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Zine Stealers

The Alternative Press Expo offers lots to look at -- but little to read

Standing outside the Alternative Press Expo on Feb. 21, I struck up a conversation with V. Vale, the founder of RE/Search, an alternative publisher based in North Beach. Vale was with his 8-year-old daughter, waiting for her mother to come pick her up (the girl had been with him since 9 that morning, he said, helping him set up). A friend brought him a sandwich, and he shared it with his daughter while we chatted about her leopard-print jumper (he told me her mother had made it) and about the show. Inside, Vale's booth carried such wild books as Modern Pagans and The RE/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, but outside he was just another dad taking care of his kid.

This dichotomy turned out to symbolize something for me with regards to APE (pronounced, affectionately, like the primate). The convention has been around for a decade -- it started in San Jose, moved to Fort Mason, and landed at the Concourse Exhibition Center in 2003 -- yet this year it still felt young. APE carries the trappings of a grown-up event, as befits the largest alternative press show in the country: pre-printed sign-in forms, an organized staff, a large venue (last year there were more than 200 exhibitors and 3,000 visitors), and structured panels featuring relatively famous cartoonists (Keith Knight and Carol Lay among them). But the signs of adolescence were there: The show seemed directed more toward the way things looked than toward what exhibitors had to say -- like a teenager who concentrates on his clothes to the detriment of his schoolwork. Vale, who's in his 50s, didn't seem to have a problem with the two apparent sides to the show, but I felt old.

(Before you tell me that I am old, consider that there were many attendees both older and younger than I. And judging from the glazed expressions I saw and conversations I overheard, many folks were just as confused as I was.)

This is not to say that APE wasn't exciting; it was. On Saturday, the Concourse's cavernous room was packed with gabbling people of every age and stripe pawing through piles of T-shirts, buttons, hats, toys, mugs, sweets, posters, stickers -- oh, and yes, zines, minicomics, and books. What I'm implying here is that it was visual overload, leaving visitors like kids in a candy store: There was so much to look at, so many pretty things to catch the eye, that I rarely found myself stopping to read. Presumably, the people behind the tables had traveled here from all over the country to sell things they'd drawn and written. If it were just a graphics show, call it the Alternative Illustrators' Expo, and be done with it.

The exhibitors didn't help. Over and over, I opened gorgeously packaged books and zines to read them, but was put off by crazy-busy graphics, tiny type, quick scenes that made no sense (except, maybe, to the writer), or personal tales that I just couldn't relate to. Many, perhaps most, of the publications read like illustrated teenage diaries or youthful fantasies -- a lot of dark, gothic, creepy images; a lot of naked chicks; a lot of suicide; a lot of aliens. Not a lot of adult stories. As Vale said when we were talking about the show, "Everything here is independent publishing." Unfortunately, "independent" usually translated to "unreadable."

I recognize that I sound like a scold. Very few of the exhibitors at APE make a living at what they do; they create their publications for pleasure, because they love to draw or feel they have a story to tell or just enjoy the community. I have no problem with that, and I wouldn't tell them to do any differently. I am not against freedom of expression. But when you put them all together in one room and tag it an expo, the implication is that the public will come and learn something. What I learned at APE is that most people like things that look cool, and that's about it. Don't we grow out of that?

Which is why I was pleased to find a few books that really struck me. They're oddballs -- some small, some perverse, almost all a bit obscure. The Arsenic Lullabies, for example, is a paperback compilation of various strips and earlier comics by Douglas Paszkiewicz of Milwaukee, with recurring characters and story lines. Its humor is very, very black, the ironies brutal but smart. In one two-panel strip, for example, the first image shows "Auschwitz 1945 A.D.," with Nazis bulldozing bodies into a pit. The next panel shows "Auschwitz 8051 A.D.," a futuristic scene in which construction workers (wearing hard hats with antennae) celebrate: "Hey! We struck oil." It's sick, yes, but also thought-provoking. Another series features the "Boogie Man" (in the form of a giant slab with horns and bat wings, and tentacles for legs) coming to visit Vick Johnson at the "Columbia Employment Agency." Seems the BM wants a real job -- he's tired of having to compete with girlie mags, Pokémon, video games, mixed families, perverted Boy Scout leaders, and other vagaries of modern life. Vick offers him "something third shift, away from the public," and the BM replies, "It's like you're readin' my mind." Final panel: the BM in a smock, standing in front of a conveyor belt in some warehouse, his co-worker saying, "There's mock chicken leg in the cafeteria tonight." The BM's answer: "Sweet." Even the Boogie Man has diminished expectations.

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