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May 2, 2013


Several Notes On Stumptown Comics Fest 2013

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By Tom Spurgeon

* here are a few notes about Stumptown Comics Fest 2013, held in the great comics city of Portland, Oregon over the weekend just past.

* to be clear about something right up front: I accepted the offer of a hotel room from the convention organizers for the majority of my stay at the show. I did this once before, with a WonderCon about a half-decade back. That is not an ideal situation -- and we're working on more ways to make CR profitable enough this isn't an issue -- but in both cases my intense curiosity about the show and the perceived value of my being able to see and process a specific event up close seemed to hold greater weight than the possibility I might spew forth biased, compromised bias. So I hope you approach what I write on Stumptown 2013 with a healthy dollop of skepticism -- I hope you always do that, actually. I can assure you there was no discussion in any way about content to be generated or duties to be performed, and I was left entirely on my own to shape however I wanted to coverage the show. I was on two panels, and in both of those cases I was contacted by the panel organizers and asked to get on board pretty last-minute. I was left alone.

* so: Stumptown.

* I flew into Portland on the Wednesday night preceding the show. Portland is the current best North American city for comics and comics makers. It is the capital of Comics-Land. If there is ever a great summit for comics, it ideally takes place in Portland. I love all the other comics cities big and small, too, every single place where one or more comics things exists, from White River Junction (CCS) to Muncie (Mark Waid, Jim Davis) to Columbus (Billy Ireland, Cartoon Books) to New York (Marvel/DC East; an army of creators) to Chicago (CAKE, a slightly smaller army of creators) to Seattle (Fantagraphics, ECCC) to LA (vital shops and DC West and clusters of talent). I really do. I still think Portland is up top right now in terms of breadth of talent, the store-and-company infrastructure, and the general quality of life available to comics people. Most cities would be better off becoming more like Portland than Portland would be better off becoming more like those other cities.

image* That last signifier is the key, really: the general quality of life that Portland offers a comics-maker. I think Portland gets a lot of its deserved praise by being an awesome place for comics people to live. Things like the effectiveness of its public transit or the way that older people have a functioning role in the city's culture are as important as any single group, person or institution that has a direct, trackable relationship with a longbox. As a result, the community of comics-people kind of organically arises from the general artistic community, and the benefits of the specific grouping of comics-makers, fans and thinkers-about become a bonus to the benefits of just living in one of the great places to settle down. You read about comics people interacting in Portland and it's always somehow less dramatic than the interactions you read about in other places. No one is holding onto each other for dear life in Portland. They have things to do. Stories from other North American cities involve intense encounters and astonishing leaps in artistic development; stories about paths crossing in Portland are frequently of the "Wow, you can't go to dinner without seeing another comics person somewhere in the damn restaurant" variety. I think this flatters a lot of what's individualistic and independent about many comics-makers, and also acts as a crucial hedge against the frequent desire to wrap yourself in a comics blanket so tightly you can't breathe.

* and Portland really does seem a great city, with a comfortable vibe and enough money both old and new to keep things interesting. There are roll-your-eyes Peter Pan elements, but they seem less furtive and unpleasant than they do in other cities. Portland often gets talked about as a lost borough of New York City -- Brooklyn West -- but one way it's a lot like New York for cartoonists is that the economics of it are slightly oppressive if you don't have your shit together. There are no easy day jobs in Portland and no real way to avoid having some sort of income over a long period of time. As a result, people that tend to be there to make comics are making enough from their comics that this is either their job or something that is decidedly Not Their Job. There are few people hanging around the margins of full-time comics creation there. Comics people in Portland don't mess around, because they can't.

* I wanted to see Stumptown this year because the conventional wisdom on it among comics people fascinates me. What a lot of people have described to me over the last couple of years is a show that is firmly stuck between competing self-conceptions. Stumptown's past is a kind of creator-oriented small press show of the SPX variety, so it has that firmly encoded into its DNA. At the same time, the success of Emerald City Comicon right up the road has provided Stumptown with a competing model for growth and development and general affection. What many comics-makers and devoted comics fans have told me is that Stumptown fluctuates between embracing its small-press identity and making a stab at a wider, perhaps more mainstream audience. Who doesn't love SPX? Who wouldn't want ECCC's reviews?

