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September 29, 2013

A Few Notes About MIX 2013

imageTom Spurgeon

* so I attended MIX 2013, which is an academic driven but not dominated event in Columbus, Ohio on the campus of Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD), and organized by one of its professors, Robert Loss.

* the festival is in its second year. The main guest last year was Chris Ware. The main guest this year was Jeff Smith.

* I had a very enjoyable time.

* I was in Columbus for a relatively long time, actually, a little more than a week, due to the way my travel worked out and the availability of a place to stay, both things for which I'm greatly appreciative.

* one air travel note, aimed specifically at the two or three people out there that might still have their "Artbomb" t-shirts. You know, the ones with the grenades on the front? Not the airlines' favorite shirt that you will ever wear. Stick with a classic.

* okay. MIX.

* it's a nice city, Columbus; it has all the Midwestern city virtues without the haunting, melancholy presence of a now-faded industrial past. I can't figure out exactly why that is, but my guess is education, government and insurance are dominant non-industrial business sectors that are reasonably recession-proof. That doesn't mean there aren't different classes in evidence there, there's just not that doomed quality I'm used to from cities between the Rockies and the Alleghenies.

* the CCAD campus itself is a classic downtown university area: a mix of buildings constructed for the purposes of teaching and housing students, and a bunch of buildings from the neighborhood reclaimed and re-purposed as classrooms, offices and studio space. I like the physical part of that campus very much. It being the Midwest, everyone was really friendly. It was not the nicest part of town, but it wasn't anywhere near a bad part of town, either. There were a couple of missions near CCAD, including a very active-seeming one about two blocks north of northernmost campus buildings. At the same time, it was maybe a three block walk west to a row of expensive looking condos and then another block or two to a series of office buildings teeming with workers flowing in and out.

* there are a lot of schools in Columbus.

image* I wrote about seeing Gary Panter lecture at CCAD here. He wasn't there for MIX, but his appearance's proximity to the show proper allowed for a kind of soft roll-out of events.

* I got to spend a little time with Panter on Tuesday after his visit to the new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum space. He and Jeff Smith spent some that afternoon looking at a bunch of stuff from their permanent collection, including work by TS Sullivant and Bud Fisher. At dinner on Tuesday, Panter talked about some of the original art pieces he owned, a not-surprisingly idiosyncratic and eclectic selection. Panter and I had coffee after dinner and went deep into the current publishing landscape, his forthcoming oversized Jimbo work and life as an artist more generally. It was great to see him. Everyone in Columbus loved the guy, and students were beaming over specifics concerning his studio visits a few days later.

* Panter hit the road on Wednesday to rejoin his band and play some music.

* I wrote about visiting one of Robert Loss' classes here. That was fun, and it was nice to see a lot of the students attending MIX events over the weekend.

* got over to the new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum space myself for the first time since they moved from their longtime basement space into the much larger space for which they've been diligently and heroically raising money for years. Their grand opening is in November, but there were already students manning the desk in the reading room when I visited.

* as for the space... um... holy shit.

* there are multiple elements to the new digs: I started in a reading room with so many bookshelves the old reading room library takes up about ten to twelve percent of available shelving (they will move more books into the space over the next several weeks). This room -- where you would go if you needed something from the library and have it brought out to you; their holdings don't circulate -- will be named after Lucy Shelton Caswell, who started the library and for whom I hope this Fall is a major appreciation period from all of her peers and all of us in comics. The reading room all by itself, if that were the only thing available, would be kind of an amazing thing. But there is so much more. The reading room is to the right of a grand lobby, decorated with a Billy Ireland-festooned stained glass piece and big enough to echo. It will eventually get Ireland's desk and maybe one or two other pieces. The reading room is below a gigantic, multi-purpose classroom and hosting space which they will control and schedule for use (there's a kitchen adjacent to the social space). Back down on the first floor, the reading room is across the lobby from the offices, including an administrative space, individual offices for Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk and I would have to think Caswell but I didn't check, devoted reading/sorting/filing areas, and a film shooting area. This space leads to a locked, gigantic backroom area of stacks into which their holdings will settle, about the size of an athletic field. On the second floor, across from their dedicated classroom, they have a gigantic, three-pronged gallery space supported by a mounting room, complete with display casings and mucho wall coverage area. The gallery space will be broken down to one permanent display and two revolving ones. The first show, the one that goes up for the festival weekend, will actually cover both of the latter two spaces: it's to be curated by Brian Walker and you could see names like "Ware" and "Buscema" marked on paper on the floor underneath where the art will go. Leaving the gallery, there is also some shared-area stuff, like a fancy rotunda facing the main road and a freaking auditorium they'll make partial use of.

