the task; each sketch was as much about the cartoonist as it was about your dog. 

And that’s another piece to this conversation about conventions, Chase, so I’m glad you brought it up. These small, art-focused, self-care conventions have, at their core, spectacular examples of the myriad of possibilities this medium offers for artists and audience alike. From the quiet to the bombastic, the expansive to the personal, from the mythology of the autobio to the mythology of the grand design, all these ideas and styles and nuances are on display, all in one place, for you to wander through and digest. It can be overwhelming as much as it is comforting, always on the precipice of aesthetic overload. 

I mean, just look at the diversity of themes and approaches to be found in the books I brought home from the show: 
If you haven’t read Cait ZellersNimue yet, please correct that oversight in your life right this moment (then come back, thank me, and read the rest of this piece). This “re-imagining of the Camelot legend from the perspective of Nimue, the Lady of the Lake” is a powerful work of feminist literature that features some of the most stunning use of the basic bones of comics I’ve seen in quite some time. Zellers’ use of panel layouts displays an intuitiveness to its construct that pushes its possibilities to places I’ve never seen. 

Just take a look at this page and you’ll see what I mean: 
Through just the use of panel breaks, Zellers expresses time, action, and emotion in a profoundly communicative way, There is so much happening on this page in, what is for all extents and purposes, a single image, just through her ingenious use of panel breaks, playing on the expectations inherent therein and using how we read comics to further her narrative, character, and theme.
I also picked up Volumes Five and Six of Denver-based cartoonist Karl Christian Krumpholz’s 30 Miles of Crazy, a series I have written about a number of times already. Krumpholz’s art and storytelling have only gotten better in his later work. This series, mostly focused on the people he has encountered in the various bars and back alleys that dot one of Denver’s most celebrated and notorious streets, Colfax Avenue, continues to be about the people who make up a place told with empathy, admiration, and a basic humanity that is revelatory about the kind of person Krumpholz is. Krumpholz’s table at DiNK was almost always packed with people sharing stories, admiring his books, and, above all else, laughing in such a way that made you want to be part of this community. This may be partially because of Krumpholz’s notoriety as a local cartoonist, but I also suspect that it is because his work speaks that core of our shared humanity. 
Another stand-out book I brought home is the latest collection from Coin-Op Books, Coin-Op Number 7: The Doppler Issue. Brother and sister cartoonists, Peter and Maria Hoey, are creating interesting, detailed, surreal, and delightful books through their publishing entity, and this issue continues to demonstrate that they are some of the best and most inventive creators out there. The Hoeys are forcing the framework of the form to open wider into uncharted territory with a deft hand and a certainty of purpose, and I, for one, am overjoyed to be taken along. With each Volume coming out, the Hoeys just seem to be getting better and better. 

Other books of note that I packed in my suitcase were Inbetweiners by Amalia DeGirolamo, a deceptively simple book about “Somewhere between what is and what will be is the mysterious and sometimes terrifying space of uncertainty” that, for all of DeGirolamo’s all-ages cartooning style, delves into some significant and substantial musings about place, purpose, and person; The Octopus by Leda Zawacki, ostensibly a book “about a young girl who gets possessed by an octopus", but is also about self-determination, creativity, and acceptance, which features the graceful linework that is a hallmark of Zawacki’s work; A Picture of Me written by Lilah Sturges and drawn by Andrea Shockling, a poetically beautiful book both in the the lyricism of Sturges’ writing and the wonderful artwork of Shockling, that presents all of the emotional challenges around acceptance of and within an individual and their gender identity in a very raw and cogent manner; Mixtape #3, another collection of diary comics from the enormously talented Jamaica Dyer; and finally, RM by Josh Bayer, which is sort of a reimagining of Bill Mantlo’s amazing work on ROM for Marvel Comics, but also follows Bayer’s recurring character (and, perhaps, author stand-in), Theth. Finding this book at the Tinto Press table at DiNK was a complete surprise, as I had no idea it was out yet. This book is all I hoped it would be — messy, weird, reverential, and complex. 
Finally, though, the work that most captured the spirit of a self-care convention like DiNK is this totally off-the-wall, bonkers, depraved, offensive, puerile, and jaw-dropping series by Denver artist Jake Fairly called This Is Heavy Metal. I’m still not sure if there are really any merits to this work in and of itself (though Fairly is a pretty amazing cartoonist) — it drips with the toxic masculinity of teen white boy’s power fantasies on almost every page. What sold me on this comic was the fact that Fairly was unabashedly, audaciously, and unhesitatingly ALL FUCKING IN on this thing. The obvious joy and enthusiasm emanating from Fairly as he talked about his comics was so authentic and genuine that it was almost hypnotic. As tone-deaf as his work appears to be in today’s society, his motivation for creating was so pure, so celebratory, so FUCKING METAL, that my interactions with him were some of my favorite moments of the entire show. 

