Last year, Cola-Con founder Preach Jacobs really wanted Steve Epting, who lives in Irmo and is a recognized and respected name in the comic-book industry, to be a part of his event.
“That dude killed Captain America,” Jacobs laughs. (Epting drew the 18-issue arc of Captain America about the assassination of Steve Rogers.) “That’s a big deal.”
So Jacobs asked Sanford Greene, another local illustrator who’s a big wheel in the comics industry, to reach out to Epting on his behalf. Epting had heard of Cola-Con, but he was still skeptical of the prospect of a comics-and-music festival in Columbia. “He said, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’” Jacobs chuckles. “And he lives here.”
Cola-Con returns this weekend for its third year. This year, Epting’s a part of the convention, which celebrates the cross-pollinated cultures of hip-hop and comic books. And despite Epting’s skepticism, Cola-Con has not only existed but thrived in Columbia — to the point where it’s now receiving national attention. Jacobs spent much of the summer traveling to comic conventions around the country, like the landmark San Diego Comic Con, talking about the intersecting cultures of comic books and hip-hop.
“The city doesn’t have a history doing events like this, so you have to fight a lot harder to get people interested in it,” Jacobs says. “It’s not your traditional cover band concert where you show up, drink beer, stand outside, you know? But people have embraced it beyond my expectations.”
The convention began two years ago as a half-day event at the Columbia Museum of Art, pairing locally created comics with a hip-hop concert. Now, the event spans two full days. It’s outgrown the museum; this year, Cola-Con’s at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Vendors and exhibitors now fly in from as far away as Seattle and Minneapolis to display their wares.
The guests are higher-profile, too: Along with Epting, featured panelists include Ron Wimberly, who’s worked on hip-hop-influenced Adult Swim cartoons The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. The music lineup now boasts Grammy nominees (North Carolinians The Foreign Exchange) and underground social-rap icons (Dead Prez). There’s also a sneaker table this year, Jacobs says, and a few record stores will be exhibitors. Jacobs, too, is putting together a mixtape that’ll be distributed at Cola-Con.
Despite the expansion, the convention remains grounded in an independent spirit. For every Steve Epting, there’s a Cedric Umoja, who’s part of the local Izms of Art crew of local artists and illustrators employing the visual language of hip-hop. There are more local hip-hop performers than marquee national names.
“Cola-Con started with me wanting to do an event that paid homage to people from here who do great work,” Jacobs says. “That’s the Cola in the con. And I’m proud of that.”
As Cola-Con’s gotten bigger, Jacobs has reached out for more support. Local event planning team Flock and Rally now handles the event’s publicity. And he received city H-tax money, too.
“For the city to support this is a big deal,” Jacobs says. “I was riding around the other day and I thought to myself, ‘Yo, I got the city to pay for Dead Prez.’”
Since its earliest days in the south Bronx, hip-hop culture has been linked to comic books: graffiti and album covers utilize superhero imagery; rappers adopt secret identities and grandiose aliases; producers incorporate storytelling sensibilities and cartoon samples into their music. Comic creators respond in kind by using the elements of hip-hop in street-level storytelling, incorporating graffiti techniques into logo design and art styles, and quoting rap lyrics for context and content. Both are distinctly American inventions, cutting-edge cultural bastard children that rose from the underground to become booming sociocultural trends and commercial industries.
“They’re so closely connected, in my mind, at least, that they’re basically synonymous,” says Ed Piskor, an illustrator who’s working on a series called The Hip-Hop Family Tree, a comic book about the mythic early days of hip-hop. “And then when you get into the historic aspect and how both of these cultures were created in New York City by people of humble means, and the fact that neither of these media were taken seriously at all. They were both ghettoized art forms for years and years and years.”
Piskor, who speaks on two panels during the weekend, even sees similar techniques being used in both media. Like sampling, for instance.
“The color [of The Hip-Hop Family Tree], quite literally, is color that’s representative of the color palette used for about the first 80 years of comics production,” Piskor says. “The red you see is Superman’s cape. The blue you see is his suit. The yellow is from the back cover of Superman Meets Spider-Man. And the green is from Aquaman. And so on and so forth. These are my break beats.”
As San Diego’s Comic Con has proven with its sprawl, and multiplexes have shows with big-earners like The Avengers and The Dark Knight trilogy, comic books — and their associated gatherings — are no longer the sole province of the nerdy and nebbish. Similarly, hip-hop is no longer in the margins of the pop culture mainstream. But it wasn’t always that way.
When they first appeared, “comics were never respected as, if you look at their contemporaries in publishing, real literature or real books,” Jacobs says. “So when something like Watchmen ends up on Time’s top 100 books of all time, that’s a big deal.”
It was equally a big deal when, in the same issue of lists, Time placed Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full on the same all-time great albums list as The White Album.
With Cola-Con, Jacobs wants to spread that respect locally and to challenge the pervasive conservative culture of South Carolina — symbolized, at times, Jacobs says, by the Confederate flag on the State House grounds, which keeps away some of the big names on his hip-hop wish list — into embracing the shared culture of hip-hop and comics.
“Cola-Con is a celebration of these cultures,” Jacobs says. “I want someone to see this show and … even if they have no involvement in either be able to [see] how these cultures intersect, and why they’re both valid, and why they should be celebrated.”
Cola-Con runs Oct. 25-26 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, at 1101 Lincoln St. in the Vista. Tickets are $20 for one day, $30 for both days. Visit cola-con.com for more information.
Friday, Oct. 25 Panels
Going to War to Make Comics
With David Axe and Matt Bors (War is Boring), Robert LeHeup (Piensa Art Company). Congaree Room, 4 p.m.
Walking This Way
With Damion Scott, Ron Wimberly and Dexter Vines (Darryl Makes Comics). Hall of Fame Room, 4 p.m.
Making Comics with No Money
With Shigeharu Kobayashi and John Pading (Frank Comics), Chad Bowers, Dre Lopez and Sammy Lopez (Piensa Art Company). Congaree Room, 5 p.m.
Blaxploitation & Comics
With Sanford Greene (Army of Frogs), Carl Jones (The Boondocks), Ron Wimberley (Black Dynamite), Jay Potts. Hall of Fame Room, 5 p.m.
The Elements 5:15 p.m.
The Secret B-Sides 6:15 p.m.
Analog 7:15 p.m.
The Foreign Exchange 8 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 26 Panels
With Marvel Comics’ Steve Epting, Roy Thomas and Sanford Greene. Lexington Room A, 1 p.m.
Behind the Beat: Carolina Beat Makers Speak
With MIDIMarc, Mike S, Mic Beats, Jah Freedom, DJ Ambush. Lexington Room A, 3 p.m.
Hip-Hop & Comics
With Sanford Greene, Afua Richardson, Ed Piskor, Ron Wimberley. Lexington Room A, 4 p.m.
Comics Get Political
With David Axe, Matt Bors, Blu Deliquanti. Lexington Room B, 4 p.m.
Alchemy of a Beat
Producer MIDIMarc breaks down the art of sampling. Lexington Room A,
Digital Platforms and Crowd-Sourced Comics in the
With Jeremy Love, Carlton Hargo, Jay Potts, Shigeharu Kobayashi. Lexington Room B, 5 p.m.
Figga 4 5:15 p.m.
SFMG 6 p.m.
Danny! 6:45 p.m.
Rapper Big Pooh 7:30 p.m.
Dead Prez 8:30 p.m.
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