Let's just dispense with the bullshit, shall we? "Comics aren't just for kids anymore," goes the tired refrain, except for when they are—Jeff Smith, who's headlining the Stumptown Comics Fest, is hugely popular with children thanks to his lauded Bone series, which is as smart and rewarding as any Pixar film. Meanwhile, X-Men comics can contain incisive social commentary just as surely as any black-and-white indie comic. Comics are a vast and varied medium, and frankly, my biceps are getting a little tired of lowering the cultural bar for people who haven't figured that out by now.
"Comics is a format, not a genre," Stumptown Marketing Director Aaron Duran dutifully recites, in the tone of someone repeating a well-worn aphorism. And while to an outsider the world of comics and graphic novels can seem insular and intimidating, the Stumptown Comics Festival is an annual invitation from Portland's close-knit community of comics creators to come see what all the fuss is about.
The two-day festival is among a handful of comic conventions in the country—joining the likes of New York's Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Fest and STAPLE! in Austin—that focus almost exclusively on comics creators, as opposed to the merchandising and movie tie-ins of larger comic book conventions. Stumptown's intimate format allows independent artists to connect directly with their fans—something that's increasingly important in an era of web comics, digitized content, and the distribution challenges of actually getting one's work sold in a store.
"The scale is so human," says longtime Stumptown organizer and Too Much Coffee Man creator Shannon Wheeler. "Everybody there is creating their own work, and it's really personal, and really individual. The quality is anywhere from 'amazing genius' to 'barely above terrible,' but that's great—everybody really believes in what they're doing."
As comics increasingly pervade the mainstream, the profile of Stumptown has risen. For the second year running, the mayor's office has dubbed April "Portland Comics Month," and last fall, the Wordstock Festival devoted a portion of their exhibit space to graphic novels.
"As graphic novels, memoirs, and nonfiction grow in popularity, and as this form of telling stories gains wider acceptance in literary circles, Stumptown is going to become more and more important," observes Wordstock Executive Director Greg Netzer. "I mean, Portland is home to more comics creators than anywhere in the US, outside of New York City. From our perspective, it seemed absolutely ridiculous not to showcase them at Wordstock. This year, we're making the Stumptown area at Wordstock even bigger."
Of course, with that literary cachet comes a perception among some comics fans that Stumptown is a snooty indie show, with no room for the superhero comics or the licensed characters that financially drive the industry. Duran insists, though, that Stumptown is all about breaking down perceived boundaries between different types of comics.
"There might be the mentality that we're the snobby show," Duran says, "but in fact, we're the exact opposite of that. We're grown adults with mortgages and we're organizing a comic book show. We're all here because we love it."
Discrimination between so-called mainstream comics and indie comics often comes more from fans than from creators, comics journalist Laura Hudson notes. "With comics, it's really hard to make a living. You start doing mainstream stuff to make your money and make your name, and then you have the freedom to do what you want to do."
Stumptown's exhibitor tables will be packed with a full spectrum of creators, from Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone to indie comics darling Carla Speed McNeil—but the show also offers an opportunity for aspiring comics creators to network, and get their work seen. For the second year, editors from the locally based publisher Dark Horse will be on hand conducting a talent search, accepting submissions of previously unpublished work, and two winners will be invited to contribute a comic to the Eisner-nominated anthology MySpace Dark Horse Presents (MDHP). "Stumptown embraces the self-published, the newcomers, and the first-time comics readers who might not find their fix in the superhero mainstay," explains MDHP editor Sierra Hahn. "Dark Horse is fortunate to be situated in the heart of this vibrant comics community, with some of the top cartoonists right here in Portland. Whether they're already established or just getting started, we want to work with the best and the brightest."Stumptown's diverse number of opportunities and creators speaks directly to comics' versatility and potential. "Comics need to grow, and it needs to become more accessible," Hudson says. And with a welcoming two-day roster of comics for every taste, Stumptown aims to help the medium do just that.