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Pop Renaissance

Contributing columnist for monthly newspaper Short North Gazette
Jared Gardner teaches American literature, film and popular culture at the Ohio State University
Jared Gardner

This page contains articles from 2011 - follow links at left for 2009, 2010

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S.P.A.C.E. The Future of Comics Lies in Its Past

MARCH 2011

(C) Larry Blake

For those of us who love comics – and in the city of Columbus, capital of the state that has produced more cartoonists than any other, we are legion – these are uncertain times. Sequential comics have survived many changes of medium – from the illustrated magazines of the nineteenth century, the newspaper comics supplements of the early twentieth, the rise of the comic book in the 1940s, to the graphic novel at the end of the century. Rationally, there is no reason why comics won’t survive whatever is coming next. However, as traditional print undergoes its greatest challenges since the first Bible rolled off Gutenberg’s press almost six centuries ago, it is harder than ever to imagine not only what comics will look like in the future but how the industry will be constituted, how comics will be sold, how they will be read. As the comic strip disappears from the vanishing print newspaper, as the two major comic book companies (Marvel and DC) embrace to their new identities as subsidiaries of multi-national entertainment corporations (Disney and Time Warner), as comic book shops are closing in greater numbers than any time in recent years…. Well, as I said: uncertain times.

Fortunately, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo is here this month to remind us why in the end all of that does not truly matter – to redirect our attention away from the debates about webcomics, iPads, and superhero movies and back to where it truly belongs. On March 19 and 20 S.P.A.C.E will be hosting its 12th expo, bringing together local creators and out-of-town veterans of the self-publishing, alternative and small press world of comics. And for two days, people with pens and paper will be drawing, sharing, collaborating, selling and swapping their comics direct to their readers and their fellow creators. For two days, no one will be talking about Marvel, DC, the next superhero movie, or the iPad and the end of the comic shop. And I for one can’t wait.

S.P.A.C.E. is the brainchild of Bob Corby, growing out of his own experience, beginning in 1988, of sharing at the Mid-Ohio Con his Oh, Comics! anthology, featuring work by small press cartoonists from the area. Over the years to come, Corby says, the traditional comic conventions began to broaden their focus to include gaming, animation, toy collecting (and more recently, of course, television and Hollywood). The result was that comics began to be squeezed to the margins of their own conventions, and the self-published and small press cartoonists often had a harder and harder time getting a chance to share their work at all. S.P.A.C.E. was born, therefore, as an attempt to preserve a space where comics and their creators remain the focus.

As Corby puts it, despite all of the other changes happening to the comics industry in the early years of the 21st century, “small press and mini-comics probably isn’t going to change, since most mini-comics are done for fun and not for profit.” Even as more of these works move online in the coming years, the impulse remains the same as it was for those who put pen to paper in the 1950s and begged their bosses to let them mimeograph their own comics. Unlike, say, film, comics has always encouraged a do-it-yourself aesthetic, and the line between readers and creators has always been a fluid one. A visit to S.P.A.C.E. will no doubt spark in many comics readers the desire to go home and try making one of their own.

As first-time S.P.A.C.E. attendee and mini-comics pioneer Steve Willis points out, “the traditional comic industry publishers are finding their role as comic art gatekeepers and arbiters of style to be rapidly diminishing as technology makes it possible for independent comic artists to bypass them and create works entirely on their own terms while at the same time finding a good readership.” In fact, Willis suggests, while the future of comics might look strange and confusing to those in the industry, to those who have been making comics for love – and usually self-publishing and distributing – the future looks very bright indeed. “For us old Newavers in the 1970s and 1980s that technology was photocopy, and networking meant investing in a lot of postage,” Willis said. “Today the same artistic spirit is there, but the technological means of finding an audience is so much more powerful.”

Willis’s appearance at S.P.A.C.E. this year is an extremely rare convention appearance for him, and his decision to venture so far from his homebase in the Pacific Northwest testifies to what a rare experience this truly is. Among the other guests expected to be exhibiting at the expo are fellow mini-comics masters John Porcellino and Colin Upton, and Nate Powell, whose 2008 book Swallow Me Whole was showered with pretty much all the prizes the indie comics world has to shower.

Also returning this year will be Carol Tyler, one of the most influential autobiographical cartoonists of the last generation. (Tyler was just this past week nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize for the second volume in her trilogy about her father and World War II.) For Tyler, it is the opportunity to meet people and share work, ideas and best practices that has kept her coming back to S.P.A.C.E. But it is also a tremendous pedagogical experience for the students she brings with her from the University of Cincinnati where she teaches. At a table provided by Corby, Tyler’s students create mini-comics right there in the middle of the expo, feeding off the energy in the hall and the comments of those who stop to watch. “Out of all the things we do in my class,” Tyler told me, “my students rank S.P.A.C.E. as their Number #1 favorite thing we do.”

