Last Saturday my wife Anne and I had the pleasure of attending the third annual Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, an enlightening expo in the heart of Ohio for hardcore fans of comic books, graphic novels, the Graphic Storytelling Medium, and whatever other labels my fellow fans slap on their favorite hobby. You’d think Anne and I had our fill of cons after all the shows we’ve been doing this year. We can honestly say we’ve officially reached burnout, but CXC isn’t your ordinary average “comic con”. CXC has no Hollywood actors. No celebrities. No cosplay. No photo-op booths. No gaming. No eBay toy dealers. No Funco Pops. No comic shops selling Marvel Ultimate trades by the pound as horse feed. No lengthy list of famous guest cancellations due to filming or showrunner malfeasance. And no sugar gliders.
What does that leave, you may ask before you close your browser tab in disappointment? Comics. CXC puts the “comic” back in “comic con” and then runs the “con” part through an intense filtration process to produce the purest possible form of the original sense of the phrase. CXC is the perfect show for the comics fan who’s disappointed by the increasingly mixed bag that the average Artists Alley has become at many large-scale shows. CXC is a bountiful bazaar for the collector who wants to buy something besides prints or self-published novels. CXC is a happy haven for readers who know there’s more to comics than Marvel and DC. CXC is a knowledgeable nexus for the artistic literati above my station, sneering at any comics retailer who thinks stocking some Image Comics by former Marvel writers is all the “diversity” they can handle.
As you might note from the above photo, CXC is also a wondrous shopping opportunity for anyone who loves meeting comic creators face-to-face and buying paper wonders from them in person instead of through Amazon. We attended the first CXC in 2015 when it was held inside a lovely community center that strained to contain it. We missed last year’s gathering, but pinned this year’s on the calendar as soon as I saw the guest list. (This was more my thing than Anne’s, but she enjoyed tagging along and watching me immerse myself in a comics-rich atmosphere. She’s awesome like that and knows I love her more than all the comics in the world, which is why we have Anne-centric activity coming soon on the calendar.)
This year’s CXC marketplace was held at the Columbus Metropolitan Library on the east end of downtown. The surrounding area was deathly quiet on a Saturday, but the library itself was a beautiful facility. Their garage has four floors and parking wasn’t a problem, especially as they surprised us with free parking. Their conference rooms have the most comfortable chairs we’ve ever sat in for a comics panel — padded, wheeled, reclining bliss. They have a coffee shop and those 21st-century water fountains that feature a separate faucet for refilling our water bottles.
And there’s that architecture and decor…
One of the best perks: CXC is free. No admission costs. No VIP badges. No online Ticketmaster-style fees or upcharges. The only costs are for your own food and travel expenses, plus all the books, comics, mini-comics, and other related purchases you can carry. If you lose self-control, the convenient parking made it easy to leave the show floor, go back to the car, drop stuff off, and return inside for Round 2.
With nearly 100 creators in the house, temptations abounded. We arrived shortly after CXC opened at 11:00 and kept tripping over a series of helpful, smiling volunteers on our way toward the free-wheeling festival of funnybooks.
I was game for meeting new faces and hearing new voices, but two names in particular were on my Must List. More obscure of the two: Matt Feazell! Back in the ’80s he was a fine purveyor of stick-figure mini-comics starring his characters Cynicalman, Antisocialman, and a few others without “man” in their name. Readers of Scott McCloud’s sci-fi series Zot! were treated to his hilarious one-page lo-fi tales beginning with #11, including the mid-numbered #14½ in which Feazell took over an entire issue with nothing but stick figures. His eyes popped a little when he saw I’d brought my copy of his 1987 The Amazing Cynicalman reprint volume.
Fun historical footnote: decades after the original, his 2013 Indiegogo campaign for The Amazing Cynicalman Vol. 2 saw its rewards delivered to my mailbox at lightning speed, faster than any Kickstarter I ever knew.
My very, very first stop of the day had to be at the table of Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer. The delightful duo has written for various animated projects including Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Yo Gabba Gabba, and DC’s Metal Men shorts from a few years ago.
