Ken Eppstein introduces himself to the neighborhood with comics
The Clintonville comic book artist and publisher is sending a cartoon to 2,000 of his neighbors in hopes of bringing physicality and geography back to comics
Years ago, Columbus comic book artist, writer and publisher Ken Eppstein visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee, and amid all the displays, one image in particular stood out.
“They had this great map of the neighborhood around the studio, with all of the different artists and where they lived in relation to the studio,” said Eppstein, who began thinking about how this geography-based approach could apply to other art forms. “Artists don't just appear out of a vacuum. There are communities that build these artists and take them in certain directions.”
To begin a conversation about comic art in his own Clintonville neighborhood, Eppstein turned to one of the country’s oldest forms of communication: the U.S. Postal Service. On May 12, Eppstein went to his local post office and dropped off more than 2,000 copies of a one-page comic strip, which will be sent to neighbors and businesses in his 43202 zip code through the USPS’ Every Door Direct Mail service. “Everybody's going to get it, whether they appreciate it or not,” Eppstein said.
The project, which Eppstein funded through a Greater Columbus Arts Council grant, introduces the comic artist (and his dog, Lucy) to his neighbors with a six-panel cartoon and an “About the Artist” blurb on the flip side, along with some info about the recent Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (SPACE) and a QR code for recipients to take a survey about their comic reading habits.
The approach is a callback to the not-too-distant past, when most people got their news from newspapers, which featured daily comic strips. “It's born from thinking about how technology and corporate changes have changed the actual, physical relationship that people have with cartoons,” said Eppstein, who also publishes comic books and zines through his own imprint, Nix Comics. “It used to be that, whether you wanted them or not, if you had a newspaper subscription, you would have physical comic strips that you had to physically navigate every day, dropped on your porch. That's something that's missing now, and I think that's kind of unfair, particularly in a place like Columbus, where [comics] can be considered a pretty big part of our town's heritage.”
Now, daily exposure to cartoons often comes via the internet. “It ends up being really quickly made memes that people throw up on Facebook, which are essentially cartoons,” Eppstein said. “You don't have examples of the art that has more work put into it and more thought put into it.”
The linked survey explores these ideas through a series of questions meant to gauge recipients’ own relationship to and interest level in comics. “It’s a way to see who's willing to have a deeper conversation. The comic strip is, ‘Hello.’ And the survey is, ‘How ya doing?’” said Eppstein, who asks questions like, “Are comic books and cartoons and graphic novels something that you think about, or are they something that's not really part of your life?”
The survey is also informed by Eppstein’s studies at Ohio State’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs, where the artist recently enrolled to pursue a degree in nonprofit management. “I want to help my artistic community and that area of the arts, which is historically underrated and underserved — comics and cartoons. And one of the main things I came to realize in the course of all that work and all that studying was, the lack of information is the killer for any attempts at making social change,” he said. “There's a lot of information gathering to be done, because asking people in Clintonville would have a different set of results from asking people down on the South Side.”
After this mailer, which should hit 43202 mailboxes in the coming days, Eppstein is considering applying for a larger grant that would allow him to start introducing other Columbus neighborhoods to their local artists through direct mail. In the meantime, he hopes to talk to some of his neighbors, and maybe even inspire some of them to make their own comics.
“If somebody picks up a pencil and pen and does another one, that's all the better,” he said. “Or if somebody asks me a question about making comics or where they could find comics that aren't Batman, that's gravy. That's icing on the cake.”