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October 3, 2012


CR Newsmaker Interview: Robert Loss

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I wanted to talk to Robert Loss of this week's Mix Symposium in Columbus, Ohio at the Columbus College Of Art And Design for a few reasons. One is that 2012 seems to have become the year of intriguing comics events, and this blend of academia and small-press focus qualifies. Another is that he landed Chris Ware to speak, which I think is a notable thing and I hope that the people on-hand enjoy Ware for something he does very well: speak in public about comics. Yet another is that I'm enamored of Columbus as a potential sleeping giant among comics towns. Just the fact that from Columbus you can road-trip it to festivals and conventions and events from Boston to Minneapolis to New Orleans to Gainesville should put the Arch City in the running for Next Big Thing, at least the way comics is structured these days. At any rate, this is a weekend when all the Columbus cartoonists can stay home and folks from elsewhere can visit, and Mr. Loss is primarily responsible. I'm grateful for his time during a busy ramp-up period and wish him luck with pulling off the show, which gets underway today. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Robert, I'm afraid I don't know anything about you. One of the things that's usually helpful for people when thinking of someone putting together a comics event is to learn about someone's comics history. Have you always been a comics reader? What comics have been important to you at what times in your life?

ROBERT LOSS: Like a lot of people my age, I grew up reading mainstream superhero comics in the early 1980s but I was sort of aware of an underground/indie scene. I remember the drugstore in our small town just south of Cleveland had comics on the spinner rack, but the comics shop in the next town over had books like Cerebus on the back shelf. Memory is untrustworthy, though; I may not have been as aware of those kinds of titles as I remember. I wasn't reading them, anyway, not yet. The first comic I read was probably Archie, but within four or five years I was reading Watchmen as it came out. I was really into the Uncanny X-Men during [Chris] Claremont's run with [John] Byrne and then [John] Romita Jr. And The 'Nam, too, which I'd like to write about someday. That's a strange journey, you know? It was that sweet spot in 1986, 1987 when the mainstream companies were taking some serious risks. And yet somehow I missed The Sandman. I eventually tried to read Cerebus but I couldn't get it. Wasn't smart enough. (I was 12!)

So I drifted away in my late teens to go write Raymond Carver rip-offs because I love prose fiction and, look!, here was someone writing about a world I recognized. I couldn't find that in comics at the time. Eventually I did find those worlds in the early work of folks like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. (Which says something about my world, I guess.) More recently, in the past five years or so, I guess I've come back around on the 'genre' books, by which I mean I stopped feeling guilty about reading them. I read for different reasons, in different modes, and I can bounce between a Batman title and American Splendor comics and not feel a decibel of dissonance. Or maybe I just enjoy the dissonance. Lately I've been catching up on some of Pekar's work like The Quitter and Cleveland. His work clears away all of the b.s., you know? I read him, watch a DVD of Homicide, listen to some Bob Dylan and read Flannery O'Connor and suddenly the world looks sharper.

imageSPURGEON: What put it into your head to do a conference like this one? What was the point you realized that this was gaining in momentum in a way that would make it a real thing?

LOSS: I've always enjoyed trespassing across disciplines and looking for connections rather than divisions, maybe because I've never really felt at home in any single discipline. So I've never felt like a comics insider or outsider, or rather, I've always felt like both at the same time. There's a lot of benefit to that. This supposed division between academia and creativity is a perfect example of the dangers of insider/outsider thinking, and it doesn't hold much value -- well, any value -- for me. Ultimately it's a distraction from more compelling questions and more significant ideas. So I guess that approach, or desire, was already in my head, and probably had a lot to do with proposing Mix 2012.

The rest of the inspiration grew out of teaching comics at an art school as an English prof. I started incorporating the graphic novel into my courses at CCAD, and eventually we created a course called The Literature of Comics and Graphic Novels. I realized there was a need for, and room for, a serious discussion about comics from the perspective of an art college, where the students are so deeply invested in artistic thought and practice. I did teach Watchmen once or twice at OSU, but the students there just saw it as a novel. Art college students tend to immediately and intuitively understand the visual communication in comics, even if they don't know why or yet possess the vocabulary for it.

