Any discussion of any sort of “scene” in the Washington, D.C. area tends to come down to a sort of “Yeah, but …” kind of attitude. I think we’re always on the defensive when it comes to trying to prove that we really are cool.
When it comes to comics, no, D.C. is not New York (we’re not even Brooklyn). Or Portland. Or the Bay Area. But the D.C. area actually has a pretty impressive wealth of comic-book talent lurking around. (And if you want to be a little liberal with your definition of what the D.C. area is, there are plenty of great creators to the north in Baltimore, to the south, we have the Richmond-based AdHouse Books.)
Also, it’s important to note that we have Small Press Expo, which is older than Stumptown, MoCCA Festival and the same age as Alternative Press Expo. Obviously, there is plenty of interest and excitement when it comes to comics in the D.C. area.
Moderated by Mike Rhode (left in the photo above) and featuring Andrew Cohen, Evan Keeling of DC Conspiracy, Ben Claassen (who lives in Baltimore now, but we like to pretend he’s ours), Shannon Gallant and Matt Wuerker, Graphic Content helped showcase the creators living in the D.C. area. It was organized through Northwest One Neighborhood Library in D.C., just a few blocks from where the annual American Library Association conference is currently occurring.
Rhode started the panel off with the question about how each began creating comics. Cohen said he liked the formality of it, but also that it was cheap. Keeling said that comics attracted him because he likes the linear and storytelling nature of them. Claassen mostly said he liked making people laugh and Gallant came into comics through cartoons (which is appropriate, since he’s now doing G.I. Joe for IDW). Wuerker, as a political cartoonist, was kind of the outlier of the group, but said he likes reacting to news events.
The rest of the questions mostly came back to the issue of what it’s like to be a comic creator right now. Even though Wuerker has a desk at Politico, he likened making comics to being a poet — lots of people want to do it and most of them are happy to do it for free. There’s no money in it. While Gallant is doing comics full-time, he said his wife is the breadwinner. Claassen has a few jobs and at this point, is giving his comic Dirt Farm to the Washington City Paper for free (I had kind of guessed that because I knew WCP had cut their entire comics budget). Cohen said he sees doing comics as an avocation — and he actually prefers it that way because he can just do the projects he’s interested in and doesn’t have to worry if they’re going to make money.
Gallant brought up that he feels like to really make a living doing comics, you basically have to be at DC or Marvel. He said he still gets royalty checks for some work he did and while it’s not a ton of money, it’s money. Everyone also talked about selling original art, whether pages or in Claassen’s case, paintings, to supplement their incomes.
There was a sense in order to succeed, comic creators kind of need to stick together. Cohen said one of the points of the DC Conspiracy is to not only provide collaborators or feedback but to give people a way to pool resources — it’s much easier for a group to buy tables at a con than it is for an individual, and while someone may not remember a specific creator, they’ll probably remember a group. And while Gallant said he was never an official member of Gaijin Studios, he did learn a lot from the members while he was in college in Atlanta.
The last question dealt with where everyone though the future of comics was going to be. There was much discussion of the iPad and the digital age. Wuerker was optimistic and thinks someone’s going to figure out how to get money into the pockets of creators, but Gallant wonders if he’ll still be working 10 years from now. Claassen says he does hope there will be a new “golden age” of comics, but isn’t entirely sure. He does like the immediacy that the Internet can provide, though — he can make a comic, post it and get almost instant feedback. Cohen thinks that as much potential as the Internet has in terms of comics, people still want a print product.
There were a few questions from the audience, but probably the most relevant one to me was from a woman pointing out that you know, everyone on the panel was white and male and how diverse they felt comics were. And yes, I did notice the whiteness and maleness of the panelists (but I do want to not that while there wasn’t a large turnout, it was mostly women. I think that probably had something to with the ALA conference, but it was still a cool thing to see). Wuerker said there’s not a lot of female political cartoonists, but both Cohen and Keeling said that DC Conspiracy does have a few women and is fairly ethnically diverse. Most talked about how when they were first starting out, it was much less diverse than it is now (Gallant, I believe, brought up The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons).
It’s a change I’ve, of course, noticed — not only do we have many more female comic creators getting attention, we have more women and girls showing up to cons and shows. I do think comics are becoming more and more open and that’s always a good thing.
It was definitely a great panel and showed off some of the talent we have in this area. I think it goes a long way to proving that we’re a pretty cool place when it comes to people making comics.
But then, I’m obviously biased.
(Thanks to Rhode & D.C. Public Libraries for putting this on.)