* I also get the sense that as a slightly older show -- 2013's edition was the 10-year -- Stumptown is bound to have some growing pains and middle-aged identity issues. One way this gets expressed by local cartoonists to whom I spoke is that the show "isn't Portland enough," by which they mean it doesn't reflect the natural strengths and quirks of the city and cartoonists around and through whom the show exists. I find show development way more fascinating than starting a new one.

* Stumptown exists in a completely different context now as opposed to where it stood its first few years out of the gate. There are a dozen arguably similar small-press shows now, including those that are around the same age (TCAF) or even younger (BCGF) that, I'd say, enjoy much greater status in the national small-press community. There are also a number of Portland shows with which Stumptown has to compete for the imagination of local comics fans: there's one from Wizard, one which partners directly with Emerald City called Rose City Comic Con, and 2013 will a second version of The Projects effort which is playing around with the format of such shows in a way that seems very Portland. The convention calendar nationally is also more crowded, and this has an effect here. You definitely had people staying home in order to get ready for TCAF in a couple of weeks. C2E2 at the very least probably drew some press people that might be here otherwise.

* anyway, I'm not sure that's accurate or fair, but that's what I was hearing and feeling. I hope that sets the stage.

* any trip to Stumptown should probably include a couple of days just enjoying the city: as a comics city, as a city-city, or hopefully both.

* flying into Portland was great -- it's always at least pretty great, at least for me, and that's a lovely, mid-sized airport -- and getting to my hotel was absolutely no problem. I spent $2.50 on public transportation and walked a few blocks, including past a bread factory. I think that's about a $25-$30 cab ride. In comparison, my journey from airplane to hotel room for BCGF took about three hours and involved enough different modes of transportation to build a travel montage in a mid-1970s James Bond movie.

* a bunch of the comics people were put up at the Jupiter Hotel on Burnside about five blocks away from the convention center. That place was super-Portlandy, or at least satisfied my outsider's conception: a converted motor lodge with beaucoup faux hipster flourishes like an art gallery, vintage signage, hard plastic furniture and a pretty good place to see concerts right on the property. I can't remember ever announcing I was staying at the Bethesda North Marriott and having people tweet back at me about the Bob Mould shows they went to there. The Jupiter even had soap that was apparently ecologically sound by having the middle cut out of it, although I have to say that cutting a hole in one's soap strikes me as something prisoners do more frequently than Earth-firsters. Strangely sexual washing bars aside, I thought that was a great hotel for singles and couples to spend a convention weekend, and I'd be happy to stay there again.

* apropos of nothing, one thing I like about going to conventions now is all the stupid stuff that no one should really like, like actually getting a chance in the morning to watch cable TV. I think that stuff is all fun. I never watch more sports on TV than early in the AM doing this site from a comic book convention.

* there are a lot of fun, interesting comics people in Portland.

* had a birthday breakfast (his 38th) with Milo George, who is in the Managing Editor Of The Comics Journal club with me and about two dozen others at most: fewer than Heisman winners or astronauts, more than living presidents. It's a fun club, but boy, there are dues. I'm glad Milo's found the occasional comics vehicle with Study Group 12 Magazine. Comics is better for his involvement.

image* I had lunch with Steve Lieber, Jeff Parker and Colleen Coover on Thursday -- they all work at Periscope Studio in a downtown building. Paul Tobin -- who wrote for me 100 years ago at The Comics Journal and for whom I age so he doesn't he have to -- sent his regrets from a satellite writing location. I had a great time. We gossiped a bit, but nothing that would get anyone in trouble and nothing that will be repeated here. Steve Lieber ate the healthiest. Steve, Jeff and Colleen all strike me as comics lifers, or people that will give it their best shot. When I asked if any of them were looking to get out -- that was a pretty common question 15 years ago -- they all looked at me as if I had taken off my shirt and was shaving the bat signal into my chest hair.

* believe me, I know that look.

* I don't think I've ever talked to Coover at any length. She seemed genuinely excited about the four Eisner nominations that had come her way for Bandette, and was making plans to go to San Diego that she probably wouldn't be making otherwise. She asked me if the on-line comic's nominations in categories that weren't strictly for digital comics were a first for that program, and I suspect without knowing that this may be true.

