THERE MUST BE something in the water in Ohio. The land sprouts great cartoonists like some states breed scandals, spuds or political straw polls.
Or perhaps, instead, it’s something in the whiskey.
Whatever liquids pore forth hard past the Cuyahoga, rock-star cartoonist Jeff Smith is hoping this proves fertile terrain for a new comics festival on the national landscape, as well.
The best-selling “Bone” cartoonist and wife Vijaya Iyer, working with Ohio State University and a range of sponsors, are about to find out, as they help kick off the inaugural Cartoon Crossroads Columbus starting tomorrow and running through Saturday. The event boasts some of the top comics talents and voices around, including Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, Dylan Horrocks and Craig Thompson and Jaime Hernandez, Bill Griffith and Derf, Kate Beaton and Jeff Lemire and Lalo Alcaraz.
Ahead of Thursday’s kickoff, Comic Riffs caught up with Smith, a Columbus native, to get a sense of just how high and wide the festival’s ambitions flow.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats in advance on this week’s launch of CXC, Jeff. How are you feeling about everything — are you ready to charm, enlighten and dazzle your home city?
JEFF SMITH: As much as I can be! We’re still working on a few details and putting out little fires, but at this point, the train is pulling into the station. I intend to have a ball, come what may!
MC: Could you tell [us] about CXC’s origin story — how and why this ambitious event came about? Was this a lofty meeting of the minds at some wood-paneled OSU conference office, say, or born over late-night beers and whiskey at some dive bar hard past a comic-con motel?
JS: It started at a little pizza place. One of those comfy places where they use local ingredients and serve cocktails. Vijaya [Iyer, Smith’s spouse] and I were having dinner with Lucy and Jeff Caswell. Lucy is the founding curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University. We’ve been friends for decades, going back to when I was drawing a comic strip in the school newspaper and would spend my lunch hours poring over original comics art. Lucy held a cartoon arts festival every three years, and it was a beloved and respected event in the national cartooning community. Major figures like Bill Watterson, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Mort Walker, Jim Davis and Alison Bechdel all spoke there. Well, Lucy was about to retire, and the future of the festival was in question. She explained that the incoming curator, Jenny Robb, was open to ideas, and they wondered if Vijaya and I had any thoughts.
Well, I had noticed that all the arts institutions in town were becoming very comics-savvy. For example, the Columbus Museum of Art was the first in the country to exhibit all 300 pages of original art from R. Crumb’s “Book of Genesis.” James Thurber grew up here, and his family home brings in a yearly “graphic novelist in residence.” Of course, we have the Billy [museum], which is the greatest collection of cartoon art in the world – and I know, because I’ve visited them all — and there’s the Columbus College of Art & Design, which brings in big names all the time, like Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi.
Vijaya’s and my idea was simple in conception: Get them all to plan their big, cartoon-related events on the same week, and make Columbus a cartoon destination once a year! How hard can that be? I should point out that beer and whiskey were definitely involved.
MC: Early on, of course, [the inaugural] event was planned to be a soft launch, but given the lineup and the scope and the ambitions, this sure looks like it escalated to the hardest possible soft launch. Just what happened to those early plans — did your brainchild, say, gather an infectious momentum not to be slowed?
JS: That’s pretty much what happened! Our bigger plans for 2016 included expanding to four or five days, and including more venues and more guests. Our original plan was to stage a smaller two-day event this year with fewer guests, just to get our feet wet.
So what happened is, I got a little help from my friends. A chunk of our guest list are people I’ve known for years. Others are cartoonists I’ve met recently and started to pal around with at comic-cons. Invitations went out and everyone said yes. Suddenly the show had legs. The guest list grew and events started to materialize and the thing began to take on a life of its own! Another pal I pulled in was Tom Spurgeon. Tom is a former editor at the Comics Journal, and runs the respected comics news blog Comics Reporter; he moved to Columbus from New Mexico to be CXC executive director. Having Tom, Lucy Caswell and Jenny Robb in our brain trust hasn’t hurt us any.
MC: You’ll have Jaime [Hernandez] there, [as you work] in tandem with the Brown & Black Expo. Could you talk about what the work of Los Bros Hernandez meant to your career while a young creator of literate adult comics — and more broadly, how CXC has coordinated with the B&B Expo to feature stars like Jaime?
JS: Not to put too fine a point on it, but I probably wouldn’t be making comics if Jaime Hernandez and his brothers Beto and Mario hadn’t started “Love & Rockets” in the early ’80s. They made comics that weren’t superheroes or radical undergrounds. They showed us all that you could make a beautiful-looking book about whatever you as an artist wanted to. They created comics with their own vision, and opened up the field.
Jaime is one of the guests who arrived almost magically. One of our hopes for future years was that other venues would pop up, such as gallery engagements with cartoonists, or other comics-related events that tie in with our show. Out of the blue, the English department at OSU decided to launch SOL-Con: The Brown & Black Comix Expo on the weekend we’d announced — with the intent on joining in on the fun. We are thrilled that this is happening, and we couldn’t be happier that Jaime and Lalo Alcatraz are special guests. Vijaya and I plan to be at the opening festivities for SOL-Con Thursday evening.
MC: You’ll have the fairly rare treat of having Art [Spiegelman] and Francoise [Mouly] seated in conversation together. What are … you are most eager to ask them about, and implore them to explore?
JS: This year is the 35th anniversary of RAW, the seminal art comics anthology that Art and Francoise co-edited and self-published into the vacuum of a comics scene in New York City. It launched careers and brought to the world “Maus” in its serialized form. The story behind it is fascinating and more complex than most people realize. We’ll be exploring that.
MC: In a nation now chock full of amber waves of local comic cons, why should comics fans be especially drawn to yours? That’s my windup — what’s your pitch?
JS: Ack. The elevator pitch. How’s this? The CXC festival celebrates the cartooning arts, from animation comic strips and editorial cartoons to comic books and graphic novels. At CXC, we view creators as artists and authors with a unique vision, rather than as contributors to a larger pop culture. If you want to see exhibits, and original comics-art pages from the last 100 years, or want to meet and hear the greatest cartoonists in the world, including master cartoonists, alongside current New York Times bestsellers and the most talented newcomers, then Columbus, Ohio is the place to be for a week every fall. Starting this weekend!
MC: Lastly, why does every other great cartoonist seem to hail from Ohio?
JS: It’s the water. When added to bourbon!
Note: The 2015 festival’s partners include the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, OSU’s Latino & Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research (LASER), CCAD, SOL-Con, comiXology, Scholastic and the Wexner Center for the Arts. And to see the festival’s future dates, click HERE.