I’m not lauding his comics, but I am lauding what is behind them. The glee and elation of creating and sharing that Fairly represented encapsulated so much that is great about the world of small press and self-published comics to me. As bonkers as his books were, they came from his heart and his desire to celebrate and, most importantly, to share this bat-shit insane thing that he loved with me, with you, with anyone who would walk by. The guilelessness of Fairly was so clean that it washed away so much of the burdens I was feeling coming into the weekend, and it was so refreshing and honest that all the heartbreaking garbage that can be found in the world of comics was, at least momentarily, set aside, and all that was good about comics shone through once again. 

So, yeah, Chase, DiNK was a self-care comics convention. And having that experience with you and Alex and all of our other friends — why, it was just what I needed. 

Chase Magnett: Honest to god, I think you wrote a fine conclusion to this reflection right there, but you’re the boss and I want to be sure you get your money’s worth of my thoughts. So I’m going to take a crack at an epilogue. 

I did, in fact, have an opportunity to read Nimue already. I read it on the walk between the convention and our hotel, and again on the long ride home. Everything you noted about this short volume is true and it served as a significant reminder of how easy it is to miss great work in comics. After reading it I became aware that several people whose taste I trust were already big fans of the comic. It was our mutual friend Mark O. Stack who first pointed me towards it at DiNK, and I’m glad we happened to pass Cait Zellers’ booth together for that exact reason. The cover is gorgeous, but I don’t know if I would have made the leap to purchasing it without a strong recommendation. 
Comics writer and YCE contributor Mark O. Stack at his table at DiNK 2018
That makes me think of the purpose of conventions like DiNK and other elements surrounding small press and self-published comics. Looking at all of the comics you discovered and the ones I brought home, it’s clear that DiNK is successfully curating a collection of talent that encourages comics readers to discover new things. Thinking of the arrangement this year with invited guests on the top floor and many new tabling artists below, the convention was purposefully crafted to expose attendees to as much as possible. Reaching Joe Kelly or Jeff Lemire required attendees to walk through lots of talent they might not be exposed to otherwise. We are there to explore as much as possible, but even the most dedicated autograph hunter will be compelled to interact with new work. 

Reviewing the guest list for the show, it’s clear that a lot of thought went into how they could best curate the space. Diversity occurred on multiple levels. There’s the obvious mix of new artists and more popular draws, but that’s only the surface. Looking around at who was creating these comics it was clear that the convention had purposefully sought out artists who could reflect a wide range of experiences. It was one of the most diverse artist’s alley arrangements I have ever witnessed. That is reflected in the work as well with the subjects, styles, and formats really showing off the many possibilities to be found within comics. 

That’s why I love well-curated conventions like DiNK. The self-care aspect evolves naturally from the passion and care put into presenting the comics medium. It doesn’t matter who you are walking into DiNK, whether you’re a veteran of the weekly superhero grind or just discovering your first comic book, it wants to show you more. That makes shows like this precious, as I’ve only encountered a handful that really pull of the task. 

It also reminds me of why I’m grateful for a site like Your Chicken Enemy where people can encounter a similar level of curation and care, especially if they can’t afford to travel. There’s very little space or money in the already cramped and poor world of comics journalism, so any site that can boost comics like Nimue is just as precious of a gem as DiNK. They both require dedicated and passionate individuals willing to put some skin in the game to push interesting work. Those people are the reason I’ll keep traveling to small press conventions and clicking on this site.
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Chase Magnett is an educator and freelance writer. You can also find his comics writing at ComicBook.Com and Comics Bulletinas well YCE. He is currently working his way through grad school to work in public education. If you'd like to hire him, please send an e-mail to chase.magnett@gmail.com.

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