* in other words, it's ludicrous. It's shut your mind down incredible in terms of the kind of physical plant generally afforded this kind of thing. It's step-into-another-universe weird. The new Billy Ireland is the best specialty library space I've ever seen of any kind, the best classroom and office set-up I've seen for any comics enterprise, and boasts the most attractive gallery spaces I've seen devoted to comics. It's insane. You'll see a ton of pictures in November from the grand opening, but I was impressed. Good for Caswell, Robb and McGurk in terms of raising that money and getting that move (partly) done. They still have a ton of work to do, but you can see the shape of it. It's a pleasing shape.

* I am super-grateful to Caitlin McGurk and Jenny Robb for showing me around.

* CCAD was hosting two gallery shows related to the MIX show. That was a really good space, as well: modern and clean and definitely multi-purpose. The comics stuff covered about half of it. There was a show of Gary Panter's paintings, and a display of Jeff Smith's RASL work. The Panter show was a lot of fun, hung in a straight-forward fashion in a space near the lobby. It was paintings, all about two feet by three feet in size; a variety of subjects familiar to anyone that's spent time with Panter's work. I was very fond of a cowboy piece that might remind those who know Panter's story of his father's artwork.

* the RASL display was very cleverly arranged. The major throughway for access was a small hallway holding works of influence over the newly collected work: a screen playing noir films; a copy of a Kamandi work (Smith referenced Jack Kirby's character in designing RASL's lead); that kind of thing. Across from the hallway is a giant of RASL's dimension-hopping art-thief hero, which was very eye-catching. A small shelf held about five copies of the collected work for easy access and hands-on perusal of the comics themselves. There were about a dozen clusters of pieces, including two groups that I think were there to off the narrative in original-art form. There was one group of very attractive cover art images, and one of studies of historical figures and related photos that resulted in images that Smith dropped into RASL during its lengthy Tesla-related sequence.

* the belle of that particular ball was a life-sized model two students created of the story's hero, complete with the dimension-hopping machines placed on his shoulders and a bottle of liquor on the floor behind him. I saw a lot of people looking at that part of the exhibit and laughing and giving one of those bemused "what in the hell...?" At his keynote conversation on Friday evening, Smith recognized those artists and they got a healthy round of applause.

* ran into Laurenn McCubbin a bunch of times during the weekend. She's teaching at CCAD now, and is new enough that some of the comics folks at various times said something along the lines of, "I didn't know she was here until a couple of days ago." It was really nice to see her. She noted that as she's lived in the Midwest before -- Chicago and Kansas City -- that there wasn't much of a transition period in getting used to Columbus, and that she was enjoying her city and her new teaching gig.

* the idea behind MIX is that you get the usual academic presentations made but that you also have creators and interested comics-people on hand for general exchanging of ideas in and out of those presentations, a series of workshops, and what I would say is traditional comics-panel type stuff.


* there was a small table for commerce manned by a bunch of nice folks including -- I think primarily -- Ken Eppstein of Nix Comics. I quite liked this poster-piece by Katherine Wirick of her Kent State-related comics. I thought that was very attractive. Eppstein told me that sales were pretty solid out there; and the table definitely looked considerably less encumbered by show's end.

* I saw this Eppstein-facilitated comic several places around time.

* I haven't been to a series of academic presentations on comics since being around for a couple of years of the ICAF/SPX marriage in Bethesda. I think just as panels have improved since the late 1980s with repetition and judicious application of technology, so have academic presentations. Nearly all of them had tailored visual accompaniment, and all of the presenters seemed happy to be sharing the work while displaying some skill in doing so.

