Aspiring cartoonists are drawn to the Small Press Expo

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An annual convention showcases independent comics and the artists who create them.

aspiring-cartoonists-are-drawn-to-the-small-press-expo photo 1
Adam Dembicki attends the Small Press Expo in 2012 in part to sell his comic book “Wi-Tron.” (Matt Dembicki)

If you think you can write or draw the next “Batman” or “Big Nate,” you might want to set your sights on a comics convention this weekend in Maryland.

The Small Press Expo, also known as SPX, has showcased independent comic artists and publishers in Bethesda, Maryland, since 1994. This year’s festival, held Saturday and Sunday, will feature artists selling and showing off their art in booths in a large convention hall. People who attend — even kids — sometimes bring artwork and sell it to other artists they meet.

Unlike larger comics conventions, Small Press Expo focuses on D.C.-area artists and publishers. But the festival has grown so popular that people attend from across the country.

Cartoonist Matt Dembicki of Fairfax, Virginia, is a longtime SPX exhibitor. He has brought his sons Adam, 12, and Roman, 9, to the festival for years.

Adam started drawing comics at age 5. His stories are often about U.S. history and World War II. Roman followed in his father’s and brother’s footsteps at age 3 and prefers creating superhero comics.

Roman and Adam go to SPX to sell their artwork but also to get inspired.

aspiring-cartoonists-are-drawn-to-the-small-press-expo photo 2 Adam Dembicki’s comic strip “The New World” explores people’s rights. (Matt Dembicki)

“I like to see other people’s works — people will make T-shirts and comics,” Adam said. “I just enjoy walking around and looking at the different types of ideas people have.”

Roman is working on a comic called “Wildwind,” which is about a superhero who can control the wind, while Adam is brainstorming about his next project while balancing school and sports.

Their dad said he, too, enjoys seeing the wide variety of comic formats and the materials used to make them.

“Sometimes people use crayons to color their books, and all of a sudden that opens it up,” Matt Dembicki said. “It kind of breaks those barriers of what most people think comics should be and should look like.”

One artist at the expo who may be especially inspiring to kids is cartoonist Tillie Walden.

Walden, 21, has been drawing since she was very young, but she started seriously focusing on comics at 17. She graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont and began publishing her comics on her website and Twitter account.

Walden has earned many awards — including the SPX’s Ignatz Award for outstanding artist — for her comics and graphic novels.

“What the Small Press Expo does — and the Internet can do for young creators — is just show you how much potential there is in the industry,” she said. “Especially something like SPX, there’s such a wide range of creators making so many different things, and yet they all come together and all find success there.”

Walden and Dembicki mentioned the sense of community that exists among artists at Small Press Expo because of their shared passion.

“Everyone I know who goes to SPX and these sorts of conventions says the same thing — where they go to SPX and leave feeling more motivated to draw and create,” Walden said.

If you go

What: Small Press Expo

Where: Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center, 5701 Marinelli Road, North Bethesda, Maryland

When: Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday noon to 6 p.m.

How much: Age 12 and younger, free; age 13 and older, $15 Saturday, $10 Sunday, $20 weekend pass

For more information: A parent can visit smallpressexpo.com

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