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The Interview Issue: Comic Artist Jeff Smith

J.R. McMillan

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Starting in the pages of the Lantern, Jeff Smith’s comic series BONE will finally be coming to Netflix. It only took three decades.

Being at the right place at the right time is rare in any industry. Jeff Smith is the exception several times over.

An a able ambassador and native son of Columbus, Smith’s infatuation with illustration and storytelling emerged early and in equal measure, creating his first characters when he was five, which evolved into complete comics by the time he was 10. The Columbus College of Art & Design helped hone his craft, and the prototype for his acclaimed series BONE appeared in Ohio State’s student newspaper The Lantern at length. Just as independent comics were breaking into the mainstream, the self-published creator became both a folk hero and a rock star of the emerging scene, inspiring artists and earning industry accolades, including ten Eisners, essentially the comic world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

But there were also some setbacks just now being set right. A failed Nickelodeon effort to adapt BONE for television in the ‘90s, followed by a similarly stalled big-screen project by Warner Brothers, ironically paralleled the saga of Smith’s cartoon characters navigating a foreign landscape in an unforgiving world. But Smith took all of it in stride, and bided his time. This past October, Netflix announced the long- awaited animated series fans new and old had been long-denied, a project that just as easily may not have happened. Much like Smith’s history of impeccable timing, he seems to have arrived again at just the right moment in popular culture.

“I made a deal with Warner Brothers a decade ago, and they hadn’t done anything with it. They optioned it for two years, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction it was taking and didn’t want to renew. Then they purchased it outright and told me to sit on the sidelines,” Smith recalled. “But it was in the contract that if they didn’t make a movie within ten years, then the rights reverted back to me. So I had to wait. It was such an unpleasant experience, I decided I didn’t want to sell it again. But word got out and I started getting calls from streaming services and Netflix was the best match. That’s how it happened.”

Motion picture and television rights are esoteric legal devices that often give studios and networks the “option” to turn a story into a lm or series within a given span of time. They come with lots of conditions and fine print typically serving those purchasing them, but occasionally those selling them. It’s a way to buy time, but also ensure projects don’t stay idle indefinitely.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

BONE was really an early mashup, before that term existed, of comedy and swords and sorcery. It was Bugs Bunny meets Lord of the Rings. I think it’s got to be the comedy and the combination of characters that made it popular,” Smith said, speculating on the mystery behind the series’ somewhat unexpected success, even internationally. “BONE is published all over the world. It’s still weird to pick up one of my stories and see the characters speaking French. If I knew the secret, I’d do it again.” A decade ago, Netflix was mostly dropping DVDs in the mail and was producing zero original content. A year later marked the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a television adaptation that was so dicey at the time, they only gave the first season six episodes. Now Net ix accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in the U.S. on Sunday night, and The Walking Dead draws more viewers than all Sunday NFL games combined.

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“The real problem we had with Warner Brothers was making a 1,500-page book into an hour and a half movie. It couldn’t be done, so it didn’t get done,” he said. “But a streaming animated show was perfect; it’s just like the comic book. It’s serialized and can progress chapter by chapter. It was the right time, and the right company.”

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service clamoring for content, and it’s easy to forget House of Cards, their first original series, only premiered in 2013. With Amazon Prime and Hulu well- established, and Disney and Apple both investing heavily in production for their own freshly-minted subscription services, Smith again seemed to capture the right moment to reach the right audience, all while maintaining the artistic integrity of BONE.

“We’re still looking for showrunners. If everything goes well, we’re hoping to have shows in the fall of 2022. I’ll be a creator on the show and an executive producer, but it’s really just one more project,” Smith noted. “I still want to draw comics. I don’t need to be out there the whole time. Once the show is up and running, I can work here.”

As if BONE alone weren’t a sufficient source of inspiration for veteran and aspiring comic artists, Smith is also a founder and the artistic director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), an annual, and increasingly international, celebration of the city’s commitment to illustrated storytellers across every genre and format. But even before CXC, Columbus was arguably already a comic town. From esteemed exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Wexner Center to nationally renowned institutions like the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and Thurber House, our city has always recognized comics as art worth appreciating as much as any medium of creative expression.

“The idea behind CXC was that it would be more like a European show and not be all in one room at a convention center or hotel. It would be at different venues throughout the city. But it would also be a show that was more collegial, that would nurture comic creators and encourage connections,” he explained. “When I grew up here, there were neighborhoods in Columbus where you wouldn’t go at night. Now we’re a chef-driven town with galleries everywhere. We’re a cultural crossroads. It’s why we wanted to have events all over town, to showcase the city. And it’s working. People will go to an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, then go to an event at OSU and stop in the Short North along the way, grab a bite to eat and talk about comics.”