* it's interesting to me that people sometimes bag on the Eisners but it's still the one most people get a little excited about, one of the checklist things for a career in comics in a way the bulk of awards aren't.

* I ran into Paul Guinan at the Periscope office. He seems very busy, and spoke of being happy with his experiences at Abrams. The people that are happy at Abrams always seem super-happy at Abrams. I met several people at Periscope for a first and/or second time, and got free comics from Erika Moen including a preview of her new feature. It seems like a fine place to work, and I encourage any comics-makers to weasel an invitation and stop by to see it.

* I walked around a lot. The famous "city block of books" bookstore Powell's has a much, much bigger comics section than it did when I used to visit in the mid-1990s. I did not find the trashy comics Europorn I had been hoping to unearth, however. The change in Powell's mirrors the overall folding in of comics people into prose book culture. Gilbert Hernandez had just done an engagement there, a list of authors on a stairwell told me. I bought myself a copy of Tony Fitzpatrick's great poetry book, The Hard Angels, which I've only ever been able to purchase there.

* I didn't even think of going to Reading Frenzy, which used to be my post-Powell's stop of old. They're an absolute institution, too, so that doesn't reflect well on me. I would have been out of luck, anyway; they're currently closed, with a re-opening planned for on down the line. Everyone should visit when they're in Portland, and someone please visit twice because I didn't get to.

* I had dinner Thursday and then lunch Friday with two great local Portland comics-makers that did not have plans to do anything with the show itself: Joe Sacco (Thursday) and Craig Thompson (Friday). Sacco and I talked over wine about getting older in comics, the Chicago conference that was held last year, mortality, religion and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. We really did talk about CBP; Sacco expressed that its satirical aims were way beyond his still-developing skill-set at that point. Thompson and I talked travel and life in Portland and mutual acquaintances. I hope they won't mind me revealing that much of our individual conversations. It was great to see both guys again, for a little while. Although I saw them individually, I'm told they hang out.

* I saw a chunk of art from Thompson's next work, a 300-page kids' book of family adventure/space opera Dave Stewart is coloring and that Scholastic will eventually publish. It's pretty gorgeous, as you might expect. There's a lot of chicken fat in there, which I think is a strength for that kind of material: it's fun to pore over pictures with creatures and equipment as much as it is to fly though a narrative from plot point to plot point. We both talked about the relative dearth of North American science fiction comics of a surpassing, easy-to-remember nature, which never made any sense to either of us.

* Craig Thompson makes comics under an image of an angry and potentially disapproving God.

* two things that kept coming up with a lot of cartoonists and comics people that weekend that stick in my head: the physical cost of making comics, what it does to your hands and back and neck and general health, and the thought that now that so many of my direct peers in the whole post-alternative group are now in our mid-forties that there's a third act out there for us to settle into, changes to be made in how/where we live and operate both within comics and without. I see a lot of people casting about for new roles, and some physical ailments that may decide some of those issues for us.

* we also talked a lot about how time speeds up when you get older just in terms of how you interact with other comics people. I saw five people or see this weekend where I measured the last time I saw them in terms of a decade or so, all without blinking. These were people I used to see every other week, or at least five-six times a year. One of the reasons that comics communities have to become more than a feedback loop for self-validation or a place to find people to date/spend time around is that our lives pull us away from the easy intimacy of relationships that make that a good way to spend our days and hours.

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* the weather was beautiful Stumptown weekend, astonishingly so. Jeff Parker said that when the weather works in Portland it's an almost unbeatable place to live, and I have to agree with him. First time for everything. I walked everywhere, leaping the occasional homeless person like a taller, fleshier Mario.

* people in Portland are super-pro Portland. I've known Landmark Forum participants less passionate about their way of life.

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* a party at TFAW's NE Broadway location was going full-swing by the time I got there Friday evening before the show. Bill Willingham told me the signing that preceded it went very well. I recognized a few of the industry types, and David Chelsea, but that was about it. Met and talked to Ian MacEwan, and was hugely grateful he introduced himself.