The momentum picked up when our administration got behind the event. CCAD has less than two thousand students, so nothing on this scale really happens autonomously. Kevin Conlon, our Vice-President of Academic Affairs, came on board in summer 2011 and really lit a fire under the project. He'd been at Savannah and Ringling, so I think he took to the idea of an art school perspective on comics.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about the events conceptually, what it is you hope to accomplish, why you've planned the events you have?

LOSS: Just what it says on the tin: a Mix. There's nothing guileful about that title, except that it plays on "comix." From the beginning I've wanted the mix of perspectives that can only result from putting academics and artists at the same tables where they can talk in this egalitarian environment of mutual exchange. I do think of it as a democratic initiative; each panel and roundtable is set up to encourage audience questions, too, from what we hope are other contributors and students and interested community members. And you know, that willfully pluralist approach seems to reflect not only the perspective an art college, but also the qualities of this hybrid art form that draws from literature and visual art, even from film, and from politics and science and myth, and has always had this volatile, tenuous place in American culture. I wouldn't mind if Mix is a bit volatile, so long as it's civil.

I know that sounds like it's driven by a manifesto, and I guess there's no escaping that to some degree it is -- but it's a very inclusive, porous manifesto! We're not saying this is the right way to do things, or the only way. Conferences for professional academics are fine, and so are symposiums like the one in Chicago this past May, where it was mainly cartoonists -- great cartoonists -- talking to each other or being interviewed by an academic or two. Really interesting conversations emerge from those formats. But is there a possibility for some other kind of conversation? Can I get Douglas Wolk on a panel with an artist-academic and three other artists, one of whom has produced animated television shows, and get them to talk about collaboration and authorship? We needed to find a format that could allow us to do that.

So the first thing was to invite diverse participants, and to encourage proposals that were flexible and welcoming but also substantial. The next thing was to represent a variety of topics, which wasn't difficult. And then we wanted to offer different formats. Some of the panels feature shorter presentations and more roundtable-ish discussion, some are closer to the academic format, and others, like the Indie Comix Spotlight, are just going to be controlled chaos. Then you've got Charles Hatfield doing a presentation on Jack Kirby.

imageSome panels feature mainly academics, and some feature mainly artists, but most of them are pretty balanced. For instance, on the "Extraordinary Epics" panel, you have Craig Fischer and Charles Hatfield talking about their research on Eddie Campbell's Bacchus, Jeremy Stoll, a folklorist talking about the Mahabharata being adapted into a manga, Lora Innes who creates The Dreamer webcomic, and Robert Algeo who runs in absentia press, but also teaches at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. That's a mix. To some it might seem a little messy. Oh well. Usually the most interesting people I've known have messy houses.

The final components developed after the symposium was originally pitched: the exhibits and the 24-hour comics-making marathon for students. The exhibit of original artwork from Jimmy Corrigan is already up and it's illuminating. I might be wrong about this, but I don't think it's been seen anywhere else but Chicago and New York. Then there's Beyond Words, which has original artwork from Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware, but also Jae Lee, Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz. That came about serendipitously thanks to a gallery in southeast Ohio. We're just putting the final touches on that one. The final exhibit features the winners of the marathon; our exhibits staff is putting it up in two days so that it's ready for the reception following Chris Ware's keynote.

Oh yeah, then there's Chris' keynote, which will be an onstage conversation with him and Craig Fischer. (And I want to say here how incredibly supportive Craig has been ever since I told him about this. I wrote a piece for his late and much-lamented blog with Charles and also Jared Gardner, called The Panelists. He was on board way before we knew Chris would agree.) Chris will also be on a panel called "The Epic Ordinary" -- the theme of the symposium is "epic narratives", but that's pretty loose -- where each of the papers is about his work in some ways. One of those is mine, and frankly, I'm quivering in my boots.

SPURGEON: How much and what kind of support have you received from local institutions or even the Columbus comics community. For that matter, given Columbus is so large and so important to comics specifically, can you talk a little bit about what kind of community exists there, at least from your perspective on it?

LOSS: Those are great questions because I'm not sure people realize what's going on here. Columbus is a very affordable city to live in, which means it's a little easier to make art, so there's also a thriving arts scene. Of course there's the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum up the road from us, and Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk -- who I think you interviewed here awhile back -- have been very supportive. BICLM is hosting an open house the night before the symposium begins, and Caitlin is moderating the Indie Comix Spotlight panel. Jared Gardner from OSU was set to be involved, too, but had a personal conflict arise. And this past spring, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Thurber House hosted their first Graphic Novelist-in-Residency, Paul Hornschemeier. Paul came to my class and was just outta sight. So this sense of collaboration is really building.