Even as he prepares for the production of BONE the streaming series and the sixth year of CXC, Smith sees the similarities in both projects and the role he plays—getting the right balance of characters working toward the same goal and creating a story that compels audiences to return.

“You have to start each with a recap, so everyone knows the story so far. Tell your new episode, then end it with a cliff hanger,” Smith explained. “That’s the secret to any serial, whether it’s a comic, a television show, or a convention. You have to give people a reason to come back for more.”

To learn more about BONE and Smith’s other work, visit boneville.com.

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Arts & Culture

Elijah Banks brings his worldview back to Columbus through new album

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Near the end of “Tunes in My Room,” a song by local rapper Elijah Banks, samples of a affirmations from social media personality Amber Wagner kick in. “You are still surrounded by an abundance of love, you have joy around you, God is with you,” Wagner passionately evokes. “You gon’ be alright.” Though Banks proclaims sophomore album Spin as a love story, much like Wagner’s declaration, through nine tracks filled with soulful aptitude, Banks finds that self-love is the ultimate destination.

“On my first album [Progress, Not Perfection], I wanted to show people all the different routes that I could take,” Banks said. “Over time, I’ve realized that my true roots lie in what makes people feel good, [which is] self-love; that’s what this album is about. When you start loving yourself, you are forced to recognize and notice what isn’t for you.”

Born into a military family, Banks drew different perspectives of music through his upbringing in Germany, New Jersey and Atlanta before ultimately settling in Ohio. Being in the midst of trap-rap culture during his time in Atlanta, he says that if you’re looking for hollow autotuned rap, Spin probably won’t be the ideal soundscape. In fact, not fitting into mainstream standards is helping Banks weed out who his music isn’t for.

“At first, I wanted to aim for a more pop-driven record that could get lots of spins on radio and push myself out more in a regional manner,” he said. “Each song showcases a situation right before it spins out of control.”

Yet, Spin doesn’t sound as chaotic as Banks seems to lead on. In fact, it’s quite relatable, with intricate spoken word amidst a gentle piano (“Kev’s Interlude”), the all-too- common frustrations of working a full-time gig (“4 AM”), and anxiously wading through mall crowds (“Zooming Thru”). With an emotive songwriting process, Banks shares that his ideas are often spur-of-the-moment and generally based on production.

“Sometimes I’ll roll through 20 to 30 beats a day until I find one that matches my mood. Once I choose the beat that I like, I generally work on the rhythm and tones that I want to get across. Then, the focus on the lyrics comes,” Banks says. “I try to talk through relatable subjects with a pop culture modern twist. If you listen to “Zooming Thru,” the song is about my card getting declined at a high fashion store. I like to play with eye catching themes and turn them into great songs.”

While a remainder of songs that didn’t make the cut on Spin will be featured on an impending project titled Elijah Banks & Friends, the rapper values collaborating with fellow Columbus-based artists to stay grounded. Part of 14-member collective Rawest4mation, a group of artists that uplift community arts culture, Banks aspires to one day run an indie label.

With a structural team in place, Banks credits Spin executive producer Kevin Kesicki with piano instrumentation and the cohesive flow of the album, alongside DJ B Redi, Banks’ official DJ. With plans of one day throwing niche cultural events, Banks hopes to eventually test his walk on the runway, having previously modeled for local streetwear brand Good Behavior. Nearly two years after making a splash at Breakaway Festival, Banks is preparing to showcase his diverse instrumentation and creative material at his next show on Valentine’s Day in New York City, backed by his band The Balance. Though his music is leading Banks to spaces outside of Columbus, he says that these performances would be nearly impossible without hometown support.

“I asked myself at the end of last year what [2020] holds for me,” he said. “Many people say [Columbus doesn’t] have talent but honestly, I truly believe you have everything you need for the things to bubble, minus one thing: We need to cross support and take our consumers seriously.”

Though 2020 has just started, with an intentional feel-good sound on Spin, Banks has his sights set on finishing the year more consistent than he’s begun. It’ll be exciting to hear.

Elijah Banks’ music is available on Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @elijahwonbanks and Instagram @elijahbanksmusic.

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Christine Abbott: Phoenix Rising Printmaking Cooperative

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In the art world, there’s a commonly held misconception that the best work deals exclusively with the biggest and most define able topics: love, death, and thought.

Printmaker Christine Abbott debunks this idea with her recent work in “Visible Ink”, a group show featuring members of the Phoenix Rising Printmaking Cooperative, now on display at the OSU Faculty Club. Abbott’s quiet, often formal work depicts lush, flattened interior scenes without people. While they depict everyday scenes, they somehow keep us coming back for more, to explore the delicate coloring and formal layers of each piece, or to ruminate on the idea of house and home.


