A Brief History of How Portland Became the Best Comics City in America 

(And Some Interludes About Can-Can Girls, Giant Pokémon, Family Punk Bands, and Other Insanity from Comic-Con)

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Friday, 9 am

I am way too grouchy to gracefully handle being accosted by SpongeBob SquarePants. I haven't even had my coffee yet, when I'm blindsided by a yellow wall of SpongeBob pushing through the crowd at the San Diego International Comic-Con.

The popular arts' largest industry convention of the year is eye-candy chaos, but I'm on a mission—and so I fiercely elbow my way through the mob of 120,000 Stormtroopers, artists, permadorks, corporate Hollywood suits, sexy Sailor Moons, and comics fans to try and learn more about one of Portland's strongest hometown industries.

Portland's not really nationally known as "the best" at any business—except the funny doughnut business, the bicycle business, and the business of having a good time. But while many Portlanders may have no idea they're living right at the center of the most vibrant cog in the innovative American comics scene, the people attending this convention can't escape it.

Comic-Con is where Portland's comics artists, writers, and publishing houses face the mob of national consumers. It's also where they get really drunk together. So it's the ideal spot to learn how Portland's comics industry got to be successful—and whether it's actually all it's cracked up to be.

And if a goddamn Ringwraith hadn't walked off with all the sugar at the Starbucks kiosk, I could actually get started.

Friday, noon

Joëlle Jones can't remember the color of Batgirl. She's been drawing for three hours today, and six hours yesterday, and now she's hit a wall. Is Batgirl purple? Or more black?

Jones, 31, is hunched over a table in the corner of Artists' Alley—one of the few quiet eddies at Comic-Con, where comic book artists like Jones do sketch after sketch on commission for fans.

Jones dropped out of Pacific Northwest College of Art four years ago when she ran out of money. Since then, her career has skyrocketed, and it has a lot to do with living in Portland.

She met one of her art idols, David Mack, at a Portland comics convention, and when he showed her portfolio to some Dark Horse editors, they offered her a job on the spot. She met her sometimes writing partner and all-time champion networker Jamie S. Rich at Trilogy Video in Northwest, where, at the time, he had a day job shelving movies (he also occasionally writes for the Mercury).

This year, Comic-Con invited her to be a prestigious "special guest," offering her a free hotel room, free table, and even her own panel.

"Someone waiting at the airport was holding up my name on a piece of paper," says Jones, not taking her eyes of the sketch. "That was the highlight of my life. I took a picture."

She pencils in the lips, the tight batsuit. She pencils, erases, pencils, pencils, curses herself, erases. She's used to working all alone, isolated in her studio with her dogs in NW, and can't stand to look at her work once it's published. She's too critical.

A guy comes up to buy a book and it turns out to be Ben Garant, from the TV show Reno 911! Jones makes change from her wallet. For artists, there's a complicated and razor-thin profit relationship surrounding comics contracts.

For example, her new book with Dark Horse, Troublemaker, is a pretty big deal, written by mystery author Janet Evanovich and selling 40,000 copies (though Dark Horse printed 100,000, expecting higher sales). But Garant bought one of the only 25 copies that Jones has to give away or sell on her own. So she's selling those for $25 a book. It's $40 for a black-and-white sketch. Color sketches are $80. But don't forget tables at Comic-Con cost $850, while booths go for $2,200. Then there's the $300 flight, the $200-a-night hotel room, the criminally priced $4.50 convention center hot dogs. If Jones weren't an expenses-paid special guest, she'd have to hustle to break even.

Friday, 3 pm

Bob Schreck talks way too fast. We're sitting on a palm tree planter, shouting above the collective mumbling of several thousand people who are camped out waiting for a sneak peek movie panel (featuring Nicolas Cage!), and he's rapid-fire explaining the history of Portland's comics industry. In 1986, Milwaukie, Oregon-born businessman and comics fan Mike Richardson founded publishing house Dark Horse Comics in his hometown. It started small, but the offer of steady work (and, others say, Schreck and his wife Diana Schutz's unstoppable enthusiasm as editors) lured some top-level comics talent to Portland.

"Back in the '80s, you could fit everyone from every Portland publisher into Harry's Bar at the Hotel San Diego," says Schreck, referencing two places that no longer exist. Nowadays, "You throw a rock in Portland and you're going to hit someone with a pencil in their hand drawing comics," says Schreck.

Comics artists can work from home pretty much anywhere, so the appeal of working in a city with an actual social scene for comic artists and writers made Portland a destination.

Over the years, some Dark Horse employees spun off and made their own comics companies. Schreck left in 1993 to found Oni Press, while Dark Horse had grown to 150 employees. Dark Horse laid off seven staffers recently, but are still the largest independent comics and manga publisher in America.

Now Portland has seven comics publishing houses, employing about 170 staffers and hundreds of freelancers. There's a long list of highly successful comics creators who make or made their home in Portland (Mike Mignola, Brian Michael Bendis, Craig Thompson, Joe Sacco, Greg Rucka) plus places like Periscope Studio, a collective comics studio that offers internships to people trying to get their own starts.

