I returned this past week from the inaugural year of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) in Columbus, Ohio. The event has very deliberately patterned itself after the European festival model—with a bit of Toronto’s well-respected TCAF thrown in for good measure—rather than the traditional U.S. comics event model. Unlike most domestic comics conventions (and unlike even such “indie” comics events as Bethesda, MD’s Small Press Expo), CXC is a multi-venue event that places significant focus on elements other than selling books on a show floor.
I was one of the thirty exhibitors who were accepted to the show. As an exhibitor rather than a guest (guests being folks like Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Kate Beaton, etc.) I really only needed to be there for Saturday, the day of the show where people set up at the Cultural Arts Center to sell books. Friday was a day exclusively for speaking events and workshops, but these events were a significant enough draw that I left Thursday night after dinner and stayed the night in West Virginia so I could get up early and get into Columbus in time to catch Friday’s events.
For some reason, this person checking into the downtown Sheraton brought breakfast food instead of luggage.
Friday’s events were all at the OSU campus and I rolled into town right in the middle of Lalo Alcaraz’s presentation. It was completely full, but I managed to get into the next two presentations, by Katie Skelly and Dylan Horrocks. Both were great. It’s worth noting that these talks were “Talk and Teach” presentations, specifically geared toward other comics-makers. This is an element of CXC that you’ll find pretty much nowhere else. (More on this later.)
Between the Talk and Teach and the evening “Special Presentations” there was a tour of the Billy Ireland Library facilities. There was some truly mind-blowing stuff to see on this tour and it was easily the highlight of CXC for me. If you’ve been to the Billy Ireland, or even just poked around their website, you know that they’ve got a stunning collection of original art, but you really don’t get a sense of the scale of things like you do walking through all 30,000 square feet of the facility. For copyright reasons, you’re not allowed to publish pictures of the art itself, but here’re a few pics from the tour:
Outside the Billy Ireland.
Hanging in the main office: these are all printers plates of old newspaper comic strips.
Tons of original artwork set up for people on the tour to view.
In the bowels of the facility. These sliding shelves are full of books/graphic novels. The flat files behind are full of original art.
The most valuable art is kept in a combo-locked weapons locker. The Bill Watterson originals are kept in here, among other things.
A shelf full of weekly manga magazines–a rare sight in the West.
A box full of cut out and mounted Wash Tubbs strips originally from Bill Blackbeard.
OK, what the heck… So here’s one pic of some original art. A Bill Peet-drawn storyboard from Alice in Wonderland (!!).
The only Saturday event I attended was the Bill Griffith presentation. I’ll admit to not knowing Griffith’s work very well, but the presentation was interesting and he received the first of several festival awards that were given out over the course of the weekend.
Bill Griffith receiving his award. As Art Spiegelman mentioned later when he received his, from afar they look a lot like a single silicon breast implant.
On Saturday, the festival changed venues to the Cultural Arts Center downtown (for the exhibition portion of the show) and the Columbus College of Art and Design (for closing Spiegelman/Mouly talk).
People at the exhibition portion of the show.
I’ll be blunt about the expo portion: my sales were not great. If I had to speculate, I’d say this was probably the result of two things. First: Oyster War was pretty much the main thing I was selling and it’s a relatively high-dollar item at $25.00. Second: this being the show’s first year, I think a lot of people were there in “just checking things out” mode—which isn’t totally unexpected.
It’s entirely possible that other people did much better than I sales-wise. The Lumberjanes folks who were at the table beside me, for example, came with stacks of individual issues and sold through a most of them.
After an initial hour without a single book sale, I dug through my old stock and put out some Animal Alphabet post card sets for $5 and those started to sell, further enforcing my thought that Oyster War’s $25 price tag was probably the culprit.
For comparison’s sake (and to put in the most unpleasantly mercenary terms) at CXC, I pulled in around $57 per show hour, whereas at SPX two weeks prior I brought in $140 per show hour. If CXC had been a usual “just show up and sell stuff” show, I’d have been pretty disappointed by these sales, but given the nature of the show, it didn’t really bother me that much (more on that later as well).
I gave a copy of Oyster War to Art Spiegelman.
Art Spiegelman very graciously gave me this copy of Flop to the Top. It’s fantastic, by the way!
Saturday evening’s closing event was a Jeff Smith-moderated talk with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly about RAW Magazine that took place at CCAD. The event was completely packed and I wound up sitting on the floor. Smith was a solid moderator and they wound up going over some early RAW history that I wasn’t familiar with–and I’ve seen Spiegelman speak several times before.
