Ohio may lay claim to being the mother state of presidents, having sent eight men (seven Republicans and a Whig) to the White House over an 80-year period in our history. But how in the world to explain that Ohio is the cradle of so many great cartoonists?
The tally over the decades is so head-spinning that an artist might render the visual effect with “cartoon stars” revolving over a character’s noggin, as if the realization struck smack-clean like an Acme mallet. For the evidence is clear: Fostering cartoon stars and comics luminaries is one feat of which Ohio can truly boast.
“The list of cartoonists that were either born in Ohio or got their start here is pretty impressive,” acclaimed “Bone” cartoonist Jeff Smith tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “The [list] I’ve put together not only includes some of the best cartoonists in history, but some of the most important and foundational figures in the field.”
Among those: “Richard Outcault from Lancaster [Ohio] is generally given credit for creating the first comic-strip character, the Yellow Kid, and Frederick Opper’s ‘Happy Hooligan’ was one of the first massively popular and influential early strips. Milton Caniff’s ‘Terry & the Pirates’ was a game-changer in terms of artistry, and those two kids from Cleveland, [Jerry] Siegel and [Canadian transplant Joe] Shuster, exploded the world of comics books by creating Superman.”
“I’m just getting started. This list is gobsmacking!” continues Smith (“Bone: Coda”), the multiple Eisner winner, who was raised in Columbus and now is president and artistic director of the new Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) festival.
Smith’s personal lineup of cartooning stars who have strong ties to Ohio is also topped by Robert Crumb, Cathy Guisewite, Winsor McCay, Harvey Pekar, Mike Peters, Paul Pope, Ted Rall, James Thurber and, of course, Bill Watterson.
On his own roster of top Ohio talents, Pope himself cites not only Thurber (“a hero”), Caniff and Smith, but also P. Craig Russell and Jill Thompson. (Pope also is quick to note: “Roy Lichtenstein” — the comics-appropriating Pop artist who studied at Ohio State — “is not on this list!”)
Besides some of those figures, Watterson himself also points to such talents as John “Derf” Backderf, Tom Batiuk, Roger Bollen, Jim Borgman, Jeff Darcy, Peter Gure, Terri Libenson, Art Sansom and Tom Wilson.
To many of the names noted, Derf himself writes in Brian Michael Bendis and Peter Kuper. (Also coming up in my conversations: Nick Anderson, Brian Azzarello, Nate Beeler, Charles Nelan, Paul Palnik, Joseph Remnant, Ed Stein and Ohio college cartoonist-turned-animator Bob Peterson, who works at Pixar with fellow Buckeye talent Lee Unkrich. For an exhaustive list of Ohio cartoonists, click here.)
And Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University in Columbus, adds to that burgeoning assemblage: Edwina Dumm, Gardner Rea and, of course, Billy Ireland himself.
Such a dazzling roster of conversation-starting talents — the list could go on and on — sparks the question: Why Ohio? What is it about this creatively fertile Midwestern state — bordered by both Lake Erie and the Ohio River — that breeds more than its share of comics talent?
“As a cartoonist, your job is basically to sit alone in your room, drawing on a never-ending deadline,” Watterson, who grew up in Chagrin Falls, tells Comic Riffs. “For that kind of work, it helps to grow up with sober Midwestern values and to live someplace without a lot of exciting diversions.”
“Cleveland is especially good,” the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator notes, “because it has eight months of cloud cover and snow.”
Anthony and Joe Russo, the sibling directors of the past two “Captain America” feature films, also cite the specific dynamics of their native Cleveland. They sketch out the city’s arc from thriving industrial boomtown in the first half of the 20th century to the economic collapse of the ’70s. “It became the butt of a national joke as well — Cleveland was perceived as the worst place of the country,” Joe Russo says. “I think that fuels escapism if you’re from Cleveland.”
A thirst for escapism, of course, can historically fuel an interest in comics. Thus, “there was a very hot and heavy comics scene in the ’70s” in Cleveland, Joe Russo, who grew up a Marvel fan, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I couldn’t keep up with the conventions — I was racing to a new one every week. And I think once it became a thing — and everyone’s very proud of Harvey Pekar — people like to wear that on their sleeve.”
“I don’t know why it’s such a breeding ground. For me, it was just opportunity,” Derf tells Comic Riffs. “I went to Ohio State, which had a great school paper that ran student cartoons. That’s all I needed. When I moved to Cleveland, there was a terrific weekly paper that wanted my comics. Pure dumb luck.
“You have to take advantage of these opportunities, of course, and I did,” continues the Cleveland-based creator, who is up for an Eisner Award this week for his graphic novel “Trashed.” “There’s no doubt, however, that this wacky, battered burg has inspired my work.”
As for Ohio as a whole, being in the Midwest might prove central. “One theory could be the location of the state, sitting at the gateway to the frontier in the 19th century,” posits Smith (who, as a comics creator, is especially drawn to adventure tales). “Trade on the Great Lakes and the Ohio River brought with it independence, as well as economic and political boon. Ohio was at the crossroads of culture in terms of the vaudeville and the jazz circuits.”
Smith also points to the state’s rich journalistic history, citing the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Toledo Blade and the Dayton Daily News. “All this probably contributed,” he says, “to us being born with ink in our veins and a sunny, self-determined outlook!”
Robb, an Ohio native herself, offers one sunny theory for Ohio’s prominence: “I hope it’s that the Buckeye State nurtures bright, creative, artistic people and provides a foundation for them to pursue their passion.
“Another factor might be that Ohio has a reasonable cost of living, compared to the coasts, so artists can afford to live here while they build their careers,” Robb continues. “When I interviewed Bill Watterson, he said that the biggest gift his parents gave him growing up was a lot of time: time to draw and to figure stuff out. Maybe the pace of life in Ohio allows for the kind of time that aspiring cartoonists need to practice, explore and perfect their art.”
Even as she offers her hypotheses, Robb isn’t convinced that this Big Buckeye Comics Mystery has been solved.
“The truth is that I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that question,” says Robb, the comics scholar. “I’ve heard various theories that range from reasonable to dubious, but nothing that gives a definitive answer in my opinion.”
Perhaps then Mike Peters, the Pulitzer-winning Dayton Daily News cartoonist and “Mother Goose & Grimm” creator, can shed some light into this gray area.
“I’ve always believed the reason why Ohio is the cradle of great cartoonists is a combination of terrible weather — it’s always cold and gray — and crooked politicians,” Peters tell Comic Riffs. “What else do we [cartoonists] have to do but yell at the top of our lungs. ‘The emperor has no clothes!’?”
Then Peters, ever the cartoonist, delivers a spin: “Ohio has also produced some notable serial killers. The reason? They couldn’t draw.”