Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

Courtesy Vantage: Inhouse Productions, Origins Unknown: Somewhere I Belong (Line art by Jacob Newell)By Melissa Starker

The comics industry has given birth to a range of characters with extraordinary powers and stories that are out of this world in a literal and figurative sense. But historically, it’s also had its limitations.

As The A.V. Club’s Oliver Sava wrote last year, “There’s no question about it: Straight white men dominate comic books, both on and off the page.”

In the 80 years that comic books have been produced in the U.S., the role of women and people of color in their creation has been minor, if not non-existent.

Laurenn McCubbin, a professor at Columbus College of Design (CCAD) and comic artist who’s drawn and designed for publishers ranging from powerhouse Marvel to indie purveyors like Milkfed Criminal Masterminds (Bitch Planet), offered some current industry numbers: “At Marvel Comics, about 14 percent of their creators are women and people are color. DC has about 15 percent, and Image Comics has about nine  percent. And the numbers aren’t much better in independent comics. There’s still a big disparity.”

McCubbin noted that there’s been some movement in the mainstream recently, promoted by readers with a hunger for something different. They’ve made bestsellers of titles like Ms. Marvel, featuring a female Muslim superhero, and a new version of Thor with a woman assuming control of the hammer.

Nonetheless says McCubbin, “The way that comics tend to work, like many other industries, is that people go with what they’re comfortable with.” She added. “If your entire editing staff is white dudes, unless they’re making an effort, they’re going for other white dudes. We have some catching up to do.”

On the local front, comic artists and professionals are working to be one step ahead of the industry as a whole. When Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) made its debut in October as the newest American festival for the art of comics, its first satellite event, Sol-Con, focused on the work of black and Latino artists. And when CXC’s first Emerging Artist Award was presented, the recipient was a woman—Brooklyn-based graphic novelist Katie Skelly (Operation Margarine). Taking the award, Skelly dedicated it to “all the bad bitches” now staking a claim in the comics landscape.

With their packed events and marketplaces, CXC and Sol-Con not only experienced runaway success in the first year, they also cast a spotlight on the diversity of comic fans and creators in Columbus. From stories culled from everyday life to tales of a new generation of superheroes, the work being made here suggests the dynamic possibilities that exist when room is made for a multitude of voices and perspectives.

Panel from the upcoming issue of The Sequentialist, Art by Bryan Moss

Panel from the upcoming issue of The Sequentialist, Art by Bryan Moss

One active member of the community is Bryan Moss, a biracial artist and educator whose work is currently featured in Columbus Alive’s “Sketch in the City” series. He’s also done artwork for a story in the upcoming issue of the local comics quarterly The Sequentialist, which will explore issues of race, gender and economic status.

Alluding to industry giants like X-Men co-creator Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzburg, Moss said, “We’re coming out of a history in comics in which Jewish men in New York had to hide their names and work for peanuts. The change of dynamic is a positive thing. I just want to see more representation.”

Other locals share Moss’ wish and are pursuing it through small publishing and other avenues, like Michael Watson. Originally from Cleveland, the African American artist came to Columbus to attend CCAD because, “at the time it was the only school I saw that offered a comic book class.”

In addition to helming The Stuff, a podcast centered on comics and pop culture, Watson has also contributed to Sketch in the City and runs the small press FreeStyle Komics, creating works like the episodic superhero saga Hotshot.

“We’re looking to bring a diverse lineup of superheroes and a more realistic worldview,” he explained. “In our comics anyone can be epic. We publish work that people can easily relate to and see themselves within the pages.”

To Watson, the larger industry’s lagging diversity doesn’t have to limit what an artist of color can do. “This medium gives us complete freedom to do stories the way we want because we do not answer to anyone. I do not have quotas to fill.”

Victor Dandridge shares the wish of Watson and others to see the playing field leveled for minority artists. But the creator behind the local imprint Vantage: Inhouse Productions (V:IP) and titles such as Origins Unknown, as well as co-host of the YouTube review show Black, White & Read All Over, is pragmatic about the current state of things.

Panel from the upcoming issue of The Sequential, story and art by Alissa Sallah

Panel from the upcoming issue of The Sequential, story and art by Alissa Sallah

“I’m aware of a lot of women creators, Latinos, African Americans, but what most people are going to see is the mainstream, and it’s not going to change as quickly – that’s a big machine and the wheels are going to move slowly.”

Still, he’s doing his part to give those wheels a shove. Unofficially known as “the hardest working man in comics,” Dandridge travels to as many as 40 comic conventions a year to represent for Columbus and V:IP, which he describes as offering “big scale stories from a small press publisher.”

In Dandridge’s mind, the level of exposure he aims for is key to turning the industry tide, along with a mind that’s open to the value in all forms of comic art. “It doesn’t matter if we make the same kind of comics,” he said. “I want to know you and want you to know me.”

CCAD student and comic creator Alissa Sallah echoed Dandridge’s statement, saying, “I think it’s healthy for us to look at everyone doing good work and just appreciate what’s good, rather than what fits into a label.”

Like Moss, Sallah will also be featured in the new issue of The Sequentialist, contributing a story of a conversation between multiple generations of women in her family about a cousin’s impending start at college and what she can expect from the experience.

“I’m mixed race and I’ve lived with my black family my whole life,” Sallah explained. “I usually don’t see black women portrayed honestly in the media and that’s something I’d like to show in my own work, just people having regular conversations —and no victimizing them, either. A lot of times in the media, you get the sad story of black women. We don’t all have a tragic backstory or abuse history, and I think that’s something that really needs to be cleaned up. I just wanted to put something out there and have people relate to them on every level.”

