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If the goal of most independent comic books is to create sensory overload, then the sole purpose of the fourth annual Small Press Expo is to blow your fucking brains out. The attack is relentless: If you’re not stumbling into an eerily silent, motionless woman in a black, eyeless mask and snug red jumpsuit (she’s an “Army Ant,” apparently), then you’re tumbling backward into a table crammed with Conan-inspired cleavage. Artists call out for you, reach for you, wave their multicolored magazines in your face. Fans who remind you of the comic-book guy in The Simpsons jockey for position, trying to cozy up to the purveyors of a weird brand of brilliance. And don’t even try catching your breath: When more than 160 dark, twisted artists and writers gather to hawk their wares, exhaustion, not to mention subtlety, is never an issue.

In only four short years, the local Small Press Expo (SPX) has turned into a monster of a convention. Last year’s meeting was a one-day, one-room affair. But for the latest event, Takoma Park organizer Chris Oarr & Co. managed to wangle enough underground cartooning talent and enthusiasm—and a few well-dressed booksellers and distributors, as well—to put together a three-day trade show and pack it into Silver Spring’s Quality Hotel. The event, which this time coincides, under the same roof, with the International Comics and Animation Festival, has brought a sense of center-of-the-earth cool to the Baltimore/Washington area and has allowed homegrown talent to seek the spotlight.

When former University of Maryland student Frank Cho made it big with his nationally syndicated strip Liberty Meadows, there was a feeling that more area artists would be tapped for stardom. And thanks to HBO’s optioning the rights to his below-the-surface hit Tug & buster—a pun-laden, testosterone-charged story of a hyperenergetic little kid and his undying adulation for a hulking, mute tough guy—Marc Hempel is poised to receive mainstream attention. Bearing a striking resemblance to David L. Lander (that would be Squiggy, folks), Charm City’s Hempel is a rather quiet guy. In fact, he typifies the sort of solitary soul who currently dominates the field of independent cartoonists.

“I’m not violently anti-social, but you do have to be isolated to do this kind of work,” Hempel says softly as he looks around SPX’s mobbed main room. “It’s nice to know your year is punctuated with these social events. I welcome the fans, because they’re the ones who keep me going.”

Hempel, who was also the chief artist for the most recent story arc of Neil Gaiman’s popular Sandman series, is playing down the HBO deal—laughing it off almost, so as not to jinx his future good fortune—especially since the cable network recently put production for a Tug & buster series on hold. Hempel’s nature seems averse to great amounts of attention, but when asked if success on such a grand scale will change his life, the artist blurts, “Oh, I hope so. At least financially.” Underground is one thing; starving is another.

If Hempel is the next big thing, then Damascus, Md.’s Brian Clopper, one of the most interesting and outgoing artist/writers at SPX, could very well be the next next big thing. When he’s not drawing and writing the Bombastic series, a “whimsical and wry” sci-fi romp, in the shadowy confines of his Screaming Dodo Studios, he’s teaching fifth grade at Deer Crossing Elementary School in Gaithersburg. The relationship he shares with his 10- and 11-year-old students is symbiotic: He brings his strange, new worlds into the classroom, and they inject their young, unbridled imaginations into his second job.

“I have this perfect little student, Emily, and one day I asked if I could use her name for a spelling test. So I made up ‘Emily the Evil,’” Clopper laughs, explaining that the students had to complete sentences featuring Emily the Evil doing an array of devilish things.

And did Emily mind this dastardly use of her name?

“Oh, no. She loved it,” Clopper grins. “All the kids did, too.”

During the summers, instead of joining his fellow teachers on well-deserved vacations or at lightweight part-time jobs, Clopper writes and draws six days a week. In the educating off-season, he’ll crank out two issues; during school months, he’ll manage just one. But whatever his method is these days, it’s downright prodigious: Clopper started Bombastic last November, and after signing on with monopolistic Diamond Comics Distributors in Timonium, Md., has sold more than 1,300 copies of Issue No. 1 (which means the issue has just paid for itself).

“My wife has been real supportive, and the letters that come in really keep me fueled,” explains the 30-year-old Clopper, who has produced a total of four issues. “But it’s the kids at school that really motivate me to write.”