CHRISTINE D’EPIRO ABBOTT WOVEN SILKSCREEN (Photos by Amy Glass)

Phoenix Rising, which has been active in Columbus for more than 20 years, offers members printmaking materials and equipment to create with. The non-profit organization also holds printmaking workshops for the Columbus community, as well as one-on-one lessons, making it a resource for artists of all skill levels

(614) sat down with Abbott to discuss her recent work and what it’s like as an active member of a printmaking co-op.

Can you start by talking about your own work in the show?

2017 marked a return to printmaking for me, but the imagery for this series, the interior scenes that are in “Visible Ink” actually started in St. Louis [after Abbott completed an MFA program at Washington University].

The year that I lived in St. Louis, I lived in a carriage house and cleaned [the owner’s] home in exchange for living over their garage in a nice part of town. So I got to know the family pretty well, and obviously cleaned their house frequently. I found that being in the same space daily inspired me to explore those spaces in my own work. And so when I had kids and was at home all the time, your home is a metaphor in a lot of ways; there are so many layers of meaning.

What do you want people to take from your work in the show?

My goal as an artist when I make work is to create an entry point where anyone can connect with it. The cookies are kind of on the shelf, if you will, but the more time you spend with the imagery and the body of work, the more you discover and engage with.

For me, I want an immediate entry point, I want something to grab me right away, but then I also want there to be more compiled than that. It’s a balancing act, but it’s an intuitive one.

You use silk-screen for one of your pieces in the show. What attracted you to working in that format?

First of all, it’s great for color, and the formal qualities of my work are really important to me.

Also, there’s a physicality to screen printing that I love. With silk- screening you’re working with a squeegee, and the paint is thick. It’s like yogurt. The whole time you’ve got this goopy ink and you’re trying to get something that’s slick and at to even out. But what that means is that the bigger the piece you’re working on, the bigger the squeegee you use, and the more physical it becomes.

Screen printing has this incredibly rich history as well, but it’s not something people always understand is a part of their everyday life as well. It creates the shirts we wear, the signage we see all the time.

Visible Ink is a group show, which is a pretty unique format. How does that work?

There are just over 30 pieces from 17 different artists. Part of the advantage of being a Phoenix Rising member is that you’re working side by side with great artists like Anne Cushman, and you can pitch a group show. Before I became a member they had a show at the Zanesville Museum of Art, and it’s really great for that as a part of what you’re doing professionally.

How else has being part of a co-op benefitted your work and practice?

First of all, there’s a natural flow of ideas between co-op members. You can get feedback on your work and technical help too. Plus, you’re exhibiting your work with other people, so you’re naturally developing relationships as you show together and work together. I think it’s very organic.

If I were to move to another city, it’s definitely something I would do. I used to rent a studio space and while that was helpful, it’s not as relationship building as being part of a cooperative. I tell this to my students; I encourage them if they ever move to a city, I’d join a co-op for the professional association and the opportunity to exhibit under the group name as well.

Another reason why I like print- making co-op is the fact that you work with shared gear and equipment. Most people don’t own their own printmaking press; they’re heavy and costly. That collaboration is part of image making; it’s part of printmaking.

Visible Ink, the Phoenix Rising Printmaking Cooperative’s group exhibition, is on display at the OSU Faculty Club, 181 S Oval Drive, through February 21. To learn more, visit phoenixrisingprintmaking.org.

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The Interview Issue: Author Saeed Jones

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Saeed Jones has traveled across the country promoting his new memoir and chosen Columbus for his own next chapter.

Author and new Columbus transplant Saeed Jones finally has a break after wrapping up his 16-city tour to promote his new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. It’s a book that isn’t solely about his past, but is designed as an earnest conversation with readers. The book succeeds Jones’ previous poetry collections and a stint as Executive Editor of Culture at BuzzFeed, and is already receiving numerous honors and highly- publicized acclaim.

“It took a long time to write the book, almost a decade. So, I had a lot of time to think about writing it [being] one thing, but when you publish it, it becomes something different. I tried not to think so much about other people and the audience, but I think I trusted that if I could write to myself sincerely [and] candidly, that would be a bridge for other people,” he said. “It’s like you’re encountering someone when they just had a transformative experience. Something that’s really important for me in my writing is the cost of silence and the ways we silence ourselves. I think it’s powerful—as a writer, with the fortune I’ve had in my career—for people to be like, ‘I’m going through it’, and for me to be one more person who goes, ‘Me too.’”

