Columbus, Comics Frontier

S.P.A.C.E is the place to see your next indie ink superstars.

Perhaps may you’ve noticed comics are having a bit of a moment—a moment that has lasted more than a decade now.

Alison Bechdel is a household name, the Marvel storyline is dominating multiplexes year round, and a new Star Wars can’t come out without multiple tangential graphic novels accompanying it. A nerd like me can walk out of the Columbus Metropolitan Library with 20 different graphic titles a week and still come back to find new, unread books. Columbus has become legitimate cultural center for the artform, with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at OSU and a thriving convention scene.

While mainstream exposure grows, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo, or S.P.A.C.E., gives a voice to those indie upstarts that don’t have the benefit of the national spotlight. It’s “the Midwest’s longest running exhibition of small press, creator-owned art comics, and Columbus’s longest locally owned and operated COMICS show of any kind.” At S.P.A.C.E. you’re likely to find hand stapled mini-comics, monster coloring books, small press glossy serials, or hand painted fine art, all alongside the typical offerings of a big comic convention. This was all the brainchild of our hero, Bob Corby, who took time out of his schedule to answer some of my questions.

You guys have been successfully championing small press comics for about three decades. Can you share some of the hurdles you’ve had to jump to get to the point of having a (in my view) well-attended, popular, and respected indie expo? Along those same lines, what are some of the things that made it easy? 

Originally just to get people to understand what we were doing was the biggest hurdle. Everybody’s frame of reference locally were the big pop culture cons and superheroes. In 2000, only a few people knew what a graphic novel was—let alone a mini-comic. It was difficult to convince people that those black and white comics and mini-comics contained a wide variety of work that you wouldn’t  see coming out of the large corporate comic companies.

One of the biggest obstacles over the years has been finding inexpensive and attentive venues. We are currently at our fifth location. To find enough space to house 150 to 200 exhibitors has been an ongoing problem. Currently the only source of income for the show is the exhibitor table fees and some sponsorships. We try to keep the table costs low and affordable for the exhibitors because most of them are operating on tight budgets. So that limits the possibilities. Any location large enough downtown or on campus is more than our entire operating budget for just one day.  We’re lucky right now to be working with the Northland Performing Arts Center who have been our home for the last five years. They are really dedicated to making everything work.

Besides NPAC some of the things that have helped us continue are all the loyal exhibitors who have continued to return and provide a lot of support for the show even through some of those rough early years.

Can you talk about the early days, before big comic characters had pretty much taken over the multiplex? Before The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and the academic recognition, when the only way to find indie comics in Columbus was Monkey’s Retreat? I want to know about the ardent supporters from the start.

I remember one of the first years a newspaper reporter called me for an interview and led in with “I bet you’re excited for this weekend?” I said, ”What do you mean? The show isn’t for a month.” He said “The new Superman movie.” I told him I didn’t even realize there was a Superman movie coming out, which completely threw him off from there. I guess the biggest supporters from early on has been the exhibitors who were originally from my small press days of trading mini-comics through the mail. They were the first group to sign up for the show, along with the local comic producers I meet at the old Mid-Ohio Con. The Laughing Ogre has always been a great supporter of the show. All of them were willing to give it another shot after the first disaster of a show. The Monkey’s Retreat and Packrat comics have also helped out.

Comics have become nearly omnipresent in pop culture. It’s almost impossible to go to the movie theaters without a choice of a movie that had its start in comics. I know plenty of exhibitors have moved on to more mainstream work—any names you’re particularly proud of working with from past years at S.P.A.C.E.?

Three people do come to mind right off the bat. Carol Tyler gave us a peek at something she was working on back in 2007 which at the time was called Sepia Tomes which later developed into her Eisner award winning graphic novel, A Soldier’s Heart. We also had the first look at Nate Powell’s art for March Book Two before anybody else in 2014. March is a trilogy of graphic novels chronicling Representative Jon Lewis’s days in the Civil Rights Movement. I also sat on a panel about comic anthologies with Matt Dembicki, where he talked about his project, Trickster, which is a collection of Native American tales and led to him editing a number of anthologies. We’ve also played host to a number of great cartoonists like Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison), Paul Hornschemeier (Mother Come Home), Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War, The Wrenchies), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), Ed Piskor (Hip-Hop Family Tree) and Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer). I guess there have been some that found their way to mainstream, but I’m thrilled that the majority of success stories have stayed true to their own voices.

Can you elaborate a little on how the first show was a “disaster?” How it has turned into a success from your point of view?

The first show was a disaster because we had about 36 exhibitors and about that many people through the door. I kind of gauge success by bringing people into the show. Our attendance has slowly increased over the years. Since we don’t charge admission anymore it’s hard to know exactly how many people show up. My estimate for last year is about 600. We don’t have large numbers but the crowd that shows up seems to be really interested in the work there and not just showing up to see some big name and leave.

Do you have any dream exhibitors? Like, who would be that one artist or writer that, if they showed up to table, you could close the book and say you hit the apex? 

Well the guy I’d really like to see is Neil Gaiman. Some others are Bryan Talbot (Grandville), Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet), Matt Wagner (Grendel, Mage), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Motor Girl), and I would love to see Carla McNeil back. Since we don’t really pay for guests, those probably won’t happen.