PORTLAND COMICS FANS know how spoiled they are. Most cities are lucky to have one decent comic book shop, much less powerhouses like we've got in Bridge City Comics, Floating World Comics, Cosmic Monkey, and Things from Another World. (RIP Guapo Comics.) You can't throw a shoe in this town without hitting a comic book creator, from big names like recent Oregon Book Award winner Joe Sacco, through a solid stable of professionals working out of shared spaces like Periscope Studio, right on down to your barista, busily sketching diary comics on her smoke breaks. But even with a vibrant local community anchored by retailers who elevate the comic bookstore light-years beyond the Comic Book Guy stereotype, the world of comics can feel impenetrable—comics are expensive, the scene can appear insular, and when a title has seemingly been running since the dawn of time, it can be hard to know where to start.
This is where the Stumptown Comics Fest leaps to the rescue, annually compressing the local comics scene—with a few national names thrown in for good measure—into a dense but digestible weekend of panels, art shows, parties, and more.
This year's schedule is full of workshops targeting aspiring creators, from a pragmatic look at time management to a workshop on journal comics led by EmiTown creator Emi Lenox to a workshop on comics writing from industry heavy-hitter Brian Michael Bendis. But the merely comics-curious—and fans who don't aspire to ever fill in a speech bubble—will find plenty of interest among the panel discussions: Indie comics creators discuss the current state of underground comics, political cartoonists (including Pulitzer finalist Matt Bors) explore what it takes to twist the news and make it funny, and local publishers Dark Horse, Oni Press, and Top Shelf Productions share new titles. In addition, take advantage of art gallery tours led by Stumptown volunteers (sign up at the fest's registration booth), which visit the handful of galleries displaying comic art this month. And, of course, the fest's Saturday night party, featuring artists throwing down at the ever-popular Stumptown Comic Art Battle, plus all the beer you need to get comfortable chatting up that diary comics-drawing barista. Jupiter Hotel, Sat April 28, 7 pm, $5 or free with a festival badge.
Stumptown is best experienced through a combination of panels and just exploring the show floor—it's the perfect place to buy cheap prints, if your walls are in need of new art. It's also a great place to buy comics directly from the people who make them. To that end, here are a few of the creators we're excited about. ALISON HALLETT
My introduction to Julia Gfrorer's work happened on an autumn afternoon when I picked up All the Ancient Kings (a comic which imagines interactions between creative greats like Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, and Hunter S. Thompson) at a comic book shop and became so totally engrossed in it that I literally missed my train. Since then I have said several inflammatory things like, "Flesh and Bone was the best comic of 2010" and "let's color these Gfrorer Wolverine paper dolls until we feel better." Her more recent works, the Ariadne auf Naxos comic strip series and the short story comic Too Dark to See, are similar mixes of dark humor and fine illustration. Gfrorer waxes on the time she may have turned into an undead skeleton, the motives of succubae toward human beings, and the soul-crushing difficulty of sharing a laptop with your lover. SUZETTE SMITH
I wish, when I was a kid, someone had given me an Usagi Yojimbo book. The series would have been right up my alley: action-packed adventures of a 16th-century Japanese ronin who just happens to be a rabbit, told in episodic stories crammed with humor and attention to historical accuracy—well, accurate apart from the fact that all its characters are talking animals. Usagi Yojimbo is Stan Sakai's life's work, and he's been drawing the comic for almost three decades. Since Sakai writes, draws, and letters the whole thing himself, it's shown remarkable consistency over its long run.
Dark Horse's most recent Usagi anthology, 2011's Fox Hunt, happily shows that Sakai's series is as enjoyable and playful as ever, turning from comedy to high adventure on a dime. Another anthology is on the way later this year and Sakai's still drawing new issues of the comic regularly, but it's worth considering the deluxe, slipcased, double-volume Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition that Fantagraphics unleashed in 2010, over 1,000 pages rounding up Usagi's first 10 years. Maybe it's too collectible for kids, but I'm proof that you're never too old for a comic about a samurai bunny. NED LANNAMANN
Mike Allred's indie superhero comic Madman serves as a dewy eye-opener for many a nerd transitioning from traditional superhero to independent comics: The story of a young man stitched back together by scientists is intriguing, humorous, and humanized. Madman's main character Frank Einstein has both powers and a steady girlfriend, a reality not often afforded the superhuman. Allred's artistic style is as well known as his indie iconic hero—his work has been in movies like Mallrats and Chasing Amy. Currently, his inking can be seen in Vertigo's I, Zombie, a comic book series about a zombie girl detective. SS
Essex County is three brick-sized volumes about life in rural Canada; it garnered creator Jeff Lemire wide acclaim—and some extremely devoted fans, myself included—for its quiet, personal, often heart-wrenching storytelling. Lemire has since brought his slightly off-kilter perspective to more mainstream titles: His accessible take on the DC Comics character Animal Man reimagines the animal-channeling superhero as a tender-hearted animal-rights activist with a complicated home life, while he also writes and illustrates the series Sweet Tooth, about a boy with the face of a deer living in a post-apocalyptic times. AH
You may be familiar with Ted Naifeh from the illustration/co-creating he did for the '90s goth romance comic Gloomcookie—basically primer material for all Hot Topic goths of an appropriate age. After that, like a turquoise dolphin leaping out of a magenta sea, Naifeh blew minds with his Eisner Award-nominated Courtney Crumrin series. The central character may be an evil, scowling little blonde girl, but the intelligence and emotion of her adventures gives them cross-generational appeal. (Courtney Crumrin comics are surprisingly beloved by all members of my family and often exchanged on holidays, birthdays, or at times of accomplishment.) Naifeh also illustrates Magic: The Gathering cards. SS
Nate Powell is almost annoyingly cool. He plays in punk bands, owns his own indie record label, writes and performs sketch comedy—oh, and he's an award-winning artist, having landed Eisner and Ignatz Awards for 2008's Swallow Me Whole.
Powell's latest graphic novel, The Silence of Our Friends, is Mark Long's autobiographical account of growing up in Houston during the civil rights era; it's centered around a 1968 protest at Texas State University that armed police provoked into a riot that Long's father caught on film as a television reporter. Powell's artwork is subdued and gracious, evoking a specific time and place in American history through artwork that's both lightly, dreamily nostalgic and darkly gritty when it needs to be. He fills the characters' faces with numerous, and at times conflicting, emotions: fear, passion, anger, hope.
There are plenty of guns and violence and other shocking events in The Silence of Our Friends (which was co-written with Jim Demonakos), but what lingers the most is the careful friendship that grew between the character of Long's father and a black activist. It's a remarkable story, fully realized by Powell's poetic artwork. NL