Why Columbus is poised to become the next big hub for comic books

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Jeff Smith, creator of the internationally acclaimed series “Bone” and the underground hit “RASL,” works out of his studio in German Village.
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Victor Dandridge Jr. is the local comics-maker behind the self-publishing company Vantage:Inhouse Productions.
  • Alive file photo
    Ken Eppstein, left, of Nix Comics, and Bob Corby, right, founder of S.P.A.C.E., at What the Rock?!, an example of a local non-comic book store that sells comics.
  • Photo by Tim Johnson
    Caitlin McGurk, left, and Jenny Robb, right, are keepers of the awesome at the OSU Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, which is expanding to a space more than quadruple its current size this fall.
  • Photo by Tim Johnson
    Some items in the library’s massive collection include, from left to right, an important issue of “Captain America”; Mary Wings’ “Come Out Comix” from 1973, the first lesbian underground comic book; and Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix,” the seminal series about youth counterculture in the 1960s.
  • Photo by Tim Johnson
    Comic books at Clintonville’s Laughing Ogre, which opened in 1994. While its most popular series are Batman, Avengers, “The Walking Dead” and “Saga,” the shop has seen increased demand for locally made comics in the past several years.
From the February 7, 2013 edition

After visiting CCAD’s Celebration of Comics exhibit last fall, journalist and author Tom Spurgeon of the venerable comic news website The Comics Reporter wrote that he was “enamored of Columbus as a potential sleeping giant among comics towns.”

The time has come for the scene to wake from its inky slumber. Get ready for it to roar.

“Comics in Columbus is a crown jewel for the art scene here, but it’s on the back of the crown,” said Ken Eppstein, creator of Nix Comics, an independent Columbus comics publisher.

This week the Ohio Art League gallery opens an Eppstein-curated educational exhibition about how comics are made. It’s one of a long list of comics- and cartoon-related events happening in town this year, a year proponents promise will be a big one as the public’s perception of comics continues to change.

“Columbus is a happening little town right now,” said artist Jeff Smith, the creator of the Eisner-award winning “Bone” series and underground hit “RASL,” which he’s releasing a serialized and color (!) version of this fall.

Smith would know. He’s lived here since his self-published series “Bone” skyrocketed to cult popularity in the 1990s. Smith stayed in Columbus, at first, mostly because it was home for him and his wife and business partner, Vijaya Iyer, but eventually because of what he called its Portland-esque track of creating innovative food and art.

Today Smith and his uber-friendly Cartoon Books team of three work out of a quaint, two-story home on the brick streets of German Village. On a stand in his bedroom-sized studio, decorated with Rick Borg art he bought straight off the walls of Alana’s restaurant, are books by local cartoonists Max Ink of Blink comics and Lora Innes, author of the stunning “The Dreamer” series about a 17-year-old girl fighting in the Revolutionary War.

Smith met Innes at Independents’ Day, the annual downtown festival of local art. He loves that festival, he said, and attends many Columbus art events. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is for a guy who is a self-publishing superhero to young artists in his industry.

“I saw Jeff Smith at the grocery store once,” recalled Victor Dandridge Jr. with awe.

Dandridge is the 30-year-old president and editor-in-chief of Vantage:Inhouse Productions, an independent publisher of web and print comics. He works on Vantage full-time, unique for a lot of local publishers.

The South Side native grew up around three uncles who were artists. One, Mark Dandridge, was murdered when Victor was a kid, and reading and creating comics became a cathartic way for Victor to both cope with his uncle’s murder (Batman’s story comes to mind) and honor his uncle’s artistic legacy.

Working on Vantage full-time, Dandridge said, is his dream, but it is not free from financial worry. Still, he sees the scene — and, possibly, its lucrativeness — growing soon.

“Comics in Columbus is a weird underground, sort of hip-hop thing,” Dandridge said. “We’re like hip-hop in the Bronx in ’79, just on the corner doing our thing.”

So what’s holding back the recognition? Part of it is the stereotype that comics are for geeks, kids or schlubby, delusional Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” types.

“When I’m out at festivals or fairs,” Eppstein said, “people will automatically say, ‘I’m not a comics person.’ Every person on some level is a comics person. Humans have been telling stories with pictures since the beginning of time.”

Helping crush the pimple-faced comics kid stereotype is the fact that academia, in the broad sense, is starting to take the art form more seriously, said Caitlin McGurk, the engagement coordinator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State and former librarian for Marvel Comics. Not only the visual art, added the library’s curator Jenny Robb, but academia is also starting to respect comics and similar genres (e.g., graphic novels) as literature.

Cool, ivory towers, but the Billy Ireland museum totally scooped you. The library has amassed more than 300,000 original cartoons and 45,000 books (and oh so much more) since its creation in 1977, when it was housed in two converted classrooms.

This November, the library will be packing up its millions of priceless papers and heading to a new home on the first and second floors of Sullivant Hall. Robb, McGurk and sidekicks will go from having 6,800 square feet and practically zero exhibition space to 30,000 square feet and three galleries to fill.

McGurk predicted the move will be a watershed moment for comics in Columbus. She said that considering the “accessibility and opportunities that our new building will provide, we have the ability to really do something huge. Columbus is an incredibly affordable place to live, with a decent economy to boot, which makes it an ideal place for cartoonists to thrive.”

Its geographic station doesn’t hurt either. Located between the East Coast and the Midwest means Columbus is easy to get to for book tours and conventions, like the important S.P.A.C.E. (Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo) convention of independent comic authors and illustrators that Columbus’ Bob Corby started in 1988.

S.P.A.C.E. has helped create awareness of the talent available in Columbus business’ back yards. Demand for locally made comics continues to increase, as it has at Laughing Ogre, the popular comic book shop in Clintonville, as well as at non-comics stores like music shops and fashion boutiques. Plus, the internet has democratized access to indie comics and how they’re made (check out local artist Michael Neno’s “The Signifiers,” funded by a Kickstarter campaign).

Speaking of indie self-publishers, the Billy Ireland library team recently started a collection that aims to have a copy of every self-published comic ever made. Fitting that such a varied and spirited collection would be in Columbus, which is set to become the next great self-publishing super power.

Bam!, indeed.