JEFF SMITH Hopes To Make Columbus, Ohio a Comic Book ‘Destination’ With New Convention

"Bone: Out From Boneville" cover
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San Diego, New York City, Angoulême... Columbus, Ohio.

In a way, that's how cartoonist Jeff Smith and The Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon want you to think of Ohio's capital city. After numerous standalone comic book-related events in the Arch City, a new comic convention is launching called Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CCX). The event, scheduled for October 1-3, is intended to be less like a stereotypical comic convention and more like a film festival say it's organizations.

Earlier this month CCX announced its featured guests with Smith, Kate Beaton, Art Spiegelmen, Craig Thompson, Bill Griffith, Francoise Mouly, and animation historian Jerry Beck. Smith is acting both as a featured guest and as CXC's President and Artistic Director, with Spurgeon as Executive Director.

Newsarama talked to Smith and Spurgeon about CCX, the Columbus comic book scene, and what they're doing to stand out as a comic book event.

Newsarama: Tom, Jeff, what led a working journalist and a working cartoonist to get organizing conventions?

Credit: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith: I look at it as just another project. For most cartoonists, drawing is only half of our job - - the other half is traveling to shows to promote our work. Over the last 25 years, I've seen a lot of festivals and conventions all over the world, and I want to make a show that combines the best of them to give the artists and the public a good experience.

Tom Spurgeon: That was never, ever a goal of mine. But in 2012 or so my friend Jeff Smith talked to me about partnering up with him and other Columbus, Ohio luminaries to come up with an annual show that might replace the Festival of Cartoon Art. That was a show that the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum did every three years in and around their Ohio State University home. For a while it was the best kept secret in comics — this quiet festival with a few hundred people in attendance where you could meet these outright luminaries of the comics form.

That festival is no longer viable, mostly because of changes in the newspaper business that don't allow for easy sponsorship the way they used to for a small show like that, but also because of changes at the library. Its founding curator, Lucy Caswell, was retiring, and after they entered their magnificent new home their on campus it was time for adjust to a new way of doing things which befit their public profile and all that they do their at the campus. Caswell is on on our executive committee and board. Current Billy Ireland staff Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk are also involved and the institution is on our council. My friendship with those two was also a factor in wanting to move here and give this a try.

Smith: I’ve had dealings with Tom over the years and have always been impressed by his opinions and integrity. I’ve seen the way he deals with cartoonists at every level of the field, and I know he cares about the future of the art form, and more importantly, the future of the artists themselves. I think most creators, myself included have a great deal of respect for him. Tom wants to put on a comic book convention that treats cartoonists not just as pop celebrities, but as authors and artists.

Nrama: And why Columbus, Ohio?

Smith: Because it’s ready for an annual show that focuses on comics and cartooning as art and literature. The Columbus Museum of Art was the first in the country to exhibit all of R. Crumb’s Genesis pages; the James Thurber House has an annual Graphic Novelist in Residence; both the Wexner Center of the Arts and the Columbus College of Art & Design have exhibitions and talks by the most important cartoonists on an annual basis, and of course we have the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, probably the greatest collection of cartoons and original art in the world. Together they cover comic strips, animation, comic books and graphic novels. What we did was talk them all into doing these impressive events at the same time, and make Columbus a cartoon destination for a few days in the Fall. Which, by the way, is when the weather and the city are the most beautiful.

Spurgeon: The Columbus College is a small but growing scene. Jeff Smith is probably its best known personality, but it includes an array of talents like Lora Innes, Chris Sprouse, Tom Williams, Grace Ellis, Ken Eppstein and his Nix Comics crew, Bob Corby who runs the SPACE show here, Laurenn McCubbin who teaches at CCAD, Max Ink, and a bunch of younger people I haven't all the way met yet. There's an all-female comics reading club called the Circle, there drawing clubs, and one of the core two-dozen great remaining, ful-service traditional North American comics shops, the Laughing Ogre, is in town. We have a free comics newspaper. I've only been here 12 weeks so I can't say I've met everyone. And I've probably forgotten a half-dozen obvious people. Cafe Kerouac! That's a great place that's hosted multiple signings and sells books right there next to the coffee.
The new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has changed everything because there are so many visitors here now, constantly coming through — both for the exhibits and just for research. Columbus College of Art and Design has been having more comics people in as well, some real heavy hitters like Fraction and Zdarsky, Roz Chast and Marjane Satrapi in recent months.
It makes it a challenge to do a show when there's so much great comics stuff going on so frequently.

Nrama: There's various types of conventions from art festivals to mega-movie cons -- what are the closest comparisons in terms of conventions for what people can expect with CXC?

Spurgeon: The gold standards for us as far as North American conventions are San Diego, TCAF and SPX. San Diego involves a lot of hobbies and art forms that we don't have any interest in engaging, but we love its energy and its "event" buzz. TCAF is a classy, international event in a library — the home for our expo next year and after will be our downtown library — and around the city; they treat every expression of comics in which they're interested as equally special, and they do great with the little touches like their wonderful volunteers. We have a different focus than SPX, but we're also interested in the future of cartooning and they have an unmatched level of affection among their core exhibitors, guests and visitors.

Smith: Well, TCAF in Toronto is probably the nearest in conception with orbiting events spreading out into the city. Of course SPX, the best of the indy shows, is our model for a comics expo. But what we are really going for are the metro festivals in Europe like Angouleme’s International Comics Festival in France, and Lucca Comics & Games in Italy. These are very large citywide affairs with ongoing exhibits, and author events that draw lots and lots of people from all over the world. You mix in a love of comics & art with galleries, restaurants, cocktails, and exploring the city. 