S.P.A.C.E. also attracts a wide range of local creators, many of whom find access to the traditional comic shops less willing, in what are for them very uncertain times, to take chances on self-published and small press work. As local comic writer James Moore put it, “The people who attend S.P.A.C.E. are our target audience; people who want to buy and read independent comics. As self-publishers it’s a great opportunity to get our work out in front of people who might never have otherwise seen it. More than any other show we’ve attended the audience has been genuinely curious about our books and want to discuss them.” And unlike selling comics through the Internet or at a comic shop, returning to S.P.A.C.E. provides Moore and his colleagues with a chance to chat with new and returning readers. “It’s a great feeling to talk about your work with someone, and they become interested enough to pick it up. I especially can’t wait to talk to all the folks who have already bought our books and stop by to give us feedback.”

Bruce Rosenberger and Steve Hager will be driving 7 ½ hours to share their comic about a young Pennsylvania Dutch detective for at least their seventh year in a row. Rosenberger didn’t need to wait for my question: “Why do I keep going back to S.P.A.C.E.? Because I love discovering new people, people that are doing something that’s far away from the mainstream, and the reason they do it is their love of the medium.”

As Art Spiegelman reminded his audience when he visited Columbus last fall, the future of comics lies in its past. This month’s S.P.A.C.E. gives us an opportunity to celebrate the future and the past of comics together. Comics are people who are compelled to tell stories using pictures and text in a form that requires engaged readers willing to work to help bring that story to life. All we need is pen and paper, and a little S.P.A.C.E.

Some valuable websites to track down information about the creators discussed in this article: Steve Willis:, John Porcellino, Colin Upton, Nate Powell, Carol Tyler, James Moore, and Bruce Rosenberger and Steve Hager

Jared Gardner teaches American literature, film and popular culture at the Ohio State University. He can be reached at

Best of My Favorites of 2010


This has been, by any measure I can come up with, a decidedly unremarkable year in popular culture, in television, popular music, video games, and comics (in movies, the decline has been going on so long it is hardly worth commenting on, and by now we’ve all stopped even asking whether there is popular theatre worth talking about). Even in fashion little has changed – the same Ugg boots and leggings – and we have only a handful of over-the-top spectacular spectacles to make us pause and take notice (Lady Gaga’s meat dress comes to mind). A generation from now, we’ll probably have a clearer picture why the first year of this decade saw a steep decline in original and exciting output. For now we are too close to come up with any but the most hysterical answers, apocalyptic jeremiads all too familiar in the 21st century (and all the more so during the Great Recession).

In the end, the answers for a bad year are probably local to different media, communities and industries within the vast network of popular culture. Fashion takes a holiday when people slow down their spending: this is not the time for radical new trends (witness the far-from-flashy trends of the early 1930s). Television has just come out of what is undeniably its period of greatest creative output in its sixty-odd year history, and that level was sure to take a breather. Popular music continues to wrestle with the Gordian knot of distribution in the digital age. No these are not End Times, but they are bad times for consumers and producers alike, and no one, it seems, is feeling especially poppy.
But it was not all bad by any means, and when it was good it was as good as ever.


The professional critics will tell you that the best show of the year is Breaking Bad, but for me it was another show on AMC that stole my heart this year – and then it ate my brains. I am talking, of course, about Walking Dead, which ran only six episodes late in the season but completely saved my year from the disappointment of Lost’s finale (did I actually confess that out loud?), my growing detachment from Mad Men, and the loss of Rubicon before it ever really started.

For those who haven’t given this zombie epic a chance, it is based on an ongoing serial comic by Robert Kirkman, a writer who understands that what is interesting about the zombie apocalypse is not the zombies (who are, by definition, fairly dull characters) but the survivors. Those who watched the first couple of episodes with me had to put up with endless complaints and gripes of the usual fanboy nature: “That’s not in the comic! Too many zombies! Walking Dead is not about zombies!” And then, everything clicked, not by slavishly following the comic from which it is adapted, but by fully and completely becoming its own series about its own community of remarkable and heartbreaking characters. By the finale, I no longer cared that the show wasn’t following the comic at all. Think of it as Lost with zombies (with just a touch of Six Feet Under).


