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Ship to Shore

Small Press Comics Explosion was a mid-1980s magazine about North American minicomix. It was put together by Tim Corrigan out of Rochester, New York. Originally it was a digest-sized zine and then a low-budget high-print-run magazine-sized magazine. Mr. Corrigan passed away in August of 2015. When I heard the news, I pulled out my issues, and they’ve been kicking around the house since.

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I wonder what’s happened to most of the comics-makers in these little time capsules. It’s ship-to-shore forever with their message. Meaning the transmission of information is something like hearing Morse code in a thunderstorm. It’s barely decipherable, actually, as Mr. Corrigan seemed determined to fit as many listings, ads, and news announcements into the live area of each page. I rather like the effect, which makes it feel like a ton of shit is going on even if there wasn’t really a ton of shit going on. Or good shit anyways. Some of this stuff may be better left in a bottle in the ocean from the looks of the ads and descriptive reviews.

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According to The Minicomix Revolution 1969-1989 by Bruce Chrislip, Corrigan “soon started distributing SPCE through the direct market chain of comic book shops and the print run quickly increased from 200 copies to 2,000 copies.” Chrislip explains that Corrigan would review just about anything. Soon “it became a tabloid […] and an avalanche of hundreds of small press comix showed up in his mailbox. So much so that it would be impossible to do a complete history of every minicomic published from 1986 on. There were thousands of different issues. Some were fantastic, but many were crude first attempts by fledgling cartoonists.” (Emphasis in the original.)

It’s true. So much of it looks like dreck, and sounds worse when described in eloquently baroque micro-blocks of text. It was, it seems, the real full flowering of xerox machines becoming widely available, and SPCE documents that perfectly. It captures it even in its presentation. The whole thing reads like one giant blog post as Mr. Corrigan simply reviews and hypes up a different minicomic in each paragraph of his long review section. It’s not alphabetized and it seems as if he reviewed whatever got delivered by post that day and then just kept adding to the column until it was one long brick of tightly packed lines of type from an old typewriter. For example, in the beginning of one review section he writes about Transformer #3 and says it is the first issue of the Pittsburgh mag that he’s seen. Seven tightly packed pages of type later, he reviews Transformer #13 and says again that it is the first issue of the Pittsburgh mag that he’s seen. Well, since Transformer was a monthly book, that probably means a long time went by between Mr. Corrigan beginning to write the review section and its completion. He must’ve just added to it (again and again like a blog) and just crammed in as much info as he could. This is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a little maddening to read without a magnifying glass.

I’m not complaining. I love poring over the columns of type and puzzling the whole thing out. It takes hours just to skim it. And it paid off as I found this little gem of a letter from a young Scott McCloud. It seems in an earlier issue of the magazine a debate raged over the terms “small press,” “alternative,” “independent,” and “underground.”

Dear Tim– You wanna know why think “Small Press” is the best term for what we are doing here? Because no one can ever take it away from us! One of the reasons the underground scene hasn’t endured longer is that somewhere along the way people got this narrow idea of just what “underground” was and what it was not. Suddenly a whole generation of artists found the doors to the underground locked just cuz they weren’t “underground” enough. That’ll never happen with Small Press, because the term is just too clinical. If it’s got a small print run and it’s a comic, then it’s a small press comic! No more closed doors. Believe it or not, this was the concern that first prompted me to do my column for Amazing Heroes. At the time, almost everyone knew SPC’s as either “newaves” or “fanzines” – both unacceptable terms if you ask me. […] I’m a “professional” who started doing fanzine work, but I would have made far better use of my time if it had occurred to me to make my own comics instead of just aping another company’s product. I strongly urge all young writers and artists to do their own comics and let the big two take care of themselves! We all have stories to tell! Let’s see ’em!! —Scott McCloud, Tarrytown, New York

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Later on in the mag and in the following issue there is more space devoted to this argument over terms. Small press? Alternative? Indy? Underground? New Wave? Fanzine? Comix? Comics?

