A week out from the first Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, over a Maker's Mark on the rocks on the patio of a German Village cocktail emporium, award-winning comic artist and freshly minted festival director Jeff Smith admitted he'd finally gotten past initial fears that no one will show up for the multi-day celebration of cartoon art that first sprang from his brain over a year ago.

A week out from the first Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, over a Maker's Mark on the rocks on the patio of a German Village cocktail emporium, award-winning comic artist and freshly minted festival director Jeff Smith admitted he'd finally gotten past initial fears that no one will show up for the multi-day celebration of cartoon art that first sprang from his brain over a year ago.

"But I still have dreams about it," he added.

It was an unintentionally ironic statement from the creator of Bone, given that the inaugural festival is like a dream come true for aficionados and practitioners of the art of comics. Boasting a seriously impressive lineup of emerging and internationally recognized players in the industry in venues across the city, the four-day festival-CXC for short-is both an exciting addition to Columbus' cultural calendar and a natural offshoot of the city's increasingly hospitable environment for comic art.

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Joined by Tom Spurgeon, a highly respected comics writer and editor-turned-CXC's executive director, Smith described his vision for the festival and how it came to be.

"The reason I wanted to do this is because half of my life is drawing in my studio and the other is going out to comic book festivals, and over 25 years I've seen which parts of each show that I like the best," Smith said.

"Columbus has an unbelievable amount of institutional support for comics, and it's really been building over the past seven years," he went on, ticking off a long list of examples from the Columbus Museum of Art's first-ever museum presentation of Robert Crumb's "Genesis" in its entirety, to comic-centric initiatives at Thurber House and CCAD, to the growing prominence of OSU's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, home to the world's largest collection of original comic art, since it moved into swankier digs in 2013.

"It feels like this is the moment to try to grab that energy. If we can do that and make Columbus part of the festival sequence, it's going to be cool.

"Also," Smith joked, "Tom was free."

In truth, Spurgeon was wrapped up with running his "Comics Reporter" blog following an award-winning stint as editor of industry bible The Comics Journal when he agreed to move from New Mexico to Columbus to help organize the event – before anyone was sure whether there'd be a budget to pay him for the job.

According to Spurgeon, who's known Smith for over 20 years, "I was really struck by the fact that Jeff wanted to do something at this point in his career that was about his hometown and excellence in comics art, which I think is an unending struggle - the excellent always fights with the good. I love that it's art-focused."

"I also liked that Jeff brought this world of experience of going to shows including the European model, which has a citywide aspect to it," Spurgeon elaborated. "They bring people in to enjoy the best parts of the city and treat comics people well. That's not always a thing. Comic strips and comic books are industries that are historically exploitative, you know? Just to do something nice for cartoonists, to treat them with respect and strengthen their hand in dealing with the industry, and the way that Jeff and Vijaya (Iyer, Smith's wife and business partner) have been so smart about this, it's pretty exciting."

Though each of them brought years of experience attending comic cons and festivals to CXC, actually planning one was another story. Smith credited Lucy Caswell, retired curator of the Billy Ireland museum, with helping them develop the organizational backbone to support the idea.

"She guided us to create a partnership council and created a structure that's going to continue and take care of itself. We got 12 board members and institutional partners, and it just worked."

Among the collaborating institutions are CCAD, which will host a cocktail party and conversation among Smith, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly and her husband, "Maus" author Art Spiegelman, and the Cultural Arts Center, which will turn over its main space to a comics exposition and fill classrooms with a series of conversations with festival guests.

Naturally, the Billy Ireland museum is playing a central role in CXC's activities, including hosting a day full of seminars connecting aspiring artists with established comics creators. According to the museum's current head curator, Jenny Robb, and associate curator Caitlin McGurk, CXC offers benefits to the venue as well, such as building on existing audiences for its own programming.

"The Festival of Cartoon Art that the library had organized every three years since 1983 was a wonderful event, but participation was capped at 300 people," Robb explained. "While attendees enjoyed the intimate nature of the festival, we wished that we could find a way to allow more people to participate and to celebrate the art form."

CXC can also bring broader attention to the facility's ongoing mission: to document comic history and make it accessible to all.

"We hope first and foremost to get cartoonists - established or aspiring - into the [facility] so that they can see the strength and history of this medium and how it has been cared for and preserved here at Ohio State," McGurk explained. "It is essential to us that contemporary cartoonists, scholars and fans can enjoy this resource and continue to help us cultivate it."

While the advantages of having a partner like this during the event are obvious, the organizers see just as much value for CXC's future prospects in the institution's year-round presence.

As Spurgeon explained, "If you compare the convention center in a city where a comic con might be held, it's almost like a tent revival - it sets up and it strips down. Here, it's like, if a convention center is a church revival than the Billy Ireland is a church. It stays the next day, and Jeff and a bunch of cartoonists are here working."

One of the participating cartoonists working from Columbus is Rafael Rosado. A Puerto Rican-born animator and artist, his extensive work in the industry includes storyboards for the new Cartoon Network show "Wabbit."

Rosado started his career in Columbus at Smith's former animation studio, Character Builders, and after working for years in Los Angeles, he decided to move back with his family. He's not only continued getting work from the West Coast, he's been able to make time for projects like the popular children's graphic novels "Giants Beware!" and "Dragons Beware!"

"The hectic pace of life in L.A. can really get to you," Rosado said. "I honestly don't know if I would have had the time or the energy to produce the graphic novels if I'd stayed in L.A."

"It's hard to believe how cool this town has become, especially in the last few years. With the Billy Ireland and now CXC becoming permanent fixtures in the scene, I hope Columbus becomes a place that attracts top comic talent, the way Portland does."

Another cartoonist who'd love to see Columbus become a comics hub isn't actually part of the local community, but he's a proud product of it. Derf Backderf, Cleveland-based creator of the new graphic novel "Trash" and the 2012 bestseller "My Friend Dahmer," began his cartooning career in the 1980s alongside Smith, when they were both OSU students contributing work to The Lantern.

"I've been chasing the memory of that buzz ever since. So the Columbus scene has always been near and dear to me," he said. As proof, he cut short a book tour that took him through the French Alps so he can attend every day of CXC.

With Columbus' growing embrace of comics as an art form and some changing conditions in the industry at large, Backderf sees big potential for CXC to thrive in the future.

"There's a big shift going on in the comics world," he noted. "The 45-year-old fanboys can continue to read their beloved Marvel and DC sock-'em-ups, and more power to them, but the throng that makes up the new generation of readers is looking to graphic novels and small press and webcomics, and it's there you'll find truly great, groundbreaking work.

"We need to build a network of festivals to support these types of comics, since we're largely shut out of mainstream comic book shops and comic cons," Backderf continued. "That's why I'm so thrilled CXC has come on the scene. The Midwest desperately needs a major show and the association with the Billy Ireland cartoon museum gives CXC a huge advantage."

But Smith and Spurgeon believe that institutional support is only part of what Columbus brings to an event like CXC.

As Spurgeon explained, "It's amazing how generally helpful people here are and how experienced so many people are at jobs a festival needs covered. It's a town that loves festivals and the people who live here love Columbus, so they all want to help. My inbox today is filled with people saying, 'Is there anything else I can do?' "