Cartoon Crossroads Columbus: Jeff Smith & Tom Spurgeon Keep Comic Love Alive in the Midwest

Comics Features Jeff Smith
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Since 2006, New York Comic Con has occupied The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a massive structure of drywall and gray carpeting stretching 840,000 square feet. With only 30,000 fewer attendees, San Diego Comic-Con annually sends legions of fans and cosplayers through The San Diego Convention Center, a series of exhibition halls covering 615,700 square feet.

As the years and acquisitions have passed, these two staples of comic book adulation have gradually shifted their focus to movies, gaming and television. At first subtly, now almost exclusively. SDCC’s Hall H— the convention’s largest hangar that seats 6,100—didn’t feature one panel devoted to comic books this summer. Next week, NYCC will rent out the Hammerstein Ballroom and its 3,500 seats. Among exhibitions for multimedia heavyweights like Cartoon Network and Starz, only one event revolves around sequential art—a signing from manga superstar Masashi Kishimoto.

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Cartoonist legend Jeff Smith and comic journalism vet Tom Spurgeon are neither interested in convention halls, movies, television or games. This week, the author behind Bone and RASL and the former editor-in-chief of The Comics Journal will “soft launch” Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, an ambitious festival that uses the 15th largest city in the nation as a home for three days of exclusive comic book celebration (and one animation presentation).

Self-described comics lifers with decades spent in the medium, Spurgeon and Smith have felt the field’s identity slip into something uncomfortably transient.

“[Walking Dead writer] Robert Kirkman is important to us because of the writing on his comic book, not because of the TV shows that result,” Spurgeon explains during coffee at Smith’s Columbus studio and publishing company, Cartoon Books. “We’re almost at the point where we’re treating comics as a weigh station before you make your money or impact. Comics are solely what we do and it’s solely where our efforts go. We want this to be important. We want to celebrate older cartoonists who may have fallen out favor. We want to celebrate the anniversaries of great comics. It’s solely comics-focused.”

Embracing the formula of decentralized man-o’-war events like South by Southwest and Cannes Film Festival, where different organizations host different events at different locales, Cartoon Crossroads Columbus is a community affair that holds special significance for the Buckeye State. Ohio makes a very strong argument as the nexus of American cartooning and comic books—even if most of the action is produced in New York City or Southern California, comics’ biggest dreamers were born in the heart of the Midwest.

Lancaster native Richard Outcault created the 19th-century cartoon character the Yellow Kid in his Hogan’s Alley strip, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster imagined Superman in a north Cleveland suburb and Little Nemo in Slumberland mastermind Winsor McCay even spent time in Cincinnati as a billboard illustrator and newspaper artist. Harvey Pekar immortalized Cleveland through his slice-of-life indie output. These pioneers don’t even account for other buckeye natives including Calvin and Hobbes legend Bill Watterson and comic book royalty like Brian Michael Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, Chris Sprouse and (temporarily) Paul Pope. Yet one institution has done more to study and praise cartooning and comics than any creator: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library.

Run by The Ohio State University, the “Billy” houses the largest payload of original comic strips and art in the world, with 300,000 original cartoons, 45,000 books, 67,000 and 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages. The library has celebrated its collection—including Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes run— with smaller tri-annual festivals. Then, a few a years ago, its leaders decided that the festivals would either have to change or stop.

“(The Billy) asked me if I had an idea for extending the festival,” Smith recalls. “I had noticed that Columbus had this unusual institutional support for the arts. The Columbus Art Museum was the first to show [Robert] Crumb’s original artwork for The Book of Genesis Illustrated in the United States. They showed all 300 pages in sequential order over five galleries. We have the Thurber House, which has a graphic novel in residence every year [Eleanor Davis will take residency for three weeks starting October 25].”

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Tom Spurgeon & Jeff Smith

When Smith, who’s President and Artistic Director of CXC, asked Spurgeon to join the cause as Executive Director, he was was living in New Mexico. But the central ideology proved potent enough to warrant a move to a new state.

“l liked the way Jeff talked about putting comics first and cartoonists first as authors. It’s a general view that we’re losing our comics identity. We don’t appreciate comics for comics. We don’t appreciate comics reading as we should. It’s about the art. It’s about the act of reading.”

(Attendee Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) also echoed Smith’s pleasant demeanor as a motivating factor, saying “it’s important for me to attend because Jeff Smith asked me to, and he is the nicest.”)

Within CXC’s grand five-year scheme, institutions like The Thurber House and many others—including Columbus’ Cultural Arts Center, The Columbus College of Art and Design and OSU’s Wexner Center for the Arts—will host a series of discussions, lectures, workshops, roundtables, presentations and seminars for the annual festival.

Though this year’s festival, which kicks off Thursday, has largely been described as a test run for future iterations, the guest list is formidable, featuring some of the most gifted stylists the medium can call its very own. Including Smith and Beaton, the guest list sports such icons as Art Spiegelman (Maus, Craig Thompson (Habibi), Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets) and Dylan Horrocks (Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen) in addition to many others. All of these creators adhere to the “comics for comics sake” through-line Spurgeon says roots the festival—these are creators who have lived by word bubbles and Bristol board. Their characters aren’t owned by massive multimedia corporations interested in licensing action figures and snuggies. Only Jeff Lemire, who pens Marvel titles like Hawkeye as well as creator-owned comics like Descender and Essex County, could be described as a superhero writer.

That said, the festival obliges to present every slice of the comics industry pie: capes and tights, cartoons, editorial cartoons, comics and graphics novels. The main different between CXC and other conventions is that the creator takes the spotlight—not the creation. “There is an emphasis on people who fully make their comics: they write and draw,” Smith elaborates. “That’s who I like, those are the comics I think are the most interesting. We’re following that idea of an author—somebody with a voice and a vision given to you. That’s not exclusive.”

Along with the renewed focus on artists and creators, CXC sees its citywide programming as a playground for a community to flourish. Numerous “Talk and Teach” events spearheaded by the likes of Dragons Beware! cartoonist Rafael Rosado and Nurse Nurse’s Katie Skelly will educate aspiring creators. The festival also offers fare like Sol-Con: The Black & Brown Comix Expo to celebrate the diversity of Latino creators; Jaime Hernandez and Lalo Alcatraz will both be lecturing.

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But Smith wants meaningful interaction and community building to transcend the confines of the official program. This desire helped decide the form and function of the event, inspired by the scenic, leisurely rhythm of European comics festivals. The Angoulême International Comics Festival stands as a benchmark, the largest concentrated comic book event in the world, with approximately 220,000 attendees in 2012. But that’s not even Smith’s favorite.

“I’ve been traveling the world going to comic conventions for 25 years, and my favorite ones are in Lucca—the Tuscany part of Italy. It’s a Medieval town; you go there and you enjoy the comics, and then you just step right up and go and have some beautiful Chianti, and some soup. The food is fantastic, and to me the ambiance is as much a part of it as the comics. I do think that’s missing from the traditional shows that we have in the US, which I love. Plus food trucks. I want food trucks.”

With these goals and a (relatively) unorthodox approach, Cartoon Crossroads Columbus’ ambitions aren’t small, especially considering the festival’s future plans.

But for coordinating an entire city’s arts institutions for a giant celebration of the comics medium, what the pair desires is unexpectedly simple and charming. “I want people to go home and sit on the floor on their stomach with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk and read comics,” Smith says, a smile inflating. “I want them to hide under their sheets with a flashlight. I want to bring back the fun of reading and feeling like you’re a kid.”

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