PIX comics expo drawing more from local scene

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:10 p.m.

Creating comics tends to be a fairly solitary business. No matter how good you are at salesmanship, networking and publicity, sooner or later, it will be just you and a blank piece of paper, alone in a room, again.

That's part of the reason why conventions are such a big deal for those who write and draw comics. It gets them out of the house! It's also a chance to actually meet their peers, readers, and, with luck, potential readers.

Events like this weekend's PIX: The Pittsburgh Indie Comix Expo are what ties these communities together. This year, it's in the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building on 19th Street on the South Side.

“The criteria is creator-owned, self-published, small press and handmade,” says Bill Boichel, owner of Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill and organizer of PIX (along with the Toonseum).

Despite the boom in online comics, there's still a dedication to the craft of creating physical media, for both writers/artists and collectors.

“Many of these people have a Tumblr site or a blog and post their comics,” Boichel says. “A large number have a way to be read online. Then they print the hard copy. That's the paradigm.

“People are constantly in communication and sharing with each other. But they physically want to meet each other in the flesh. There's obviously a tactile element, but also a craft element in the production of the object, that's lacking when you see it on the Internet. It's the difference between seeing a Coca Cola commercial on TV, and going to buy one.”

Although comics aren't nearly as geographically tethered to a certain place as, say, the music scene or dining scene — two things for which Pittsburgh has gotten notice recently — the idea is taking hold that the local comics scene is similarly vibrant and exciting.

It's been building for a while, but at the end of last year, Boichel noticed something curious.

“For the first time in Copacetic's history, the majority of the year's best-selling works were made right here in town,” he says. “In fact, a whopping seven out of the top 10 best-selling graphic novels (in a loose, format and price-based sense) were made in Pittsburgh.”

New York City may be the Planet Krypton that birthed Superman and so many others, and Chicago and Seattle loom large in the independent comics world, but there's still plenty of room left on the map. It doesn't require a mass of artists, or publishers, either. Cleveland's place in the comics world was probably secured for all time by the late Harvey Pekar, and his many remarkable autobiographical comics (“American Splendor”) that were set there.

Before Pekar died, one of his main go-to collaborators was Ed Piskor, of Munhall. He made “Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume One,” which was Copacetic's top seller last year (and a breakout hit, nationally). It's a complex history of the early days of hip-hop, done in the style of the Marvel Treasury comics from that era, down to the distinctive grain of the paper.

“There's a growing local comics scene with many national and internationally recognized artists,” Boichel says. “Jim Rugg is like a highly respected hired gun, who does ‘Afrodisiac.' He's like the artists' artist. People call him for advice. Frank Santoro, Tom Scioli — who's doing “G.I. Joe vs. Transformers” in a Jack Kirby style. They're giving him a lot of leeway to go out of the parameters (of the established storylines).”

There are more than 50 independent exhibitors at PIX, coming from as far away as California. They include the giant indie comics publisher Fantagraphics (Seattle), visionary comics artist Theo Ellsworth, and artist/writer and “herstorian” Trina Robbins.

“She's like the historian of women in comics,” Boichel says. “She's probably 70, or close to it. She reacted against R. Crumb, and brought a much-needed feminist perspective to comics in the early '70s.”

Unlike previous events, this year's PIX is all in one day. The exhibitors' room is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be a two-hour break for dinner, then panel discussions, artist presentations and lectures from 7 to 11 p.m.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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