The Small Press Sanctuary at Virginia Comicon on September 15 2013

Dan Nokes
photograph of Dan Nokes by David Bromley

The nature of small business is to struggle. The goal is to persevere and eventually prosper. The artist-businesspeople of the recent Small Press Sanctuary, part of the Richmond based Virginia Comicon, are testament to this attitude of enthusiasm and entrepreneurship.

It takes all kinds of story and art to satisfy a voracious public that includes costumed teenagers and senior-citizen collectors. The attendees of comic conventions are interested and engaged in a variety of publications. From an artistic viewpoint, a concern was that much of the self-published illustration and comics would be derivative of major publishers, particularly the superhero genre. These fears were not unexpectedly confirmed. In a room of about twelve exhibitors, more than half presented work, of various levels of accomplishment, that either freely utilized the popular copyrights of established properties, or wrote and drew in the predictable "cartoon character on steroids" style. However, there were notable exceptions that helped make the entire experience worthwhile. And the creators that seemed to lack ideas of their own did seem to fulfill the limited expectations of their buyers, who have a genuine appetite for poster art of cartoon creations now appearing on the silver screen. Disappointingly, most of these artists, re-drawing characters created by the likes of Jim Henson or Jack Kirby, seem to avoid the hard work of sequential art, the storytelling aspect of the medium that essentially made these figures popular. There is much to be admired in the tenacity of these itinerant comic illustrators who travel a circuit along the east coast, providing a product to a relatively uncritical audience, but the greatest admiration must be reserved for those who take risk and avoid overused themes and subject matter.

A group of creators, "Primal Paper Comics", traveled from coastal Virginia to attend. In a refreshing take on the superhero genre, one of their characters is local to the Norfolk, Virginia area. Smart thinking for members of the small press building a local audience. Many of the exhibitors, like Primal Paper, also offer low cost digital downloads from their websites. The simple but effective animation presented at their table also set them apart from other displays. It was encouraging to see so many fans lining up at a table to buy a regional product. Their Facebook page was promptly up to date with information and photographs from the event.

"A Carrier of Fire", the nom de plume of writer Jonny Lupsha, was perhaps the most impressive entry into the mix of writers/artists/publishers in this room of almost non-stop activity of questions, explanations and compliments. The writer enjoyed regular sales throughout the day, a remarkable accomplishment considering his books are anthologies of non-fiction articles. There are no interior illustrations, although he is the production artist, using skills learned while a journalism student to provide good design with fonts, spacing and page design. The covers of his trade paperbacks are handsomely illustrated with his own photography, altered slightly in Photoshop, to present a thematic impression to embrace the variety of topics included. He writes about creators of heavy metal music, video games, comics and other "fringe" cultural interests, imbuing a respect for these performers and designers that the mainstream press does not emphasize.

The Small Press Sanctuary was in a separate room from the rest of the Virginia Comicon at the Mid-Town Holiday Inn in Richmond, Virginia. At the beginning of the day, there were fears that the dealers of used comics and collectibles would garner the lions share of sales in their room, the first part of the show encountered by attendees. However, largely due to the efforts of Small Press organizer Dan Nokes, the "event within an event" was a success. He provided regular web updates on Facebook and the official Va. Comicon website in the weeks leading to the event, keeping enthusiasm and publicity levels high. A writer/artist himself, he has been on the Small-Press Comicon circuit, from New York to South Carolina, for twelve years and the effort is starting to pay off - Nokes has had one of his stories published in the New York Times® Best-Selling "Fubar" anthology. Like many in this business, he sells original art and executes commissioned sketches for fans that enjoy his talent and exuberant personality. And that really is the key to success when the small businessperson is trying to build a clientele in person, practically one fan at a time - personality. Most of these participants have the eagerness to engage with the public and state their case for greatness. The shy need not apply.

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