I like to think of the Small Press Expo as one enormous Artist’s Alley. For a weekend, the Marriott Bethesda’s largest ballroom is devoted independent artists and publishers from all over North America. In 2010, I wrote this blog post about it. In 2011 and 2012, I wrote about it for the Daily Dot. Last year, I just bought stuff.
You have definitely heard of at least some of SPX’s exhibitors, but what I like best is to discover new cartoonists I’ve never heard of. Two years ago John and I first met Evan Dahm when I interviewed him; now we buy his latest graphic novel every year.
This year my favorite discovery wasn’t just one artist, but an entire collection of them. I bought SubCultures Comics Anthology after talking to its editor, Whit Taylor. Contributors shared 37 different stories about fan communities that edge on the bizarre, from Steampunks to cryptozoologists to Real Doll connoisseurs.
Each cartoonist had their own approach to the community they covered. The author of the Esperantists chapter methodically interviewed members. One cartoonist actually became a hostess at a Japanese bar to cover hostess culture, which I deeply appreciated having once become a maid to investigate maid cafes. There were many methods, but the most poignant chapters were the ones that portrayed the cartoonist’s empathy.
That’s why my least favorite chapter was the one that portrayed Juggalos, fans of the Insane Clown Posse, as lawless pre-criminals without speaking to any Juggalos themselves. Juggalos’ reputations precede them, but it gets really interesting when you talk to individuals about why they feel like outcasts everywhere but here.
My favorite was about Reborners, women who play with lifelike dolls. The chapter notes that while a prolonged adolescence is the accepted norm for men, “‘Play’ for adult women is still regarded as inappropriate and symptomatic of female pathology.” While outsiders find the realistic dolls creepy, community members embrace them to overcome stillbirth, infertility, or just as an escape from normal life.
I have frequently reiterated that Otaku Journalism is about empathizing with the community that is the subject of your reporting, instead of depicting it as a faceless Other. I strongly believe that being a member of a subculture personally can help reporters to reasonably depict similarly niche communities.
It’s natural to have an immediate visceral reaction to any subculture and assume it’s the weirdest thing ever. But covering it from that angle is the easy way out. I was at a Civil War reenactment some years back and I saw this in action:
“Have you noticed that the TV reporters here are only looking at the most beautiful and weirdest people they can find?” [the journalist] said. “I saw the Channel 7 guy interview the most gorgeous southern belle followed by the most scraggly bearded soldier.”
Empathic reporting doesn’t mean giving subcultures a free pass—GamerGate is a fresh example of why we can’t even let the fandoms we love off the hook. But it does mean giving members of the community a chance to tell their own stories before we write them off as just the latest weird thing to expose for the entertainment of mass media audiences.
Screenshot via American Juggalo