A Day at the Toonseum, Finding Myself in the Bargain Bins, and a Tank. (In that order.)

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society

The National Cartoonists Society hold their annual North American Conference in a different city each year, and 2013 was Pittsburgh’s turn to host.

My friend and creative partner, James E. ‘Doodle’ Lyle,  is heavily involved with the NCS, and was recently elected Chairman of the South Eastern chapter.  Initially the plan was that he was going to come to the conference in a official capacity and we’d get to actually hang out in the same physical space for the first time ever — no small feat, considering we’ve been working together off and on since 1993.

Unfortunately, Doodle couldn’t make it up for the convention — he’s gearing up for con season, including a trip as a guest to San Diego Comic Con in July — but I did decide to head down to the big city for an afternoon of urban nerdery at the 2013 Pittsburgh Comic Arts Festival, held in conjunction with the NCS and the Pittsburgh Toonseum.  Riding shotgun, as always, was my intrepid sidekick, Tattoo Girl significant other, Jen.

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society

The Comic Arts Festival was held on the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, right where the Toonseum itself is located, and the entire block had been shut down for the street fair-like outdoor portion of the show, which consisted of several booths, including a giant bargain bin from Pittsburgh area chain New Dimension Comics.

I don’t really need any more comics to try to stuff in the twenty or so longboxes I’ve got (sadly, I can’t even tell you how many longboxes I have, as well over half of them are buried in storage, so that should tell you something right there).  I’m fairly certain any day now that my neighborhood is going to be re-zoned for a library if anyone catches on how many books are really hanging around here.

I’ve been so busy with all the different creative plates I’ve been trying to spin lately that I struggle to work my way through the monthly shipment of new comics I get via mail order, and I’ve still got a couple boxes of random bargain bin comics piled up from the Pittsburgh Comicon last year.  Don’t even get me started on the stuff that’s in my digital comiXology queue, especially after that recent free Marvel #1 promotion.

But like sailors lured to certain doom dashed against the rocks, I cannot resist the siren call of large flourescent neon signs proclaiming all comics are just $1.

I did, however, swear to myself that I would spend no more than $10 on random grab bag comics.  Plus it was hot, the noonday sun was mercilessly beating down, and as usual, I was dressed mostly in black — because that’s the smart color choice for a cloudless day surrounded by highly reflective glass, concrete, brick and steel with practically no shade to duck under on Memorial Day weekend.

One of the gentlemen running the booth had a great sales pitch, which consisted of loudly informing everyone huddled around the mass of cheap comics that the boxes were all randomly pulled from a warehouse and were entire collections that they had recently purchased.  No one at New Dimension had actually gone through them, so there was no telling what treasures might be hidden in the narrow cardboard containers, and whatever we found, no matter what the value, was ours for a buck a pop.

I was less interested in finding anything that had monetary value I could flip (I passed up on a whole early run of Y: The Last Man, since I’ve already got the entire series in trade . . . and now that I think of it, I should’ve bought those and used them for a giveaway here on Public Domain . . . d’oh, sorry guys) and was just settled on finding something that looked fun or interesting or just flat out weird.  Because for a buck, you can experiment and not feel bad if it blows up in your face.

And then, lo and behold . . . I came across these:

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society doorman wiindows

DoorMan: Family Secrets #4 and Wiindows #5, both of which I wrote (and my pal Doodle drew).

Now, there’s a very special feeling, as a writer, when you unexpectedly encounter your own published work out in the wild.

There is an even more special feeling to dig it out of a bargain bin where they are practically selling glossy pulp by the pound just to unload it because it’s only slightly more valuable to a nerd than it is as mulch.

(Although I will point out that the copy of Wiindows #5, my first ever published work, had a price sticker of $3.00 on the bag, so at one point it was deemed a little more valuable than the cover price of $2.50.  Adjusted for 1993 inflation that’s . . . well, whatever.  Math’s not my strong suit.  If it was, I wouldn’t be writing comics.)

I laughed about it.  Not quite as hard as Jen was laughing, mind you, rummaging through her much larger-on-the-inside-purse that-would-make-a-TARDIS-jealous-with-envy, for a pen.

Because then, she explained, around fits of giggling, I could sign my comics and she could ask the guys running the booth if it was really only a whole dollar for a comic that was signed by the writer.

To be fair, lest this exchange sound slightly ill-mannered on her part, I very clearly earned that jab for making light of her slight phobia of elevators in the admittedly shady-looking example we were in while exiting the parking garage.