There aren’t a lot of wealthy artists and writers at SPX. In fact, there are hardly any. Almost everyone has a boring day job that allows them pay for their pricey habit. But what these illustrators and wordmen lack in funds they gain in a fan base as obsessive as that of the Green Bay Packers. And while many of the artists are shy and off-center (to say the least), some of their admirers are even bigger social misfits. The average fan appears to be male, between the ages of 14 and 35, and blessed with skin that begs for natural light. Fans, generally either extremely thin or extremely fat, often approach their favorite cartoonists as if they were sauntering up not to the financially struggling mastermind behind some self-indulgent superhero but to Sharon Stone. When reader meets creator, conversations don’t flow, they stagger; words trip over each other in whispers and awkward titters. “Great,” “amazing,” and “cool” mingle with “thanks” and “keep reading.” The casual fan is absent from SPX; we’re talking die-hards by the thousands. This is hero worship at its most intimate.

“Last year, you could fit the entire Expo in one conference room,” says Hampstead, Md.’s Barry Lyga, a writer at Diamond Distributors. “Then this year it just exploded. Fans, artists, writers—there are a lot more industry people, too. And the thing is, I see the Expo getting even bigger next year.”

If Lyga has one concern about the status of the underground comics universe—and by the flow of fans headed his way to talk about his current project, the goth killfest Warrior Nun Areala, he shouldn’t have many—it’s that cartooning is still very much a male-dominated art. It’s not so much a matter of chasing Amy as meeting her in the first place.

“A lot of people are working toward getting more women into comics and drawing and writing comics,” Lyga says. “I’ve actually seen a lot more women this year, and it’s great. The comics industry is just now coming out of a slump,” thanks in part, he says, to director Kevin Smith, an avid comics fan, and his trio of fan-friendly films, “so hopefully that will help even things out a bit.”

With his long black hair, black leather vest, and tight black Levi’s, Springfield, Va.’s David Napoliello doesn’t quite look the part of his full-time gig: as an accountant for the federal government. “I like to shock people by saying that I wear a suit every day to work,” he laughs, adding that he ties his metalhead locks in a ponytail from 9 to 5, “even though no one has ever asked me to.” But inquire further about his daily duty with the feds and Napoliello waves it off. “My real job is financing my hobby,” he sighs.

During nights and weekends and any other free time he can squeeze from his existence—”I gave up on important things like sleeping and eating,” the twentysomething says—Napoliello is the publisher and head writer at Peregrine Entertainment, which creates Books of Lore, “a sword-and-sorcery fantasy-adventure.” Because of his side project, Napoliello is constantly worn down—both physically and financially—as is his writing partner-in-crime, Arlington’s Kevin Tucker, who also works for the government. “Yeah,” Tucker says smugly, “and when I’m not working or writing for the book I try to spend time with my wife.”

In Books of Lore, winged ogres wielding bulky clubs battle big-breasted ass-kicking she-warriors while muscled dragons soar over mountainous fairylands. Napoliello and Tucker handle much of the writing duty; they free-lance out a majority of the artwork to illustrators all over the country. Most weekends they top off the tank and head somewhere new to promote the comic. But because of all these endless expenses, the comic is sucking their lives dry.

For inspiration to keep on keeping on, Napoliello today only has to glance at his neighboring artists: To his right, Jeff Smith is autographing copies of hot-comic-of-the-moment Bone for an endless line of fidgeting fans; to Napoliello’s left, the quiet, brooding J. O’Barr is working head-down on the next installment of The Crow. Neither Smith nor O’Barr has to worry about anything but his art. They are the few, the proud, the financially self-sufficient.

That leaves people like the petite, blond Pari, who is “out of work but doing some publicity for Tonka Cat Entertainment,” bothering anyone and everyone, urging them to visit her table. She finds you wherever you hide; something says even a trip to the men’s room wouldn’t be enough to lose her. She pops up like the Cheshire Cat and each time pleads, “Will you promise to come see our table? OK, we’re not local; we’re from Philadelphia. But we have a comic called Hero High. It’s what would happen if the 90210 kids were superheroes.”

The illustrators you find at the Tonka Cat table are just like the majority of artists at SPX: funny, quirky, overworked by odd jobs, and trying like hell to sell some of their shit. Hero High originator Joe Orlando talks a mile a minute, almost as if slowing down his rapid-fire talk would allow people the option of leaving. He immediately blurts in a pitch nearly impossible to understand: “GottheideawhenIhadabrokenfoot….IhadtakeneightPercosetsnojustkiddingitwasonlysixPercosets….AnywayIwaswatchingtelevisionand90210wasonandwellIstarted thinking….Bythewaymyrealjobisanoperatingroomtechnician….Canyoubelievethat?”

And so on. Hero High is crudely drawn, and its continuity is shoddy at best, but give these folks credit: They have chosen a profession that makes people poor in a hurry and is often frowned upon by nonbelievers as a geeks’ paradise, but they’ll be at the next SPX. And probably the one after that. Because whether HBO knocks down their door or not, underground cartooning is the only life they want to know.CP