“I can’t draw a fucking thing,” confesses Michael W. Zarlenga, a D.C. attorney who organized the Small Press Exposition, or SPX, at Bethesda’s Holiday Inn Select last weekend. “But I’ve always been a comics lover.” The SPX, he suggests, enables him to continue his childhood hobby in a grown-up milieu—him and 1,200 other comics junkies who stormed the hotel to check out the wares of 340 comics creators and exhibitors from as far away as Israel, New Zealand, and Scotland. After five years, it seems, Zarlenga’s annual comics powwow is gaining a measure of credibility in the industry. “We never came in the past, but we kept hearing that this one was better than APE [San Jose’s Alternative Press Expo],” said Eric Reynolds, promotions and marketing chief for industry giant Fantagraphics Books. “And they were right.”

It wasn’t simply a trade show of psychic recesses, gallows humor, and ultra-buxom superheroines; it was a scholarly summit as well, running alongside a three-day academic conference sponsored by the International Comics and Animation Festival and put together by Georgetown University’s French department and the French Embassy (sample topic: “Comics, Transgression and Cultural Argument”). Plus, it had a political edge: SPX took the occasion to give $5,700 to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving cartoonists’ First Amendment freedoms.

The convention’s demographics leaned toward D&D-gamemasters-meet-the-AV-club guys, though some actual women attended as well. Jen Sorensen, University of Virginia night librarian and creator of Independent Comics’ Slowpoke, blames women’s lack of participation on the fact that “so much of pop culture is created by men.” However, one fellow cartoonist points out that at SPX “the proportions of women to men—both attending and behind the table—is up like 200 percent.”

Still, Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho sold not only all of his collections of his strip from his days at the University of Maryland, but all 60 portfolios of his foxy character Brandy in various cheesecake poses as well. “Talk about a sucker born every minute,” says Cho. —Jake Tapper