From the beginning I wanted to deeply involve the Columbus comics community so that students could see how independent artists balance their ambitions with the realities of making a living. I also just thought it seemed right, again, from an art college perspective. The scene here isn't huge, but it's got teeth. Jeff Smith is here, Chris Sprouse is here, and there's a ton of crossover between the great music scene in Columbus and the comics scene. So I started emailing people, and one afternoon, I traipsed around a very crowded Mid-Ohio Con looking for locals. And everyone jumped right in. It was so encouraging. You come up to someone you've never met and say, "Hey, we're doing something totally out of your comfort zone, but would you want to try -- " and they've already said yes. We've got four great hands-on workshops all run by local creators: Ken Eppstein from Nix Comics, Max Ink who creates Blink, and James Moore and Joel Jackson from 2 Headed Monster Comics. All of those guys are on panels, too. Same goes for Lora Innes (The Dreamer), Rafael Rosado (Giants Beware!) and Katie Valeska (Next Year's Girl) and a bunch of others. I'll run out of room if I try to name them all. I'd say a third of the contributors to Mix are local comics folks, and they've been with it from the beginning.

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SPURGEON: Talk to me a bit more about Chris Ware. Chris is doing some events this Fall in relation to Building Stories, but scoring him for this event seems like a really nice get on your part. How has it been working with him in the weeks leading up to the show? And for those conferences out there that may want to get Ware to do one of their events, or a cartoonist of that stature, how did that come to happen?

LOSS: Well, I wouldn't want to suggest there's a magic ingredient beyond the basic advice for any endeavor: be kind, communicate as clearly as you can, and listen. We had a few people in mind, gathered some information, approached Chris, and he said, "Okay." I like to think this idea of mixed perspectives appealed to him, but you'd have to ask him. And I'll go on record saying he's been so damn easy to work with. I mean, getting the exhibit together, talking about his keynote and the panel, arranging his itinerary -- it's all complicated and nowhere near as interesting as making Building Stories, I'm sure, but he's been friendly and quick to respond throughout the entire process.

SPURGEON: Do you have a short-term goal with this event, something you'd like to see happen -- an attendance figure, say, or a certain kind of attendee at the various events?

LOSS: I hate to get too specific about attendance goals. I can tell you that, as of today, we have well over 100 people registered, including many of our students and faculty, and we've got thirty-five contributors as well. And I'm pleased with that. I think your question about the kind of attendee is more interesting. That gets to the core of this Mix idea. We don't care what background they're coming from -- comic store clerk, high school teacher, 'zine publisher, State Representative playing hooky from work -- as long as they're open to smart and entertaining conversation about comics, and want to be part of that and hang around other people who are into the same.

SPURGEON: For that matter, is this something you'd like to see become a recurring thing?

LOSS: Absolutely. We already have the funding secured for next year, so we'll learn from the inaugural event, run our reports in the lab, and come back even better so it can continue. I'm already thinking about next year and some events and panels we couldn't quite together for Mix 2012.

SPURGEON: Is there advice you'd give anyone out there that wants to do an event like this at their school, or in their community? Is there something you wish you had known going in that you only learned later on?

LOSS: It takes time. Lots of time. I knew that going into this, but I still wasn't prepared for just how much detail needs to be covered if you want the event to be good, and how much time it takes to address those details. I first pitched this idea in March 2011, and the serious planning and discussion with our administration and faculty really kicked in about a year ago. All of that planning, even at a relatively small college, means working with people, learning what they do, listening to their perspectives and eventually letting them do the work they excel at. Have a sense of humor and a sense of humility.

I'd also suggest taking a long look at what's unique about your school or community. Not in a "let's stand out" kind of way, but simply what runs in its veins. Mix 2012 has evolved naturally from not trying to do what other people do, but from doing what we can do best.

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* CCAD Presents Mix 2012
* Robert Loss at Pop Matters

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* logo for show
* the Claremont/Byrne-era Uncanny X-Men
* photo provided by Loss
* Lora Innes' The Dreamer
* from Chris Ware
* from Columbus cartooning icon Billy Ireland (below)

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