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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 06/28/2010

THE RIFF: Where does D.C. rate as a 'comics town'?

By Michael Cavna

As the mercury hit 99 degrees Sunday, I had to wonder: Is Washington, D.C.'s comics scene ripe for heating up, too?

While talking with "Big Nate" cartoonist Lincoln Peirce over the weekend, I asked him how he came to mentor "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" creator Jeff Kinney in the mid-'90s, and Peirce recalled that Kinney, of course, had a comic strip in the University of Maryland's Diamondback newspaper at the time.

This is the same era at the Diamondback that also nurtured Aaron McGruder and Frank Cho -- in what would be a tremendous run of talent for any university.

That's just the tip of the comics-talent iceberg when it comes to cartoonists (and related artists) past and present who have D.C.-area roots, and Comic Riffs dwells on this whenever we talk to "Cul de Sac's" Richard Thompson or attend a Gigacon or interview "Toy Story 3" writer Michael Arndt. -- and the question presented itself front-and-center again when a panel of cartoonists gathered Saturday near the ALA conference.

ComicsDC and City Paper blogger Mike Rhode moderated the panel, which featured such talented cartoonists as Andrew Cohen, Evan Keeling, Shannon Gallant and Ben Claassen, as well as Politico's Matt Wuerker.

In covering the panel, the Washington blogger Comicsgirl writes: "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," she continues, "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."

Having lived previously in the Bay Area and San Diego, I was fortunate enough to (mis)spend some formative years in cities that have thriving comics scenes -- to the point that I took such hospitable-to-comic-life environs for granted. With that in mind, I'd have to agree with Comicsgirl: There is a conspicuous degree of comics talent between points Fredericksburg and Baltimore. Perhaps, then, what the D.C. area is really lacking is a galvanizing hub, or signature event, that helps the region truly realize how much talent and interest is in our midst.

So with need for such an event-happy hub in mind, I propose that numerous cartoonists band together and buy the storied, on-the-market bookstore Politics and Prose. As the headline itself said on The Post's recent story: "With sale of D.C.'s Politics and Prose, a bookstore's legacy is up for grabs." Well, what about the region's cartooning legacy?

I mean: Imagine the possibilities if cartoonists could stock all their favorite comics (guaranteeing a humor section far less anemic than most bookstores have now); if they could hold nightly signings and how-to sessions; if they could invite all their cartooning colleagues around the world in for talks; and if comic fans had a warm new home for geeking out (that would complement the area's great comics shops). And really, given the store's downstairs cafe, who knows more about enabling late-night overcaffeination than cartoonists?

Am I joking? Yes, mostly, but just know: I would be semi-serious about this humble little dream if Washington's cartooning legend Herblock were still with us. With his charitable millions, "Politics and Post" -- or perhaps "The Line's Den" or "Herb's Block" or whatever the cartoonists decided to call it -- could afford to be a reality. And Washington as comics town, perhaps, would sooner be mentioned in the same breath as the Bay Area, if not Brooklyn.

If you've got an opinion about how the D.C. area rates as a "comics town," feel free to weigh in.

By Michael Cavna  | June 28, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  General, The Riffs  | Tags:  Aaron McGruder, Andrew Cohen, Ben Claassen, Comisgirl, Evan Keeling, Frank Cho, Herb Block, Jeff Kinney, Lincoln Peirce, Matt Wuerker, Michael Arndt, Mike Rhode, Richard Thompson, Shannon Gallant  
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Next: 'NEXT GREAT CARTOONIST' finalists offer their reactions to the contest


I'm not sure comic communities should be judged on geographical location anymore. Yes, to be sure, in the past, location was important because there was no viable means of getting together. Really, that has long gone by the wayside (Internet). What DC should be doing ... and I think you are attempting to do with Michael Cavana's side bar blog is creating a virtual community ... The Post comic section is my daily dose of comedy and I'm on the West Coast. I read the Economist that's from England, The New York Times and occasionally plug into the San Francisco Chronicle (my supposedly home time paper)... DC should continue stating the obvious: "Join us in DC" ... and you will become the center of all good things comedic.

Posted by: zenmonkman | June 28, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Judging from Leno, Letterman, O'Brien, Fallon, Ferguson, Stewart, Colbert, ad infinitum, I'd say that D.C. already **is** the center of all things comedic in America, even if said performers are based in New York or L.A. OF course, given that a certain local newspaper considers it proper to run "Frazz" in the kids' section, clearly there are some Washington institutions with no appreciation or understanding of the comic art form whatsoever.

Posted by: seismic-2 | June 28, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the namecheck, Michael. The Library should have the panel up as a podcast soon.

Zenmonkman, I think one of the things missing in DC is a 'scene' where the cartoonists hang around and push each other into trying new things. You still get a physical excitement about comics in a group and cities like Portland and Brooklyn are experiencing that now.

Posted by: Mrhode | June 28, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

The cartoonists in DC are too loose a group. Though it's getting more social in some ways, we lack the density of NY and Portland. But with the help of SPX, the folks at Library of Congress and the Mikes Rhode and Cavna, we will put this town on the cartoon map! Eventually!

Posted by: rhompson | June 28, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

The DC Conspiracy has been meeting consistently for over 5 years and has helped nurture a number of area cartoonists. We also have an active message board where people talk about craft tips, comic news and future projects. We also put on the Counter Culture Festival which is a comics and crafts event. I think comics are lots of times a very anonymous art form in that you will a lot of times not know that a creator lives near you until you meet them somewhere. It's now just a matter of getting creators to come out.

Posted by: etkeeling | June 29, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

You know it dawned on me after re-reading some of the posts ... a newspaper's website is NOT limited in size like a physical newspaper ... why doesn't the Post have a Newbie Section (Open Mic) for comics page? Think about it. The DC crowd can meet up at (insert favorite bar) while the rest of us join in on cadcam ... I don't know ... it sounds like a phenomenon waiting to happen???!!!??? If not I'll go back to quietly watching the world cup while blowing my vuvuzela in my spare room.

Posted by: zenmonkman | June 29, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Zen, that's kind of what they did with the currently-running contest, right? It seemed like they published ALL the entries that were submitted, even though the first round of voting was done by the panel, not by the peanut gallery. And kudos to 'em (and you, Sir Riffs!) for that.

Posted by: RKaufman13 | June 29, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

There were over 500 comics submitted and they only posted 1/5 of them, about 120.
That's a bit of a snub to all of the aspiring cartoonists who submitted and weren't posted. They aren't even rotating thru all of the submissions that I know of.
There were quite a lot of very good cartoons in that bunch, many were much better than some of the Top 10 that were chosen by the panel. (That's my opinion.)

If you want to participate in a coffee shop- type of cartoon get-together, follow MC's link to The Cartoonists Studio. You'll really appreciate what these guys are doing in having a place where aspiring cartoonists can rub web pages with professional cartoonists and get some very valuable feedback. It's a great site and I hope the concept catches on locally with local get-togethers for F2F conversation.

Posted by: InkSlingerz | June 29, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

BTW, there were many cartoons that I saw that were much better than mine. I can admit that and would be proud to promote any one of them.
'Nuff said-

Posted by: InkSlingerz | June 29, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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