The Ann Arbor-Area comics scene, unmasked!

To appreciate the international groundswell of excitement for comics and graphic novels that has occurred in recent years, you don't have to go any further than your Netflix queue, a basic Google search for The Oatmeal or the local movie theater. After all, hardly a month goes by without the debut of another superhero movie or TV show.

And to get a peek at how connected Ann Arbor area artists are to this trending genre, you don't even have to leave that movie theater. Released earlier this year, the critically acclaimed The Diary of a Teenage Girl starring Kristin Wiig was based on a graphic novel written by University of Michigan associate professor Phoebe Gloeckner.

"More and more kids are getting into comics—yeah, because of the comics movies—but also because of authors like Raina Telgemeier, Faith Erin Hicks, Cece Bell, says Ann Arbor-based cartoonist and teaching artist Jerzy Drozd. "You have all these amazing cartoonists who are doing works of graphic novel memoir, which are really connecting with young people, so they're getting hooked on the medium."

Drozd sees that enthusiasm first-hand as he teaches comics classes at the Ann Arbor Art Center and organizes events at the Ann Arbor District Library, such as Kids Read Comics. And still, when asked about the many things the community is known for, comics wouldn't likely be top of mind for most locals. But from events for comics fans to an impressive number of local artists, it turns out the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area has a secret identity as a hotbed for comics and graphic novel talent.

Ann Arbor Area comic artists

Though Drozd's career in comics is impressive enough—including his own web comics, working for Antarctic Press, contributing to such well-known brands as Hello Kitty, and recently publishing the graphic novel The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation Into The Kennedy Assassination — he and Gloeckner are just a drop in the local comic talent bucket.

For example, there's Pete Sickman-Garner, whose series Hey, Mister appeared on A.V. Club’s Best Graphic Novels list for 2014. Bruce Worden is the creator of the comic series Woodstalk, "the now-forgotten zombie outbreak at Woodstock." Katie Cook is well known for her Star Wars artwork, My Little Pony comics, Marvel and DC Comics work, as well as her web comic Gronk. Jim Ottaviani has written a number of unique comic books about the history of science. Local artist Jeremy Wheeler's work appears everywhere from Esquire to posters for The Bang . Impressed yet? Add the names Sean Frost, Katie Cook, Zac Gorman and E. Ross Ura to that list.

Oh, and because comic artists are notorious homebodies, you can bet that's not even an exhaustive list. According to Bruce Worden, not even all the local artists know just how many of their peers are in town.

"I feel like everybody knows a handful of people, but I'm not sure that we all really know each other," he says. In fact, when asked to discuss the local comics scene, Worden's reaction was, "Oh, cool there's a scene? Great! Sign me up!"

Opportunity to connect

So yeah. Even with all that talent in town describing the local "comics scene" is a difficult task. As Pete Sickman-Garner explains, even when he and Worden met and decided to connect with the comics scene—or create one if it didn't exist—their efforts were short-lived.

"[We] went back to our own comics, our jobs, our families and never really got it going," says Sickman-Garner, a former Zingerman's employee who just launched the new yarn shop Spun with his wife in Kerrytown. "I really think comics is such a laborious and solitary craft that it maybe makes sense that a lot of comics artists just want to go to the studio, put on headphones, and scratch ink on paper. Or, maybe I'm just antisocial!"

It's not just you, Pete.

"Comics is a very time-demanding line of work," says Dozd. "Which means a lot of us are homebound, or studio-bound. Getting us cartoonists to come out and do things in public is sometimes kind of tricky."

But despite those tendencies, the structure of a comics scene is developing in town, he add, thanks to organizations like Vault of Midnight, 826 Michigan, AADL and even the University of Michigan through their annual Mini-Comics Day at the Duderstadt Center offer resources and events for comic artists.

Still, Worden would love to see a full-on comics show locally, comparable to ones he attends out of state, or the one he hopes to participate in soon in East Lansing.

"I've got this Ann Arbor pride," he says. "Why do I have to go to East Lansing for a comic show? Why do I have to go to Columbus for a comic show? I want Ann Arbor to have something that could compare to these other places."

Active participation in a scene—whether than means networking or teaching or showcasing at a local event—is important for comic artists, says Drozd, because in order to survive as a professional in the industry, they have to break out of their tendency toward introversion.

"I personally think it's incumbent upon cartoonists to be more outgoing and learn public speaking," he says. "Do presentations, do school visits, get out to lecture circuit to help promote your work and engage with your audience."

Local comics events

While it might be tough to get local comic artists themselves out of the studio, there's no doubt that the appetite of comics enthusiasts is strong for events. Drozd sees that himself as co-organizer of Kids Read Comics and as a comics instructor.

"Interest in my classes at the Ann Arbor Art Center has exploded in the last couple of years," he says. "I've been teaching at the Ann Arbor District Library since 2006, and there's always demand for this stuff."

That includes classes for kids, teens and adults—notably, Drozd adds, with equal interest from male and female artists, a somewhat recent shift in the industry. The inclusion of artistic women and girls has helped fuel the local audience for comics events, he says, as well as the general culture.

"Ann Arbor has an open and inquisitive culture," Drozd says, "so it makes comics events really successful here. And everybody has a really good time."

And why wouldn't they? With so much local talent making waves from the internet to Hollywood, Ann Arbor's comics and graphic novels scene—no matter how well connected the artists are with one another—is having a big impact on comics fans, both locally and around the world. 
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