There are easy ways to get into a city’s arts scene, or music scene—there are always galleries, venues and shows to immerse yourself in.
Comics are a little tougher. By nature, they’re an introverted art form, usually read in the same way they’re made—by oneself.
Besides, even if you’re brilliant at self-promotion, you’re probably spending most of your time actually doing it—hunched over a desk, alone, staring into the hideous, empty abyss on a sheet of paper (again).
There have long been a surprising number of comics made in Pittsburgh, many of them outstanding. And while the scene seems to be growing enormously, you’ve got to go looking to notice it.
Luckily, there are a few times when local comics-makers emerge from their underground lairs, to share their work, meet fans and discuss their obsessions. One of those is . . .
PIX, the Pittsburgh Indy Comix Expo. April 9, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the August Wilson Center, Downtown—and across the street at the Toonseum. PIX focuses on “creator-owned, self-published, small press and handmade comics.” It features national guests, like 11-time Eisner Award-nominated cartoonist Carol Tyler (Late Bloomer), as well as local giants like Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor, and plenty of panel discussions and comics for sale.
For good measure, here are 21 other people, places and things to check out if you’re interested in digging deeper into the vast array of comics being made in Pittsburgh:
Ed Piskor. If Homestead’s Ed Piskor has it right, comic books and hip-hop were made for each other. Both are unmistakably American art forms, born in the blacktop canyons of New York City. Both involve transformations, alter-egos, symbolic costumes, team-ups, rivalries, legendary battles, mysterious origins, overblown bravado, self-mythologizing superheroes and super-villains. Hip-Hop Family Tree is easily one of the biggest titles in comics right now, and one of the best histories of this planet-spanning music in any format. Before that, Piskor collaborated with indie comics legend Harvey Pekar on American Splendor and a history of the Beat Generation, and told the story of early computer hacking in Wizzywig.
Jim Rugg. Perhaps indie comics’ finest purveyor of face-punching action, and strong female protagonists. Street Angel—about a homeless skateboarding kung fu master, the deadliest girl in the world (also failing 7th grade)—is Rugg’s signature series. The latest, Street Angel: After School Kung Fu Special, is coming out this month on Image Comics. His comic Afrodisiac takes action comics back to its blaxploitation-era 1970s climax. Rugg has a more subtle side, too; he illustrates DC Comics’ The Plain Janes, a manga-like comic about a crew of art-obsessed high school misfits, and their battles against complacent suburban anomie.
The ToonSeum. One of only a few museums in the world dedicated to cartooning and animation. This tiny storefront Cultural District, Downtown (look for the gigantic, cartoony statues busking out front) packs a lot into a small space. Exhibits range from comic books to literary-quality graphic novels, early hand-drawn cel-animation to the latest computer-generated wizardry, Will Eisner to Charles Schulz, Japanese anime to classic Saturday-morning cartoons. The Toonseum is intended to be a busy place (and is part of PIX, across the street), hosting cartoonists, lectures, book signings and learn-to-draw demonstrations for all ages.
Tom Scioli. To go from fan to creator, there’s a process of absorbing, distilling and refracting one’s influences—standing atop the ink-stained desks of those who came before. Tom Scioli found his muse early—Jack Kirby, the towering imagination that defined the look of mid-century comics. His American Barbarian has it all: robotic dinosaurs, undead cyborg pharoahs, post-post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Godland is a cosmic sci-fi epic about an astronaut, space-gods, universal enlightenment, an evil floating skull in a jar, and the Cosmic Fetus Collective. His style also happens to be a perfect fit for the overblown awesomeness of Transformers vs. GI Joe, which is exactly what it sounds like. Scioli’s new webcomic is an outerspace saga called Princess.
Copacetic Comics. What if you had a bookstore that only stocked the good stuff, and got rid of everything else? It might look a bit like Copacetic Comics, the tiny store so carefully curated by Pittsburgh comics’ prime mover Bill Boichel. Many, if not most, of Copacetic’s bestsellers are locally-made. Bonus: Copacetic is in Polish Hill, sandwiched between the similarly tiny-but-amazing Cruel Noise Records upstairs, and Lili Coffee Shop below.