* I was told later that TFAW has an interesting place in the Portland comics community because it's the only shop that carries the classic comics-shop gaming/pop culture array. That's very flattering to the average Portland comics shop, although I don't like to cast aspersions that way. I like all the comics stores, including ones that don't necessarily sell things in which I have an interest.

* was grateful to see James Kochalka, and we walked together to our next, mutual social engagement. We talked about his boys (ages nine and five now; whoa) and some of the backlash that his Superfuckers cartoons have generated with certain YouTube watchers. It cracked me up to think of James Kochalka of all people being processed as some sort of mean-guy counter to the new lack of cynicism in things like Adventure Time when 20 years ago he was basically comics' Patient One in terms of hopeful, non-sarcastic comics work.

* a party I attended at Brett Warnock's house was equal parts Michael Martens/Jim Valentino/Bob Schreck and Dash Shaw/Farel Dalrymple/Jen Vaughn. That's a fun kind of party -- a replication of the classic comics bar scene or those 1980s room parties that's on the wane these days as comics has become bigger and its component camps have begun to spiral away from one another.

* it was nice to see Allison Baker from Monkeybrain -- also still pretty psyched about the Bandette Eisner noms. I hope she won't mind me writing she recently had spinal surgery and seems to be recovering super-well; she was a whole different person in terms of energy. Comics' most distinctive laugh. Like I mentioned in the MoCCA report, comics people sort of took it on the chin over the last few years healthwise, or at least it seems that way. I'd never met Martens before: he talked about the Capital City days. I got to see Warnock's famous basement comics library/funnybook man cave, now a bit gutted in anticipation of a potential move. I got to talk to Douglas Wolk and Matt Bors. Bors was sporting the finest Image Comics t-shirt I've ever seen on an Herblock Prize winner.

* we all look at our phones now.

* Charles Brownstein looked surprisingly not exhausted for someone that travels way more than I do. He may travel more than anyone in comics, even with Alex Cox taking on so many of their cons now, now that I can't think of anyone that does a plane commute as part of their work schedule.

* one nice moment at that party was looking up and seeing James Kochalka drawing with Warnock's son. Warnock had his niece making mixed drinks. Family affair.

* the show itself started the next day mid-morning at the Oregon Convention Center. That is… well, it's a convention center. There was a ceramics show and a bead show on either side of Stumptown (Becky Cloonan bought some nice-looking pottery at the former). The parking lot filled up by mid-afternoon that first day. It didn't strike me as a particularly well-appointed or well-staffed convention center, although all of those aspects were fine. Some of the water fountains didn't work; none of the more corporate, storefront-style food vendors enticed me. There was wi-fi in the lobby area, which was nice. The bathrooms were clean and plentiful.

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* so yeah, as might be expected in a modern convention center, the show was in a big room without windows. The room didn't have a lot of character. The concrete floors -- I think maybe Dark Horse was the only booth that had some carpet -- would have been savage towards people's feet and backs if people had been there another day, and I saw some tired, sore people on Sunday for sure. A few people spoke longingly of the show's Doubletree days for its windows and overall charm; a few people spoke disparagingly of those days for the low ceilings and all-around increased rumpled feeling that the show had back then.

* I was actually surprised that the convention center wasn't so far away from everything as I'd heard. This wasn't the SPACE show at its Ramada, or the old Chicago show in that intensely weird non-town of Rosemont. Stumptown was right off the main commuter train to the airport, and about five blocks from the Jupiter Hotel area, which was filled with the kind of bars that have pinball machines and try real hard. I walked a couple of blocks on Saturday mid-afternoon with a friend and found a perfectly respectable young-person stuffed brewery-style pub with some genuine neighborhood character. There aren't a lot of shows that can offer that at all, really.

* I'm also not convinced the convention center vs. local hall argument is all that important when you're a show that charges for admission. I mean, there's foot traffic and there's destination traveling, but there's rarely foot traffic that just randomly decides to drop $10 or whatever to step inside for a few moments. Maybe in New York. So the thought that you're going to plop the show down in some neighborhood and generate foot traffic out the wazoo seems sort of a moot point with certain models in most cities; I'm not sure it's fair to compare an actual convention in an actual convention center with either the memory of foot traffic that may or may not match the reality or with a projected, fantasy amount of foot traffic in a made-up location in one's head. I've also never figured Portland for the kind of place where people won't leave their neighborhoods for something: it's a West Coast metropolis; people like to drive. While I love free festivals the best, I'm not sure it's the only strategy that works.