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society doorman

Later on, when I had a chance to reflect on the coincidence of finding not one, but two of my own comics — which *is* sort of against the odds, since they had fairly small print runs — in the bargain bins, I took that as a portent.

I’ve been really firing on all cylinders as of late.  In the past year, I came off a several year slump of creative inactivity.  About eight months ago, I started this blog, which has been doing relatively well, at least by my standards — Public Domain just got nominated for its second award (more on that toward the end of this post) — and is creeping up on 5,000 total views, which it may well have exceeded by the time you’re reading this.  Just this past weekend, I scored my 500th ‘Like’.

Not bad for something I really didn’t expect anyone to read.

James and I are just about ready to relaunch DoorMan as a webcomic, both on its own site, and a little later on several webcomics hosting sites.  Print and digital editions will soon follow.  I started making concrete plans for my own publishing imprint, Chimeraton, and will probably have several books come out through that over the next year or two.

chimeratron michael allan leonard james e. lyle

And, I just came off of a three week flurry of activity to set up and plan out a new venture with Doodle, dubbed Vintage Robo Design Co. , to create and sell prints and t-shirts with comic book styled, nerd themed images, as well as finding out that through some odd happenstance, I inherited the partial rights to a classic Golden Age comic character.  (Also more on that as soon as the lawyers will clear it.)

And I have one other tippy-top-secret blogging-related project in the works with at least one other person that will be super-ultra-awesomely-fantastic if it comes together and is even half as good in execution as we are planning it to be.

I’m starting to get a bit of a swelled head, so it was probably a good thing for the cosmic Powers-That-Be to come along with a highly unexpected metaphysical pin and relieve me of some of that internal pressure.

A subtle reminder that no matter how big I think I am, or how good I feel I’m doing . . .  there’s always a bargain bin big enough for my ego.

(Oh, and by the way, I of course bought my two comics.  I actually can use extra copies, as my supply has dwindled pretty low, and leaving them as orphans without a true home would just be plain cruel.  I’m not sure what that says about me that I bought copies of my own work, but I did.)

After finally tearing myself away from the bargain bin, and stashing my purchases safely within Jen’s TARDIS-handbag, we set off down the street to check out the Toonseum proper.  I checked the time and realized I’d spent an hour sweating in the noonday sun over comics, as well as managed to literally shed a couple layers of skin on my fingertips because the boxes were packed so tight and probably half the comics were unbagged, and I’d gone through probably a thousand of them, one issue at a time.


Even later we would discover that so much exposure to direct sunlight, her naturally porcelain complexion, and a side-effect of some of the medications she’s been taking, the back of Jen’s neck and her shoulders ended up taking a slightly radioactive red hue, not completely unlike Betty Ross as the Red She-Hulk.

Luckily there was no superhuman strength involved after she realized she got a sunburn because her idiot boyfriend can’t stay out of a large outdoor display of comic books.  She’s a keeper, that one is.

The Toonseum was founded in 2007 by its current curator, Joe Wos, and actually began as a space within the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side (where, for almost a year, I lived while attending the Art Institute), but was given its own identity and space thanks to help from the city’s Cultural Trust.  The Toonseum, earlier in the month, had been the unfortunate victim of a break in, so I absolutely wanted to make sure to put some money into the jar to help out with that, and gladly paid admission for us to take a tour.

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society

Photography wasn’t allowed within the building, but get this: suspended from the high ceiling directly above the cash register at the admissions booth / gift shop with what looks like a very haphazardly-tied rope?

A giant anvil right of out a classic Warner Bros. Wile E. Coyote / Road Runner short.

Because the NCS was in town, the pieces on display were selected to honor past winners of the Society’s prestigious Reuben Award, which has been given out each year since 1946, starting out as the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award and switching to the Reubens in 1954.

Some of the hallowed work that Jen and I got to see — and I *really* wish I could’ve gotten pictures of these to share — were originals by Charles Shultz (Peanuts), Al Capp (Lil Abner), Chic Young (Blondie), Walt Kelly (Pogo), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon), Jack Davis (Mad Magazine), Scott Adams (Dilbert), Gary Larson (The Far Side), Mike Peters (Mother Goose & Grimm), Sergio Aragones (Mad Magazine, and for the comic book nerds, Groo the Wanderer), and Matt Groening (Life in Hell, and of course, The Simpsons and Futurama).

A really special personal treat because I grew up reading hand-me-down copies of Mad from my older cousins — like you can’t tell from some of the foolishness that goes on in this corner of cyberspace that I’ve planted a flag on — was an original Al Jaffee fold-in Mad back cover, which pretty much made my head slightly asplode to realize just how freaking hard those had to be for Al to create.