On both Friday and Saturday nights there were show-organized events after the festival at local bars. I really enjoyed this aspect of the show and wanted to single it out here as a definite CXC strong point. I was discussing the show afterwards with some of the other exhibitors I was palling around with in the evenings and we all agreed that it was great to have a show with built-in socializing time where you could talk with other cartoonists beyond the usual “how did the show go for you” chatter.
A Multi-Venue Festival
As mentioned, CXC is spread over a number of different venues in Columbus. One nice result of this is that you don’t have that “three days trapped in a hotel” feeling that you can sometimes get with events like SPX. Also: in addition to the obvious comics-related appeal, Columbus seems to have a lot of good spots for food and drink, interesting cultural institutions, etc.
On the other hand, getting around can be difficult. Columbus reminds me of a smaller, mid-western version of Atlanta: there are lots of cool spots with great stuff to do, but those spots are all well out of walking range from one another. Columbus is definitely a “car town” and I don’t think you’d really be able to do CXC without a car–or without someone else at the show having a car that you could tag along with. Exacerbating the situation is parking, which can be difficult and ranges from expensive to incredibly expensive. It was actually cheaper for me to pay for valet parking at my downtown hotel than it would have been to park and re-park in public lots as I came and went from venue to venue for the show.
That said, I did have my car and I was able to get around fairly well. Uber was a real god-send for the various after-festival events. Most rides I took were in the four to seven dollar range and even a ride back to the hotel from the bar during peak hours on Saturday night was maybe $12.00.
For an inaugural year event with a fairly complex multi-venue event schedule, I thought things ran quite smoothly. There were no big obvious SNAFUs at any event I observed and the given the large number of participating institutions (CXC itself, Billy Ireland, Sol-Con, CCAD, etc.) everything seemed to be humming right along.
I will say that I had to do a dedicated sit-down the week before the show in order to sort out what was going on where and what events I wanted to attend vs. needed to be at. I’d 100% chalk this mainly up to my being used to the relative simplicity of single venue/single focus events like SPX, not to anything on the festival’s end. That said though, there were definitely a lot of show emails/documents about a ton of different things flying around and it could be hard to sort through, especially on the heels of SPX, which a lot of exhibitors (and a few guests) had likely just returned from. I had a phone conversation with a cartoonist friend a few days before the show just trying to sort out when and where he was supposed to be–and he didn’t realize until our phone conversation that the exhibition portion of the show was only on Saturday and he didn’t need to be there Friday.
Would I Go Back?
“Will you apply to exhibit next year?” is a moot question for me since I don’t table at shows unless I have a new book to sell and I won’t have another new book for a while. More generally, though:
I would definitely like to return to CXC. In a nutshell: everything except actual book sales on Saturday was 100% fabulous. And here’s the thing: book sales is pretty much the one element of the show that the CXC organizers can’t control. All the rest of the stuff–the stuff that they could control–was fantastic and seems poised to get even better as the show expands to four days next year.
Here’s what I’d love to see happen at CXC:
I’ve groused for years that comics doesn’t have an event that’s oriented toward comics industry professionals and aspiring professionals. I’d love to see CXC become that event–a “conference” in the way that other professions have yearly conferences that are professional gatherings geared toward professional development rather than toward retailing to the general public. The Billy Ireland is already a big draw for anyone practicing comics-making and CXC elements like the Talk and Teach sessions and the “Business of Comics” programming are clearly geared toward practicing cartoonists. I’d love to see more of that kind of thing, with maybe even some more nuts and bolts craft workshops about drawing, inking, software, etc.
I also would love to see more opportunities for interaction between the bigger name guests and the exhibitors and attendees. This year it almost seemed like the guests were part of one event and the exhibitors part of a different event and the two just happened to overlap every once in a while. Even the after-festival events seemed to be segregated this way. I’ve seen the positive value of having an established professional cartoonist do hands-on work with students in a classroom; I think you would see those same results with some sort of hands-on mentoring/workshop opportunity in a festival situation. More interaction like this might also put CSX in the amiable position of being a “generational ambassador,” bringing into contact the disparate groups of comics folks who never seem to really interact much, even when they’re all lumped together in the same place, as with SPX.
If turns out to be a direction the show goes, I think it’d be worth having some sort of attendee status specifically for working cartoonists who want to attend workshops, library tours, after-events, etc. but are neither guests nor exhibitors. Whatever the case, I’m fairly certain I’ll return to CXC.