Artwork by Colleen Clark

Artwork by Colleen Clark

For Colleen Clark, the medium is made for this kind of outreach and shared understanding, and she’s got a recent track record to prove it. Her illustrations about feminism, body image and sexuality have been featured on The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. A nerve-striking image posted on her Tumblr blog featuring a woman buried under a barrage of word balloons filled by just one word—“Sorry”—is at 95,000 notes and counting.

As Clark explained, “In a four-page comic, I can talk about all the things that frustrate me about my body image, show it to someone, and have them kind of understand where I’m coming from in a few minutes. But I couldn’t force someone who isn’t interested in the topic to read a 25-page feminist dissertation.”

Clark shares her peers’ frustration with an industry that’s been slow to embrace non-white, non-male creators, but added, “With the openness and transparency of social media, there’s no excuse for comics to be a boy’s club anymore.”

The artist also noted that as a woman making comics, Columbus offers specific advantages—particularly a powerful support system. It’s illustrated by initiatives like Sketch and Kvetch, a casual series of meet-ups started by Caitlin McGurk, associate curator of OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

“It was one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me,” Clark said. “This community of women accepted me immediately. I have never seen a community so excited to uplift young female creators. It’s definitely the biggest reason that I am still here in Ohio.”

Artists Tracie Santos and Elissa Leach, creator of the new graphic novel Veil, are leading a similar charge with The Circle, started at the beginning of this year and described by them as “a group for women and non-binary people who are fans of comic books. No experience necessary.”

“I’d been asking some folks around town if they knew of any groups where women who were comic book fans met to talk and couldn’t really find anything like what I was looking for,” Leach said.

“It was surprising, I think, to both of us that something didn’t already exist,” Santos added. “We both read comics and knew of other women who read comics, but not a lot of us knew each other.”

After a kickoff meeting to discuss Bitch Planet, the organizers started taking a role in comic events around the city, promoting the local indie comics event Extra S.P.A.C.E. and coordinating volunteers for CXC. From there, they began bringing speakers to the group, and this month they’ll be traveling to Dearborn, Michigan to ComiqueCon, the first all-women comics convention, to host a workshop on how to start organizations like The Circle in other cities.

“Since The Circle started, we feel like we’ve finally found our community,” Leach noted. “Tracie and I feel welcomed by the comics community at large… We expected a little more pushback from people who our group doesn’t include, but it has yet to happen.

“We’re really lucky that we get to be a part of this community,” she went on. “There are lots of other cities where a group like this could never happen.

According to Santos, “When we go to conventions or talk to other comic fans and creators online that aren’t from Columbus, we hear over and over how intimidating and unwelcoming their local comics communities are. That’s heartbreaking to hear because this is an art form for everyone.”

Both Leach and Santos praised the Billy Ireland Museum, known for short among local creators as “The Billy,” for its huge influence on their efforts and the Columbus comics community as a whole. It’s the lynchpin for the extraordinary level of institutional support within the city, helping artists who might typically be marginalized and events like CXC to flourish.

The Billy is working to foster these segments of the community by highlighting in exhibitions and digital albums the women and artists of color in its archives – creators ranging from For Better or Worse cartoonist Lynn Johnston to local living legend Phonzie Davis, the artist who not only draws the superheroine character Left-Handed Sophie but adopts her persona in real life.

According to McGurk, “We have quite a lot and we’re trying to make (these creators) more of a focus. It’s one thing we can pride ourselves for.”

The work done in The Billy has also helped create a hospitable environment for the creation of Sol-Con: The Black & Brown Comix Expo, which was the satellite event for CXC to share resources and build bridges across all segments of the community.

As Sol-Con’s founder, OSU professor Frederick Aldama, noted, “Latino and African American comic artists have been pushed to the side, but on the side they’ve been creating amazing art, and they’ve been getting attention reaching beyond those two groups.”

In addition to a marketplace and a range of creative and professional development workshops, Sol-Con placed an emphasis on student outreach, busing in students from schools with limited resources to have professional creators such as Columbus’ Rafael Rosado show them first-hand how much potential the medium holds for personal expression.

“Many of them have read comics but few of them have actually tried telling stories through comics, and on the spot they were learning how to tell their story, express their emotion and experiences with pencils and pens supplied by us, and share with the group,” Aldama recalled.

“Opening that door, especially for kids that don’t have access or have been pushed out —this is an extremely important space. And you’ve got the validation of these women and men that are the most extraordinary visual and verbal storytellers paying attention to these kids.”

Like virtually everyone contacted for this article, Aldama sees a lot of room for growth for minority and women artists in both the local and national communities.

“That means a lot of work and a lot of organizing,” he said. “If that’s something people are willing to do, I think it can happen. I’m extremely optimistic.”

He also noted that Columbus is primed to be a birthplace for that change.

“We have kind of a fledgling scene for African American and Latino creators, but it’s growing, and I think in part because there’s already a growing scene here where people know you can afford to live and create here without working five jobs. I think we’re beginning to see something special here.”

Still, as Laurenn McCubbin noted, the work of building a bigger presence for women and people of color in the industry can’t fall on artists alone.

Due to the nature of comic distribution, in which small, independent retailers are placing most of the orders and unsold comics can’t be returned, “they have to order way in advance and what they think they can sell conservatively because anything they can’t sell, they can’t send back,” McCubbin explained.

“It’s on readers to go into the stores and support these books,” she said. “If you’re really happy about diversity in comics, go buy Lumberjanes and DC Bombshells.”

Above image: Courtesy Vantage: Inhouse Productions, Origins Unknown: Somewhere I Belong (Line art by Jacob Newell)


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