And you absolutely don’t have *any* true appreciation of that until you see the full-sized original the insane amount of work he put into those gags month after month starting in 1964, at a time when Photoshop was a place you bought cameras and film, and an Apple was just a piece of fruit.

My personal favorites, though, were a Rube Goldberg original from I think 1932 (which was in somewhat poor shape — really hammering home the need for a place like the Toonseum to archive and preserve original artwork), and a drop-dead gorgeous illustration of The Spirit by comics legend Will Eisner.

public domain blog will eisner the spirit

Because 2013 is the 80th anniversary of comic books, I’ve been inspired to spend a great deal of time lately really studying the history of the medium and I’ve only recently realized just how instrumental Will Eisner really was to the medium.  You had to be blind to not recognize the man’s immense talent just looking at or reading his work, but when you realize the sheer volume of material he created, starting professionally when he was a teenager, in the mid to late 1930s and early 1940s with his partner Jerry Iger — with absolutely no blueprints or examples to draw from because original, non comic strip reprint comics were literally that new of a medium — that phase of his career alone would’ve been enough for some artists: unlike many of the early comics creators who were never able to properly capitalize on their work and creations, Will and Jerry made, in profits, in 1939 at the height of the Great Depression, over $25,000 that year doing comics — which is over $400,000 in 2013.

And Will got out of doing regular format comics  — which he was making a killing at — to launch The Spirit, an experimental newspaper format comic the likes of which no one had tried before.  He was drafted into the Army during World War II and started using comics in an educational format that passed along vital information using a primarily visual style — including years later helping to design and create an easy-to-grasp, at-a-glance comic-book style manual to help soldiers deal with and overcome design flaws in the Army’s problem-laden M-16 rifle, a booklet that ended up being passed out in a polybagged copy along with every rifle to every American G.I. in Vietnam — including my own dad.  (You can check out the entire manual online here.)

public domain blog will eisner

When I say I might not be here right now if not for Will Eisner, I’m really not kidding.

And because that wasn’t enough, in the late 1970s Will popularized the graphic novel format in America, work which he continued until mere months before his passing in 2005 at the age of 88.  Will never stopped innovating and creating his entire life, since he was a teen, and he managed to come out far ahead of the vast majority of his contemporaries because he wasn’t just a talented writer and artist, he was an entrepreneur who was willing to take the risks and responsibilities for his own work and not just hand over his creations to businessmen for the sake of a steady paycheck.

Will made damn sure the world knew who he was and made a living doing what he loved — and it wasn’t exactly the same way that he brought that bacon home from any given decade to the next.  He didn’t just switch publishers now and again, he took his talent into completely new directions and paved the roads for others to follow.

public domain blog will eisner

I have to admit, being in those two small, narrow galleries in the Toonseum and being literally surrounded with work from some of the most talented individuals in the field of comic art — and especially Will Eisner — was a powerful personal moment that I’m not going to forget any time soon.

I may end up in the bargain bin again, but it won’t be from lack of trying my best to succeed and always on the lookout to expand my boundaries and try something different.  Will is going to be one of my primary role models from here on in.

public domain blog toonseum michael allan leonard pittsburgh pennsylvania comic arts festival 2013 comic books comic strips cartoons cartoonists national cartoonists society

Before we decided to head home for the day, Jen and I thought we’d play tourist and went to the roof of the parking garage to snap some photographs of the surrounding city scape.  Although I had some ulterior motives there — Doodle and I have plans to revamp the first story we did together, the very same one from the Wiindows #5 I purchased earlier in the day, and the story is now going to be set in Pittsburgh rather than a sort of vanilla, detail-less generic New York, so having some actual photo references couldn’t hurt.

We wandered around for a few blocks just taking in the sights, visited Point State Park, and on the way back I discovered this playing in a tiny independent theatre across the street:


Unfortunately, we missed the last showtime of the day for From Up On Poppy Hill by about 45 minutes.  There’s nothing quite like anime on the big screen — one of my biggest holy @#$% nerd moments came only a few blocks away from that spot, when, in 1991, as I was a student at the Art Institute living in the city, I caught a showing of Akira at an arthouse theatre.

At the time, (pre-internet, when you didn’t have a massive reference library in the palm of your hand), I didn’t know much about anime or manga, so I jumped at the chance to see this animated film I’d heard people reference with some pretty serious reverence and spent a Sunday afternoon in a mostly empty theatre having my mind summarily blown out the back of my skull.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t capable of anything nearing coherent speech for several hours.