2009 was a remarkably experimental and innovative year in pop music. 2010 was a year for cautious follow-up albums and bankable, safe hits. But there were some great albums nonetheless, including the National’s High Violet, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening – all of which might well be the best these bands have made thus far. And there was a surprisingly exciting bit of noise from newcomers Sleigh Bells, which I keep telling myself I should not like as much as I do (but I do). And if I were just picking my favorite song of the year, there would be no contest: Cee Lo Green’s pop/primal scream of heartbreak and despair gave back to the epithet “Fuck you” the lyricism and depth of feeling that overuse has long washed away.

But in the end, the prize for best album seems to me no contest. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is self-indulgent, narcissistic and over-the-top from beginning to end. It is also absolutely brilliant and continually surprising, both musically and emotionally. And without question it is the one CD this year by an established artist that took a death-defying leap and wound up on an entirely new musical landscape. This is an album musicians will be citing as life-changing for decades to come.


Few things make me more despondent every year than the annual year-end best picture picks. Part of my depression is that I have made some ill-conceived pact to see every nominated Oscar film, and now that the number of films given nominations has expanded to ten, that means at least five or six films I would otherwise have to be paid to see (Black Swan somehow comes to mind). And as always, this time of year leaves me reflecting on the gems that no one went to see, like the blissfully fun and clever celebration of convergence culture, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

But there were two that for me clearly vie as the defining films of 2010. The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook, in 2004, an event that has so thoroughly changed the way in which we socialize that it is mind-boggling to realize that it was, in fact, only six years ago. The film is brilliantly directed by David Fincher, moving back and forth between a series of deposition in the seemingly countless lawsuits that have followed Mark Zuckerberg ever since, and the very messy (and spiteful) scene of the creation itself. While I continue to balk when I hear Social Network described as the “Citizen Kane for the 21st century,” there is no doubt that Zuckerberg is indeed the 21st-century William Randolph Hearst, and like Citizen Kane, Social Network is the search for his – and our – “Rosebud.”

But while Social Network sits solidly on the top of most film critics’ Top 10 lists this holiday season, for me the film that I know will stick to me the hardest is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. In some ways, it is the cinematic equivalent of West’s Fantasy: ambitious, pretentious, desperately virtuosic. But if there is one thing Hollywood needs right now it is a genius who genuinely loves working in film, and Nolan stakes his claim to being the one we should all follow into whatever the future holds for film. It is widely agreed that for all the magic of the movies, cinema has always struggled to represent the mind; cinema is a medium of exteriors and surfaces. Nolan has from the start of his career refused that golden rule, and Inception is his masterpiece: a thrilling heist film that takes place entirely across layers of dreaming. And he did it all on conventional film, eschewing video entirely and CGI wherever possible, making Nolan one of the last great directors to work in traditional film (The Social Network, by contrast, was filmed digitally).

Video Games

Meh. Red Dead Redemption? Grand Theft Auto with cowboys. Everything else was just a decent sequel, it seemed to me (except for Civilization V, which was a very disappointing sequel). I was ready to write the year off and skip this category entirely until a couple of weeks ago, when my Kinect arrived.

Kinect, as you probably know, is the new whole-body motion control system for the Xbox360. Instead of holding a controller to engage with your video games, you jump, dance, punch, dodge and weave and your avatar on screen follows your every movement. As exciting as the original motion controls on the Wii remote were when they were introduced in 2006, they now look passive and Victorian compared to the interactive possibilities of Kinect. To be honest, there aren’t many games for Kinect yet – it comes bundled with the playful Kinect Adventures and there are a handful of sports and dance games on the market at the moment of which Dance Central is the decided standout. But ten minutes with the Kinect and you will see a dazzling and dizzying future for gaming, and by this time next year we will be wondering how we ever were satisfied with handheld controllers before.

Speaking of...

While I am on the subject of hardware, any love letter to the best things about pop culture in 2010 would be woefully incomplete without a gaggle of X’s and O’s to Apple iPad, introduced earlier in the year and already the platform on which many of us are consuming more and more of our media. I read comics, watch TV and movies, listen to audiobooks, and play games on mine. And yes, Mark Zuckerberg, I check my Facebook account. As the Kinect does for traditional videogame hardware, the magically intuitive touchscreen controls of the iPad spells the beginning of the end for the traditional computer monitor. It looks like my Minority Report dreams are about to come true. Or were those nightmares? I can’t remember at the moment: I’m too busy dancing.

PS: Check out my picks for best comics of the year at guttergeek:

Jared Gardner teaches American literature, film and popular culture at the Ohio State University. He can be reached at

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