Long before their TV years, as a teen I was a fan of Dorkin’s first creator-owned work, the late-’80s black-and-white Slave Labor Graphics series Pirate Corp$!, which was a rogues-on-a-galaxy-run deal kind of like Joss Whedon’s Firefly but a decade sooner, with fewer Wild West planets and with more aliens, cursing, and ska bands. Dorkin later struck a chord in comic shops with Milk & Cheese, in which a pair of outraged living dairy products would vent their murderous fury at annoying people, places or things. In more recent years he’s done more mature and differenly entertaining comics fare like the all-ages adventure Calla Cthulhu (again, with Sarah) and the Buffy-meets-Watership Down canine demon-fighters of Beasts of Burden, painted by Jill Thompson. My all-time favorite of his was “The Eltingville Club”, whose complete 2015 hardcover collection I previously summarized like so:
One of the most savage satires of heartless, single-minded fanboys ever put to paper, about four alpha-nerds whose intense love of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and comics take our seemingly harmless, oft-rewarding obsessions to the most selfish, offensive, damaging extremes and beyond, nearly every story ending with immature self-absorbed bro-vs.-bro slapstick savagery. A collection 20+ years in the making, from the earliest short stories dating back to 1994, to Dorkin’s final word on the subject, a two-issue Dark Horse miniseries that wrapped up their morbid, insular universe in 2015. If and when society reaches a point where “post-geek” truly becomes a thing, Eltingville needs to be among the movement’s primary textbooks.
The first Eltingville story I ever read left me breathless and in happy tears from too much painful laughter. As the stories accumulated, I began to appreciate them more as a intense cautionary tale of how not to be a comics fan. Dorkin was never one to suffer pretension or charades back in the day, but the Eltingville stories turned inward to an extent and threatened to bite the heads off any readers who ruin hobbies for others with a complete lack of self-awareness and decency, years before such toxic misbehavior became de rigueur on message boards and Twitter. It’s not a book for children or delicate readers, but it is a book for adults who never stopped being terrible children and who desperately need an intervention.
That’s why I had to buy cool things from Dorkin and Dyer first before moving on to anyone else, and why I didn’t let con burnout or a three-hour drive stop me from missing another CXC. They were a pleasure to meet and graciously put up with us for many more minutes than they should’ve had to.
Other highlights of our walk around the aisles:
* Once again giving money to Derf Backderf and Dara Naraghi, veterans from CXC 2015
* Swapping Harvey Pekar anecdotes with Jaime Crespo
* Seeing the fascinating ideas the Columbus College of Art & Design implements for its comics-artist track
* Comparing notes on Weezer’s “White Album” with fellow fan Alec Longstreth
* Dustin Harbin recounting his A+ experience meeting CXC 2016 special guest Sergio Aragones (really kicking myself for missing out)
* Reading recommendations from the comic-shop vendors who sold me copies of Mimi Pond’s new book The Customer Is Always Wrong and the latest issue of Adrian Tomine’s consistently impossible-for-me-to-find Optic Nerve. (I’d love to give them credit, but my Square receipt literally says just “The Comic Shop”, someone’s cell number, and nothing else.)
(UPDATED 10/3/2017: I’m now 90% certain it was local heroes Laughing Ogre Comics.)
…and more more more. I wish I could’ve visited every table, one at a time, and bought something from each of them. At one point I did actually find myself stopping at three consecutive tables in a row, which was a fun sensation I don’t have too often. Alas, neither my funds nor my reading time are unlimited. One of the sad parts of adulthood is the lines we have to draw for the sake of moderation.
Shortly before 1:00 we ended our first tour of the aisles and made a relief stop at the car. We exited the library in hopes of catching lunch somewhere not too far away. Our answer and salvation was parked thirty feet from the front door: a food truck! Kinetic Food Truck was on site to save anyone and everyone from the iffy Google Maps results and from the unwanted overtures of the Subway down the street. Diners had their choice of chicken or vegetarian dollops served on either greens or grains with Baja, Caprese, or West Coast sauce-‘n’-veggies. For an extra four bucks I threw in a side of Brussels sprouts, roasted and drizzled with balsamic glaze. I normally hate Brussels sprouts and sincerely appreciate when a chef doesn’t just boil them and serve them plain and inherently disgusting.
