Comics and Columbus
About a year ago I was watching Simon Hanselmann, Patrick Kyle, and Michael DeForge read their comics at Kafe Kerouac in Columbus, Ohio. Kerouac is a few blocks from Ohio State’s main campus, and it was game night for the Buckeyes. A stream of drunk and rowdy fans passed by the window. Inside, a knot of comics fans listened to DeForge read a short story about the new dogs (a sort of sci-fi subculture of post-dog dogs). Some dude had driven from—I think—North Carolina to meet DeForge. A lot of other people were very excited to see Hanselmann. I remember thinking, “Yes, Columbus is now a real comics town,” like Chicago, or New York, or White River Junction.
This is exciting for Columbus. Comics-related things happen here nearly every week, and there are a variety of different hubs for the scene, starting with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. The Billy Ireland is the best library for comic strips and editorial art in the world, and among the very best for almost any form of comics—a kind of Aladdin’s Cave of rare and awesome things. The Billy Ireland offers the comics scholar an opportunity to do original research on stuff that just isn’t anywhere else. I’m writing a chapter of my dissertation on popular music and modern art in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and I wanted to read some of the early daily strips. It’s a relatively straightforward matter to sit down with hundreds of clippings from 1913 and 1914, which to my knowledge aren’t reprinted anywhere. For the visiting scholar, the Billy Ireland makes accessing its outstanding collections really straightforward (see http://cartoons.osu.edu/collections/visit-the-reading-room/).
Another obvious benefit to working in—and a good reason to visit—Columbus is the constant cycle of comics events. There’s already a great annual small press convention here, SPACE, and come October there will also be Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a comics art festival with a guest list that could serve as a primer for what’s excellent in comics. Also in October, SÕL-CON: The Black and Brown Comix Expo will provide a hybrid comics con and academic conference, with Jaime Hernandez as the featured artist. The academic portion of the Cartoon Arts Festival, held every four years at OSU, and ICAF, which came to OSU in 2014, have meant that I’ve recently had the opportunity to hear a wide range of scholars present their work. The saturation in comics scholarship that these conferences gave me a chance to spot trends in the discipline in a way that might otherwise not be obvious. Colin Beineke and I are currently planning a special issue of ImageText focusing on the connections between fine art and comics, and the currency of this as a topic emerged from a panel we were on together at ICAF. When we later saw Scott Bukatman at the same conference using Rosalind Krauss’s work on Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell” to discuss Hellboy, we realized that we were—inadvertently—participating in a trend, and decided to Kthink through what opportunities that trend might present. Anyone who attended the conference could have made this linkage—Colin did, and he’s not based at OSU—but being in Columbus affords access to a constant stream of new comics scholarship that would be inaccessible to an out-of-towner on a grad school travel stipend.
The benefits of sustained study at a university with a strong interest in comics are, however, not just the big events and obvious resources, but the people. My department, English, has two professors (Jared Gardner and Frederick Luis Aldama) who’ve written extensively on comics, and several others who have occasionally done research or taught classes on comics. Jared is my advisor, and so it’s difficult to write about his role objectively; he’s done too much for me. But at the very least I can say that he has helped push my work towards the more interesting questions in comics studies, while also helping me negotiate the important reality that very few academics get hired to work on comics alone. Jared, who has had several different specialties over the years (race and early United States literature, magazine culture, classical Hollywood film), always reminds me how to speak beyond comics studies.
Because Columbus is a comics town, not just the home of a comics-friendly university, people studying and working outside of the university are also resources for the comics scholar and teacher. I was able to bring Laurenn McCubbin, who has written, drawn, designed, and marketed comics, and who teaches 4D art at the Columbus College of Art and Design, into my comics-focused second-level literature class to talk about her work on the labor politics of sex work. My students’ minds were appropriately blown. The many opportunities to teach comics at OSU have opened me to a larger number of potential connections, and also sharpened my analytical skills. You can’t convince a 19-year-old with critical jargon.
Perhaps the most intangible but important aspect of working on comics in Columbus is the sense that what I do is a thing. As a grad student I suffer from imposter syndrome and related forms of self-doubt almost constantly. The inability to explain my work properly can leave me feeling anxious for days, and I’m sure this would be the case wherever I worked. Yet, while I remain free to doubt the value of my contribution to comics scholarship, I never have cause to doubt the validity of the subject itself. The people, events, and institutions that make Columbus a comics town are always there to help me reframe and rethink my developing ideas, and to offer the irreplaceable support of working within a thriving community of people who are smart and passionate about comics.
–Ben Novotny Owen