I think it’s interesting to see that “Small Press” seems to have won the war of words, more or less. I still can’t get with “comix.” It’s too much associated with “Underground” comics of the ’60s. I don’t really care for “mini-comics” either to tell you the truth. There was a whole “mini” craze in the late ’80s and early ’90s: mini cookies, mini lighters, mini backpacks. I made my comic at that time an oversized tabloid newspaper because I wanted to get away from the mini-comics ghetto, honestly. So to me, “Small Press” makes sense because then you can ratchet it all the way up to the rarefied air of “artist books” or down to mini-comics and fanzines.

Still, it’s ship-to-shore forever with our message. Indelible with everything that’s precious. Part of me is always looking back to see it’s over.

Meaning, the mini-comics revolution is still going on. But it’s also over. That’s what SPX is. But see, that’s not what SPX is. It’s not “alternative” really anymore. Oh wait, that was APE (the Alternative Press Expo). The terms are important, I think, because mini-comics will always sound like “squirt football” to me. And SPX is anything but squirt football. Maybe some of it is very amateur, but that is the point of this big small-press playground. You can tour the ghetto of mini-comics festivals and still mix it up with the NY Art Book Fair people and Printed Matter.

Over and out.


17 Responses to Ship to Shore

  1. Will Pfeifer says:

    I can tell you what happened to at least one of the people who sent their comics to Tim’s magazine: I graduated college, got a job, got married, had a kid and, in the middle of all that, carved out a part-time career writing for DC comics (Aquaman, Catwoman, Teen Titans and a few other runs, plus Finals for Vertigo). (Never stopped having a day job, though). Here, if you’re interested, is something I wrote last August on my blog to commemorate Tim’s passing…

    http://xrayspex.blogspot.com/2015/08/a-few-words-about-tim-corrigan-small.html?q=corrigan

  2. Russ Maheras says:

    This era of self-publishing fascinated me. I was originally an old-school comics fanzine publisher during the 1970s, publishing two issues of my ‘zine “Maelstrom,” and contributed artwork to a variety of other ‘zine publishers (including “The Comics Journal” — which I and most of my contemporaries then lumped into the ‘zine category). But as that decade came to a close, I went off and joined the Air Force, got married, took night classes, started raising a family, and soon pretty much most of my previous fan activities went on the back burner. In 1985, I ended up stationed in Japan, which, in those pre-satellite TV and pre-Internet days, was like being stationed on Mars. I somehow got a copy of an early issue of Corrigan’s “Small Press Comics Explosion,” and it ignited my old self-publisher interests. I began ordering small press publications and vintage fanzines by the hundreds, and by 1987, I had not only resurrected “Maelstrom,” I was again sending artwork to other publishers again — including Corrigan. In fact, I did the cover for the issue of SPCE depicted above. SPX and APE can directly trace their roots to this 1980s self-publishing era — a period of self-publishing that spawned some terrific talents and publications — but which, to date, has not been chronicled very well.

  3. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks Will. Thanks Russ. I am fascinated with this era. Bruce Chrislip’s book, is worth hunting down. “The Minicomix Revolution 1969-1989” – I think it’s “sold out” though at the present moment.

  4. A great time capsule.

    I took always took umbrage at the term “mini-comics” too, because I think it allowed people to dismiss them longer than they should have. It’s still a term I use only in conversation with someone who expects its use; ditto for “graphic novels.”

    If anyone is interested, I conducted a series of interviews with the many, varied editors of The White Buffalo Gazette — one of the longest running and most fascinating comics zines to emerge from this era. It began with Bruce Chrislip’s City Limits Gazette in 1980, and has continued to evolve over the decades. I just got the latest issue in the mail!

    http://johnporcellino.blogspot.com/2011/02/history-of-white-buffalo-gazette-pt-1.html

  5. I sent my one and only mini-comic effort to him for review,, (“CHILDHOOD’S END, PART 2”). He did review it and complimented my cartooning, but he said I ruined it by using profanity. WTF????!!! Did he think mini-comics–or comics in general–were only for children? (I think there may have been one or two curse words in the story, the worst I can recall being “shithead.”)