After a non-comics digression that we’ll cover in a future entry, we finished out the day with two panels. At other Midwest comics events, comic-book panels and Q&As tend to break down into the following standard categories:
1. How to make or break into comics
2. Yay diversity in comics
3. Boo harassment in comics
4. Publishers plugging their latest relaunches and crossovers (C2E2 only)
In addition to one-on-one interviews, the folks at CXC put a lot of thought into their programming lineup. First up at 3 p.m.: “The Other Mainstream: Indy Creators on Non-Indy Books” — anecdotes and horror stories from working with Marvel and/or DC to their own detriment.
Left to right in that fuzzy pic:
* Fantagraphics mainstay cartoonist Peter Bagge (Neat Stuff, Hate), who — during that weird Bill Jemas era — was once allowed to do one of the most subversive and poorly selling Spider-Man stories ever, followed by one of the most suppressed and censored Hulk stories ever.
* Kyle Baker (previously met at Motor City Comic Con), who started as an inker at Marvel as a high school intern, worked his way up to creator-owned wonders like The Cowboy Wally Show and Why I Hate Saturn, only to return to work-for-hire with mixed results. At Marvel, the controversial The Truth: Red, White and Black made fans hate Captain America years before the recent Hydra Steve era made hating Cap cool. The award-winning short story “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter”, starring an invulnerable Superbaby in ostensible danger, so worried the publisher that he ordered an entire anthology’s print run pulped lest it escape into the wild and be misread by the illiterate. The incredibly stupid story of why Baker will never be allowed to work on Plastic Man for the rest of his life is beyond maddening.
* Connor Willumsen, a younger up-‘n’-comer who’s had several paying gigs at Marvel, almost none of which have seen the light of day due to editorial whims, including but not limited to the time he had a story spiked because he refused to draw it in the John Cassaday widescreen style that’s now Marvel’s house standard, and which I’ve been loathing for years because it turns comics into static storyboards and squanders the medium’s potential to the nth degree.
Not pictured: Jeff Smith, creator of the long-running Scholastic bestseller Bone as well as Festival President and Artistic Director of CXC itself. Smith once did a Shazam! miniseries for DC that began as a fun experience but ended with him not feeling much incentive for any follow-up collaborations with them.
Final panel at 4:00 before we had to hit the road: “Comics Memoirs” — a deep-dive work-process roundtable with insight into what it’s like to mine your own life’s story for graphic novel material.
Pictured left to right: moderator Tom Spurgeon, fine comics journalist and Executive Director of CXC itself; Emil Ferris, who at age 55 made her comics debut this year with the critically acclaimed My Favorite Thing is Monsters; Howard Cruse, whose 1995 Stuck Rubber Baby was probably one of the best-selling graphic novels by an “out” gay cartoonist in the 20th century (corrections are welccome on this); the aforementioned Mimi Pond, who once dallied in TV, including writing the very first episode of The Simpsons; and the equally aforementioned Derf, whose true story My Friend Dahmer was recently adapted into an indie film starring a former Disney teen as the titular serial killer who was once Derf’s high school classmate.
Both panels held their share of fascination for me. I didn’t take notes, just listened and absorbed and remained grateful for the opportunities to hear professionals speak at length and in depth. They tried recording both panels despite some technological struggles, in hopes that those could be posted online soon.
After the panel, I insisted we sneak back up to Dorkin and Dyer’s table for just one last purchase, promised that was it and no more, then put my wallet away and let us leave before I could spend again. To an extent it’s probably best for our household budget that not every “comic con” has the kind of stellar comics lineup that CXC offered.
Is this a good time to confess that the very first photo at the top of this entry was only half the stuff I bought?
And this was just our side of CXC, and just their Saturday. This doesn’t include the Saturday panels we missed, their full slate of Sunday panels, or the Thursday and Friday seminars and activities that were held at other Columbus institutions, or the three (!) consecutive nights of after-parties. CXC is more all-that than one mere comics fan’s writeup can possibly contain.
Thanks for reading! Here’s hoping for more CXC in our future, if Anne will let me after this.