* one thing that didn't communicate on the floor map is that the shape of the room was funny. Folks were let into the room at an "upper" corner, say 1 PM on a clock, and the shape of the room moved traffic away from the stuff along the "upper" wall of it, the 1PM back to 11 AM range, where the CBLDF and Fantagraphics were. Staring at a wall all weekend must have been emotionally tough, too -- I'm only sort of half-joking about that, I would have found that really depressing.

* so I don't know... I love shows that take on the character of the city they're in, but moving to a bigger space where more people from outside of town can easily access it is a choice, not a surrender. You have to live with elements of the choice no matter what that choice may be. I'm not certain anyone has ever suggested a "perfect" place to have it, either. There's no going backwards, at least not for a while, and if the show ever shrunk to where it could fit in that early space, I would expect the show to be on the way out.

* by the way, shouldn't Greg Stump be a guest of honor every year at Stumptown? Can we make this happen? I bet if your name was Charlie TCAF, Butcher and those guys would work something out.

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* there were a lot of solid cartoonists on hand, and the strongest aspect of the show was how it reflected Portland's indy/alt split in a natural way, just by virtue of who was in the room. I kept returning to the Floating World table-trifecta, that was basically Brandon Graham, Farel Dalrymple, Zack Soto, Francois Vigneault, Benjamin Marra, Jason Leivian. That was a mostly-locals table: Graham being regional and only Marra coming out from the East Coast. The Sparkplug table was stuffed with material, and Emily Nilsson was there; it was great to see her as well as Tom Neeley, both of whom are excited about the full transfer of ownership to Virginia Paine. Marc Arsenault was sharing a booth with Karl Stevens; they had an advance copy of his next book, Alternative Comics' first big one in a while. I liked what was being offered by some of the end-of-row more featured guests: Becky Cloonan gave me a copy of her Eisner-nominated The Mire; Matt Bors had piles of his new work Life Begins At Incorporation on hand. Boulet had nothing in English but it was fun to look through some of his French-language books.

* there was a micro-publisher tabling with Sparkplug that had, of all things, a full-color Victor Cayro book that actually keeps the margins of his work intact for a fuller, more densely wonderful Victor Cayro experience. That was the closest I came to a "didn't expect to see that" experience.

* I was happy to see Hope Larson, whom I hadn't seen since a HeroesCon where I tried to walk away from her table with a then-new copy of Chiggers without paying. I was happy to thank her for all the gifts I'd been able to make of her work to kid daughters of close friends, kids that are all grown up by now.

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* Alec Longstreth was on hand as well, and seems to have adjusted to life outside of the intense ferment of White River Junction. He's been gone from there about a year.

* there were maybe three comics shops on hand as shops (as opposed to Floating World, which focused on its publishing arm); that's what I remember, anyway. Two of them were offering discounted comics; the third (TFAW) was focused on a general trades set-up, a mini-Mile High if you get the San Diego convention floor reference. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. I like the idea of curating or focusing retailers in terms of what they offer, although most retailers are pretty good at sussing out what sells for them at shows over the years.

* so maybe other than the Khayro, there weren't really any discoveries there for me. When I asked cartoonists and comics people and guests to recommend things, there was a lot of "you've of course already seen" qualifiers and even a lot of right-brain "love how they're set-up" speeches that weren't really comics-focused. If people were flipping out over one or two or three comics, I don't know what they were.

image* I bought a copy of the Tom Kaczynski-published Jon Lewis True Swamp book for a gift. Kaczynski had a mock-up of the forthcoming David B. book he's doing; that looked pretty amazing. That's a book that could have dominated this show had it been ready. I think Kaczynski's well on his way to becoming a model micro-publisher, and his own work is apparently doing well in its European trade/album iterations.

* one of the things that was weird about Stumptown is that I was just tired enough I wasn't really systematic in my wanderings so I hit a lot of the same booths a number of times and other booths not at all. This suggests flow issues. For example, the Intruder guys from Seattle were there, but I didn't see them until Sunday night a half-hour after the show had shut down when they walked by me typing in the lobby. Other folks it seems I saw 50 times.

