The first ever Stumptown Comics Festival took place in 2004, at the Old Church in downtown Portland. Around 150 people reportedly attended. In the nine years since, the festival has grown exponentially, playing host to hundreds of comic book creators and thousands of fans, and moving from PSU and the Doubletree to ultimately land at the Oregon Convention Center.
It's also seen its share of controversy—last year, I wrote an article identifying some of the festival's major problems, including poor planning and outreach and a seeming lack of coherence around the festival's overall identity. Though it was founded as a "creator focused" festival (meaning that the emphasis is on writers and artists, rather than media companies and celebrities), there also seemed to increasingly be an appetite for a more pop-culture minded show, attracting people more likely to dress up in a Spider-Man unitard than to seek out obscure small-press titles. (The two audiences are not mutually exclusive, of course. Erik Henriksen is both.)
It's not particularly surprising, then, to learn that Stumptown Comics, Inc—the festival's organizing body, which attained nonprofit status last year—has cancelled the Stumptown Comics Festival, and is folding its activities under the umbrella of Rose City Comic Con, a big new pop culture show with ties to Seattle's Emerald City Comic Con. (Got that? After only two years, Rose City has both successfully partnered with Seattle's beloved show, and gobbled up a local rival. Impressive.) According to a press release, Stumptown will be "moving its panel programming and the annual Stumptown Comic Arts awards to Rose City Comic Con in September while the group's board of directors works on a new schedule of Stumptown community events to debut in 2015."
Stumptown Chair Shawna Gore cites cost as a major reason for ending the festival, along with difficulties in finding the right venue. (I've heard this complaint time and time again from local event organizers—everyone hates the Convention Center, and no one can think of a better option for big to mid-sized events.)
"After trying for years to make a convention-style presentation work for us, we realized we were locked into a model that has prevented us from making progress toward our other goals," Gore explained. "We can either keep doing what we've been doing all along, or we can take a break to shift and try to find a model that works better for us. But with our small, all-volunteer board (six people total, two of which have largely been serving on a consulting-only basis) and tiny budget, we can't do both."
When asked for specifics on what the organization's future will look like, Gore said, "We're beginning to explore other models of presenting programming outside of convention-style events; one possibility, for example, would be a guest lecture series, similar to what Portland Literary Arts does. We also want to talk to educators at all levels (grade school through college) to try and form new partnerships in local schools to bring comics education directly to students." (Per their mission statement, Stumptown is a "a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to fostering a wider appreciation of the artistic, cultural, and educational value of the comics art form, through public events, educational workshops, and other activities.")
I asked Gore how she thought Stumptown would fit in with the more pop-culture minded Rose City, and if she thought it would be possible to preserve Stumptown's identity in the absence of its own festival. "Rose City Comic Con has a much wider reach than Stumptown does, but it includes our core audience of comics readers and creators," she said. "As a convention we chose to emphasize a creator focus because we wanted to be clear that the Fest wasn't a place where attendees would be meeting celebrities involved with comics properties, but rather the people who actually make comics. Rose City's attendance for the 2013 show was nearly ten times Stumptown's — so we can only gain from that. I firmly believe that comics is growing increasingly inclusive as both an arts medium and a hobby; for the most part, people who read and create indie comics also like sci-fi TV shows, so I don't think we're turning our backs on anyone."
So it's time to stop thinking of Stumptown Comics as synonymous with "Comics festival," and start keeping an eye on how Stumptown Comics, Inc, chooses to define itself in the next few years. And all is not lost for fans of small/indie shows—there's the Projects, the great show organized by Floating World Comics' Jason Leivian, and we'll have details on another exciting new comics-related venture later this week.
*Tee hee, couldn't resist. I AM SO BAD I KNOW
**Update: In an email, Gore clarified that "Stumptown remains an independent organization, and we are not merging operationally with Rose City.... We don't want to give the impression that we are merging our overall organizations. " So don't get that impression! Stumptown will be doing programming at Rose City, and Stumptown Comics, Inc, will continue to operate as an independent entity.