As if there weren't enough reasons to love living in this city (good beer, plentiful strip clubs, committed local farmers who will hopefully sustain the rest of us when the economy collapses), we are now officially a Comics Mecca™.
Earlier this month, Mayor Tom Potter dubbed April "Portland Comics Month,"
with a press release that gave a nod to "the cultural importance and creative influence of this vibrant art form on the entire city." While some might question the sincerity of a mayor whose commitment to the arts runs so deep that he recently snubbed arts funding in his 2008-2009 budget plan (is sarcasm really the last refuge of the unfunny?), no one can deny that this month has seen an unprecedented amount of comics-related activity.
The packed calendar included a run of Shannon Wheeler's Too Much Coffee Man Opera: The Refill (believed to be the first-ever opera based on a comic); the release of the Rose City Rollers comic (the first-ever comic book based on a roller derby league); readings from, among others, Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi and The Umbrella Academy's Gerard Way (who is perhaps better known as the guylinered frontman of a little band called My Chemical Romance); and a show at Floating World Comics of work by Tony Millionare and The Perry Bible Fellowship's Nicholas Gurewitch (who will be appearing in store on Thursday, April 24; 20 NW 5th, 7-9 pm).
All of this, of course, culminates this weekend with the fifth annual Stumptown Comics Fest (see pg. 13 and pg. 19), making now as good a time as any to sit down for a chat about the industry with the publishers of three of Portland's successful independent comic houses: Dark Horse Comics, Top Shelf Productions, and Oni Press.
There has been a distinct cultural shift in the last decade, as graphic novels have gained a wide readership, superhero comics have been mined for both academic and "literary" material (see: Douglas Wolk, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon), and girls weaned on Japanese entertainments like Pokémon have gravitated en masse to manga. Put another way: Even my mom has read Persepolis. Anyone who still has hang-ups about buying comics need only set foot in the casually welcoming Cosmic Monkey Comics or North Portland's sleek Bridge City Comics to dispel all lingering stereotypes about the Comic Book Guy. So by now everyone in Portland knows that, to quote one of the most clichéd newspaper headlines ever, "comics aren't just for kids anymore." (Kapow!) You may not know, however, that local publishers Top Shelf, Oni Press, and Dark Horse have all had a hand in this shift. With April's designation as Comics Month, as Oni Publisher Joe Nozemack puts it, "Finally, the city is paying attention."
The root of Portland's comic book ascendance arguably rests with Dark Horse Comics' Mike Richardson. As Richardson himself says, "I helped bring a huge part of the comics industry here." Dark Horse is both the oldest and the largest of the three local publishers, and many folks in the industry who moved to town to work there have gone on to other projects in the area. The company, which Richardson started in 1986 with a $2,500 credit card, has grown to become the third-largest comics publisher in the United States (behind DC Comics and Marvel). From their Milwaukie headquarters, Dark Horse publishes series like Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the television show was cancelled after seven seasons; season eight is currently running in comic book form), as well as well-known titles like Frank Miller's Sin City and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. They're also the longest-running publisher of manga in the US; Richardson's early embrace of Japanese comics proved prescient, as young women have flocked to manga in droves (pounding a few more nails in the Comic Book Guy's coffin).
Oni and Top Shelf are much smaller operations, employing six and four employees, respectively. Oni's motto is "the real mainstream," which speaks to the idea that the superhero comic books long associated with the medium are not in fact what interests the average reader—they publish creator-owned works that cut a wide swath across genres, including romance, historical, and a sci-fi adventure series created by Stephen Colbert.
Top Shelf's Brett Warnock is a cheerfully self-described fanboy who can be found blogging about comics of all sorts at topshelfcomix.com/blog—but, like Oni, his company aims to publish books "for civilians, not people that dress up like Captain America." Titles from the well-regarded publisher include Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls, an ambitious, unabashedly pornographic work about the sexual exploits of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland; and Craig Thompson's Blankets (which Warnock says is "arguably our magnum opus"), a moving tome about first love that has probably done more than any other single work to make comics accessible to forlorn hipsters everywhere.
Oni and Top Shelf have aimed from the beginning to sell their titles in bookstores, not just comic book stores. While breaking into the bookstore market proved difficult at first, the comics section at your friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble has steadily expanded in recent years, and library acquisitions of graphic novels have also gone up steadily: Increasingly, the industry is producing what Warnock calls "comics for the people," and the people are reading them.
Another boost of mainstream exposure has come from Hollywood. "We grew our business through trying to find other ways to get books out there," Nozemack explains. "When they market their movie, they market your book, too." This strategy looks to pay off again soon, knock on wood: Michael Cera (George Michael from Arrested Development) is in final negations to star in a film adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim Volume 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, published by Oni. (If you haven't read the Scott Pilgrim books, about a hapless Canadian slacker battling—literally—to win the girl of his dreams, well... you might want to.)
"I really think we're starting to hit that point where those who still aren't willing to accept the medium as a legitimate art form probably won't change their minds," Nozemack says. "But I do think there are still a large number of possible readers who just haven't been exposed to the book that is perfect for them. That's the challenge that I think we currently have before us."
Get exposed to your perfect book at the Stumptown Comics Fest, Lloyd Doubletree Exhibit Hall, 1000 NE Multnomah, Sat April 26 & Sun April 27, 10 am-6 pm, $6; and while you're at it, encourage Mayor Potter to put his money where his press releases are by expressing your support for arts funding to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visiting racc.org/help.