(Seriously.  Go watch Akira and imagine that the only other anime you had seen was Speed Racer and Robotech.  Now visualize the last half hour or so on a full-sized movie screen.  It’s like going to your first concert . . . and it’s Slayer and someone shoved you straight into the mosh pit.)

And that pretty much concluded our day out to the Toonseum.

Oh, wait . . . I promised a tank, didn’t I?

michael allan leonard public domain blog nerd tank

I’ve been using a new route to get into Pittsburgh the last couple times we’ve gone down that is practically all uncongested two-lane blacktop and much more pleasant than the eternally construction-ridden four lanes that, while being a more direct route, often feels like it’s some sort of pole position tryout for the Indy 500.

Along the way, there’s a flyspeck, blink-and-you’ll-miss it village with a VFW that has an awesome vintage tank in the parking lot.  I have an obsession with tanks that probably stems from one too many quarters fed into Battlezone coin-ops back in the day, not to mention a childhood full of G.I. Joe action figures and vehicles, and I may actually utter the phrase ‘squeeee’, ungainly as it may be, when I come across one in real life.

It may be a one horse town, but they’ve got a freakin’ tank.

michael allan leonard public domain blog nerd tank

I really need to look less like I’ve been put in front of a firing squad when a camera gets pointed at me. Photogenic fail.

I’d have climbed up on that puppy, but the older gentlemen standing outside the VFW were already giving me the stink eye, and with my luck, I’d have probably managed to fall off.  That’s not really how I wanted to spend Memorial Day eve, in an ER trying to explain how I got a skull fracture, from a faceplant off a completely stationary and immobile tank.

Although if I’d have followed that up with how I *almost* unmasked Cobra Commander in the process, I think that would’ve still been a ‘win’.

michael allan leonard public domain blog nerd tank cobra commander

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!  Earlier I mentioned that PD was nominated for its second award, the Sunshine Award, which comes via the talented and lovely Sam Leung, freelance UK gaming journalist and the mastermind (or is that mastermistress?) behind CheeseToastieandVideoGames .

The Sunshine Award is for those who ‘positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere’, and I am honored that Sam chose to pass it along to me.  I’m hard at work on an acceptance post that I hope meets both criteria.  Until then, make sure you jump over to Sam’s joint and check it out, it’s very cool.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle, right?

The other half:

michael allan leonard public domain blog nerd tank



  1. …great writing as usual…jealous of your day out…till I got to the end…
    …Bovington tank museum…. google it…. been there… 4 times…
    (heh heh heh)….

    • Oh I’m green just at the mention of the words ‘tank’ and museum’ in tandem. They’d probably have to drag me out of there . . . thanks for the compliments!

      • …did i mention the comics museumI visited in Brussels?…
        …love your stuff and thankyou for the “likes” on my bits and pieces…mmmm Bovington….

  2. Amazing post, and man I am jealous about that museum trip! Eisner originals?!? Holy cow! We have the Art Spiegelman exhibit here in Vancouver right now, but boy, seeing Schultz originals? You’re completely right about Eisner. It never ceases to amaze me just how good he is, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say. But it’s kind of like reading Melville or watching a movie by Carl Dreyer – it’s like, ‘Wow! This is good! There’s a reason EVERYBODY says this is good!’
    The bargain bin has sucked many a dollar out of my pocket, and it was interesting to hear your humbling yet also motivating experience. I loved FROM UP ON POPPY HILL, and I agree about anime on the big screen. I’m still not much of an expert on manga or anime, and I would really like to remedy that, if only I could get my nose out of Jimmy Olsen comics.

    • Thanks! It never ceases to amaze me, looking at original art — in these cases there were often little notes in the margins, the non-repro blue pencil as the artist roughed something out, lettering corrections (done by hand and pasted in, which is about a dead art these days) that were noticeable . . . just something magic about getting that little glimpse behind the curtain and you realize the slick, finished reproduction doesn’t tell the whole ‘story’.

      I’d like to spend more time with anime, but I’m woefully short of time to sit down and watch something — half the time I read is when I’m eating, so that’s a multi-task. I just today got to the Season 3 episode of the newer Doctor Who and understand what the whole ‘Don’t blink’ meme is . . .

  3. That must have been a great feeling — finding your own creations in a random $1 bin!

    …I know that sounds condescending, but I mean it in the most awesome way possible!!

    • I got a kick out of it, although it did remind me of an issue of Superman years and years ago where Clark had to deal with the fact that his fiction novel was in the remainder bin. And I was in good company — there was plenty of Gaiman, Moore, Vaughn, Morrison . . .

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