Creating comics is a fairly solitary occupation, requiring endless lonely hours at the drawing board or computer workstation. It is safe to say that any cartoonist who devotes the time it takes to make good comics doesn’t get out much, which is why events like Portland’s Stumptown Comics Festival are so important. They provide the working comics creator with the two things he or she desperately needs: an audience for their work, and an excuse to get out and talk to people.
The exhibit hall at the Lloyd Center Doubletree Hotel was packed solid with a sensory overload inducing array of comics and their creators, a broad cross section which included everything from students hawking their first photocopied minicomics to major independent publishers like Dark Horse and Top Shelf to comics superstars such as Paul Pope (THB, 100%, Batman Year 100) and Craig Thompson (Goodbye Chunky Rice, Blankets) greeting long lines of fans and signing copies of their books. There were panels on subjects ranging from self-publishing to inking and coloring tips to the problems with adapting comics to the screen.
A highlight of the festival has always been the Saturday night Comic Art Battle, an unlikely blend of comics and improv comedy sponsored by Cosmic Monkey Comics and hosted by comics writer Jeff Parker (Underground, Mysterius the Unfathomable, X-Men: First Class). Cartoonists are divided into two teams and given a series of improvised creative challenges which they must draw live in front of an audience. It’s always interesting to watch normally solitary cartoonists feed on the energy of the audience…this year’s battle ended in a dance-off between the contestants.
Comics-related social opportunities and performance are all well and good, but for me the meat of the festival is the books. Stumptown provides a rare opportunity to peruse hundreds of small press and self-published comics that I’m unlikely to see anywhere else. If I had the budget I would pick up one of each of everything that was on offer, but unfortunately I was forced to limit myself to a handful of books that caught my eye. Here are a few:
Coping With Death by Maris Wicks. A charming little 12 page minicomic depicting a Scott Pilgrim style fight with the skull faced avatar of death. The gentle, humorous style of the cartooning managed to fit in a few moments of honest melancholy amidst the action. dotsforeyes.blogspot.com
Water Column issues 1 and 2 by Josh Frankel. A great argument for why festivals like Stumptown are so important. Water Column is an absolutely fascinating wildlife documentary in comics form, that follows the life cycle of several undersea creatures in moment-to-moment detail. This was a great book that would have absolutely no audience in the mainstream comics market. hungryforbrains.com
How to Start to Think About Learning to Draw Comics by James Sturm. Ostensibly an informative booklet for the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, this beautifully designed publication describes academic life at the CCS in a sarcastic, humorous way that prospective students should find very appealing. cartoonstudies.org
Panorama by Steph Godfrey. One of the things I love about minicomics is the limitless variety of formats they come in. While there are a few standard formats, the nature of the minicomic, with its small press runs and limited distribution, means that anything is possible, and Panorama certainly takes advantage of that. A dream story about Monument Valley with detailed illustrations that would be fairly impressive even in a more conventional format, the author has chosen to present the story in 1.5 x 8 inch panels which can be unfolded to create a single continuous string of panels over 13 feet across. girlgodfrey.com
Tragic Relief by Colleen Frakes. A wonderful silent comic that abandons the familiar comic book structure of panels and word balloons in favor of a more open, airy approach, reminiscent of New Yorker cartoons. The story, a fable about a man whose romantic life is constantly sabotaged by his overbearing mother, is told with deceptively simple drawings that are a lot more sophisticated than they initially appear. This was probably my favorite book of the festival. tragicrelief.blogspot.com
This was just a tiny sample of the overwhelming array of original comics on offer at the festival. In the back of the program book, an ad for next year’s festival proclaims “More space! More exhibitors! More guests! More everything!”
More? I can’t imagine.
– Jefferson Powers