  6. Bob Corby says:

    There’s still a few Small Pressers left and they will be at SPACE (Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo) in April. We will always keep it in the title.

  7. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks for all the comments and links to more info

  8. Frank

    check this site out for lots of UK small press/ zine stuff

    http://comics.edpinsent.com/uk-small-press-galleries/

    I know a few uk’ers who started in small press – Duncan Fegredo in Heartbreak Hotel – https://twitter.com/duncanfegredo/status/682312323080548355

    and Jamie Hewlett and Phillip Bond had Atom Tan – http://slinkylicious.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/atom-tan.html

    Slab_o_Concrete – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slab-O-Concrete

    So much stuff I missed out on cos I was in a run down welsh town…

  9. I mostly like the black & white comics boom era stuff – uk and America – like Kid Cannibal from Eternity, or Strawberry Jam Comics

  10. Bob Conway says:

    This brings back memories. I was deeply involved in Small Press back then. I was very active with ACME Comics (pictured above) and lately have been re-activated! Cobwebs are being dusted off and printing presses are being fired up.

  11. Ian Harker says:

    Comics! Still rotating our selection of embarrassing self-descriptors 30 years later.

    For a mid-2000’s collection of awful mini-comics with a few gems scattered within see “BAM!: The Big-Ass Mini” born in the gutters of this very website!

  12. I was in SPCE. And I may publish the next issue of the White Buffalo Gazette. 36 years of obscurity and counting!

  13. Mark Connery says:

    I hadn’t realized Tim Corrigan had died. Much respect to him and to everything he did. I loved SPCE, thought it was great. It could drive a kid in Canada crazy trying to get that stuff — aw jeez would try to score US dollar bills and stamps. An SASE was useless. I loved the pure possibility of making a crazy little comic on the super cheap, took me a few years to figure out how to do that.

    My only objection to the use of the term mini-comics these days is that they seem to refer to a comic book or an artist book and retail for more than $5. I gotta up my game and get more mini.

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    Is there a late 70s-early80s Ontario alt comics scene history somewhere someone can point me to?

  15. Somewhere on the border between self-published mini-comics and underground/alternative press was our comic “magazine” (a tabloid but back then the word magazine was often used for the early newsprint pubs), which started in 1978 and came out in spurts, volumes in 1981-82, and 90-93. It was called MINNE HA! HA! — The Twin Cities’ Sorely Needed Humor Magazine, and featured unknown comic artists and cartoonists, some of whom became well-known later, like Derf and Matt Feazel, and Julie Larson (“Suburban Torture”). We started out with a single issue volume that sold for 25 cents a copy, printed something like 10,000 of those and they sold surprisingly well. Later volumes got up to 40,000 circulations and we were able to support them as free pubs with advertising from avant garde, alternative, punk, etc. businesses in Minneapolis. You can look at quite a few pages at the FB page (go to albums, as the timeline now has a lot of quirky typical FB posts which we stick on there as examples of the kind of thing we might be doing now if we were currently publishing) at https://www.facebook.com/MinneHAHAMag/photos_stream?tab=photos_albums

  16. Russ Maheras says:

    There’s not a lot of info out there about “region zines,” or clubzines, such as “Pittsburgh Fan Forum,” “MINNE HA! HA!,” “WE,” “Tetragrammaton Fragments,” et al. But some have some very cool stuff insides.

    I stumbled across a copy of A magazine-sized small press publication titled “Phooey,” published in 1983 by the Iowa City Cartoonist’s Collective. It’s the first issue, and may very well be the last, since most/all of the contributors were apparently students at the University of Iowa at the time. The unsigned Crumb-esque cover is terrific, and the interior art ain’t bad either. There’s a lot of unchronicled stuff like this out there:

  17. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    That’s why second hand book stores and market stalls are so great – you don’t need to know it exists to be able to find it!!

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