* this is probably due to how Robert Loss and whatever system or people he used to facilitate this, but the presentations were really light on jargon and hardcore academic analysis and instead presented their ideas in a fashion where someone like me could understand what the hell was going on without becoming baffled. I realize that if I say that it sounds like the work wasn't rigorous, but I honestly don't know if that's a factor. I suspect it could be as much if not more that the kind of presentations I was seeing were really solid in terms of presenting their ideas -- just the fact that it was a presentation rather than a testing period, or a peer review, probably made those presentations what they were. If you read the occasional academic book, what it reminded me of was the work of Bart Beaty or Charles Hatfield, where there does seem to be all of the meticulous attention and theorizing you would expected with such a work, but it's presented in a way that allows you to engage the ideas driving the discovery and application of new material.

* I enjoyed the straight-up academic presentations I saw. It was like going to the idea store.

* like to give you an idea, this the first series of presentations I saw, "Women And Culture In Comics," moderated by McCubbin. There were four speakers: Tiffany Pascal on "Tiffany Pascal on “Bleak Manhua, Bright Manga: Subversive Realism in the Work of Hong Kong’s Female Comic Book Artists," Azisa Noor Koesoema on "The Girl in the Hijab: A Study of Female Character Representation in Indonesian Islamic Comics," Grace Gipson on "Who Says Storm Is The Only Black Superheroine? An Interpretative Textual Analysis Of The Black Superheroine," and Tammy Birk on "Gay Shame, Gay Pride, and the Risk of Intimacy: Reading Julie Maroh's Blue is the Warmest Color." They all gave me stuff to consider.

* what I remember of Birk is her affectionate reading of the material, which she went into at some length, and the representation of physical intimacy on the page as well as the use of the color blue. Apparently the film favors a class difference over the intricacies of the physical relationship that Birk found so thrilling. Pascal suggested that Hong Kong has more of feminist comics scenes and that this ties into that area of the world's fundamental isolation from -- and later fascination with -- the rest of the world. She also provided three or four names of cartoonists I'm going to dig into once I get home. Noor Koesoema suggest that Indonesian Islamic comics objectify women spiritually rather than physically, all the way down to convincing guys that they "deserve" this idealized person. Grace Gipson I expected not to be so interested in, but her process intrigued me. She basically had a bunch of students create a black superheroine and then dissected how in each case they constructed their character -- what was important to them, what kinds of narratives they used, and so on.

* I mean, I would have sat there just to hear about Koesoema's work. So to get four in the space of 80 minutes was pretty great.

image* on Friday afternoon I did a panel moderated by James Moore on the emerging Columbus cartooning scene. I was on the panel with Jenny Robb, Bob Corby, Ken Eppstein, whom I recognized, and Jeff Stang from Laughing Ogre, that entire region's primary store of note, whom I did not. Robb presented a few slides previewing the space. Bob Corby showed photos from the 1980s generation of mini-comics makers and talked about the growth of SPACE -- I had forgotten that show is pretty much SPX's cousin in that they both sprang from the Spirits Of Independence Tour stops in their respective areas back in the mid-1990s. Corby also had all of his badges from over the years -- I love how people keep their badges; I know about a dozen people who still basically have every badge from every show. Eppstein provided a local publishing voice and was able to contextualize comics within the Columbus music scene. Stang provided perspective on the kind of support that a store like Laughing Ogre can provide local cartoonists. I played bass.

* bunch of stuff talked about. I was impressed that Laughing Ogre buys comics from local comics-makers in addition to devoting a space in the store for them. A lot of stores do consignment for non-Diamond ordered material, which I understand, but actually buying the comics is a boon to those comics-makers so I think that's great when a store does that. There was a lot of talk about the increased quality of local media coverage, just how many cartoonists and comics-makers are in the area now (Eppstein said it may be 150) and the potential of the Billy Ireland space opening as a place to facilitate elements of the local cartooning culture (use as a meeting space, an attraction for out-of-town cartoonists, etc.). It was noted that Columbus had a lot of physical advantages as a place cartoonists may want to start heading: it's cheap to live there for the level of cosmopolitanism it offers, it's centrally located in terms of getting to shows particularly east of the Mississippi and there's enough of a winter and even a sticky summer to allow for lengthy periods of sustained work inside. We even talked about Bruce Chrislip.

* at the panel, Jenny Robb announced that the shows to follow the opening show at the Billy Ireland exhibition space will feature Bill Watterson in one of the spaces and Richard Thompson in another. The latter will be the first show at the museum curated by Caitlin McGurk.

