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April 15, 2011

CR Newsmaker Interview: Indigo Kelleigh Of Stumptown

imageThe Stumptown Comics Fest, a show I would call the premiere North American local community comics event (there are shows I like just as much, but I consider them different kinds of show), rolls out is latest edition this weekend at the Oregon Convention Center in the great American city that everyone's been hitting on this year: Portland, Oregon. The big news from the outside looking in is that the festival is returning to a convention-center set up after several fruitful years (and I believe an abortive early attempt at the bigger space years back now) in a smaller room. Another less-obvious bit of news is that Indigo Kelleigh is back in the director's chair after a couple of years away. This was announced as a three-year commitment, which we talk about in the initial exchange.

I really liked the Stumptown I attended, and I think it's the show on which newer shows should model themselves. It has a wonderful local feel that I think is just as crucial a part of the overall convention mix going forward as the experience offered by any bigger show. If you're anywhere in the region, and for some strange reason you weren't going, I encourage you to drop an hour or two of your current plans and at least stop by to walk the floor. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I'm not sure this has been covered to a great extent, but you're back as director of the festival for a three-year period. Can you talk a bit about your decision to return and how it's been to get back in the director's saddle? And why a three-year commitment?

INDIGO KELLEIGH: Well, the decision to step away from Stumptown in 2009 was a tough one for me. I'd spent so much time building the show up over the previous five years, I was kind of burnt-out on the process. I hadn't been able to work on my own comics projects as much as I'd have liked, and I wasn't sure that I wanted Stumptown to be my biggest contribution to the local comics scene. So, I left the Fest to focus on my own projects more. But after a couple years of that, watching from the sidelines as the Fest hit some bumps and slow starts, and ultimately offering to help out again behind-the-scenes on last year's show, really highlighted to me how much the Fest meant to me, and how much I really wanted to help make it into something more than it had ever been before. It was like a big neon sign saying, "You gotta do this!" and I couldn't argue with that.

As for the three-year commitment, that was with the intention that a three-year Directorship would make it less likely that I would burn-out on it again, and also giving me an opportunity to make an extended plan for growth over three years. This particular three year period, I'm really excited about because it will culminate in our tenth anniversary show in 2013, and I've got some big things planned. The 2013 show will be almost unrecognizable compared to the 2010 show, and so this year's Fest and next year's will be stepping stones to that.

SPURGEON: Scott McCloud once told me that of all the comics festivals, Stumptown seemed to him the one with the greatest community feel. Certainly one thing I enjoyed about it when I attended is the range of creators on hand, the vast majority of whom were connected by local roots. Is that a fair assessment of its core identity, do you think, this reflection of Portland's comics scene? Is that what it set out to do?

KELLEIGH: There's a prevailing myth out there that Portland has a huge comics community. The truth is, there's actually a bunch of different little communities here. We've got the seasoned pros who make most of their living doing work-for-hire for the big publishers, there's the indie-comics crowd wanting to work with Oni and Top Shelf, there's art comix creators, 'zinesters, webcomics artists, minicomics artists. So many people looking at comics from completely different directions and through different lenses, and it all just boils down to making lines on paper, using words and pictures to tell a story. But these communities are always so fractured here, there's a terrible lack of crossover among these groups. So the one idea that I've always tried to keep foremost when planning Stumptown is to provide this one event each year where we can get all of the Portland comics artists under one roof, and see what each other are doing, maybe learn something new, a different way of doing this thing we all love to do. We try to be a show about the Art of comics, the creation and the creators, not about the reselling of comics, or speculating on potential future value. Maybe because of that desire, Stumptown has developed a reputation as being a strictly indie-show, with no room for the more 'mainstream' folks, but I'm working hard to remove that stigma.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about one or two things you might be doing in terms of participation for the community's mainstream creators? That sounds fascinating, but I'm drawing a blank on the kind of moves you're talking about.

KELLEIGH: Probably the biggest thing we're doing this year to welcome the more mainstream creators is really just moving it to the convention center. In shifting the setup more toward what is generally expected at larger mainstream conventions, I hope it will attract some more of the local talent, while still providing plenty of space for indie- and art-comix artists.

imageWe're bringing in more-mainstream guests this year as well. In the past our big headliners were folks like Paul Pope and Jeff Smith, great cartoonists and artists, but not huge on the mainstream scene. With Eric Powell and Rick Remender (pictured) joining us this year, hopefully we can start to change that perception a bit. Next year, though, the big changes begin.

SPURGEON: How has the community changed in the last seven years? How has the festival come to reflect those changes?

KELLEIGH: I think the community has definitely grown up a bit since we started Stumptown. I mean, it's gotten larger, sure -- a lot of artists have come and gone from Portland in the last few years. There are more artists here taking the steps necessary to turn this hobby into a career. I see a lot of younger artists learning from the more-experienced artists in town, and I hope that Stumptown was a part of making that initial connection. A lot of artists who've been doing their small press minicomics at shows like Stumptown are coming back this year with their debut books published by bigger publishers. The community I saw when we first started Stumptown were mostly trying to get a start on their careers, and now many of them have matured into fully-realized graphic novelists, and I find that to be very exciting!