Spurgeon: We're also interested in bringing some elements that you find in European festivals, particularly the civic participation. We're also going to borrow liberally from film and literary festival where applicable.
So maybe Lucca + old SPX + new SPX + TCAF? That's ridiculously ambitious, and I'm sure we'll fall short in a lot of areas, but we want a show where everyone who loves comics or makes comics has multiple entry points.

Nrama: What are your goals for CXC?
Spurgeon: I hope for a really good show, first of all — one that is a special weekend for attendees, guests and exhibitors. After that it comes down to our core values. 

First, we want to include all of the cartooning arts in all of its forms: strips and comic books, editorial cartoons and graphic novels, animated films and mini-comics, the mainstream and all of the alternatives to the mainstream, the oldest reprints and the newest webcomics! 

Second, we want to show off Columbus as a place to visit, as a tour stop for cartoonists on the road, as a place where there's resources they can use, and maybe even as a place for cartoonists to live. It's a wonderful city, on the edge of a special time in its history, and I think a fantastic place for comics makers. 

Third, we want to help cartoonists. If we do it right, it's a fun weekend but also the panels you attend, the resources you learn about, the contacts you make, we hope these are things that can help cartoonists for the other 361 days of the year.

Nrama: Do you plan for this to be an annual event?
Spurgeon: We sure do. In fact, we hope to announce our dates through 2019 soon, and we'll be announcing our initial guests for 2016 the week after 2015's show. Next year will be bigger: an animation festival and an academic will be added, the show will be two days instead of one in the much bigger library, we'll start Thursday morning and go through Sunday night and we'll have a year of experience under our belts to pull the whole thing off.
There are a lot of great shows out there. We hope we can become a part of the yearly Fall line-up for fans and professionals.

Nrama: This is promoted online which reaches globally, but what would you say is the core group of potential visitors you hope to entice to come to CXC?
Spurgeon: We'd love everyone to come. We have at least three international guests this year, and we hope eventually that we get people from all over to come. I already know of people that are coming from Seattle and Los Angles and Portland. But you're right, particularly in these early years, we hope to get a lot of interest from regional comics fans. The great thing about Columbus is that almost every city in the Eastern United States can get here in a half-day car rid or short airplane ride. There are great comics scenes in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Chicago and Cincinnati and all over the Midwest we hope will find a special connection to us as a regional show, the way that Heroes Con — oh, that's another wholly admirable show I love that I forgot! — has a really special place in the heart of cartoonists down south.

Nrama: You've got a good list of inaugural featured guests. Do you have plans for vendors, retailers or any companies to exhibit as well?
Spurgeon: We will have on Saturday a show with about 45-50 exhibitors total. I know we'll have at least two publishers, I hope more. Retailers will be more of an option for us in the coming years, but Laughing Ogre is a partner and will have a presence at this show.
I don't ever see us becoming a show that has giant t-shirt racks or an army recruitment center or even garish publisher displays. I think the key is to look at how TCAF has done that, been able to feature some really great publishers without having to find a place for the Batmobile. It's the same with cosplay and the way that SPX and TCAF are shows that mostly don't have that specific super-creative endeavor.

Nrama: What do you have planned in terms of exhibits, panels and events inside CXC?

Spurgeon: Starting in 2016 we hope to have events all over the city but basically split the shows into two areas: two days up on campus, and two days downtown. Campus will be our academic conference, our animation festival and a series of presentations designed to share information between comics-makers with a headliner in the auditorium Friday night. Downtown will see our SPX-style comics show, our panels, and at least one more headlining event, maybe with one of our partners.
In 2015, this year, you're seeing the basic outline of that. Much of it has yet to be announced, but for instance Jerry Beck will show us some cartoons on Thursday night — that's a smaller version of our animated festival. We have one day full day up on campus with panels and presentations culminating in a Master Cartoonist presentation from the great Bill Griffith and Jeff Smith, Kate Beaton and Craig Thompson in the auditorium. Saturday we have a one day show downtown with about 50 exhibitors in this cool old space that is now the city's cultural arts center. And then that night Jeff interviews Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman in a night provided by Columbus College of Art & Design to celebrate 35 years of RAW.
So this year it's Thursday night to Saturday night; 2016 and beyond its Thursday morning to Sunday night. But the idea that you get a couple of days of classes and panels and art shows followed by a couple of days of a good ol' comics show with buying and signing and panels, that's the core of it.

Nrama: CXC has a unique twist, in that it moves to three locations over the course of the 3-day event. Can you talk about?

Spurgeon: That's a good point, because that is a little weird. I should note that the Wexner Center and the Billy Ireland are about 20 yards away from one another, so that's sort of one location for Thursday and Friday. Saturday we're at two places downtown. It's not the easiest trek from one to the other, but it's doable — no worse than what people have been walking in San Diego for 40 years.

It's a challenge and one we're looking forward to having. There will be core locations but some moving around is going to be an option. I think what we're going to get back by letting people see more of Columbus and having different kinds of events in these different locations is going to make up for it.

I went to the last Cartoon Arts Festival and to ICAF in 2014 here, and it was a fun part of the show, actually, to be in different neighborhoods for different things. Columbus is a big city, but the heart of it is really manageable.

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