* come to think of it, I should probably apologize to the 50-time folks. It's not like I was buying much of anything.

* James Kochalka told me on Friday night that at shows "everyone gets a hug or a high five" in part because he doesn't want to disappoint anyone that comes to see him that's excited to do so. He told me on Sunday afternoon that one person whom he high-fived expressed open relief not to be hugged. This made us both laugh.

* I don't get the sense that anyone killed at the show. Traffic was slow both mornings, pretty decent by late afternoon. Some folks were comparing traffic to the old days and the smaller space, which probably distorts things a bit. I was told in passing by different festival people that they felt attendance was slightly up by their count. This was not the mood of the room. It seemed okay to me, not dire, and maybe at its most busy later in the day on Saturday.

* a lot of individual reports I got from folks were positive with qualification: "This is about what I expected to do because the book I hoped to have here wasn't here" or "I did fine, but I was a guest/am local and that helped greatly with costs" and even one "I love Portland too much to care." However, I checked with about a half-dozen vendors of the kind that would keep records they could check and other than the CBLDF -- Charles Brownstein said they were slightly down -- all of them said they did roughly the same as last year; two were surprised when they mentioned this, but mention this they did.

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* that's a lot on commerce. Let's talk about the rest of the show. I thought the programming was okay. I saw about four panels, and participated on two. I regretted most missing the Dylan Williams memorial panel, which I'm told was fun although attended mostly by people in that specific circle of friends and acquaintances. Lots of photos of Dylan giving the camera the finger, I heard. Francois Vigneault did a great job with the Boulet panel -- the French artist's sheer facility kind of makes for a fun panel no matter what, I think. As noted at ECCC, the writer and publisher Chris Roberson is really, really good on his feet, and is an effective and powerful promoter for his own endeavors. It seemed like there was a big appetite for DIY and practical-advice panels.

* the blogging panel on which I participated was weird because I think it was supposed to be a kind of Laura Hudson + current CA people reunion panel but instead became a more general news panel where none of us could talk about the weekend's big piece of news: that CA had been shuttered. There was some talk about blackballing and the fear of not having publishers cooperate with your site, which the panel felt wasn't all that significant a thing except for that fear. Laura Hudson described having an app on her desktop that measured traffic in either real or almost-real time, which sounds terrifying. We talked death-threats and rape-threats, or the lack thereof. Graeme McMillan was once actually threatened with an ass-kicking right on the floor of a con, which cracked me up. Who would want to fight Graeme McMillan? It'd be like cuffing your best friend from kindergarten to the floor.

* again at that panel there was a real thirst for practical knowledge, like where one might find a list of writers-about-comics to which one can submit PR and review material. It's probably weird that we didn't really know.

* it's always great to see Graeme, and Douglas Wolk and Laura Hudson, all of whom are peers, fun writers and nice people. Maybe not Douglas on that last one. I'm not sure I trust that guy: it's the hair.

* I do get the sense we're about to settle into a new paradigm from comics coverage, with the CA news being a primary event. It's hard to imagine anyone investing in a staffed set-up like CA had.

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* the Spain Rodriguez panel on which I participated was lightly attended so Kristy Valenti and I just sort of collectively encouraged the wonderful Patrick Rosenkranz speak at length on a subject of which he is by far the master. He was excellent; I learned a ton that I had forgotten and he has a nice voice, even.

image* it was great to see Patrick, who not only signed but sold at least a couple of books that weekend. With the underground generation at an advanced age, my heart kind of breaks that a lot of what he'll be doing the next decade or so is memorial panels like that one. We sorely under-appreciate the bulk of the underground as cartoonists with a wide array of comics and material, and we undervalue Patrick as a writer about comics.

* oh, and I really, really liked a Meathaus panel on Saturday -- Brandon Graham, Becky Cloonan, Dash Shaw, Farel Dalrymple. That's a group of comics-makers that emerged at a time when I was not very actively engaged by comics, or at least comics of that type. The idea of a group of comics-makers anchored around the illustration success of some members while other took a longer, more comics-oriented path to working careers really fascinated me, as did Marc Arsenault's history of cartooning crews at SVA that served as an introduction. Arsenault gave that speech in a near-meltdown level public-speaking panic, third act of a half-hour of a sitcom stuff, but the content was super-solid.

