Because both have such graphic appeal, the Venn diagram of people who have tattoos and people who like comics has a pretty big overlap at Virginia Commonwealth University. Somewhere in that overlap, the idea for the Richmond Indie Comic Expo was born.
Comics are clearly having a moment, as evidenced by the success of movies like the Marvel cinematic universe, DC Comic’s “Wonder Woman” and hit TV shows. University professors Kelly Alder, Bizhan Khodabandeh and library employee Emily Kundrot saw a missed opportunity for an autumn comic festival and wanted to support students in creating one.
Alder reached out to some of his art students already involved in comics and by the end of last semester, a student committee was formed.
As a student-run expo, the expo, known as RICE, is a hands-on educational experience outside the classroom for students looking to get involved not just at the university, but within the larger Richmond arts community and in the professional world of comics.
“RICE is also sponsored by Cabell Library’s special collections, which boasts an unbelievable comics archive,” says Thea Cheuk, a student organizer. From hand-drawn Tijuana Bibles to “The Incredible Hulk #1” to experimental, avant-garde comics, special collections is so well-respected it’s been entrusted with the archives of the Will Eisner Awards, the most prestigious awards in the comics industry. “So we’re working to promote and build off this amazing resource, which other fests and expos don’t have.”
Keeping it low cost was essential.
“Tabling at our expo is much more accessible for students and local artists,” explains student organizer Liz McCown. “Because we’re holding our event in the VCU library, we’re able to offer our tables for free when tables at most comic conventions cost anywhere from $20 to $600.” Not exactly student budget-friendly.
Nearly 80 artists -- students, local artists, professors and alumni from as far away as Los Angeles -- will have tables at the expo. Additionally, there’ll be educational panels designed to offer researched presentations on the shifts happening in comics, but also to provide practical knowledge on how to be a comics creator and pursue a love of comics -- personally or professionally -- now or after graduation. Cheuk says topics were chosen to interest different demographics, not just within university but also within the wider Richmond community. “We hope to make learning about comics more accessible through these panels,” she says.
Many of the academics on the panels are also active as comic or zine creators. From a roundtable of local comics makers to a panel about queerness and race in comics to another on the impact of digital technology on independent comics through web comics and platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, topics were chosen to appeal to an eclectic array of interests. Also on tap is a panel for those interested in self-funding their projects and a local art educator discussing her advocacy for comics in elementary and secondary schools.
The goal with the panels is to give a more academic understanding of comics to those who never got a chance to take a comics class. Says McCown, “There’s a lot to unpack with even the simplest comic and we want to give people the ability to understand even just the basics of how to analyze a comic and understand the history that surrounds it.”
Writing and illustration are both rich mediums on their own but their interaction with each other in comics is distinctive yet flexible. According to Cheuk, “This dynamic range has maintained the popularity of comics from early proto-comics printed via woodblock carvings to the present, where summer blockbuster movies are often based on comic books.”
She should know, having evolved from a casual consumer of comics into a dedicated fan through studying them academically. Based on her interest in superhero comics, Cheuk earned an undergraduate grant to research and write a paper on the DC Comics character Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing), which was presented in April.
“The paper led to a summer editorial internship at DC Comics and after returning to VCU, I knew I wanted to stay involved with comics,” she says.
This year’s event is only the beginning.
“We’re pretty optimistic about being able to pass the torch on to a new group of students next year,” student organizer Karly Anderson says. “And since the groundwork’s been laid, it’ll be easier for them to host the event.”
McCown, who learned to read from old Archie comics and began making short comics inspired by them in third grade, eventually progressed to reading manga, which lead to her discovering the world of self-published comics online.
“I really appreciate that anyone can create a comic, all you need is a pen and paper,” she says. “This means that there’s always something new to discover and always something new to create.”
The Richmond Indie Comic Expo takes place Sunday, Nov. 17, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. at Cabell Library, 901 Park Ave.