The Pittsburgh Comics Salon. A hub for the Pittsburgh comics community, to “build solidarity, get new conversations started between cartoonists and comics makers and push the frontiers of comics.” Created by the cartoonist Juan Fernandez, the Salon holds live events and a runs an active online site.
Frank Santoro/Comics Workbook. A landmark of formal innovation, Santoro’s epic Storeyville, begins in Depression-era Pittsburgh, with a young, adventurous vagabond searching for his long-lost friend among the hobos. Santoro’s lines seem as restless as his characters, like desperate attempts to pin down half-remembered dreams, veering in and out of focus along with his heroes’ mental states. It was originally published in a newsprint format, harking back to the early days of comics when the likes of Krazy Kat could command acres of space on the page. He also runs Comics Workbook, an online magazine for comic book makers. The Rowhouse Residency likened it to a “ninja training school” for comics.
Yona Harvey. Comics origin stories don’t get much stranger than poet and Pitt professor Yona Harvey, who was asked by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates to help reimagine The Black Panther, for Marvel. She and Roxane Gay wrote The Black Panther spin-off World of Wakanda—the first two African-American women to write for Marvel. Harvey and Coates are also writing The Black Panther & The Crew together.
Mark Zingarelli. A professional cartoonist and illustrator since 1975—chances are good that you’ve seen Zingarelli’s work in places like The New Yorker, Esquire or Village Voice. A key collaborator on Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, recent work includes Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague, about the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York City, written by Joyce Brabner, Pekar’s widow.
Phantom of the Attic and Eide’s Entertainment. Comic book shops don’t last forever, but these two are getting close. Phantom is in Oakland, and has a separate gaming store on the same street. Eide’s is a multi-level store in the Strip, now celebrating its 45th year, full of records, books and movies, magazines and action figures, with comics in the basement. Respect must be paid to these stalwart sentinels of the Pittsburgh comics scene, who will hopefully continue to exist, come what may (trans-dimensional invaders, zombies apocalypses, etc.), even in the darkest timeline.
Dave Wachter. He’s kind of done it all, from the self-published Scar Tissue (with Jim Clark), to guest artist gigs on big-name titles like Godzilla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Wachter works in print and online—his Western comic, The Guns of Shadow Valley, was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic. Other works of note include the fable-like horror story Night of 1,000 Wolves and Kickstarter-funded Portraits: An Artbook of Inspirational Progressives.
Jasen Lex. A strikingly original artist who creates surreal, multilayered comics like The Science Fair and The Gypsy Lounge that pack so much detail into each panel, they can’t really be absorbed in one glance. Lex hosts the Tell Me Something I Don’t Know podcast with Jim Rugg on tech/nerd culture super-site boingboing.net, coincidentally where Hip Hop Family Tree debuted. Currently working on Washington Unbound—yeah, that Washington (George).
Pat Lewis. We all start out drawing goofy animals and monsters, and most of us never progress beyond this. But Pat Lewis made a career out of it, and he may have even drawn the first comics some kids ever see, in High Five and Highlights magazines. His illustrations pop up everywhere from the National Parks Service to Starkist Tuna, to Pittsburgh City Paper. Publisher IDW put out his first solo graphic novel The Claws Came Out in 2007. He’s got an ongoing webcomic called Muscles Diablo In: Where Terror Lurks, and a new graphic novel, Cragmore, about a billionaire who declares war on the afterlife.
Lizzee Solomon. Self-published comics are kind of their own thing entirely—the possibilities for handmade detail and unfettered self-expression are virtually unlimited. Solomon’s self-published series Mutual Paradise is drawn with an unsparing eye for the garish, the grotesque, and the squishy—everyone’s bulging with inflamed innards and lurid intent. She also makes sculpture, jewelry, and pet portraits.
Nate McDonough. Published 37 issues of Grixly, including 13 in about a year’s time, which is a pretty phenomenal work-rate for a one-man show. It’s rife with autobiographical details, stories, portraits and sketches of his friends and memories, colored with all the surreal, Yinzeriffic details that entails.