Schreck himself ditched Portland for a job with DC Comics in 1999. But his face lights up with a fanatical flare when he talks about his plans to move back this year, "If you're in the industry and you understand the issues that bind us, you understand that Portland is like, 'Wow.'"

Friday, 4 pm

James Lucas Jones is squished. Oni Press' booth is an unassuming library amid the flashy insanity of the 'con; I navigate there using giant billboards of busty manga girls as a landmark.

Editor in Chief Jones squeezes out to meet me between tables piled with all kinds of books. I ask Jones whether it hurts Oni's business to not be located in New York or in LA. "There are definitely opportunities that come from being in one of the publishing hubs, but we're very lucky to have the support of the city," says Jones.

By support, Jones means a solid annual comics festival (Stumptown Comics Fest), six comic book stores that would "blow away the best comic shop in most cities," and a local government that's actually excited about comics (Mayor Sam Adams declared this past April "Portland Comics Month" and donned a fan-designed superhero costume for charity).

That doesn't mean making a living off comics in Portland is easy. For industry staffers, salaries are laughably low. And for freelancers, just making ends meet is often a success. But it's possible, which is better than most places.

Friday, 11 pm

Scott Morse cannot be found. The LA-based comics artist and writer is busy running a side-convention to Comic-Con: a bar/gallery/workshop space called Trickster, which aims be more creator-focused than Comic-Con (which has, the grumbling goes, been taken over by Hollywood films and Twilight celebrities). While I can't find him amid the crowd of artists sipping whiskey and watching the passing parade of club-going anime characters, Morse and I had talked on the phone about why comics creators would live in Portland rather than New York or LA.

"It's harder to take meetings if you live in Portland, I'll put it that way," said Morse. "I think the people that you have in Portland, most of them don't care about keeping up appearances for the industry at large. They're not looking to sell out."

Portland's publishers, especially Oni and Top Shelf, are "kind of a haven for people who want to own their work," says Morse, since those companies pay artists in royalties, versus Marvel and DC which pay artists a rate per page, but then own the work.

Saturday, 2:30 pm

Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner have fans. This makes them clearly nervous. The Portland writer and artist, respectively, are getting ready to sign copies of their new comic, Witch Doctor, and their publisher, Skybound, has provided them with Witch Doctor posters, Witch Doctor giveaway pens shaped like syringes, and a giant Witch Doctor banner that displays Ketner's art high over the heads of the crowd.

At the front of the line of people waiting for autographs is a can-can girl, clutching their newest issue and wearing naught but a sparkly bikini.

This feels big time. But back home, the duo have trouble making rent—Seifert works part-time as a condo security guard, Ketner only went full-time on comics thanks to a Witch Doctor advance last November. Seifert credits their new success in part on Portland's cheap rent. They could afford to work part-time for pay while they self-published the first issue of Witch Doctor. Luckily, the gamble is paying off.

As he waits for the signing to officially start, Seifert looks anxious and fidgets and talks awkwardly to the line of fans. "Anyone know any jokes?" he asks.

Saturday, 6 pm

Leigh Walton is over Portland. We're walking back to his booth, Top Shelf Comics, but get stuck behind a seemingly infinite line of costumed fans blocking the path, as he explains. "It may be the best comics city in America, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be better," says Walton. "The vibe of Portland is that you just do your thing and everyone leaves you alone. My wish list would be for it to have some more energy, more drive." After seven years in Portland, Walton left in 2010 and is now planning to set up a Top Shelf office in New York. No animosity, no hard feelings. Just, you know, "Ambition is a bad word in Portland."

Saturday, midnight

Jamie S. Rich dances like an old-school punk. When I say so, he laughs because he was dancing that way before I was born. Arms flailing, head down, he and I are the only people dancing at Portland comics creator Mike Allred's band set at Trickster.

Rich is that guy who knows everyone, who's been around forever and does a good job of pretending to be cynical. For example, he's been hacking it as a comics writer for 17 years, making ends meet with odd jobs, attending Comic-Con since 1987, and the 'con hasn't offered him so much as a free bag of chips. And along comes his friend Joëlle Jones—fresh on the scene! A baby! A very talented baby!—and the industry hands her a special guest pass.

But, actually, he's happy to run around all day like a stage manager/older brother, grabbing Jones water when she needs it and pushing her to raise her prices.

I expected Portland's old-timers to be at least a little bitter about the success and expansion of Portland's comics scene, but instead they seem universally enthusiastic.

Here's how comics writer David Walker describes the change in the Portland comics scene when I talk to him on the phone before Comic-Con: "There was a time when the Portland comics scene was like a bunch of guys sitting around in someone's basement, and half of them are smoking pot and the other half are trying to draw She-Hulk with no clothes on or something. These were all guys who are trying to be the next Robert Crumb, guys who were into comix with an 'X.'

Now it's like, a bunch of young people who are way hipper than I am, who sit around and talk about music I've never heard of. It's totally awesome," Walker says.

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