SPURGEON: The big and obvious news for 2011 is the move into the bigger space. Can you describe what led to the decision to take the show to the convention center. Do you have any worries like many folks do when a show moves into a new space that it retain its unique flavor and tone? Are there are any circumstances about this kind of move that have surprised you, either positively or negatively?

KELLEIGH: Change is always a risk, certainly. We hosted the Fest at the Convention Center once before, for our third year (2006), and it was seen by many as a disaster. I acknowledge that mistakes were made, but there's always that possibility when moving to a new venue, especially one as expansive as the convention center. We had the panels taking place in a curtained-off area of the exhibition floor, which caused a lot of noise bleeding over to those poor exhibitors. Also, whenever we needed to bring the lights down for a panel that used a projector, it left a large number of exhibitors in the dark as well. There were problems.

Part of those problems was a result of my inexperience as well, I'll admit. It didn't occur to me, for example, to ask the convention center if we had access to one of their multitude of meeting rooms, so we could hold our panels separate from the floor. I understand the convention center better now having had that experience, and I think this show will be a vast improvement over our last visit here.

But I am a little concerned that there will be some resistance to the changes at the convention center, but I hope they'll be offset by some of the positive changes. For starters, we actually have bathrooms in the exhibition hall this year, instead of needing to leave the hall, walk across the breezeway, through the lobby of the hotel, and down a hallway. It's a small thing, sure, but it can make a difference when you've put a lot of effort into getting people to your convention, you want to keep them on the show floor as much as possible.

The convention center also offers us the opportunity to grow for the first time in four years, when we first moved into our previous venue at the Doubletree Hotel. The show has had a pretty steady waiting-list of exhibitors every year since 2006, and I had always tried to continue expanding our footprint as needed. After we moved into the Doubletree, we got overly-comfortable there, however, and the floor stagnated and the waiting list only continued to get longer and longer. This year, even after adding another 50 exhibitor spaces to the floor, we still had a waiting list of over 150 applications, and I know a lot of people didn't even get to apply. Being at the convention center, I feel comfortable knowing that next year we can (and will) double our square footage again, hopefully providing enough space for everyone who wants to exhibit.

SPURGEON: Is it different now running Stumptown just in terms of what conventions have come to mean to comics? Do you find that there's more people that are willing to do them, maybe, or do you feel that the calendar's more crowded than when you started? How cognizant are you of your place in the overall convention calendar?

KELLEIGH: Organizers of shows generally try to be accommodating to each other, to a degree. Though we sometimes don't have a lot of options depending on the venues we work with, and how the weekends fall within the month. This April is certainly more crowded than it was when we first moved from the fall to the spring. We try to stay aware of other shows, but we're planning so far in advance now for our next show, it's becoming more difficult to predict other shows' dates. I remember when we lined up our dates for this year, WonderCon was the only other announced show for April that we could find information about. Since then, C2E2, MoCCA and Pittsburgh all arrived right before us.

We do try to make sure to have plenty of breathing room with Emerald City, our nearest neighboring show. As we get larger and broaden our scope we'll definitely need to stay aware of what else is going on.


SPURGEON: How have the convention's relationships with Portland's various existing institutions developed over the years? In a lot of towns, the convention isn't a favorite weekend of comics stores, for instance, just because the sales and attention tends to drift to the convention center and away from what they do. Are the publishers and shops generally supportive?

KELLEIGH: The local shops and publishers have been some of our biggest supporters, actually. I don't think Stumptown could have grown the way it has without active involvement of Dark Horse, Oni, and Top Shelf there exhibiting alongside all the great local cartoonists we've had. And the retailers have always been along as well -- Cosmic Monkey Comics regularly has one of the largest exhibits at the show, and this year's no exception. We try to encourage them to line up signings with the guests coming to town, and this year Floating World Comics is even co-sponsoring visits from Carla Speed McNeil and Jeffrey Brown, who will each be doing signings at the store during the week before the Fest.

SPURGEON: Is the local press supportive of the show? I saw Steve Duin stomping around the one I attended, but I have no idea how Portland's media views its various comics communities. Have there been bumps along the way?

KELLEIGH: The press have been pretty supportive, though in recent years it feels as if it's become more difficult to get coverage. The first year, we didn't get much coverage because we were nothing, we came out of nowhere and didn't promote it at all. The second year we grew so much over the previous show, there was a lot of buzz about the show. As the years have gone on it feels like it's harder and harder for the local press to find something interesting to say about us, we're just another comic convention to them. So, part of the plan for the next couple years is to find things that set us apart from other conventions and expand on them.

SPURGEON: You talked earlier about the convention being different in 2013 than it was in 2010. In working out these plans, have you identified things that you want to stay the same? Is there a core identity to the show that's important to you, say X percent local exhibitors or a certain kind of programming?

KELLEIGH: Basically the plan, if you boil it down to its essence, is to take the Stumptown Comics Fest as it's become known, and to wrap it in a larger, more international comic arts exhibition. So at its core the Fest will always be the same, in that the focus will remain squarely on the creators, the artists and writers who actually make comics, no matter where they're at in their career. As our programming has expanded year after year, I'm looking to expand the educational side of that. I'd like to provide more workshops and even pre-event programming to help artists who maybe aren't yet ready to show their comics at a convention, to help them become ready for the next year.



posted 3:20 pm PST | Permalink

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