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Not your average comic con

MSU Comics Forum celebrates ten years with two keynote speakers

The Artist Alley at last year’s MSU Comics Forum, pictured here, featured comic book makers from all over Michigan and beyond. This year’s alley features over three dozen creators.
Photo courtesy Ryan Claytor
It's Michigan State University's best-kept secret.

MSU has the largest public collection of comics in the world, according to comics professor Ryan Claytor. The collection has over 200,000 items, and includes everything from news- paper comic strips to scholarly books.

The tenth annual MSU Comics Forum, which kicks off today, highlights the collection with an exhibit on underground comix, a movement of comics popular in the 1970s that dealt with taboo topics. The exhibit lasts until March 3. Forum visitors can schedule private tours of the rest of the collection.

Claytor, the director of the forum, has been involved since 2009, when a decade of MSU Comics Forums seemed unlikely.

"My first years here, the panel discussions felt incestuous. There weren't many people around," said Claytor. "But I was just sitting down with the panel coordinator, Zack Kruse, and we realized we have submissions from all over the world."

To celebrate the forum's tenth year, organizers have invited two keynote speakers, a creator and a scholar. James Sturm, founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, speaks Friday.

"James Sturm is someone I've wanted to be here for a long time," said Claytor. "He has the Time Graphic Novel of the Year, two Eisner Awards, which are the Oscars of comics, and has worked with every major publisher."

Comics scholar Charles Hatfield speaks the following day. Hatfield has written several books, including the Eisner Award-winning "Hand of Fire: The Comic Art of Jack Kirby."

"A lot of work about comics is sort of head-in-the-clouds," said Claytor. "Hatfield, while being extraordinarily smart, is also very accessible. He writes in a very practical way."

Saturday's other panels are equally academic, diving in to multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and the use of new narrative structures in comics. However, the panel schedule faced a hiccup last week — the recent travel ban has made some international panelists unable to participate.

"We're disappointed," said Claytor, "but we’re focused on the considerable amount of programming we've lined up for this coming week."

In between panels, visitors can meet one-on-one with creators from near and far at the Artist Alley. Around three dozen artists have set up tables to show off their work and peddle their wares.

One such artist is Jonathan Griffith, comic artist, illustrator and former City Pulse creative director who until recently lived in Lansing. For Griffith, sitting down at his table will be a big checkmark on his bucket list.

"I've gone to the comics forum several years in a row now," said Griffith, "so to be on the other side of the table is incredibly rewarding."

Griffith published his first comic book, the time travel tale "1964," this year. Already the first printing has sold out, but he plans to have more at the forum.

The book is heavily inspired by the 1964 film "What a Way to Go!" starring Shirley MacLaine.

"I found a striking photo of MacLaine on set, smoking a cigarette and wearing a pink dress, that's iconic to the film," explained Griffith. "Suddenly it hit me that I wanted to do something that would involve a person seeing a photograph and willing themselves back into history."

Griffith researched MacLaine and found her to be different from the person he imagined her to be, and it changed the direction of his book. "The result was this fun contemplation of what it would be like to meet a celebrity crush," he explained. "Oftentimes in our fascination we think they’re so great, but we really don't know who these people actually are."

At the forum, Griffith also plans to show off promo art for upcoming projects, including "Together Alone," a full-color fantasy/sci-fi graphic novel he intends to publish later in the year.

For those who don’t get their fill of comicy goodness at the forum, Claytor publishes a monthly podcast at msucomics.libsyn.com, interviewing cartoonists and artists. Comics bibliographer Randy Scott highlights selections from MSU’s comics collection.

The podcast and the forum are just part of Claytor’s work with comics at MSU. Claytor was instrumental in establishing the Comic Art and Graphic Novels minor this academic year.

When he started teaching at MSU in 2009, comics were not a large part of the curriculum. “They gave me one class for one semester,” he said, “and it was over-enrolled. Ever since then, I’ve been moving towards making a permanent place for comics at MSU.”

MSU Comics Forum Feb. 22-25 See web for panel times and dates FREE Snyder/Phillips Hall 362 Bogue St., East Lansing comicsforum.msu.edu


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