As a geographic midpoint, Columbus has never quite matched the marketing moniker of Midwest. We’re too far east of the prairie pedigree of Omaha, yet still too far west to quite compete with the urban grit of Pittsburgh, or even our rust belt cousins in Cleveland.
But as an approachable nexus where ideas and innovation cross paths comfortably, free from the egos of the coasts, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to launch something new. That’s why Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, or CXC, makes so much sense for a city never afraid to invest in the next creative frontier.
“Comics aren’t only about superheroes. They’re about everything. I think most folks will be surprised by the depth and variety,” explained Jeff Smith, acclaimed creator of BONE, ambassador of comic street cred, and president of CXC. “These things go back to the beginning of the last century, and include silent animations, game-changing editorial cartoons, and the birth of some of our most iconic characters.”
Point of fact, it actually was a couple of guys from Ohio who created Superman. But cult legends R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar also forged their distinctive styles here. Maybe we aren’t exactly the middle of the country. But Ohio’s impact on the art form is undeniable, and perhaps Columbus deserves to become its unofficial center?
The four-day festival started with the ambitious agenda of becoming the South by Southwest of illustrated storytelling. Now four years in with events throughout Columbus connecting historic context and cutting edge content, CXC continues to evolve by honoring industry veterans and celebrating emerging artists often outside the mainstream.
“Most of the institutions involved were already bringing in world-class cartoonists in multiple disciplines, like graphic novels, comic strips, and animation,” Smith noted. “When you visit some of our exhibits and venues, you will meet cartoonists who animate feature films and indie films. You’ll meet established artists and the best of the new.”
Event locations fall into two enclaves, with downtown activities at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus College of Art & Design, and the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, as well as those at Ohio State, including the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, and Hale Hall, which hosts SÕL-CON, an expo featuring Latino and African-American artists expanding the genre.
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One of those new voices is Ohio native Travis Horseman, whose acting background and stage experience aren’t the traditional résumé of a graphic novelist.
“Until I started about five years ago, I was largely unaware of the vibrant comic creator community in Columbus,” admitted Horseman, a first time exhibitor joining more than a hundred fellow artists also invited to share their work at CXC. “Luckily, there were people willing to show me the ropes. That how I first learned about Cartoon Crossroads.”
His first project, Amiculus: A Secret History, is set during the fall of the Roman Empire and garnered critical comparisons to Game of Thrones for its sophisticated plotlines and complex characters. The trilogy was funded through Kickstarter, an increasingly popular platform for first-time comic artists. But the project actually grew out of Horseman’s alter ego as an actor.
“I tried several different formats before settling on a graphic novel. I’m a very visual storyteller and the medium just seemed to work better for my ideas,” he noted. “I see the images that bring my characters to life as I write.”
Graphic novels share the same cinematic style as film and television, but aren’t limited by cumbersome and costly digital and practical effects. Shot blocking and storyboards are akin to comic book panels, and the right artist with the right tools can create content every bit as stunning as a big budget feature.
“Amiculus started out as a short play, then a short story. I’d always been a fan of comics and decided thinking about it as one might help with some of my writers block,” he recalled. “My 32-page short story quickly grew to 240 pages. But by then, it wasn’t just a novel. It was a story that deserved to be a graphic novel.”
Already connected to the local theater scene, he knew the expertise he needed was probably hiding in plain sight amongst the local comic community. Horseman admits he was essentially starting from scratch. But he was fortunate to find guides to put him on the right path, eventually leading to a spot at CXC.
“It’s a tough ticket to get. There are always more applicants than tables for exhibitors,” he revealed. “I’ve been part of other creative communities, but I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a more supportive one. There isn’t a mix of artists and creators anywhere in the country quite like it.”
His current project is also crowd funded, with a campaign cleverly scheduled to run concurrently with CXC. This new saga still has an unlikely setting, but with a contemporary timeline about a forgotten chapter of American history much closer to home.
“Sugar Creek is unfamiliar territory as our first horror book,” he explained. With the true story of a post-colonial conflict in 1791 that wiped out a quarter of the nation’s new army in a single battle as the backdrop, the bloody footnote takes an even darker turn. “I’ve been describing it as our Ohio project because it’s not just set in Ohio. Everyone working on it is from Ohio.”
More than a trade show or fan experience, CXC was initially modeled after Smith’s own travels as an artist to American and international comic conventions that focus on creating connections as well. But fostering that local spirit of collaboration extends beyond the individual artists and permeates the entire event and the city that surroundings it.
“People enjoy working together here,” explained Smith. “The ease with which private and public institutions work together is exactly why a celebration like Cartoon Crossroads Columbus can take place.”
For details on Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, visit cartooncrossroadscolumbus.com.