A couple weekends ago, I attended MIX, the Columbus College of Art and Design’s annual “Celebration of Comics.” This was the second year running and my second year attending, so I’ve got perfect attendance so far.
The great thing about MIX is that it’s not a con (that’s short for “convention,” in case you’re unfamiliar with the Internet). Cons generally consist of row after row of commercial booths, some cool props to take photos near, lots of people in costumes (for better or worse), and a handful of celebrities who don’t happen to have other obligations at the moment so they can travel around the country signing autographs. I’m only taking the con promoters’ word for it that there are celebrities at these events, as every time I’ve tried to approach a table where one apparently is hard at work smiling and scribbling things, I can only see tops of heads. If you’re a sub-culture junkie like I am, cons are an amazing look into a world where people feel safe to express a side of themselves they might not usually, and they’re utterly fascinating for that reason. But MIX is not a con.
MIX features a keynote artist each year: the first year, the keynote was Chris Ware, and this year it was Jeff Smith. Both are incredible comic creators who I would have recommended reading even if I didn’t now own autographed copies of their work. The keynote consists of a thorough Q&A session with some knowledgeable interviewer (Tom Spurgeon this year), sort of like Inside the Actors Studio. Both of these keynote sessions have been conducted really wonderfully and have been quite interesting both from a fan and comic creator point of view.
The rest of the two days of the conference consists almost entirely of academic-style panels—both the Q&A and paper-presenting kind. The panels I find most interesting are the ones that delve deeply into one aspect of the history of comics (last year’s session on Jack Kirby comes to mind) or focused looks at comics’ social impact or how they serve as a snapshot of larger cultural concerns*. This year, a panel called “How to See the Work of Black Comics in Total Darkness: Constructions of Black Identity in American Comics and Popular Culture” scratched that latter itch, as did a documentary film, “White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books.” During the panel, John Jennings, Reynaldo Anderson, and Stacey Robinson gave a historic overview of black characters in comics, explained the concept of afrofuturism, and talked about some newer interesting projects, like Black Kirby (Black Kirby doesn’t seem to have its own website, but this will give you an idea; google it yourself for more). The documentary film hit on the historical theme as well, and it was followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker, Jonathan Gayles, and comic creator for decades now, Tony Isabella (who developed and drew Black Lightning, among other stuff).
Although I wasn’t entirely surprised by the general trend of black comic characters through the 1960s and 1970s, it was remarkable to see the specific examples. Even more remarkable were the reactions of the little black boys (now grown into adults and reflecting on it) who were so excited to see someone who looked like them on the cover that they were willing to ignore (or didn’t notice) all the overtones their adult selves now fret over. It definitely gave me a lot to think about, which makes for a successful weekend!
There was a lot going on a MIX this year, and I didn’t make it to every panel (some are run simultaneously) nor have I even talked about all the ones I enjoyed. But if you can get yourself to Columbus, Ohio, around this time next year, I’d definitely recommend spending a beautiful weekend indoors learning about history, culture, comics, and life.
*As a member of Sunday Comix, Sketch and Kvetch (a female comic creators group), a nameless comic writing group, and the Connections editorial committee, I don’t tend to get a lot out of the panels where creators talk about how they create comics, but I understand that these are hugely important to a lot of people in the audience. I just find the conversations to be shorter and more generally limited than the ones I could have with the same people most nights of the week. That said, if you don’t spend your after-work hours running from one comics-related event to the next, you would probably love these panels!**
**Seriously, who writes blog posts with footnotes?!