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* there was a bit of an ECCC feel to the room, too, with folks like Matthew Southworth, and the Oni Press guys, and Steve Lieber, and Brian Hurtt, and Ales Kot, and Greg Rucka and so on. It's always good to stand around and chat with Southworth, who mentioned he was up for an award on Saturday evening, "but even I would vote for the Blacksad guy." I'm not sure I ever saw Eric Stephenson or Moritat or Jim Valentino at the show, but they were around at the parties.

* it's also always nice to see the Dark Horse staffers circling through the place, like Diana Schutz and Philip Simon and David Scroggy. I passed by Brian Bendis briefly, or at least I assume that was Brian. The last one of these I went to, Brian was actually set up there.

* as is the case with every recent show, folks were extremely concerned about Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson and his ongoing battle with cancer. A lot of love for Kim there and at the other shows from people who know him, and a lot of respect for him from those that don't.

* oh, and before I forget: the food in Portland is generally amazing, although I seemed to find myself on some sort of strange, all-Reubens diet. More quality of life stuff there.

* I saw David Lasky at the show; Lasky was a dear, see-him-around town friend from the Seattle days. I went through a period of working at Fantagraphics where my favorite moments of the week were lunches out with Lasky and Evan Sult. That guy hasn't aged at all. It's discouraging. I think he even had the same glasses on, which makes me think he's basically built a localized Somewhere In Time field around himself, where nothing of the present day is allowed to touch his person.

* this is less focused than usual, isn't it? It seems that way. It was that kind of show. It's that kind of town.

* the energy at the hotel during the awards ceremony and the fun that some folks had at what I'm told was an extremely long Gridlords show at an alternative location Saturday night seemed to be more amenable to a lot of folks than the show itself, but the show itself didn't enrage anyone, or drive anyone to despair, the way I always seem to find someone like that at a show. I don't think anyone had an unpleasant time, or at least no one had an unpleasant time they were willing to communicate to me as an unpleasant time.

* that said, of all the shows that I've been to in the last year or so, this seemed the one where a natural direction doesn't present itself, where some basic identity issues, some primary elements of execution and even a general energy boost might be more at issue as opposed to "how do we maximize and channel what's special here?" the way other shows seems to be straining at any and all restraints.

* a few things kept coming up again and again from people in attendance and people outside the show. One was what seemed an alarming distance from the show by a lot of local comics-makers and cartoonists. Even at MoCCA, as battered as that show has been, those who chose not to attend this year's version at least seemed aware it was going on. I'm not sure everyone I talked to in Portland really did; I know that two people that came out to see me at the show, comics readers, didn't even know why I was coming to town until I told them. Another thing that came up was the idea that people either wanted to make Stumptown too mainstream-y or too weird and artsy, a complaint whose direction depended on the orientation of the person to whom you spoke. The other, and this was a repetitive drumbeat of an old horror-comic story variety, the kind that could drive you mad, was that a bunch of people felt the show was marketed and promoted in ways that could be vastly improved.

* let's talk more about that last one. PR complaints in comics are tough, for a lot of reasons. One is that you can kind of google around and find a couple of people in charge of this, so you're not really criticizing a strategy as much as maybe also being critical of people directly. That's always tough. I can say that despite the saturation of complaining, I liked the people from Stumptown with whom I worked directly. Another reason PR criticism can be prickly is that people often confuse marketing and PR -- how you orient a product in the marketplace and how you drive attention to that product. A lot of times if the show is unfocused or doesn't have a strong identity, all of the publicity skill in the world will make little difference. Still another hitch is that many people have an unsophisticated view of what PR can do to the point that's it's almost treated like a magic spell by which showers and waves of attention fall on things, with money to follow. Finally, there's the fact that most people process how these things work squarely within their own interests: when someone says they don't feel the show was effectively promoted, this is probably less an abstract theorization than a gut feeling that they themselves were not effectively promoted. It's human nature.

