Cleveland, OH scene report
by Kevin Czap
Despite a less-than-inspiring reputation, or maybe because of it, the past several years have seen a growing number of dedicated Clevelanders building a rich arts culture across all disciplines - design, music, the gallery scene, culinary arts. The comics scene in particular is at the very early stages of this same kind of growth. While there's always been local comics activity, it's tended to be fairly isolated. Now, however, we're seeing concerted efforts to bring these cartoonists together, pooling our efforts to foster a thriving community. This was all put in motion by the establishment of the Genghis Con, a one-day expo focusing on underground and independent publishers, cartoonists and zinesters. The con was founded by Scott Rudge, owner of Astound! comics shop, and John G, the godfather of the Cleveland comics scene. Free to exhibitors and with a low door price for attendees, Genghis Con represents the current state of Cleveland comics. (November 26, 2011 will be the third annual! Come on out!)
Cleveland's a town with a rich comics history, with a host of significant figures calling it home through the years ó Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (not to mention Joanne Siegel), Robert Crumb (briefly), Peter Kuper, Brian Michael Bendis. Personal heroes Bill Watterson and Harvey Pekar (we're working on getting a statue built) are/were lifers. But what is the Cleveland comics scene of the moment? Well, I mentioned John G, who for years was putting out comics like the anthology Shiner, co-edited with Kevin Fagan. John's work is an indelible part of Cleveland's visual identity, focusing on poster illustrations for countless rock shows and the popular grilled cheese restaurant Melt, as well as extensive illustration work for the alt weekly Scene magazine.
Similarly, we've got Jake Kelly, whose Crosston was the first local comic I got here. Jake's also gone the gig poster route, as well as painting huge murals throughout the city. Other vets in the area include Gary Dumm and Greg Budgett, longtime contributors to American Splendor, and Derf, author of the alt-weekly fixture "The City" and childhood friend of Jeffrey Dahmer. I also mentioned Scott Rudge and Astound!, the best comic shop in town from an indie perspective. There aren't really any other stores where you can get hand-made comics in Cleveland, and believe me, I've looked. Carol & John's is another great shop, as well as the graphic-novel-friendly indie book stores Mac's Backs and Visible Voice.
And then there's the new kids. Centered largely around Cleveland Institute of Art students and alumni, there's been a fresh wave of talent flooding Cleveland's streets. For instance, Niki Smith, artist on the Zuda-winning digital comic In Maps & Legends, was recently awarded a huge grant from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture that funded a trip to China to research her graphic-novel-in-progress. Hardcore comics "nerd" Liz Valasco is still fresh from interning at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at OSU and is making work I'm especially excited about. One of the reasons I started the PUPPYTEETH anthology was to provide a showcase for Cleveland folks like these (as well as a number of other CIA expats). I've also been happy to have the opportunity to teach a community course on the art of comics at CIA.
There's plenty happening apart from CIA, as well. Keith Pakiz is continuing the Watterson visual tradition with his mad-cap Condiment Squad. (side-note: Keith is part of a group of promising cartoonists coming out of BGSU in Toledo. Although the majority live too far away to be considered Clevelanders, they're honorary members of the scene and I'd be remiss to not drop some names: Jessi Zabarsky, Eric Kubli, Geneva Hodgson being the most active). We've also got the Elyria Comic Book Initiative, which is on a mission to indoctrinate the children of Cleveland. It's encouraging to think that the next generation is already being formed.
And finally, Cleveland benefits greatly from its neighbors. Pittsburgh and Columbus are roughly equidistant to us (about a 2 hour drive), so it's really easy to share and learn from our sister cities.
That's where we are now, lots of activity just beginning to be brought together. One of the nice things about a "city of choice" like Cleveland is that the people living here do so because they want to. We're all committed to making a better community for ourselves, for neighboring scenes, and for the comics community at large. To paraphrase Ian MacKaye, we're putting Cleveland on the map.
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