* had dinner with a small groups of MFA students, Loss, McCubbin, Jeff Smith and Vijaya Iyer where we talked about a whole mess of arts-related issues. One of the spaces the school has is a converted car dealership, so there was cool like driveway leading into the space. There was a chalkboard with drinking-game rules for Space Jam, which almost made me want to suffer through Space Jam again. Almost.


* I was primarily on hand this week to interview Jeff Smith for the keynote conversation, which took place Friday night to a packed auditorium. I wanted to cover the breadth of Smith's career without depending on intimate knowledge of his works in order to follow along, but I wanted the questions to be challenging enough that if you've heard Smith speak before, or read an interview, there'd be enough new material there for you.

* I think it went pretty well.

* Smith is great in front of audience. We were sitting in these Brady Bunch-looking chairs and I had a remote in my hand to move the slides, which made us look like two really old versions of a couple of teenagers in someone's basement watching a Cheech and Chong tape that somebody's Dad taped off of early '80s HBO. Or an alternate-universe Wayne's World with Jeff Garlin as Wayne.

* before we started -- it was a packed house -- the dean of the school came up on stage and crushed our writing appendages with his giant, endowment-facilitating hands. So if Jeff's new webcomic venture starts late, we know who to blame.

* just to be clear: Jeff's webcomic isn't starting late.

* there wasn't a bunch of stuff I didn't already know that I learned in that interview, but it's always nice to hear from an artist about their work.

* Smith is one of the first cartoonists that I remember that seemed to work on how to present his work to an audience in more than a "well, here it is" way. I have a hunch that was more general restlessness and curiosity on Smith's part than a calculated effort to win hearts and minds, but it works.

image* Smith's impulse to self-publish Bone came out of his frustration with the development process for syndication. We talked a bit about how his animation work and desire to work on a strip had an effect on how he did comics -- I think the way he always underlined character traits in the early Bone comics comes from those traditions. We talked about the general distrust of fantasy work that existed in the early 1990s, the friends he picked up along the way working in that general independent milieu, how art serves as a reassuring through-line in RASL, that kind of thing. I did remember to ask him what it was like the first time a grown-looking adult told him that they read his work when they were a child. (Spoiler: it was weird.)

* don't think I knew that Smith considered doing Robin Hood as a follow-up to Bone, although he had settled on RASL far before Bone ended -- he did the Shazam work for DC in part because he needed a bit more time to develop RASL, not because he hadn't settled on a next project.

* he recommended the comics of Sam Alden.

* we ended with that question from the audience on the RASL statue.

* I had a really good time doing that, and appreciate both the opportunity and Jeff's generosity in answering questions.

* there was a signing after the conversation. They sold out of Smith's books including the new RASL, and Smith signed for what must have been a couple of hours. I think Smith has been pleased by the reaction to his latest book at the first few stops he's done for publicity; I bet he has a readership of a kind now that will have been waiting on RASL rather than reading it in serial comic book form. He's off to Chicago next.

* there was a tremendous amount of goodwill aimed at Smith as an area creator but also as a key creator for a lot of people born post 1980 as a key influence in terms of their love of comics.

* early on Saturday I ran into Tony Isabella in my building. I got to meet him at San Diego and it was nice to see him again. He did that super-kind thing where he walked with me a little bit even though at some point without letting me know this he knew he'd have to peel away and go back to his room before joining me. Anyway, good to talk to him.

* had a nice conversation with Carol Tyler about her punk-rock days and baton twirling, because Carol Tyler is awesome. Later that day she told me a book idea that's as good as any I've heard in the last five years. I hope she makes a fortune.

* later that morning I attended a workshop facilitated by Victor Dandridge, a local writer and publisher. He also moderated the panel related to a film on black masculinity in 1960s/1970 mainstream comics later that day.

* Dandridge is extremely personable and a very good advocate for his own work -- not every cartoonist is both of those things, and some aren't either one. It was extremely interesting to me to see how he arranged his morning presentation, what ideas he hit: for instance, he talked about the divide between certain kinds of comics-making we sometimes do as mainstream/alternative/independent and which he described in terms of "indie vs. indy." He talked about building the brand, which is the kind of thing that usually makes my eyes glaze over but was fairly interesting when he talked about separating the brand from the person a bit in order to frustrate blowback from things you might do in the public arena. He also talked in very candid terms about money: how much tables at conventions cost, when and where to sell your work according to opportunities that might arise, rolling with the punches when expectations fail to cohere in reality.