Though some authors intend to tell their stories later in life, Jones wanted to focus his story on the time period from his upbringing in Texas through his mid-twenties to capture a specific ethos that informed his narrative. Concerned that segments of his life would become deemed irrelevant to readers, he found the immediacy of the news sparked him to publish the book sooner than later. Soon after Jones considered writing in detail about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which shifted the LGBTQ+ conversation, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred.

“Whenever I would get a little hard on myself about the book’s intentions, it felt like America would go, ‘We gotta do this now,’” Jones said. ”Everything’s not perfect but a lot has changed from 1998. [While writing,] I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be a perfect book, but it’s gonna be the book that I want and need now.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After his mother’s passing in 2011, Jones is attentive to their relationship in How We Fight for Our Lives, endearingly dedicating the book to her even after a moment of uncertainty that occurred when he came out. In spite of having a vibrant relationship with his mother, Jones jokes that the two weren’t able to naturally discuss sexuality. Promoting the memoir before Thanksgiving, Jones mentions that some LGBTQ+ readers confided in him about their own awkward conversations with family.

“Sure, it’s important for us to write about clear and present danger, whether that’s police brutality, homophobic or racially-driven violence, [but] I think that it’s also important for us to pay attention to the more subtle hurts that come to define us. Sometimes those hurts are a result of failings; loved ones who just can’t support us because they’re like ‘I don’t get it’ and they kind of give up,” he said. “My mom was working two jobs, so a lot of times she was just tired. She was like, ‘Sorry, we can’t have a heartfelt conversation today, I gotta go to my second job.’ That had an impact on me, and I know that has an impact on a lot of other people in those moments. In any meaningful, long-lasting relationships—certainly family relationships—it is going to be complicated. If you don’t have multiple colors in how you’re thinking about that relationship, the truth is that something is being deadened, something is being intentionally or unintentionally ignored or silenced.”

An avid reader of works by Margaret Atwood and Audre Lorde, Jones recognizes a similar urgency from his memoir through his influence James Baldwin, admitting to reading his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room repeatedly, revisiting it at different points of his life to gain a new perspective. Identifying with different characters each time, Jones focused essentially on Baldwin’s deconstruction of queerness and social dynamics, which intersected American politics with racial identity. “[Baldwin] wasn’t going to pretend that there was this monolithic Blackness. He wasn’t just going to pretend that there weren’t Black men—who he was advocating for in terms of civil rights— who weren’t homophobic. He was like ‘We’re gonna do all this together’” Jones said. “He’s drawing from his background in Christianity, but he’s changed; he’s not practicing his faith in the same way. He [was] just doing a very good job of showing how we’re in flux and that it’s natural and better to embrace that. I feel like that set me up to start paying attention.”

Habitually enthusiastic about settling in Columbus (or what he calls “the promised land”), Jones speaks gleefully about The Great Migration and Ohio boasting essential Black authors—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacqueline Woodson, Hanif Abdurraqib and Toni Morrison. While he notes that Black authors have thrived

in Ohio through a formidable writing scene, in How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones touches keenly on the fragility of Black life. Days prior to our conversation marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Julius Tate, who was shot by Columbus police during a sting operation.

“If we’re able to villainize people we have wronged—and Julius was certainly wronged—it eases the rhetoric of brushing the wrong aside,” Jones said. “It happens so often and so much of our culture grooms all of us to move on. I’m not the one to say what justice for Julius and for Black people impacted by that violence looks like, but I would love to hear it. I have no interest in telling people to be quiet. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about editing and revision, and how you polish and the drafts you don’t want people to see. Cities are text, too.”

While Columbus continues to be a work in progress through systematic tensions, Jones is embracing the city’s tangible LGBTQ+ scene after residing in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In support of the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, he attended the Columbus March for Black Trans Women in November, where he felt a sense of cohesiveness within the city. “I feel like the march was a great example of waking me up—unsurprisingly, it’s easier for cisgender gay men to live and feel embraced here than Black trans women in Columbus,” Jones said. “The stakes are high, but it feels possible. Here it feels like, ‘start reading up, go to that march, talk to people,’ as opposed to ‘here’s the finished story.’”

With a story far from over, Jones reveals that his next life work is to write about joy to balance the scales with his past struggle within How We Fight for Our Lives. Avidly writing about pain and loss, he vows to dabble into more written frameworks outside of his comfort zone. “I feel like I’ve written about myself so damn much, maybe learning to write in other forms—fiction—would be fun. I want to learn more, I feel that’s when I’m most alive, when I’m learning and realizing that I’m learning,” he said. “That’s when I feel fully present as a person, not when I think I know the beginning, middle and end.”

Follow Saeed Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @theferocity.

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