For years now, comics and hip-hop culture have been on something of a collision course.
"A funny thing that I've always noticed about every comic book illustrator I've met over the years is that they all are 'taggers,' as in they all have huge roots in graffiti culture," Columbia-based hip-hop artist and journalist Preach Jacobs says. He notes that the signatures of many comics illustrators would look just as comfortable on the side of a building.
"Hip-hop culture and the comic industry are very similar," Jacobs says. "The industries are always trying to be hip and cutting edge, and I've seen more competition between comic artists than two beefing rappers. Channels like Adult Swim on Cartoon Network got it right seeing the connection. RZA from Wu-Tang Clan was the music director of Afro Samurai, and Stones Throw, an indie hip-hop label from San Francisco, has done compilations with Adult Swim."
So, Jacobs figured where else to better showcase the intersection of hip-hop and comics culture than in Columbia, a city with a burgeoning community in each faction that's been humming along under the radar for years. That's the concept of Cola-Con, Jacobs says, a first-time convention where the rap world and the funny pages collide. And it's sure to draw the attention of hip-hop heads and fanboys in the Holy City as well. Charleston may have history and some of the nation's top chefs, but our hip-hop scene is virtually nonexistent and most of our writers pen Southern chick lit.
Jacobs has booked Talib Kweli to headline the event, a move that makes sense since the rapper has positioned himself at the intersection of hip-hop and comics. The Brooklyn-based hip-hop artist and poet is featured in Blokhedz, a graphic novel and animated series about the harsh realties of inner-city life.
"There's nothing really to compare it to," Jacobs says.
As for comic book talent, there's plenty of it in the Capital City. Most notably perhaps is Steve Epting, who lives in Irmo.
"Steve Epting is the artist who killed Captain America a few years ago," says Steven Prouse, of Columbia-based publisher 803 Comics. "He did the death of Johnny Storm [of the Fantastic Four] just last year. He did some of the design work you see in the movie posters for the Captain America movie."
Another South Carolina hero is Sanford Greene, a world-renowned comics illustrator who has worked for industry titans Marvel and DC Comics, as well as on the 2008 blockbuster Batman film The Dark Knight.
Greene considers the Southern states to be a relatively unknown hotspot for national talent. "Arguably, I would say the South — in terms of just its collective group of illustrators in this industry — is probably the strongest in the country simply because of the names that are here locally in this region," Greene says. "Kind of like the SEC, you know how dominant they are. I think that's how the comics industry is — we would be the SEC of the industry."
A Benedict College graduate, Greene currently works part time at Winthrop University in Rock Hill when he's not inking major comic book titles such as Spider-Man or collaborating on a graphic novel with Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man. He'll soon be heading up a sequential art and illustration program at an unnamed university in Columbia, bringing in writers and editors from major publishing companies.
"It's a great opportunity to really kick down some doors," Greene tells about the move. "Because [the comics community] is a very best-kept secret here locally of what we have."
That's something that Qiana Whitted, an English and African-American studies professor who teaches a comics class at the University of South Carolina, thinks Cola-Con might do. In fact, she believes that the hip-hop/comics conventions will open some eyes to the shining stars of comicdom currently living in South Carolina.
Whitted will be speaking on a panel with Greene called "Comics and the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop," which will also feature other artists and writers whose work focuses on or makes connections with hip-hop and other forms of urban music.
"I think people will be very surprised to know that so many nationally and internationally known comics writers and artists live so close to Columbia, and that they live in South Carolina — and the South generally — might be a surprise," Whitted says.
Among those is the award-winning Roy Thomas, who succeeded Stan Lee as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, where he worked extensively on X-Men and Avengers. Thomas, who lives in South Carolina, was inducted into the Comic Industry Hall of Fame this year.
One of the things Whitted hopes Cola-Con will accomplish is to let aspiring comic artists and writers know that they don't have to live in New York City, even though it's the setting for most superhero books.
"We find that people who work in the industry are sprinkled out all over," Whitted says. "We don't often associate the South with comics and comic art, but hopefully that will change."
For David Axe, a Columbia writer whose 2010 graphic novel War is Boring was featured prominently in last October's Rolling Stone, the Capital City's surprising number of comics artists might be random, but it works as a touchstone that fosters local ambition.
"It seems that the reason people like Sanford Greene and Epting are here is just sheer coincidence," Axe says. "On the other hand, there's this other factor that there's a lot of just young, creative people here who are trying really, really, really hard to create and sustain a local comics scene — with mixed success — but goddamn, they try."
The 33-year-old USC graduate started his writing career here in town, but it's taken him all over the world. He's authored war-journalism graphic novels from conflict zones like Afghanistan and Chad and is well regarded as part of a clique that pioneered the genre a half-dozen years ago. He'll speak about his experiences on a Cola-Con panel titled, "So You Want to Create Comics?"
Axe is another example that writers and artists who publish nationally don't have to do so from the big cities of New York and Los Angeles or even the indie-comics mecca of Portland, Ore.
Still, Axe has no illusions that one single comics convention will suddenly transform Cola-Con into a major draw overnight.
"In order to draw international talent and to be known as the con that fills the live-action role-playing niche, you'd have to compete globally and draw the international names — and that takes money and huge sponsorships and a track record and 100,000 attendees," Axe says. "Columbia can't be that right now, probably won't ever be that and shouldn't want to be that."
Instead, he says, "We should just be a small con. We should have a heavy local involvement to make us something different, and it's worthwhile not only because the raw material for it already exists in town. It's just a matter of bringing it all together and showing a wider audience, 'Look, we've got this thing here, we've got a great comic-book shop, we've got comic-book creators, we've got hip-hop, here's how that intersects with the comics, come and look at it, spend a few bucks and everybody's better off.'"
Bursting with Talent
Cola-Con organizer Preach Jacobs talks about the DIY approach he followed when he was putting the convention together.
"One of the things I truly like about this is that it's extremely grassroots," he says. "We didn't hire a marketing company or a PR firm or anything like that. I wanted to get the people who are involved in all of this type of culture to work together on it."
Like the way the underground comics culture in Columbia came together, Jacobs wanted to keep the convention organic. In much of his event promotion, he goes against a concept that he calls the MySpace theory.
"A few years ago, MySpace was this huge site and as soon as they sold it to [News Corp] it just fell apart — nobody cared about it anymore," Jacobs says. "You can't get a huge corporate company to control some type of social networking and try to treat it like a traditional business model. It's not going to work."
Jacobs' efforts to put Columbia on the map as a unique comics convention hotspot have drawn the attention of Marvel editor Jody LeHeup, who will be traveling from New York City to speak on a panel and also do portfolio reviews.
"I'm super honored to have the opportunity," LeHeup says. "Columbia has been bursting with talented comic artists for years, so reviewing their work is sure to be a pleasure."
LeHeup is also no stranger to the area, having studied media arts at USC before making his way to the Empire State to become an intern at the multibillion-dollar comics giant, where he worked his way up to a position as editor.
He's excited to come back to the Palmetto State, where he still has family and friends, and believes Cola-Con is set up for success.
"You've got some of the most talented guys working in hip-hop and comics and tons of fans from all over the Southeast all coming together to celebrate each other, celebrate the mediums and exchange ideas," he says. "That's a home run any way you slice it."
But organizer Jacobs also hopes to spark something for those who might not be just diehard comics and hip-hop fans. After the convention shuts down at 11 p.m. following Talib Kweli's performance at Cola-Con, more shows will take place up and down Main Street. "After this, who wants to go home at 11?" Jacobs says.