* that afternoon's featured presentation was on a short documentary called White Scripts And Black Supermen about a variety of topics swirling around black superheroes from the 1960s and 1970s filtered through the director's experiences with them as a kid. I enjoyed the film and the follow-up panel. It was teeming with fascinating ideas, and a couple of interesting bits of comic-book history. There was a really great short interview with Tony Tallarico about his Lobo comic at Dell, a western featuring a black, male lead that was refused by distributors along with everything else in the Dell stacks that came with it -- it was heartbreaking to see him kind of matter-of-fact still struggle with why that idea didn't work, that wall of racism into which he once smashed. Dwayne McDuffie's interview segments were generally excellent, and the scholars across the board were funny and interesting.

* I think the primary value for me was seeing the presentation of criticisms of the problematic aspects of certain superheroes. While it's kind of easy to lay into the bizarre qualities of DC's pantless, singing Tyroc, I'm not sure that I'd heard the specific analysis here of characters like The Black Panther (the imaginary country of Wakanda becomes a lost opportunity to empower an actual African country; the Kirby solo run puts the Black Panther into a secondary role) and Luke Cage (his attention to making money played into a stereotype and made him less noble and aspirational than a lot of young readers hoped). There was a throwaway line in there about black skin being treated as "hard," kind of an armor unto itself, that could drive an entire book, I bet.

* I thought Dr. Jonathan Gayles was very appealing in the follow-up panel; that was a wide-ranging discussion from that careened from a discussion of specific members of The Blood Syndicate to Luke Cage's role in Alias #1 to various generational differences in how characters might be perceived. I hope I can do more on the film; just that there's more Dwayne McDuffie interview time I haven't seen yet -- his statements in the film on how DC lost an opportunity for a first-tier black character by not building on John Stewart's popularity in the Justice League cartoons were forceful and eloquent -- makes me happy.

* Tony Isabella was very funny on the panel, and told that great story he has about DC wanting to do a black solo-title character that was was actually a white racist -- a kind of walking EC Comics final-panel twist as a series lead.

* the last even I attended was a presentation made by a group of female cartoonists that meets in Columbus on a regular basis, with Carol Tyler along to provide an historical perspective in terms of her nearly 35 years in comics. Tyler is always very funny in front of an audience, and talked in pretty uncompromising terms about pursuing what you want to pursue in art. The affirmation received in doing comics, and the projection of one's self onto specific favorite comics characters was something that came up more than once. There was also a refreshing amount of admitting ambiguity about one aspect of art or another. It was a nice ending to a fun weekend. I missed the after-party.

* met Rafael Rosado briefly. He told me that he was working on a sequel to Giants Beware, which was a nice-looking First Second book. I did not know that.

* talked to a lot of happy academics and local folks on my way out the door. The writer James Moore expressed how different it was to be at a comics show where there wasn't an overriding commercial impulse, where that was being taken care of at a festival store rather than through the efforts of individual artists. I imagine that would change just about everything.

* I don't have any idea how the numbers break down, or even a context for what would distinguish good numbers from bad. Loss said he was pleased. I can't imagine 10 more people could have fit into the room for Smith's talk.

* the framework of the show seems strong. I like it conceptually, and the execution is pretty far along for a second year show given the expectations folks have for shows now. While there a was a technical snafu with the keynote conversation, for example, they had people on hand to fix things. I think that bodes well for the future. An academic conference on comics to which everyone is invited is a nice way to get to a non-commercial model for a comics show. I think the potential liability expressed to me by several folks -- variations of "I'm not sure who this show is for" -- will diminish even further as more iterations of the show come together. I would not be surprised to see CCAD build on the to add more of a comics focus institutionally. More importantly for this piece, I think they have everything they need to execute a quality show in years to come. Hats off to Robert Loss. I encourage any A-list art comics folks with a Fall book in the years ahead to have our people touch base with Loss, and would recommend anyone in the area with an appetite for feedback on and discussion about comics make room for that show in your life according to your ability to attend. I would be happy to do the whole thing over again.



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