On History: Columbus

By | Tuesday, October 03, 2017 Leave a Comment
As I mentioned yesterday, CXC was this past weekend in Columbus, OH and it was a great celebration of comics. In fact, if you've been paying attention the past several years, you will have probably heard more than a few big comics things coming out of central Ohio. Which might seem kind of odd -- historically, the big comics hubs in the States have centered around publisher locations, something which Columbus isn't really known for.

So how did Columbus become one of these comics hubs?

Simple: Lucy Caswell.

Let me start by backing up a bit. Milton Caniff was born in Hillsboro, OH in 1907. He went to Ohio State University and then started working alongside Billy Ireland and Dudley Fisher for The Columbus Dispatch. When his position was eliminated, Caniff moved to New York and picked up some cartooning gigs for a few years before striking it big with Terry and the Pirates in 1934. I believe Caniff lived most of the rest of his life in/around New York City, moving on to Steve Canyon after leaving Terry.

Despite his distance, though, he turned over all his artwork, papers and such to Ohio State in 1977. Specifically, the material all went to the School of Journalism since much of Caniff's career was in newspapers, even though he wasn't exactly doing journalism per se. Caswell happened to be the librarian there at the time. She recognized that the work was important and went through trying to organize and catalog everything.

Back in 1977, though, there wasn't much archival work being done on comics, so Caswell tried contacting other librarians to figure out how best to get it all figured out. While no one else was doing anything and Caswell was left to her own devices, inventing methods as she went, that also helped to spread word of what she was doing. So other comics-related collections started getting sent her way, and she did more active soliciting of material. A little over a decade later, she had acquired enough material that she had run out of storage space twice and was forced to begin using an off-site facility to house some items. Word continued to spread, and those interested in cartooning and comics began gravitating towards the area, Jeff Smith probably being one of the most notable.

Being centrally located in Ohio certainly helped too, as Roger Price's Mid-Ohio Con, which had become one of the mid-west's notable comic shows in the 1980s, moved an hour south from the Mansfield area to Columbus in the early 1990s. Gib Bickel followed soon after, founding Laughing Ogre Comics in 1994, which quickly became known a well-run and progressive comics shop. Bob Corby then launched his more indie-focused SPACE convention in 2000. Columbus' location meant they could all draw on interest from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

Caswell spent the latter part of her formal tenure at Ohio State preparing a new and formal expansion of the library. The new library was completed in 2013 and, as part of the formal dedication, was host to the Festival of Cartoon Art. The educators, researches, comics professionals, and fans in attendance were all in awe of the new facility and I think that's when word got very publicly spread outside academia what Caswell had been doing in a basement for so many years. The new facility is such an impressive one that people almost immediately began making pilgrimages there to conduct whatever research they were interested in.

The new comics MFA that the Columbus College of Art and Design started this fall is a direct result of that. (Laurenn McCubbin moved to Columbus in 2013.) CXC is a pretty direct result of that. (Tom Spurgeon moved to Columbus in 2015.)

Caswell formally retired at the end of 2010, and Jenny Robb stepped in as Billy Ireland's curator, but Caswell came back as the curator of special projects in 2011. And she's still very much a staple in the comics community there in Columbus. And why shouldn't she be? She's almost singularly responsible for the comics community in Columbus as much of what's there now is a direct outgrowth of the work she began putting in back in the 1970s.

And while I sit here in my personal library outside Chicago, I do find myself making more trips to Columbus than I did when I used to live in Ohio and tried to mostly avoid Columbus proper if I could. Thanks, Lucy!
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