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* my hunch in staring at the place for a weekend -- and I could be totally wrong -- is that a lot of work can be done that kind of goes beyond PR and into marketing and even into what the hell kind of show Stumptown wants to be. I think they could use a real bottom-to-top inventory based on what works and what doesn't and how they see themselves in both that marketplace and the general convention scene. It seems like the wide array of artists, Portland itself, DIY elements, a creator-driven emphasis and the show's own past are potential strengths. It seemed to me there were way too many below-the-main-guest guests for publicity to naturally coalesce around certain figures. James Kochalka and Matt Bors had to tell me they were guests with whatever discounts/benefits that accrued to them. I wouldn't have known -- not that this was a secret, it was just not forcefully presented. The guests at SPX or even a San Diego in any one year, I can usually pick those out and in fact I remember a lot of shows' past years by the guests. I didn't even know from my own casual interaction with the show that James Kochalka was going to be there. I'm also not sure they work closely enough with their guests. I think Bill Willingham is a fine guest to have and to even build things around, but I never got the sense that it was Bill Willingham's show. Does that make sense? I also never got the sense that the local media was as engaged as they could have been -- although I'm sure opportunities are limited there -- and I really sensed from store owners that their own ability to directly reach customers was not at all utilized.

* so my advice, which is sort of ridiculous because I know next to nothing about shows, would be to pick things apart a bit. Select or re-commit to a basic mission statement with maybe two or three sub statements: "Stumptown is the comics show of Portland. It is there to promote creator-driven expression and DIY comics-making." Something like that. Use the focus provided by that statement to settle some arguments, like whether or not the show will be moved from the convention center. Reach out to all of the people on the other side of any arguments to assure them they're still vital. Think in terms of what few elements would make that weekend distinctive for an exhibitor/creator, and fun/memorable for an attendee. Focus on a guest list that reflects the show's mission statement in an easy-to-comprehend way: use Portland to attract out of town guests, if only one or two. Then and only then go to all of the local cartoonists and all of the local comics people one by one, big or small, and have end result-driven conversations about what you can do to get them involved: any local cartoonist not wanting to attend might be convinced to do a signing or an off-site event or even just lend their name to some part of what they're doing. After all of this is in place, you can work on presenting these things to everyone: the press, the local comics readers, the national comics readership and community. I'd thin up the awards -- they're not memorable, and could use one or two anchor prizes, and they should be conceived of in terms of how they aid the show, not as a show appendage. I'd steal liberally in terms of how other shows are set up flow-wise and in ways of providing things to do that aren't buying stuff/sitting in on panels. If you don't know which panels were best attended this year, find out immediately so you can build on what worked. Think of involving the entire city in some basic, festival-approved ways -- I had no idea what was going on that weekend even well into the weekend, and I'm not sure why there isn't a signing or reading series in the days and weeks preceding the show. Think in terms of a special event each AM and PM for five days. Don't overplan, but don't be afraid of making some choices and sticking to them. And then hope to god this clicks with an audience, because you never know.

* Portland is a jewel of a city, and its strengths as a comics destination emerge from the fact that it's a great town in which one can easily find multiple places and roles for comics. Here's the thing, though. Portland doesn't need a comics community to be a great city. Comics Portland doesn't need Stumptown to be a great comics town. I think that makes for a strange energy, one unlike any other festival. Stumptown has a lot of the same possibilities recently resurgent shows had a few years back, in a place everyone should want to visit, in an era where even the not-special shows are a lot of fun. There's definitely work to do. Getting to start from a largely positive place should be seen as an opportunity, not as a reason to avoid engaging the future.

* I was too tired and too in need of writing a freelance piece to hang out on Sunday night, mentally acknowledging I need to make my way back to town if only to bend elbows with Patrick Rosenkranz. I stayed at a Ramada near the airport that could have doubled as a museum of 1970s signage. I had fish and chips in the hotel bar and watched a Golden State Warriors basketball game. I flew out of the city at 5:30 AM, surrounded by people on their way to Mexico via Phoenix. They smelled of liquor and forced merriment.

* I had a very good time. Thank you, Stumptown. Thank you, Portland. Thank you, strange soap and plastic furniture and amazing food. Thank you, friends.

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posted 8:30 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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