For better or worse, just as book publishing is based in New York, so is the American comic book industry. Both Marvel and DC Comics (a.k.a. the Big Two) are headquartered in Manhattan, and most of the medium’s hall-of-fame writers and artists have lived and worked in the five boroughs for a good portion of their careers.
However, thanks to technology and the success of independent publishers, comics has become decentralized in the past few decades. A writer in Omaha can skype with their artist in Seattle, and submit their work electronically to editors on the East Coast. As a result, new creative hubs have popped up in Portland (home of Image and Dark Horse Comics), Southern California (home of IDW, Top Cow, and Boom! Studios), and Chicago.
Chicago still needs a signature comic book publisher, but in the meantime, it’s got plenty of A-list writers and artists, dozens of great comic book shops, and one of the largest comic-cons in the world—C2E2, which opens this weekend at McCormick Place. To coincide with their appearances at C2E2, I spoke with three of Chicago’s most visible comic book artists and writers.
Gene Ha is most recently the creator of Mae at Dark Horse Comics, but he’s also drawn for DC and Marvel. He’ll be in Booth F10 this weekend if you want him to draw something for you. Tim Seeley currently writes Nightwing for DC, Revival for Image, and The Lost Boys for Vertigo. He’ll be in Booth G10. And Michael Moreci is the writer/creator of the Roche Limit trilogy at Image (and he’s got a sci-fi novel coming out next year from St. Martin’s Press, Black Star Renegades). He’ll be hosting a C2E2 panel on Saturday called “Building Sci-Fi Worlds.”
Chicago is also home to plenty of female comic books artists and writers, including Lucy Knisley (who we interviewed last year), Jill Thompson, Ashley A. Woods, and Jenny Frison, but the first three won’t be at C2E2 this year, and the fourth hadn’t responded to my interview request at press time. (Update: After rechecking C2E2’s updated guest list, Jill Thompson and Lucy Knisley WILL be there after all!). Brian Azzarello and Eric Jiminez also live in the area, but weren’t announced as C2E2 guests in time for me to interview.
What’s it like being a comics creator in Chicago? Are there advantages to living and working here instead of New York?
Gene Ha: Chicago is bursting with great comics talents and communities! I love it here. In the 1980s, First Comics was based here and a nucleus of comics geniuses gathered around the offices. Chris Ware, Jill Thompson, Alex Ross, Angel Medina and many others started in comics then, and continue to live and make comics in Chicagoland. I only moved to the area in 2003 so I missed this age of legend.
There are comics programs at the American Academy of Art, Columbia College, the School of the Art Institute, and recently the International School of Comics where Jill Thompson teaches. I’ll single out Lucy Knisley to represent the younger generations —she did her undergrad work at the Art Institute. Like many younger creators, most of her work has been outside superhero comics.
We have a thriving local convention scene. The big one is C2E2 for pop culture comics and CAKE for indie comics. But we also have Wizard World and a year-round schedule of suburban mini-comic cons. Finally, three of our area comic shops have won the Eisner Spirit of Comics award, a very high honor. Moondog’s is gone, but both Challengers and Chicago Comics remain nationally famous and fabulous places to shop. I also suspect that a few other locals will win soon — we have too many great shops.
Tim Seeley: Chicago is my favorite city! It’s a great place for comic creators and other creatives, as the network is large enough to be supportive, but small enough to be intimate and approachable. Chicago also has a number of great comic book stores, which is an asset for those working in the business. It does seem like the West Coast, namely Portland and Los Angeles have become the new comics-hubs, but I’m staying here.
Michael Moreci: For starters, we have a terrific community. I can’t even qualify how indebted I am to the friends and pros who have helped make my career possible. And, it’s inspiring. I have plenty to keep me busy — which I am eternally grateful for — so sweet home Chicago, where I was born and raised, suits me just fine.
How does Chicago’s comic-con (C2E2) compare with other conventions like the San Diego and New York Comic-Cons?
Michael Moreci: I love C2E2, if only because the ReedPop folks put on such a friendly, organized, and welcoming event. I can’t sing their praises enough. Having it at McCormick is so great, and being in April—as we shake off the doldrums of winter—couldn’t be better timing. There’s plenty of good cons across the country and the world, but ReedPop never disappoints, not creators or fans.
Tim Seeley: I’ve been attending C2E2 from the beginning It really is the best convention this city has ever had, and it’s one of my favorite shows period. My favorite thing about it is the focus on comics and creators. While a lot of other shows have shifted to media guests and away from comics, C2E2 has focused on having one of the best artist alleys. There’s nothing inherently wrong with media guests or anything, but C2E2 seems to recognize that the passionate base that allows cons to flourish are comic book readers.
Gene Ha: It’s a good balance between gigantic and walkable. Everyone complains that San Diego and New York are too big and crowded. C2E2 is huge and popular, but it’s not suffocating or impossible to navigate. It a menagerie of art that’s fun for both professionals and fans to explore. The crowd is wonderful. On Friday they have panels and free registration for teachers and librarians. I’m a big supporter of both, so I love meeting them there. It’s also very family friendly, so it’s great meeting new readers, of all ages. Back in the early 90s comic conventions were almost all male, fanboys and old grognards. I used to make free sketches for the many bored kids and spouses who’d gotten dragged along. I thought they should have at least one good experience at the show. I still make free sketches for kids when I have time, but not because they’re bored. Everyone is having a good time now!
What comic book character would you bring to Chicago for an adventure and why?
Tim Seeley: Heh, I’ve already done it! I brought Witchblade here, as well as my character Cassie from Hack/Slash! I set my series Sundowners here as well. When I get the chance, I always take a little detour in Chicago.
Gene Ha: Let’s narrow the field to famous superheroes. I’d want a telepath or super spy to clean up our local government, from the governor’s mansion on down! Someone who could untangle the webs of corruption and influence and send the crooks to prison. Martian Manhunter would be perfect. If we can’t get superheroes to fix Illinois in real life, let’s just hope young voters start voting in more clean government types in both parties and less plunderers. I lived in Minnesota before I moved here, and there’s no way the voters there would suffer Illinois style shenanigans!
Michael Moreci: The Fantastic Four! They drop the Baxter Building right over the Trump hotel, obliterating it to smithereens, and then I can write they many adventures for the next ten years or so.
What are you working on next?
Tim Seeley: I’m still working on Nightwing for DC Comics, and hoping to launch some new creator-owned works soon. I have a collection of my superhero and weird adventure stuff coming out from Image Comics called Tim Seeley’s Action Figure Collection.
Gene Ha: I’ll continue to work on my creator owned book Mae. I might do a single issue of something else now or then, but that remains my passion. It’s available digitally, in book stores and comic shops, or if you’re going to C2E2 you can browse a copy there!
Michael Moreci: Whew boy. Well…primarily, I’m about to start the sequel to Black Star Renegades (and BSR is my debut novel, releasing from St. Martin’s in January), and I’ll be neck-deep in that soon. I’m putting the finishing touches on Spy Swap, a novel I was hired to write for Tor (a thriller concerning Russian spying, imagine that!), and I have two original comic series launching in the next ten months. And a super secret comic series coming in August from a company—and an editor—I’ve wanted to work with for years. So…a lot’s next.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.