‘StoryLines’ has a number of tales to tell at the Vanderelli Room

For the new, comics centered exhibit, which opens at the Franklinton gallery on Saturday, Aug. 5, curator Bob Ray Starker asked contributors to submit works that told a story.
"Days of Noir"
"Days of Noir"Chas Ray Krider

Bob Ray Starker has a memory from childhood of riding in the car with his mother and grandmother. “I was probably in like third or fourth grade, and my grandmother asked me if I’d figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. And from the back seat I was like, ‘I want to move to New York City and draw comic books,” Starker said during an early August interview at the Vanderelli Room in Franklinton. “And I think my grandma almost drove off the road. And then she gave me a long explanation of why I needed to find a job with a good pension.”

These days, comics get a fair bit more respect, particularly in Columbus, which is home to both the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum – a world-class facility that houses a jaw-droppingly expansive collection of materials related to cartoons and comics – and Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), a yearly cartooning convention that Starker said excels at keeping a focus on creators. There’s even been an academic embrace of the form, with CCAD offering a major in Comics & Narrative Practice

In curating “StoryLines,” which opens at the Vanderelli Room on Saturday, Aug. 5, Starker wanted to give comics the gallery treatment, soliciting works from more than 20 comics creators, along with fine artists whose work skews toward that realm, such as Dan Gerdeman, whose paintings often feature fantastical characters, and Rob Jones, whose portraiture tends to carry a strong narrative arc. 

“It’s not the same as the stuff that usually winds up in a gallery, but there’s the same level of craft and work and commitment that goes into making it,” Starker said of the framed comics pages that lined rows of tables as we spoke. “The only direction I gave anyone was, ‘Tell me a story.’ It doesn’t even have to be a complete story. Even if it just suggests there’s a narrative.”

So, while a bulk of the art on display hews more toward that conventional comic realm – Cleveland artist Derf Backderf submitted a striking draft page from his graphic novel My Friend Dahmer, while Columbus’ Jeff Smith offered up a print of a page taken from his landmark series Bone – there are submissions that stretch far outside of these bounds, such as a noir-ish erotic photo series from Chas Ray Krider, whose images resemble stills taken from a David Lynch film. Other works give tribute to comics pioneers, such as a portrait painted by Frank Lawson of Torchy Brown, a character created by Jackie Ornes, the first Black woman to produce a nationally appearing strip.

These appear alongside contributions from a murderer’s row of local artists and comics makers, including Sophie Harpo, whose comic-inspired work has long blurred real and imagined worlds, graphic novelist M.S. Harkness, SPACE founder Bob Corby and artist, comic creator and traveling muralist Hakim Callwood, among many, many others.

"Torchy Brown"
"Torchy Brown"Frank Lawson

The show also afforded artists of all stripes an opportunity to step outside of their usual practices. “I didn’t want the comics people to feel locked in, like they just had to give me their comics,” Starker said. As a result, comics artist J.M. Hunter submitted a four-foot-tall painted canvas, while Charles Wince offered up what Starker described as “an honest to God comic strip” painted by the artist in the early 1980s and rarely if ever displayed in public. “And I really wanted that in the show,” Starker said, “because people know his work, but they’ve never seen anything like this.”

Starker, a musician and comics artist, also included three of his own pieces, one of which connects these dual passions, depicting a band onstage in a darkened theater. The image is one of a handful of comics in the exhibit that bridge the worlds of comics and rock 'n' roll, including a page from Ken Eppstein of Nix Comics, an imprint described by the artist on his site as one “for punk rockers, record nerds and other funny-haired ne'er do wells.”

“Having done both, I would say making a page like this is similar to the songwriting end of music, because it’s usually pretty solitary and you spend a lot of time working on it before anyone sees it,” Starker said. “But then it gets completely dissimilar, because if you’re in a band and you play live you get immediate feedback, in real time, the second you’re onstage doing it. And you do this, maybe it gets published somewhere and then like a year and a half later someone is like, ‘Hey, I saw that new thing you did.’”

In addition to the art on display, Starker also set up a reading table littered with comics, graphic novels and compilations such as The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, which essentially served as Starker’s bible from childhood onward.

“Before there were places like the Billy Ireland, there was this guy, Bill Blackbeard, and he literally drove around to all of these newspapers that had original art they were just going to throw into the dumpster, and he saved as much of it as he could,” Starker said, thumbing through the thick tome. “But the idea is somewhere in here to set up a couple of couches, or some kind of reading room. And I think that will help give a lot of this work context. I want people to have a chance to sit and flip through some of these longer works.”

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