When he moved to Pittsburgh 16 years ago, Jeremy Baum discovered a quietly thriving community of comic-book consumers. He'd been drawing and reading comics for as long as he could remember, but it wasn't until he started hanging around Copacetic Comics, then in Squirrel Hill, that a career in cartoons seemed possible.
"I moved to Pittsburgh not even a full month after I graduated from high school, and I have been here ever since," says Baum. "I feel really lucky to be a cartoonist living in Pittsburgh."
Today, Baum is a celebrated illustrator and publisher — under the name Madbaumer37 — with two collections of beautifully surreal, darkly playful comics and a debut graphic novel, Dörfler (Fantagraphics Books), due out this summer.
"[Baum] was a big beneficiary of the support and the robustness of the comic scene here," says Bill Boichel, founder of Copacetic Comics Company, now in Polish Hill, and an early supporter of Baum's work. "Jeremy is proof in the pudding that it works."
On Saturday, Baum and the comics community will be featured at the fourth Pittsburgh Indy Comix Exposition, in South Side. Modeled loosely after the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Md., PIX supports illustrators looking to self-publish. PIX is sponsored by Copacetic, The Toonseum, Schell Games and the Sprout Fund. Exhibitor fees are a tenth of those at SPX, says PIX co-founder Boichel, improving access for amateurs.
Comic-book culture in Pittsburgh dates at least to the 1970s, says Boichel. But in the past two decades, there's been a growing awareness and appreciation of comics that go beyond "Superman, Spiderman, Batman" (which Boichel pronounces as one word). Pittsburgh developed into a haven for illustrators of alternative, non-superhero comics.
"You get very very personal work with these small-print-run things that you don't get anywhere else," says Boichel. "It's confessional, they take very strong artistic risks because they're doing exactly what they want."
Joining Baum as featured guests at PIX 2015 are local and national icons including Joyce Brabner (Our Cancer Year), Rachel Masilamani, Melissa Mendes, Frank Santoro and Don Simpson. The second portion of PIX will feature panels discussing women in comics, and advice for first-time self-publishers. Admission is free.